December 13, 2008

On the other hand...

Former Senator Fritz Hollings has a very interesting argument that bailing out the auto companies might be defended as part of a return to a sane policy of industrial protectionism.

Protectionism? Yeah, it's an interesting piece:

Of course, the economists for the global financial institutions and the big multinational corporations know this, but because their loyalties are more to their institutions and less to our nation, they continue their calls for ever more "free trade" and for continuing U.S. trade and current account deficits.

The irony is that economists learn in their very first class in school that it was a trade war which brought us our initial freedom as a country, and that semi-protectionism later helped build the United States. England started a "trade war" with the Colonies by adopting the Navigation Act of 1651 that required all trade be carried in British vessels. Manufacturing was forbidden in the Colonies, even the printing of the Bible, and then the Townsend Acts drafted by Adam Smith placed heavy import duties on a wide range of items. All of this precipitated the Boston Tea Party that started the Revolution.

While we obtained our freedom in 1776, it wasn't until 1787 that we empowered Congress, in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, to regulate commerce, both domestic and foreign. President George Washington's first message to the first Congress in 1789 warned that, "A free people should promote manufactories to render them independent of essential, particularly military, supplies." Thereafter, the United States was financed and built for 100 years with semi-protectionism, and we didn't even pass the income tax until 1913. At the advent of the Transcontinental Railroad, it was suggested that the needed steel be obtained from England - but President Abraham Lincoln strongly objected and required the steel to be produced in the United States. And Edmund Morris, in his remarkable book "Theodore Rex" about President Teddy Roosevelt, has TR exclaiming at the time the United States won the trade war with England, "Thank God I am not a free trader."

Under the new phenomenon called "globalization", the so-called "comparative advantage" which underpinned the early centuries is no longer God-given or determined by the weather, as was the case, two centuries ago, with David Ricardo's English woolens and Portuguese wine. Now commercial success is largely created, or not, by government policies, and the United States government refuses to compete for such success, even though, as The Economist magazine reported recently, "Business these days is all about competing with everyone from everywhere for everything."

Short term

Re the auto bailout:

I wonder if the Big Three's pitiful performance can be blamed in any way on the American system of corporate governance? Were the incentives to maximize short-term profits to blame for Detroit's ills?

I'm thinking of how GM and Chrysler (and Ford to a lesser extent) were so eager to give up on the small car market in favor of big SUVs. They had to know that low gas prices were unsustainable. SUVs were profitable, but didn't anyone worry about long-term profitability if gas prices rose and SUVs became less attractive?

December 12, 2008

The guilty pleasures of watching GM go bankrupt

I don't think we should bail out the failing failed American carmakers. I admit that I'll feel a guilty pleasure watching them go down the tubes.

It isn't that I don't support a vibrant American auto industry, or that I don't want to cushion the blow of all the layoffs that a collapse of the carmakers would entail. It's just that throwing money at the Big Three won't do either of these things. It'll be like flushing money down the toilet. And even if it would postpone the inevitable, I want my guilty pleasures now, dammit. I want to watch Rick Wagoner go down with his ship.

The carmakers aren't in this mess because of a little liquidity crisis, or a run of bad financial decisions that leave them short of cash. They're about to go belly up because their basic business isn't viable anymore. I have to admit, it gives me a sort of perverse pleasure to see GM going down the tubes after decades of building crappy cars. Perhaps its products aren't as inferior to their competitors as they were in the 1970s, but if you peruse Consumer Reports at all, you know that Toyota and Honda are still flogging GM on reliability even now. Oh, free market, work your magic.

It's also sinfully delicious to see the Big Three begging for money after the bottom fell out of the market for gas-guzzling SUVs. All the lobbying muscle that once went into fighting increases in the CAFE fuel economy standards tooth and nail may not be enough now to get the government to help them build better small, fuel-efficient cars. Too bad, so sad, Rick. You bet the company on the Hummer when you had to know that gas prices weren't going to stay low forever.

I'm also a little giddy about the failure of Detroit's carmakers after years of watching them do too little to push for national healthcare. They like to whine about their high health care costs, but they did far too little to push for the government-funded national health insurance that would have relieved them of many of the financial burdens they're complaining about.

Of course, none of this is going to make up for the real pain of a failed American auto industry. But that pain should be treated with something other than a bailout for the Big Three's shareholders.

November 24, 2008

Use me!

It's still too early to know whether President-Elect Obama (!!!) will be a split-the-difference politician in the Clinton mold, or if his rhetoric about "changing Washington" means he'll fight for transformative policies once he's inaugurated.

But if it's the latter, I have a small request. Use me.

Washington is all about the status-quo, so if Obama wants to change anything he'll have to draw on reservoirs of support outside of the beltway political class. George Packer puts the problem thusly in his New Yorker piece:

Transformative Presidents -- those who changed the country's sense of itself in some fundamental way -- have usually had great social movements supporting and pushing them. Lincoln had the abolitionists, Roosevelt the labor unions, Johnson the civil-rights leaders, Reagan the conservative movement. Clinton didn't have one, and after his election, [Robert] Reich said, "everyone went home."

Packer argues that Obama doesn't yet have any social movements behind him -- his supporters came together for the purpose of electing Obama and not for any particular reasons of policy. But Obama does have a huge list of email addresses linking him to people who could be persuaded to support transformative change beyond the simple fact of a President Obama. If he keeps us informed of what's going on; if he explains to us what he wants to do and where he wants to go, he could build a power base outside Washington with enough pull to get the Congressional wankers to actually change something. It does happen -- the recent House votes against the bailout bill come to mind as an example of how constituent anger can thwart the establishment leadership (for a week, at least).

In the meantime, we'll try to hold on until Bush is gone. First things first.

UPDATE: I meant to link to the transition team's site,, which shows a lot of promise as a way for the Obama administration to communicate directly with citizens.

November 20, 2008

Don't bail out or prop up, rebuild

Timothy Egan: "Why not go green, go for universal health care, go for economic stimulus — all with one big vision? Imagine if the $700 billion were there for a fresh overhaul of the American economy, rather than being siphoned off by the very people who created the problem?"

What if, instead of shoveling more money at current enterprises and industries that have been pursuing unsustainable polices for so long, we take this opportunity to get rid of them and rebuild on a sustainable foundation instead? When auto companies pay more for retiree benefits and health insurance than for steel, and when municipalities grant lifetime benefits to five-year employees, the question is when, not if, we will suffer for our foolishness.

Yesterday would have been the best, but today is much better than tomorrow.

No civil libertarians here

The most interesting thing about this quarrel between New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly and attorney general Michael Mukasey over the surveillance of terrorism suspects is what they agree about: the public is safer with more surveillance.

Kelly's argument is that the DOJ has been dragging their feet on asking the FISA court to approve NYPD surveillance requests.

Mr. Kelly complained that Justice Department lawyers imposed a needlessly high standard to be certain that every surveillance application submitted to the court would be approved. “Intelligence collection operations against potential terrorist threats to the homeland often involve considerable uncertainty,” he wrote. “D.O.J. should not hesitate to present judges with close cases. Some requests for warrants will inevitably be denied.”

Mukasey's argument isn't that the surveillance is excessive, but that the court will scrutinize surveillance requests more closely if too many of them are submitted.
But Mr. Mukasey said that submitting such cases to the court would be a mistake. “The less the FISA court comes to trust the validity of the applications, the more inclined the judges will be to impose on all applications the kind of scrutiny that doubtful applications merit, which of course takes more time and causes more delay because the court’s resources are limited,” he said. “The greater the delay, the fewer the applications can be processed and granted within a given time. The fewer successful FISA applications, the less intelligence can be gathered. The less intelligence gathered, the greater the danger to all Americans, including New Yorkers. That is not a complex formula.”

So this argument is just a tactical one over how to extract the widest latitude for law enforcement surveillance from the FISA court. Unsurprisingly, both sides assume that more surveillance = greater public safety. There's no civil libertarian side to this squabble. The good news, I suppose, is that both officials still seem to think getting the court's approval to eavesdrop is a necessary evil.

November 18, 2008

George Will

It's not too often I can say this about a George Will column, but I agree.

Will it be painful if GM goes belly up? You betcha, but happens. Life is a bitch. A bailout will just delay the inevitable. Let's just get it over with.

November 11, 2008

In american politics, it's urban vs. rural

It's amazing what you can learn with a good map. The standard map of red and blue states suggests that the U.S. is politically divided between the coasts and the interior, or between the north and the south.

These geographic divisions don't, however, explain my own experience. For example, I can go to almost any rural part of Oregon or Colorado, both of which are "blue" states, and starve before I find anyone who voted for Barack Obama. What gives? We may be only 200 miles from Denver, but it feels as if (politically speaking) we're in Alabama.

Fortunately for us, Mark Newman of the University of Michigan gives us better maps:

What's striking about Newman's maps is how divided we are between urban and rural areas, with urbanites going Democratic and rural voters preferring the Republican. The really exceptional areas of the country are the backwoods regions of Wisconsin and New England, and the big cities in Texas. Pretty much everywhere else, the urban/blue, rural/red divisions hold up.

November 09, 2008

F*** Rahm Emanuel!

According to Naftali Bendavid, Rahm Emanuel has a colorful way with one particular word.

Signing off a phone conversation with a candidate, Emanuel says: “Don’t **** it up or I’ll **** you. I’ll kill you. All right, I love you. Bye.”

“In my house, when you say **** you, it’s a sign of endearment.”

On election night, he shouts to a boisterous celebration that “the Republicans can go **** themselves.”

He refers to Washington as “****nutsville” and to an opponent as “knuckle****s.”

To a reporter: “Don’t rat**** me!”

(HT, Roeser)

I hope Emanuel doesn't completely clean up his language now that he's Obama's Chief of Staff -- along with the president-elect's gift for soaring oratory, it'll help make this one of the the most linguistically accomplished administrations ever.

October 09, 2008

McCain suffering in Colorado Springs?

I was pleased to see two references to my hometown of Colorado Springs today. Colorado Springs is known for being the home base of James Dobson's Focus on the Family, and it is the most conservative place in Colorado. It's also a place where Barack Obama's campaign is kicking the crap out of John McCain's:

Because even in a place like Colorado Springs, McCain’s ground campaign is getting blown away by the Obama efforts. It doesn't mean Obama will win Colorado Springs, but it means Obama's campaign will not look itself in the mirror afterward and ask, "what more could we have done?"

These efforts seem to be paying off, according to Timothy Egan:
Here in Colorado Springs — the Vatican of evangelical political power, home to the Air Force Academy and a community where optimism usually matches the sunrise glow at the base of Pikes Peak – you can see what will happen in less than a month.

My friends: it’s not good for Senator McCain.

Gee whiz, McCain is having trouble in Colorado Springs? It really is a bad year to be a Republican.

October 08, 2008

Out of gas?

After we re-elected George W. Bush in 2004, I haven't been able to get very optimistic about politics. But the accumulating evidence that the Republicans are out of gas has become so persuasive that I'm allowing myself to hope. I actually think Barack Obama will win the election.

It's not just because the McCain campaign hasn't been very well-run. It's because John McCain, no matter what else he may be, is a Republican in a time when the country is sick of Republicans. Michael A. Cohen's observations seem correct to me:

But in some respects this is not completely Mr. McCain’s fault. He is the leader of a political party that has run out of steam. The Republican Party seems more and more like a spent and rudderless force, devoid of new ideas for how to govern the country, and wedded to its unbending political orthodoxies, of cutting government spending, removing regulation and reducing income taxes.

. . . . There are four weeks until Election Day, but the route for Mr. McCain’s political revival seems to be increasingly out of his hands. Perhaps the capture of Osama bin Laden or even a major terrorist attack could refocus the race on issues favoring Republicans, but barring such an unforeseen event, Mr. McCain will continue to sail against the political winds. Nothing that happened Tuesday night changed the fundamental trajectory of a race that now overwhelmingly favors Mr. Obama; indeed the policy divide between the two candidates offers compelling and unmistakable evidence as to why that is the case.

October 06, 2008

Wendell Berry a socialist? Yes, it's libertarianism vs agrarianism again

An argument has broken out in an obscure part of the blogosphere between libertarians, paleoconservatives, and agrarians. You may think you don't care, but I'd like to suggest that arguments like these tend to be more substantive than the typical democrat vs republican swill we're treated to on blogs like Kos and Instapundit.

Libertarian David Gordon wrote a piece critical of Rod Dreher and the "crunchy cons", which provoked responses from Jerry Salyer in the paleocon magazine Chronicles, and from Daniel Larison at Eunomia.

I've talked, briefly, about libertarianism before, and dismissed it as a one-size-fits-all ideology that ignores local realities. I should probably admit that I'm not the best critic of libertarianism because I dismiss it as childish -- an overly simple and simplistic ideology. But this disagreement between Gordon and his critics gives me the chance to bring up one point that I didn't before.

Agrarianism's chief conviction, it seems to me, is that we must take responsibility for what we do. Its arguments for localism are toothless without this conviction behind them. As Wendell Berry points out in many of his essays, the modern, industrial, global economy prevents us from adequately taking responsibilty for our actions because we can't even see what the consequences of our actions are. As I wrote in a previous post:

Our non-agrarian society makes it very difficult to take full responsibility for what we do. According to the agrarian writer Wendell Berry, "When there is no reliable accounting and therefore no competent knowledge of the economic and ecological effects of our lives, we cannot live lives that are economically and ecologically responsible." [Berry, "The Whole Horse"]

Berry thinks that in modern society there is in fact "no reliable accounting," and "no competent knowledge" of what we are doing. "We are thus involved in a kind of lostness in which most people are participating more or less unconsciously in the destruction of the natural world, which is to say, the sources of their own lives. They are doing this unconsciously because they see or do very little of the actual destruction themselves, and they don't know, because they have no way to learn, how they are involved." [Berry, "Two Minds"]

Localism is desirable for agrarians because it helps us to learn what the consequences of our actions are, and limits our destructiveness when we make mistakes.

Given, however, a global society like ours, we need some other ways of learning "how [we] are involved." And this is just where libertarianism fails, and why it ought to be rejected.

The unregulated free market beloved of libertarians, far from educating us about the consequences of what we do, tends just as often to obscure them. It reduces all the complex history of an item to a single number, the price. But even mainstream economists acknowledge that the price frequently fails to reflect even quantitatively (much less qualitatively) much of the "costs" that we pay as a society for the goods we produce. This is, of course, the problem of externalities. The most common example is the price of a gallon of gas, which fails to account for the environmental damage caused by its extraction, refining, transportation, and consumption.

Short of moving towards a local economy, the best way to account for all of the externalities that the market price fails to reflect is... government regulation, in the form of strict penalties for destructive behavior, subsidies for less destructive behavior, mandatory disclosures, and the list goes on.

Libertarians reject all of this, and in so doing set themselves up as obstacles to achieving the kind of responsible society agrarians want.

But enough of that. Larison's and Salyer's answers to Gordon are interesting and I recommend them. Given the economic events of the past month, though, Dreher makes the wittiest riposte:

In the meantime, can I just say how much I hate that Wendell Berry and all the farmers for bringing the entire US economy and global financial system to the edge of the abyss with their financial recklessness. If only we'd had less regulation of the moneymen, like fundamentalist libertarians want, why, we wouldn't be in this fix. Right?

Death of Reaganism

We can't tell yet just how painful this economic crisis will eventually get, but it's fair to say that there'll be some of us who suffer pretty badly.

There's going to be plenty of bad news, so I'd like to start concentrating on the silver linings in this economic cloud. When Rep. Darryl Issa opposed the Paulson bailout plan last week on the grounds that it would put "a coffin on Ronald Reagan's coffin," he was pointing out something we all should cheer: the death of Reaganism.

Reaganism describes the political climate that I've lived in ever since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, at just about the time that I grew old enough to become politically aware. I think of it as a mix between right-wing economics and a "sunny optimism" that (a la Walt Disney) has little to do with reality. It's a mix of neoclassical economics and infantile consumerism.

Ever since Reagan, the idea that government intervention in "the free market" is harmful has been the default ideological position that politicians have had to genuflect toward in order to get elected. Republicans have been the dominant political party in the age of Reagan because they embraced the free-market orthodoxy most energetically. Bill Clinton was a Democrat, but he won elections by telling us that "the era of big government is over" and governed as a welfare-cutting, NAFTA supporting center-right politician.

Whatever else has happened over the past 30 years, we've repeatedly rewarded politicians who've told us that tax cuts and free trade would make us prosper. We've ignored calls for raising the minimum wage, watched without much interest as unions decayed, embraced the Wal-Mart business model of low-wage, part-time jobs in exchange for cheap merchandise imported from China, and wimpered ineffectually at the inevitable consequences of a health insurance system placed in the hands of the market -- namely, rising premiums and a growing number of people without health insurance.

As we continued to send Republicans and free-market Democrats to Washington, we didn't pay much attention to the fact that year-by-year the regulations that governed the financial industry were getting scaled back. "Voluntary regulation" was advocated so often that we forgot how oxymoronic a thing it was.

At the same time that we were dismantling the protections of the regulatory state, we were taking huge risks by living beyond our means. Our real wages weren't going up, but dammit, we weren't going to do without -- especially since our politicians always seemed more worried by slowdowns in consumer spending than by declines in the household savings rate. We refinanced homes to go on vacation or buy that new SUV; we ran up credit card debt, we spent everything we made and then some. As our households went, so did our government: running deficits almost every year and piling up trillions of dollars in debt. No politician who would actually raise taxes or cut spending was allowed to survive.

When George W. Bush decided to take us to war, he told us to go shopping. More household and government debt accumulated.

The specific etiologies of this credit crisis weren't all foreordained, but how could we have avoided a serious correction when housing prices were so out of control? (Via angry bear.)

Reaganism was unsustainable because the free-marketeerism and consumerism that it was based on are not grounded in reality. Free markets on a national or global level aren't self correcting, and they are disruptive:

We are now learning what countries across the developing world have experienced over three decades: unstable and inequitable neoliberal economics leads to unacceptable levels of social disruption and hardship that can only be contained by brutal repression. Add that to the two other central charges against deregulated capitalism: first, it may create wealth but it does not distribute it effectively; and second, that it takes no account of what it cannot commodify - neither the social relationships of family and community nor the environment, which are vital to human wellbeing, and indeed to the functioning of the market itself. Ultimately, neoliberal capitalism is self-destructive.

Consumerism is built on irresponsible hedonism -- both for CEOs with golden parachutes and for hockey moms with plasma-screen TVs bought on home equity loans.

Now that reality has caught up to us, we can forgive Darryl Issa for sticking to his conservative principles in opposing the bailout, and rejecting the modern Republican principles of socializing the risk while privatizing the benefits. Was the bailout a good idea? Depends on whether you trust the Bush/Paulson/Frank leadership team (I remain suspicious). We're probably in for a lot of pain, but thankfully, Reaganism is now dead.

October 03, 2008

The right wing blogosphere

Crises like this are the best time to visit the far-right blogosphere.  It's fascinating to see what effect reality has on the opinions of true ideologues.

Apparently, no effect at all.  That's why they're called "ideologues."

Take the Biden-Palin debate, for instance.  Most of us think Palin's answers were incoherent, or at best, weak.  However, people like this guy say that "Sarah Palin drove another stake in the heart of those fuddy-duddy reactionaries that constitute our mainstream media. Going toe-to-toe with a senator with decades of experience, she more than held her own, giving lie to the media constructed narrative that she was an inexperienced hick from nowheresville Alaska."

My question to Mr. Simon is simply: how poorly would she have had to perform for you to say that she lost the debate?  What is your standard?  How about drooling?  Would you reluctantly admit she lost only if her responses had been limited to silent drooling?

I'd like to ask similar kinds of questions to people like Hugh Hewitt, who believes the solution to our economic crisis is to -- drum roll, please -- cut taxes!

[McCain's] simple, closing message ought to be that the world is threatened by terrorism, and the global economy is threatened by rising taxes, chains on productivity, pressure on trade, and corrupt, self-dealing political elites at home and abroad.

McCain needs to declare that he's been around a long time, and he's seen all the big mistakes made and all the costs paid, and that he isn't going to stand for it now.

McCain should pledge to be John McCut from day one in the White House:

He'll cut taxes on new businesses and construction to jump start a flat economy and invigorate employment;

He'll cut federal spending to make sure we have the resources for those that need it and not those who have gotten fat off of subsidies;

He'll cut the chains that government has put on productivity, allowing builders to build and energy companies to explore and producers to make;

He'll cut every trade barrier he can find and commit to an export economy that will surge the growth in American production of the goods and services demanded around the globe;

He'll cut the corrupt culture of self-dealing that allowed Freddie and Fannie to pump hundreds of billions of bad loans to over-their-head borrowers and into the economy and thereby infect our financial system to the point of collapse....

Question:  If our economy weren't threatened by a credit crisis, but instead by, say, big furry mice, would you still say it was threatened by rising taxes?  What kinds of economic threats do you think exist, other than taxes?

I'm sure the far left is just as nutty in their own way.  Question for them: How high would taxes have to be before you'd advocate for a smaller government?  100%?

The fact is, though, that ever since the Reagan Revolution, the political "moderates" have been much closer to the far-right nutjobs than to the far left nutjobs.  Communism is dead; no one seriously supports that ideology any more.  Liberalism has been a toxic political label for thirty years.  No one who supports "protectionism" or "pacifism" survives as a viable politician for very long.  The only influential wingnuts are the right wing ones.  So it's both amusing and scary to see how tightly they cling to their beliefs in the face of a reality that demands something different.

The good news is that most people aren't ideologues.  If they can be induced to pay enough attention to form their own opinions, they'll realize that most of today's problems spring from too much right-wing ideology and not too little.  While a little Reaganism might have been good for the nation at the end of the 1970s (debatable), it's certainly toxic now.  We're suffering from too much Reaganism, and we've been doing so for a long time.

That's why, if the people pay attention, it'll be fun to tour the right-wing blogs again after John McCain loses this election.  My question for the Hugh Hewitts then will be:  How massive a landslide would Barack Obama have had to win by before you'd admit that the reason McCain lost was that the voters just didn't want him to be president?

June 12, 2008

FISA "compromise" bill a Democratic surrender to George W. Bush

As is often the case, Glenn Greenwald's latest blog post must be read:

The New York Times' Eric Lichtblau has a long, prominent article today on the pending debate over FISA and telecom amnesty -- headlined: "Return to Old Spy Rules Is Seen as Deadline Nears" -- that features (and endorses) virtually every blatant falsehood that has distorted these spying issues from the beginning, and which is built on every shoddy journalistic practice that has made clear debate over these issues almost impossible. The article strongly suggests that a so-called "compromise" is imminent, a "compromise" which will deliver to the President virtually everything he seeks in the way of new warrantless eavesdropping powers and telecom amnesty.

June 10, 2008

Academics and politics

There's an excellent discussion going on over at Stanley Fish's NYT column about the role of political beliefs among college professors. I tend to agree with Fish. The University of Colorado's attempts to recruit conservative faculty members are misplaced and should embarrass all Coloradans.

In my own experience, I've found that a diversity of political views within the student body is far more important for a student's experience than that within the faculty. As Fish argues, most competent professors can and do bracket their own political views in the classroom. But students, in conversations outside of class, can't and shouldn't do the same thing. This means that if you're on a campus where 98 percent of your fellow students are liberal (or conservative), you're unlikely to encounter a serious challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy in your conversations at lunch and in the dorm.

I speak from experience. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I couldn't make any political statement wihout being strongly challenged by some fellow student who profoundly disagreed with me. After transferring to Reed College, all the students were so overwhelmingly liberal that my left-leaning statements were given a free pass, while my right-leaning statements were appropriately and skillfully attacked. Fifty percent* of the arguments that I would have had at Chicago, disappeared at Reed. I loved both schools, but the politically more diverse student body at Chicago made for a more interesting intellectual experience there.

As for the faculty at both schools, I couldn't tell a thing about their personal political beliefs from their classroom teaching.

*I like to think that orthodox liberals would strongly object to about half of my political positions.

June 05, 2008

Obama, the Chicago guy

Via Michael Froomkin comes this great piece from Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland. Anyone doubting that we've made some progress in race relations should read some of these letters written by white Chicagoans during the civil rights era. Read their letters, feel their fear. (And note, please, how often their racism was defended by appeals to "property rights" and "freedom.")

Our history of racism makes it delicious that Barack Obama will be the Democratic nominee for President. But his nomination is delicious for more reasons than just race. After so many years of ceding the nation's political culture to candidates who feel compelled to identify themselves with rural Texas or Arkansas or some other Southern locale, I'm thrilled that Obama's acknowledged political home base is the city of Chicago. And after so many years of ceding our political culture to the rednecks, it's refreshing that Obama is obviously an intellectual who couldn't bowl his way out of a paper bag. It's about time! Of course, all of this is useless if Obama loses to McCain, but I'm still hopeful that that won't happen.

Now, I shall set forth upon my cultural rant -- apologies in advance:

Start with politics. The free-market and social conservativism that dominates our political discourse needs to be checked. Our long love affair with conservatism has led to the middle class disappearing, our bridges collapsing, our cities drowning, and our civil liberties evaporating. Our military is in Iraq on false pretenses, waging a war of choice, and may now be settling in for the very long-term. These depressing political developments have been aided, if not caused, by a political culture that has privileged the yahoo and the redneck over the erudite, urbane, and intellectual.

What do I mean by that? Consider that for decades, politicians won by ridiculing "effete intellectuals" and more recently, "latte liberals." Reagan the Rancher beat Mondale the Minnesotan. Bush 41 beat Dukakis in part because the latter seemed more urbane, and thus more wimpy -- mostly because of that unfortunate tank helmet, but also because Dukakis looked like the product of civilized Massachusetts. Clinton turned the tables on the Republicans by being more rednecky than both Bush 41 and the witty but non-redneck Bob Dole. That Gore and Kerry both came close to beating the most anti-intellectual president ever suggested that our national infatuation with yahoos continued, but that it might have limits.

Conversely, I challenge you to name a successful national politician who won by casting his opponent as an uneducated redneck. Who mocked his opponent's Ford F150 with the gun rack. Who held up his Starbucks proudly while denouncing his opponent's preference for Diet Coke and fries.

I thought not. Intellectualism hasn't fared too well in American politics of late.

I'm not saying that the right wing doesn't have its share of intellectuals. In fact, the left has long envied the academic output of the partisan right even as they denounce the specific arguments for endless tax cuts as ideological extremism. Despite George W. Bush's appalling lack of curiosity and aggressive anti-intellectualism, the real damage of this presidency has been done by the highly-educated David Addingtons and John Yoos in the administration who use their skills to push pernicious policies: the "unitary executive", the GWOT, signing statements, deregulation and tax cuts. These days, everyone across the political spectrum wants their own Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation.

What I'm saying is that as we've been seduced by the politics of the right wing, we've also been seduced by the culture of the redneck. I don't think this is a coincidence. They often go hand-in-hand. The pejorative term "redneck" conjures up images of people more zealous about the literal truth of the Bible than about their own reason, more attached to their pickup truck than to the health of ANWR, more committed to their hatred for gays than to their appreciation of diversity. These are the cultural markers that right-wing Republicans have been celebrating for decades.

Moreover, these cultural markers are sadly much more visible in rural areas than they are in big cities. This site stereotypes the difference too much, but there's a core of truth to the general claim that liberalism flourishes in big cities and withers in the hinterlands. If you doubt this, look at the map: there aren't red and blue states; there are red rural areas and blue cities. John Kerry won every city in the country with more than 500,000 people.

Republican campaign success over the past twenty years has hewed more or less loosely to the formula: praise the the rural and the redneck, villify the educated and and the urban. Thankfully, things are changing. We'll have to see how Barack Obama does in November, but this time around, my money's on the intellectual guy from Chicago. Delicious.

June 01, 2008

The winner of the popular vote is...

Here's a great post on the Daily Kos that sorts out the controversy over who's winning the popular vote.

Why old white working-class people voted for Hillary

After eight years of George W. Bush, almost all of us want some kind of change. Unsurprisingly, then, Barack Obama’s campaign theme of change has been more successful than Clinton’s theme of experience. What surprises me is the number of Democrats who have voted for Hillary Clinton nevertheless. One frequently-offered explanation for why these voters have preferred “experience” to “change” is that they remember that things were better for them when Bill Clinton was president, and that their experience of change over the last decade has been mostly painful. This really doesn’t explain much, because many of Obama’s supporters can be described in exactly the same way.

Reading Richard Sennett’s book today, I found an explanation for Hillary’s appeal that makes more sense. It also suggests what Obama must do to appeal to many of Clinton’s supporters.

Sennett describes the new corporate culture that has exercised a disproportionately large influence on the rest of the economy and on politics. This celebrated “new economy” (so familiar to readers of Richard Friedman) puts a premium on short-term relationships and eschews continuity and stability. The days of lifelong employment at General Motors are gone, and with them any expectation that you can count on your employer for a pension and for health care. Firms that try to operate this way are ridiculed by investors as old-fashioned, and are the frequent targets of hostile takeover attempts. The goal for apostles of the “new economy” is to rebuild old stolid companies as a nimble, quick-footed enterprises that can respond quickly to changing markets, and are not weighed down by excessive commitments to particular products, workers, or worker benefits.

Older workers have experienced the transition from the old world of lifetime employment and generous pensions to the new world of temporary employment and no job security. These workers have moved over the course of a few decades from a world of mutual commitment between themselves and their employers to a world where there is no long-term commitment and stability is ridiculed in favor of fast-paced evolutionary change. These workers hear “change” and they don’t think merely of a change from the policies of George W. Bush; they think of the loss of stability and predictability that the new economy has unleashed. What these people want, and rightly so, is to slow this destructive change and to protect a world governed by commitments and characterized by long-term stability.

Younger workers, and to a large extent workers from the professional class who have tended to vote for Obama, haven’t had a similar experience. Either they’ve lived their entire work lives in the context of the new economy, or they’ve worked in jobs that haven’t yet been affected to the same extent by the new economy’s upheavals as the blue-collar jobs have been. For them, Obama’s call for change is nothing less than obvious -- of course we have to change what we’ve been doing under George W. Bush!

The question becomes whether Obama can make himself more appealing to Clinton’s older, whiter, more blue-collar supporters than John McCain can. I think he can if he decides to use the language of stability, safety, commitment, reliability, and trust in the context of the government’s relationship to them. He should remind voters that the Republicans are the ones most eager to extend the culture and values of the new economy into the public realm. The Republicans want to privatize Social Security. The Republicans want to make each individual fend for themselves when they get sick and need health care. The Republicans want to remake government in the image of the new lean, efficient, nimble, but commitment-free modern corporation that has so successfully shed jobs and pension commitments in the name of competitiveness and quick profit.

Obama obviously isn’t going to turn the clock back to 1955, but neither is Clinton. John McCain most certainly isn’t going to do it. Obama must persuade Clinton’s appalachian supporters that he values the kind of stability they’ve lost, and that he’s more likely than John McCain to preserve the reliability of the federal government and its ability to competently perform basic government functions.

May 23, 2008

Another civics lesson

Glenn Greenwald says he used to be a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. But he doesn't need that background to make the following obvious point:

. . . a court striking down a law supported by large majorities is not antithetical to our system of government. Such a judicial act is central to our system of government. That's because, strictly speaking, the U.S. is not a "democracy" as much as it a "constitutional republic," precisely because constitutional guarantees trump democratic majorities. This is all just seventh-grade civics. . . .

Point taken, Mr. Greenwald. But to pick a small bone: seventh-grade civics like this died a quiet death sometime in the late 1970s.

May 14, 2008

Barbara Ehrenreich gets the gender thing right

Hey Mom, look at this!

(I call out my mom because I always have my best discussions about gender differences with her. I'm pretty sure my mom will actually agree with this piece by Barbara Ehrenreich. Even if I'm still not sure whether she supported Obama or Clinton for the Democratic nomination.)

Hillary's Gift to Women

. . . . Biology conditions us in all kinds of ways we might not even be aware of yet. But virtue is always a choice.

Hillary Clinton smashed the myth of innate female moral superiority in the worst possible way -- by demonstrating female moral inferiority. We didn't really need her racial innuendos and free-floating bellicosity to establish that women aren't wimps. As a generation of young feminists realizes, the values once thought to be uniquely and genetically female -- such as compassion and an aversion to violence -- can be found in either sex, and sometimes it's a man who best upholds them.

Heroes at home

We hear people throwing around the word "hero" a lot these days, mostly in reference to our soldiers fighting in Iraq. Heroes these soldiers may be, but let's also recognize some other heroes serving our country, even if they aren't lauded by the Hugh Hewitts and Rush Limbaughs of the world. Heroes like the military lawyers and judges who aren't playing along with the system of kangaroo courts set up by the Bush administration to try convict prisoners at Guantanamo:

The Supreme Court, then, is hardly the only thing standing between the president and kangaroo convictions at Guantanamo. The truth is that the best thing the commissions have going for them right now are the lawyers and judges in uniform who have, albeit reluctantly, refused to play along. If they'd been out on the battlefield, they'd have killed any detainee they met as an enemy. But they're not willing to see them killed in the wake of a sham trial. That's not because they value the lives of terrorists over the lives of Americans or because they value legal formalism over the exigencies of war. It's because they come out of a long military tradition of legal integrity and independence. And much as it must pain them, this precludes them from being yes men for the Bush administration at the expense of the rule of law.

February 06, 2008

How democracy works

The New York Times editorializes about "how democracy is supposed to work":

In an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America,” on Monday, Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle, was asked if she would work to support Mrs. Clinton if she won. “I’d have to think about that,” she replied.

Mrs. Obama quickly got back on her talking points, stressing party unity. But her unguarded answer was similar to what we heard from Obama supporters in e-mail messages that we received after endorsing Mrs. Clinton. Many of those readers said they would not bother to vote if Mr. Obama lost the nomination. That is not the way democracy is supposed to work.

I agree with the Times that Obama supporters ought to support Clinton if (and it's a big, big if) she wins the nomination.

But the Times is wrong about democracy. This is exactly how democracy is "supposed to work." Voters can vote for whomever they want, for whatever reasons they want. They can choose not to vote at all. They can do whatever they want for reasons that don't make any sense at all.

In fact, this freedom of voters to behave irrationally is the strongest argument that's been made against democracy as a form of government. It's been the strongest argument against democracy for thousands of years.

The problem has always been that in a democracy, we defer to the will of the people. And the people, unlike philosopher-kings, can and often do act irrationally (insert snarky comment about the re-election of George W. Bush here).

January 12, 2008

What's wrong with libertarianism?

Some musings about the pros and cons of libertarianism from Michael Kinsley:

Libertarians are quick to see hidden costs of ignoring libertarian principles and slow to see such costs in adhering to them. For example, Tucker Carlson reports in the Dec. 31 New Republic that Ron Paul wants to end the federal ban on unpasteurized milk. No one should want to drink unpasteurized milk, and almost no one does. Paul himself doesn't. But it bothers him that the government tells people they cannot do something they shouldn't do.Libertarians would say that if most people want pasteurized milk, the market will supply it. Firms will emerge to certify that milk has been pasteurized. These firms will compete, keeping them honest.

So yes, a Rube Goldberg contraption of capitalism could replace a straightforward government regulation. But what if you aren't interested in turning your grocery shopping into an ideological adventure? All that is lost by letting the government take care of it is the right of a few idiots to be idiots. That right deserves respect. But not much.

Libertarians have always struck me as kind of naive -- kind of like die-hard Tolkien fans who insist on dressing like elves and wondering why, really, we don't all just fight it out with swords to solve our problems.

I'm deeply sympathetic, yes. But I still think it's a bit naive.

November 28, 2007

Another reason not to be a republican

The NYT has an article about the differences between the Democratic and Republican candidates on energy policy:

For Democrats, the goal of energy policy is largely about reducing oil consumption and has become inseparable from the goal of reducing the risk of climate change.

For the Republican candidates, energy policy is primarily about producing more energy at home — more oil and gas drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; more use of American coal to produce liquid fuel; and, as with Democrats, more renewable fuels like ethanol.

By contrast, all of the Democratic candidates would repeal billions of dollars in tax breaks for oil companies, spend billions more each year to develop alternative fuels, and require cars and trucks to be far more fuel-efficient.

Republicans: icky, sicky, throw-up politicians.

November 25, 2007

Ron Paul's libertarian problem

A few supporters of congressman Ron Paul have discovered and responded to my posts about the libertarian presidential candidate. Since I linked to a popular DailyKos post suggesting that Paul was a racist, the least I can do is to point out two sources suggesting that he isn't -- see this and this.

If you're curious about Paul, read them all for yourself and make up your own mind.

Personally, I doubt that racism can fairly be attributed to Ron Paul.  I don't doubt that some of his supporters are racists -- Clinton and Obama and Giuliani almost certainly have their racist supporters, too -- but Paul seems like too much of a libertarian to be a racist himself.

However, racism is not my biggest problem with Ron Paul.  His libertarianism is.

Look, I don't disagree with libertarians that a large state can be dangerous.  It tries to monopolize the use of force, and its power is so great that it makes good sense to be afraid of it.  Yes, the state can never be compassionate, altruistic, or responsible in anything like the sense that an individual can be.  It's also true that an overly-large state can be an obstacle to responsible stewardship, because it substitutes an individual's direct control over some portion of his assets with a far less-direct political influence over how the state uses those assets that have been confiscated in taxes.

All of that, I get.  Libertarianism and agrarianism together have no use for an overweening, monstrous state.  (If they did, they'd be called "socialism" or "communism.")

But here is where I believe libertarianism and agrarianism part company: libertarianism picks out individual liberty from among the many human goods and holds it up as the preeminent end-in-itself.  Liberty trumps everything else.  Agrarianism holds that individual liberty must be balanced harmoniously with the health of the family, the community, and the place (or "the environment" if you prefer that term).  There is no trump; each conflict between human goods must be evaluated in the context of the particular circumstances applying at that time and place.

For libertarians, the only legitimate reason to constrain an individual's freedom of action is when that action hurts another person.  "Hurting another person" usually amounts to the same thing as reducing another person's freedom.  For the libertarian, this is the ultimate goal.  If there are pleasant side effects, then all the merrier for everyone, but the maximization of liberty is still the goal even if there are no pleasant side effects, or even if the side effects are unpleasant.

You can see this kind of thinking in Paul's response to his critics' charge that he's a racist:

The true antidote to racism is liberty. Liberty means having a limited, constitutional government devoted to the protection of individual rights rather than group claims. Liberty means free-market capitalism, which rewards individual achievement and competence, not skin color, gender, or ethnicity. In a free market, businesses that discriminate lose customers, goodwill, and valuable employees – while rational businesses flourish by choosing the most qualified employees and selling to all willing buyers.
I'm not a racist, argues Paul, because I'd never advocate using the power of the state to constrain an individual's freedom because of their race.  The true libertarian cannot be a racist because racial discrimination conflicts with the ultimate goal of maximizing freedom.

Paul also claims that there are pleasant side effects when individuals are given the maximum amount of freedom possible, namely that racism withers away in an environment where the free market "rewards individual achievement and competence, not skin color, gender, or ethnicity."  David Bernstein's comments on this view demonstrate how myopic it is.  Paul, like many other libertarians, cannot account for private racism because of his idealized and fictional view of how the market works unencumbered by the state.  Whether anything about libertarianism compels this fictional view of the market is an interesting question.  But that's not the point here.

The point is that even if you were to convince Paul that this pleasant side effect of free market economics won't pan out, this wouldn't be sufficient in itself to change Paul's opposition to any state-organized efforts to fight racism.  Because Paul is a libertarian, you'd have to convince him that that racism has limited people's liberty to a greater extent than it would be limited by government intervention.  Goal #1, liberty, must be maximized at all costs, even if those costs include the indignity of overt racism, or racism's destructive effects on the community, or its harm to the non-human environment (if any).

Ditto for any other government policy -- environmental, financial, military.  And ditto for any level of government. The libertarian doesn't care whether the constraints on an individual's liberty comes from the U.N. or the feds or the state or the town council.  All of these are "collectivist" and as such are a potential enemy of freedom.

In fact, from an agrarian perspective, libertarianism's fatal weakness is that it's an industrial, one-size-fits-all ideology.  It's "industrial" because it claims to be applicable universally, in every time and place.  When libertarians make universal claims for the primacy of individual freedom over other human goods, they're ignoring local variations of opinion and taste much the same way the neocons ignored these things when they argued for invading Iraq.

Agrarians should also reject libertarianism because it reduces the complex features of a good human life to just one of those factors: liberty.  This is analogous to the difference between agrarian agriculture and industrial agriculture, where the latter reduces a complex activity dependent on a keen awareness of local variation to just three things: phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium.  The failings of this reductivist approach to agriculture are clearly described by Michael Pollan in his Omnivore's Dilemma, and are recognized by successful farmers who reject the industrial model, like Joel Salatin.

Sure, the government might be "too big" right now. But the libertarian's answer to this problem is akin to the guy with the arthritic knee who says to himself, "if one Tylenol is good for my knee, the whole bottle of pills ought to be really great."  That's the kind of guy that dies of liver failure.  We may be choking on bureaucracy, but the libertarian's enthusiasm for the opposite extreme ought to scare us a little.

October 11, 2007


You just knew this had to be a Daniel Larison post:

Geoffrey Wheatcroft has reminded us that we do not actually have either a functioning democratic or republican system, but instead suffer through a series of inept family-based cliques in a kakistocratic oligarchy (there are certainly no aristoi in our political class) in which connections are decisive and merit painfully irrelevant.  The latest example of this is the accession to the throne presidential campaign of Clinton.  In other words, things are running much as they have done for much of my lifetime (and almost certainly longer than that).  The idea that Bush-Clinton fatigue will set in among voters this time derives from the average pundit’s impatience with the dreariness of dynastic cycles and the continued belief that democracy results in generally better, more dynamic and less squalid government.  Our system keeps doing its best to prove that belief wrong, but it persists anyway.
"Kakistocratic."  I've been looking for a word like that for, oh, almost eight years now....

Agrarian responsibility, and why that means we can't ignore the world news

Agrarianism, like any other -ism, is shorthand for an enormous number of practices, ideas, and commitments. But if I were going to sum it up as briefly as possible, I might say that agrarianism is what happens when you take "responsibility" seriously. (You could make similarly suggestive but incomplete statements about other -isms, for example, that libertarianism is what you get when you take "freedom" seriously, or that fascism is what you get when you take "authority" seriously. Obviously a whole lot more needs to be said, but these statements are accurate and provocative starting points.)

Our non-agrarian society makes it very difficult to take full responsibility for what we do. According to the agrarian writer Wendell Berry,

When there is no reliable accounting and therefore no competent knowledge of the economic and ecological effects of our lives, we cannot live lives that are economically and ecologically responsible. [Berry, "The Whole Horse"]
Berry thinks that in modern society there is in fact "no reliable accounting," and "no competent knowledge" of what we are doing.
We are thus involved in a kind of lostness in which most people are participating more or less unconsciously in the destruction of the natural world, which is to say, the sources of their own lives.  They are doing this unconsciously because they see or do very little of the actual destruction themselves, and they don't know, because they have no way to learn, how they are involved. [Berry, "Two Minds"]

The reason that we "see or do very little of the actual destruction ourselves" is that the nature and scale of our work in the modern economy diffuse the effects of our actions over enormous distances and long time periods.  So enormous and so long, in fact, that we have almost no way of actually observing these effects and seeing that they are the results of what we've done.  We see the consequences only in the aggregate -- newspaper articles decrying rainforest destruction in Brazil, videos of starving sweatshop workers in Malaysia, lamentations for the disappearance of butterflies in Alabama.  And we wonder, from our kitchen tables in Chicago or Colorado, how any of that could possibly be connected to our own 45-mile commute in to work from the suburbs each day, or to our weekly trips with the kids to Wal-Mart for some of those low, low prices.  Even if we do make the imaginative leap required to believe that our spending money at Wal-Mart contributes incrementally to the abuse of child laborers halfway around the world, we'll find it hard to say that in any sense we're "responsible" for that outcome.  And even if we get that far, it's hard to convince ourselves to alter our comfortable behaviors for the sake of people we know only as abstractions and who we'll never meet, much less love.

It is different in a local (agrarian) economy.  When the local clothing store locks its workers, who are also your neighbors, in its stores overnight so that it can shave five cents off the price of a t-shirt, you're much more likely to see the connection between your patronage of that shop and the mistreatment of your neighbors.  You're much more likely to feel some responsibility for the person living across the street named Bob than you are for "malaysian sweatshop workers" in a nation you'd be hard pressed to find on a map.

There are many other examples implicating the deleterious effects of over-large scale and hyperspecialization on our capacity for taking responsibility.  Let's say you're a small-town lawyer.  You take a case defending the local factory from a lawsuit brought by its employees after an explosion that killed two workers and put five more in the hospital.  The same questions about whether it's ethical or not to take that case arise for the lawyer who works for a five-hundred person law firm representing a multinational company sued by the same workers, for the same explosion, in a state fifteen hundred miles away.  But the first lawyer is better able to take responsibility for his actions.  He lives close enough to the accident site to see what the damage has done.  He may know, as a citizen of the community, whether the factory owners have acted fairly or rapaciously in the past.  He is more likely to work on the whole case from start to finish than if he were an associate at a big firm, who may never actually meet the clients and whose participation may be limited only to drafting a few memos covering narrow aspects of the discovery in the case.  Both lawyers may decide to work on the case or not, but it's extremely unlikely that the big firm lawyer will really have taken responsibility for his decision.  How can he?  He can't see the effects of his work, and he has no real connection with the place that those effects are felt.  The same problems confront virtually all of us who work in the modern "global economy."

This need to take responsibility for our actions leads Rick Saenz to advocate dealing with righteous people that we've met and know well, and Wendell Berry to suggest that we broaden the context of our work by narrowing its scale.  This, and not some purely esthetic preference for small farms, is what lies behind the agrarian opposition to the global economy and the preference for the local.

Saenz goes further, in his post on "knowing your neighbors."  When I finished reading the post I found it hard to decide if I liked it enough to recommend it, or hated it enough to post an argument against it.  I suppose that it's both.

In the course of arguing that we ought to pay attention to the local landscape, Saenz also says that we shouldn't concern ourselves with the "affairs of nations and empires"; that we shouldn't bother to "form opinions about the causes of war and famines and prosperity and tyranny," and that we shouldn't "track natural disasters in far-off places."  Why?  Because we can't actually do anything about these things anyway, and any time spent paying attention to these things distracts us from paying proper attention to our local environment.

I disagree.

Someone less charitable than I could easily read Saenz as arguing against curiosity, and for a strictly instrumentalist use of our powers of perception and wonder -- "if we can't use information, we're better off not having it at all."  I won't do that.  But I think Saenz fails to understand that his own agrarian project is profoundly dependent upon our paying even closer attention to the news around the globe than most of us normally do.

If agrarianism is not simply to be just an esthetic preference, we have to make the effort to understand how we are responsible, by our participation in the modern economy, for things that we can't easily see or easily trace back to things that we've done.  The problem with globalization is that at the same time that it gives us each some small power to improve or degrade a landscape half a world away, it makes it extremely hard to see or know exactly what we're doing.  Those sweatshop laborers in Malaysia suffer what they suffer because we choose to buy their employers' products.  If we shop at Wal-Mart, we need to pay attention to the news from Malaysia or we are shirking our responsibility.  And even if, as Saenz suggests, we refuse to shop at Wal-Mart, we'll still need to understand what's going on in Malaysia.  Any close attention that we pay to our local environment will inexorably -- since we don't live in an agrarian economy, yet -- reveal that it is caught up in an economic system that ties it to Malaysia and other places.

Until we no longer live in a global economy (and I'm doubtful that this will ever happen), we will have to expend more -- not less -- effort at understanding the ties between our local place and places on the other side of the globe.  To use one of Saenz' examples: let's say your city council is about to "waste another few million of our tax dollars."  These days, that's likely to be because it's contemplating cutting a deal with BestBuy to level two or three square blocks of homes to make way for a new mega-store parking lot, or because it wants to let Kodak off the hook for millions of dollars of taxes to entice it to relocate locally rather than move to Malaysia where the government there is paying death squads to kill labor organizers in order to keep wages low.  No one who ignores, as Saenz suggests we do, the news from Malaysia is likely to really understand what their own local city council is doing.

The problem with globalization, as Wendell Berry tells us, is that it combines huge-scale activities with myopic vision.  The answer is not to increase our myopia.  To take proper responsibility means that we must make even more of an effort to understand what we're doing.  And even if, like Saenz suggests, we opt out of the global economy and try to do for ourselves, we will still find ourselves living in communities that are tied into the global economy (and even Saenz recognizes that this "opting-out" will often have to be done piecemeal).  Attention to the local demands that we pay attention to the global, or, as Wal-Mart would prefer it, we won't understand what's going on globally or locally.

August 06, 2007

The New York Times gets it right. . .

. . . in this editorial:

It was appalling to watch over the last few days as Congress — now led by Democrats — caved in to yet another unnecessary and dangerous expansion of President Bush’s powers, this time to spy on Americans in violation of basic constitutional rights.

July 26, 2007

If this is the worst they've got....

As this opinion piece from Charles Krauthammer demonstrates, Barack Obama's opponents are really grasping for straws. Now they're saying that Obama committed a gaffe by saying that he'd meet with foreign heads of state that we don't like. Krauthammer's explanation for why this is a gaffe is pretty weak.

June 15, 2007

Handouts for the wealthy

This kind of thing is grist for my mill.

The more we know, the less likely we are to buy into the myth that the wealthy deserve all that they have, while the poor owe what little they have to handouts.

May 25, 2007

Mark Helprin: Seventy years after I'm dead is not enough

If I were still in law school (and not post-call on the trauma service), this article from the novelist and occasional current-affairs commentator Mark Helprin would have provoked a long post many days ago: A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright?

Helprin makes the provocative, because so seldom-heard, argument that copyright terms extending to 70 years after the death of the author just aren't long enough:

Congress is free to extend at will the term of copyright. It last did so in 1998, and should do so again, as far as it can throw. Would it not be just and fair for those who try to extract a living from the uncertain arts of writing and composing to be freed from a form of confiscation not visited upon anyone else? The answer is obvious, and transcends even justice. No good case exists for the inequality of real and intellectual property, because no good case can exist for treating with special disfavor the work of the spirit and the mind.
This argument deserves a reasoned refutation instead of (in addition to?) a dismissive guffaw. Helprin has wandered off into cuckoo-land here, and if I weren't so sleep-deprived, I'd tell you now why I think so.

But alas, wisdom demands that I grab a beer, curl up in bed with my book for half an hour, and go to sleep. I'm back in the hospital again tomorrow....

March 28, 2007

Young and uninsured in America

I know what this guy is talking about. For the past four years I, too, was one of America's young invincibles:

Andrew Kuo, a 29-year-old painter, told me he made a vow to be insured by the time he turned 30. “But that was when 30 seemed like a ways away,” he added. “Now I find myself making all these stupid calculations. Like, it would cost me around $3,000 a year to have insurance, right? Okay, isn’t that about what it would cost out of pocket if I broke my wrist? Chances are I’m not going to break my wrist once a year, so why not save the money for that onetime emergency?” Like many I spoke with, Kuo said he’d happily pay for insurance, if only the cost-benefit analysis tilted more in its favor. “What’s ironic is that I would never live without my cell phone, but I won’t consider buying health insurance. It sounds ridiculous to say that out loud, but the fact is insurance is just too expensive. If it was the same price as my phone”—$150 a month sounded reasonable to him—“I’d buy it in a second.”

March 13, 2007

A good fit for the Bush cabinet

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales is the 80th attorney general of the United States and if recent events in the law and at the Justice Department are any indication, he is rapidly staking a claim to being among the worst.
I'm looking forward to the rest of this series...

One of the best private med schools: the University of Colorado

In the mail today was an envelope from Richard Krugman, chair of the AAMC and dean of my medical alma mater, the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

It contained good news and bad news. The good news: CU placed 15th among medical schools in the AAMCs ranking of NIH research expenditures, the school placed 4th among public medical schools in its research earnings, and the school just received a $6 million private research grant for a stem cell biology program. It sounds as if the medical school's budget is healthy, at least from a research perspective, and the state of Colorado ought to be proud of its accomplishments.

But, um... the bad news is that the state legislature continues to withhold its support from the school's educational mission. Less than 2% of its operating budget comes from the state, and because research dollars can't be used to support educational activities, tuition has increased to cover the shortfall. The average debt of CUs graduating students is now over $100,000 (although this is probably in line with the median debt of all public medical schools).*

I've posted about medical school tuition and debt before (1, 2). It is reasonable to assume that high med school debt makes primary care careers less attractive to new graduates relative to specialties like interventional cardiology (some studies cited here). Given that we all keep complaining about the rising costs of medical care, and that these costs are in part driven by an oversupply of high-cost specialist physicians relative to an undersupply of primary care doctors, high medical student debt should bother us.

The question we have to answer has never been whether or not to spend tax dollars on the public good called "physician training." Rather, the question is when should we pay, and how much. Right now, we've decided to pay later -- cutting funding for medical education up front and paying for the consequences of increased student debt at the end. We subsidize the medical care provided by high-cost specialists -- through medicaid, SCHIP programs, and tax breaks, among other things. We continue to contemplate some kind of national health care system. We fund loan-forgiveness programs for new graduates who elect primary care despite the relatively paltry incomes that these fields offer.

But we ought to wonder whether we might get a bigger bang for our buck if we paid more up-front to ensure that medical school tuition at public medical schools was reasonable. We might save a lot of money by eliminating the administrative waste that accompanies loan-forgiveness programs if new M.D.s didn't start out with staggering debt to begin with.

The letter I got from Dean Krugman says that a current student will call me soon to ask for my contribution to the school. I'm looking forward to talking with that student about some of these things, and about the new curriculum that (finally!) is in place at Colorado.

Here's some more materials about the debt issue from the AAMC.

* Jolly, P. Medical school tuition and young physician indebtedness. Health Aff. 2005; 24:527-35.

March 07, 2007

Barack Obama on the HLR

As you can see by the banner to the left, I'm excited about the possibility that Barack Obama might become the next President.

One reason that I like Obama is that he doesn't act like a partisan hack, even though he's clearly a forceful advocate for his positions. This comes through in the recollections of a former Harvard Law Review colleague (via Hugh Hewitt). When you consider how rare it is in the partisan blogosphere to read complementary pieces about one's ideological opponents, this one really stands out:

No doubt it’s a long, long road to The White House, even for politicians with significantly more experience than Illinois' junior senator. But many of the qualities that he manifested during our joint tenure on The Harvard Law Review help explain why so many enthusiastically contemplate the prospect that Barack Obama's journey to the Oval Office will be both a short and a successful one.

February 27, 2007

"assault" on corporate speech?

"Free speech" is universally acknowledged in this country to be a good thing, and it seems obvious that it is. Which probably explains why, when George Will wants to attack a proposed rule change making it easier for workers to join a union, he chooses to characterize the rule change that he doesn't like as an "assault on corporate speech." Will suggests by the accusation that the new rules would be un-American or vaguely unconstitutional, but the question for us is: is Will correct?

The House is scheduled to vote on a bill this week that would change the procedure for establishing unionized workplaces. Under the new rules, union representation would be established whenever a majority of workers sign a card declaring that they want a union. Currently, unionizing requires a formal secret-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

I'm far from understanding all the subtleties of these proposed rule changes, but suffice it to say that union organizers think the new procedures will make it easier to organize workers (which is why they support them), and employers agree (which is why they oppose them). There are many arguments that can be made for and against the rule changes -- many involve the extent to which workers would be exposed to pressure from either employers or from union organizers; others involve the benefits and costs to our economy that a more unionized workforce would entail. George Will, however, knowing the power that the idea of "free speech" has in our country, chooses to attack the rule change as an "assault on corporate speech."

We should be suspicious of Will's argument, for many of the same reasons that this sentence of Will's just sounds odd: "[McCain-Feingold's] speech restrictions -- applauded as virtuous by the (exempt) media -- have legitimized talk about "drawing lines" to circumscribe the speech rights of entire categories of Americans, in this case employers."

Employers -- the "category of Americans" that Will has in mind -- apparently includes not just Bob Smith down the block who owns a plumbing supply company, but also PepsiCo and Wal-Mart. It's reasonable to ask whether the virtues of free speech enjoyed by individual citizens and human beings are equally as virtuous when applied to behemoth corporations that are "persons" in a legal sense only. Corporations are constructs formed for the sole purpose of concentrating more capital in one place than any single human being could ever possess, are non-existent apart from the hundreds of thousands of individual human beings that invest in and are employed by the corporation (all of whom presumably have opinions of their own that cannot be said to be Pepsi's "opinions"), and are, to the extent that we can speak of them as single entities, single-mindedly devoted to the pursuit of monetary profit to an extent far greater than any of the real human beings that collectively make it up. You shouldn't expect to reason with a corporation in the same way that you can reason with a human being. You can't "persuade" it like you can persuade the individual who may be its CEO.

It's a simple point, really. It's why we can call the same words uttered by our neighbor Fritz "persuasion," but when they're uttered by the Government we call it "propaganda." One of the reasons Americans love free speech so much is precisely because we think that allowing individuals to voice their opinions protects us from the overbearing influence of messages delivered from on high -- usually by the government. The question is, is "corporate speech" in the context of union organizing more like government propaganda or more like discussing the issues of the day with the lady who waits tables at Bennigan's? George Will may have a good point about the union organizing rules, but his equation of "corporate speech" with free speech generally is much more suspect.

November 27, 2006

Economic thinking

It's hard to resist an article with a lead like this: "There’s a case to be made that the single most intellectually and politically influential neighborhood in the United States is Chicago’s Hyde Park."

And it's a strong case, too -- Hyde Park is home to the BonJour Cafe's delicious belgian rolls, which have been winning the whole world over with their yummy goodness. But this article, surprisingly, is really about the Chicago School of economic thought, which has made the world's elite its bitch.

Fortunately, this isn't another paean to the ideological yumminess of free markets. Instead, the author says, "[f]or Thomas Friedman (and, indeed, [University of Chicago economics professor] Allen Sanderson), people can’t “disagree” with neo-classical economics. They can only fail to understand it." Which is the pithiest way of criticizing the Chicago school that there is.

All in all, this is a good read. Even if I am tired as all get-out from a long ER shift, and with sore feet to boot.

September 12, 2006

There's something about Juan Cole

Don't get me wrong -- Juan Cole is certainly an interesting and provocative blogger. But the only reason I can see for this obsessive preoccupation with his job applications in the National Review Online is that Cole's criticism of the Bush administration's middle east policies have struck a nerve with some of the more unhinged Bush apologists.

Or maybe it's the accusations that a "neoconservative cabal" has it in for Cole that has struck a nerve.

Or, maybe, it's just that National Review Online has such shitty journalistic standards that Jonah Goldberg isn't the only hack that NRO will publish. Think about it: here's a whole article about how Cole's becoming one of the four finalists for a professorship at Duke, after a search that "stretched across disciplines," somehow entitles Cole's critics to an "apology."

How utterly bizarre.

August 30, 2006

Europe's Christian roots?

I read Without Roots alongside Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism because they seemed to exemplify two common responses to the problem of cultural intolerance and violence. Appiah's book describes the familiar liberal response: we can avoid violence by recognizing that most differences between people aren't as serious as they seem, and by treating the differences that remain as irrelevant to the practical problem of living together. The book by Pera and Ratzinger promised to argue for some version of the cultural conservative's response: stable toleration requires that we all recognize some fundamental "moral essence" of humanity; the Christian tradition of Europe recognizes this moral essence; therefore the foundations of a stable, nonviolent society must somehow embrace our Judeo-Christian roots.

I'm not very sympathetic to the accretions of right-wing opinion that cling to the religious traditionalists like barnacles, but on one point at least, they're more effective than the liberals. The conservatives say that there are moral values that we must recognize as universal and superior to all others. Otherwise, our efforts at peaceful toleration will allow hideous evil to flourish. Toleration based on relativism rather than on absolute moral standards cannot recognize the evil of regimes like Mao's or Stalin's.

Liberals, of course, recognize that murder can't be tolerated, much less genocide. The problem is that liberal arguments aren't usually very good at explaining why. A morally crippled person, reading Kwame Anthony Appiah's arguments, might easily fail to see why a society or regime like Stalin's ought to be one of the "losers" when it conflicts with a regime or society that prohibits torturing political opponents in gulags. Appiah certainly doesn't give compelling reasons; he simply says that there will be winners and losers when irreconcilable values conflict, and that the losers won't be happy about it. The closest Appiah comes to actually giving a reason is when he says that some values (like not hurting others) are actually shared almost universally; the defenders of Hitler are not very numerous. But even if this is empirically true, Appiah can't give a reason why it's a good thing that this is true.

The problem that most liberals face, no matter how morally upstanding they may be, is that reasoned arguments are the most subtle and difficult means of distinguishing good from evil. I don't know whether there's a philosophical consensus about whether it's even possible to reason about the concepts of good and evil without resorting to non-rational discourse, such as the language of faith. But one thing's for sure: it's much, much easier to talk about good and evil in the language of faith and religion than it is to talk about these things using rational arguments. That's why most people who aren't moral philosophers in fact look to things other than reason when they make judgments about morality. Something's evil because the Bible or the Koran or their priest or their mother says it is, or beause it just is, period. No reasoned arguments necessary (or possible?).

This is why the conservatives are more effective than most liberals, at least on this question. Joseph Ratzinger can explicitly appeal to faith in order to say "this, my friends, is evil." Appiah perhaps ought to do this too, but his attachment to reason and fear of un-reason lead him to make hand-wavy gestures at the point when he wants to argue that some things just shouldn't be tolerated.

Ok, so on that much I think Without Roots is a better book than Appiah's, because it's more straightforward and honest. But what about the rest?

Pera and Ratzinger: Saving the world by invading Iraq and outlawing gay marriage

Joseph Ratzinger is, of course, the Pope, but he wrote these materials when he was merely one of the most influential thinkers high up in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Pera is an Italian politician, and one of the most interesting things about this book is to see how Ratzinger keeps his distance from politics, preferring to discuss ideas and issues in the abstract or in historical terms, while Pera is more willing to apply these ideas to practical policies. This dynamic is fascinating. Ratzinger alone is very measured, interesting, and even compelling. One can't help but admire his historical knowledge, and his tone is scholarly and pleasant. It's easy to simply think along with Ratzinger, but when you read Pera's contributions, you can no longer be a curious spectator. With Pera, you have to declare yourself as an ally or an enemy. And since Ratzinger nowhere says that he disagrees with Pera and often claims to agree with him, you realize that if ideas have consequences you'd better be either for Ratzinger or against him.

Here's what Ratzinger says: the history of Europe is a long, slow process of moving religion out of the public sphere -- Ratzinger wants to bring it back. The initial moves of this long process were good ones. In the Western Roman Empire, temporal power was divided from spiritual power, with the former resting with kings and the latter resting with the Pope. This was good because human pride makes absolute power too dangerous. It's not clear where along the road to the modern secular state Ratzinger thinks Europe ran off the tracks, but he certainly thinks it has done so by now. Today, Ratzinger says, Europe's "broad Christian consensus" is threatened. The modern European state has succumbed to a "hollow" belief in technology and progress as a secular substitute for spiritual values. Totalitarianism and dictatorship remain a real threat because the relativism that permitted the regimes of Stalin and Hitler is stronger than ever.

The proper response to this sorry trajectory is to ensure that any future European Constitution protects fundamental human rights as "values that take precedence over the jurisdiction of any state." Modern abominations such as cloning, "trafficking in organs for transplants," and gay marriage would be stopped in their tracks.

I'm sympathetic to Ratzinger's worries about an unbounded faith in technological progress. And he's surely right that without some absolute moral values that limit the permissible uses of new technologies, we will again have to confront massive horrors of the sort that we saw in the 20th century. I'm thinking here about, you know, mass genocide and nuclear annihilation. That's why it's so lame to end, as too many conservative screeds against secularism do, by trotting out organ transplants and gay marriage as the sort of horrors that should motivate us to change essential aspects of modern state power. Unless you're a believer in a very particular interpretation of a very particular bit of religious scripture, the threat of gay marriage is not going to chill you to the core.

It only gets worse when you read Marcello Pera's pieces. As a practicing Italian politician sympathetic to Ratzinger's views, Pera allows himself greater license to talk about specific political controversies. The war in Iraq is the best example. Pera praises the Bush Doctrine generally as a shining example of what a leader with moral convictions can do, and he praises the invasion of Iraq specifically as something Bush and the U.S., but not the hollow and hopelessly secular European states, had the courage to do. If it's true that Ratzinger's brand of moral absolutism would be reliably translated by politicians like Pera into policies like George W. Bush's, then I know where I stand. I'm against it, full stop.

Kwame Anthony Appiah's liberalism leads him to belittle people's cultural and religious convictions, but Pera and Ratzinger's religious convictions lead them to all but explictly reject toleration. We can believe in whatever we want, so long as we submit to the authority of leaders espousing the Christian (and specifically Catholic) religion. What else can Ratzinger mean when he chooses such a particular "evil" as gay marriage to condemn? It would be fine if, like Appiah but without Appiah's hemming and hawing, Ratzinger had espoused absolute moral values that could at least pretend to be universal.

Reading both of these books, I get the sense that any solution to the toleration problem is a fine balance between Appiah's toleration and Ratzinger and Pera's convictions. But I'm not optimistic that any one author or theorist will get it right. If we manage to achieve it in practice, it's going to be because both sides check each other's excesses.

August 28, 2006

Heading west on vacation

For a blessed two weeks, I'll be away from the city that I love, namely Chicago, on vacation to the land that I love and the region that I call home, namely the American West. Colorado first, then California. Can't wait to feel that dry air again.

Since I've gotta catch some Zs before my flight tomorrow, I won't say much about this piece by Sebastian Mallaby. Save to say that I viscerally disagree with every last thing in it.

August 22, 2006

Fear of a Mexican planet

Daniel Larison's post sets out, clearly and pithily, the reasons why we should worry about Mexican immigration.

I've linked to it because I'm not worried about the Mexicans, and it's because I don't think any of Larison's reasons give cause for alarm.

  • Assimilation just isn't the problem Larison thinks it is. How exactly do we suffer if Mexicans remain "unassimilated?" i'm sure this doesn't hold true for Mr. Larison, but for many opponents of immigration, "assimilation" is a code word for not having to hear Spanish spoken on the street. One faces this problem in Europe, so it cannot be that this is a threat to our "European culture." What else can "assimilation" mean? That Mexicans won't soon be driving SUVs and shopping at WalMart like the rest of us? Even if this is true, which it isn't, both of these behaviors are salutary.
  • Mr. Larison fears that large numbers of Mexicans won't adopt the "habits of the natives." Well, in some cases, that would be a bad thing -- but only when those habits are good ones. For neutral habits, like the preference among 50-something whites of European heritage for lime-green Izod golf shirts, or bad habits, like the preference among native 20-somethings to sit on their ass all day complaining about how no employer worthy of their great talent will hire them, rather than going out and getting a job, the refusal of Mexicans to adopt the local habits will benefit our great Nation.
  • The most bizzare part of Mr. Larison's post, though, is its worries about democracy. I want to believe that it's saying this: that large numbers of immigrants unaccustomed to democracy threatens our own democratic traditions, which depend upon a cultural assumption that it's democracy or the highway. But it would be so much easier to read the post this way if there wasn't all that stuff in there about the new immigrants' self-interested preference for left-wing politics. If you're worried that the bill of rights and the protection of minorities will be trampled, that's one thing. But lovers of democracy, even "liberal democracy" (which I generously take to mean a democracy that preserves basic human rights), have nothing to fear from people of any background that prefer left-wing policies and candidates for office. The only people who have anything to fear from these are people that prefer right-wing policies. Don't try to misdescribe this as a fear for "liberal democracy."
  • Even if everything Mr. Larison says about Mexican immigrants were true, these threats pale against the threats to our democracy and culture from other sources. The chief among these being, of course, globalized trade, the de facto rule of multinational corporations, and the strictly industrialist mindset that goes with this. It wasn't Mexicans who deprived Ms. Kelo and the citizens of New London, Connecticut, of their private property. It was a state apparatus bent on catering to the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Show me a concrete case where Mexican immigrants have eroded our respect for private property as much, and I'll reconsider my criticisms.
Most of my friends who are sympathetic to my agrarian tendencies are also opponents of immigration from Mexico. Perhaps I'm dense, but I still fail to see any crisis here.

August 19, 2006

Ford loses by winning

One of the reasons why I haven't been blogging recently, I think, has to do with my apartment. Right now, it hasn't got a lot of furniture, and I don't have a lamp for the table where I usually sit to work with my computer. The place just doesn't feel like home yet, so I've been spending most of my non-working time in coffeeshops. It's just been easier to sit and read, rather than blog.

But I've got to say something about the announcement that Ford is cutting production in the face of what it insists are surprisingly high gasoline prices. Surprising? The NYT times article appropriately quotes an analyst who ridicules that notion: "they might say nobody could see it coming; well, nobody but everyone in the world." This talk of "surprisingly" high gas prices is pure CYA from Ford.

But the real point I'd like to make is this: Ford's competitive disadvantage in the market for fuel-efficient cars is in part a product of its own success at resisting government regulation. It was Ford, and the other American carmakers, who have fought tooth and nail against any increase in the corporate average fuel economy (or CAFE) standards, and who have gotten what they've asked for from the compliant administration of George W. Bush. Now that gas is over $3 a gallon (not a surprising thing), the market is eating Ford's gas-guzzling fleet of pickups and SUVs alive. Ford would probably be in a better competitive position vis-a-vis Toyota if the government had gotten serious about improving domestic fuel efficiency.

Frankly, I laugh when I read about Ford's troubles selling cars. The problem is, it's no laughing matter for Ford's workers, who ought to worry about layoffs like Ford should have worried about higher gas prices. And next time, hopefully, the industry's anti-regulation lobbying efforts won't be so successful.

June 11, 2006

The wacky academic right

Says Mark Schmitt at The Decembrist:

"On reading this, my first reaction was that if the academic left can be a little wacky and irresponsible, the academic right is wacky and despicable."

I ask, why "despicable?" Oh, yeah -- Jean Bethke Elshtain and Leon Kass think we should withhold the rights and privileges of marriage from gay people, but they can't come up with any good arguments for their position. So they use bad arguments instead.

I laughed especially hard when I read this in Section I of their "Princeton Principles":

The health of marriage is particularly important in a free society such as our own, which depends upon citizens to govern their private lives and rear their children responsibly, so as to limit the scope, size, and power of the state.

Reconciling a social conservatism with an avowed preference for limited government can get kind of tricky sometimes. If you want to rely on the state to use its coercive power against unwelcome cultural developments, then you're not asking to limit the scope, size, and power of the state. You're just hijacking state power for your own cultural and religious ends.

Elsewhere in their "Princeton Principles," these leading right-wing academics say this:

Marriage is under attack conceptually, in university communities and other intellectual centers of influence. To defend marriage will require confronting these attacks, assessing their arguments, and correcting them where necessary. We are persuaded that the case for marriage can be made and won at the level of reason.

By which you apparently mean, not at the level of religious faith and preaching. Well, reason tells me that you still don't understand that there's a difference between "attacking marriage" and defending gay marriage. Marriage between men and women is harmed by infidelity, lack of commitment, dishonesty, and all the other things we already know about and, sadly, already succumb to. Fight against those things, if you want. You only distract the public from these very real evils by trying and failing to build a case that gay marriage somehow harms marriage in the way that dishonesty and infidelity do.

Nothing you say in your "Principles" is sufficient to justify the gender distinctions you're so eager to make. You could be honest at this point and just admit that you simply believe, based on religious or on some other faith-based grounds, that man/woman marriage is the only way to go. But "reason"? Call me a skeptic. If this argument was based on reason, I have faith that you could have come up with some more persuasive arguments by now.

Robert G. Kaiser defends the press, convincingly

The Washington Post's Robert G. Kaiser asks an interesting question: "Why does The Washington Post willingly publish "classified" information affecting national security?"

His answers are entirely persuasive.

"Some readers ask us why the president's decisions on how best to protect the nation shouldn't govern us, and specifically our choices of what to publish. The answer is that in the American system of checks and balances, the president cannot be allowed to decide what the voters need to know to hold him accountable. A king may have such power, but the elected executive of a republic cannot, or we will have no more republic."

NYT editor Bill Keller probably agrees with most of Kaiser's nuanced but appropriately combative piece. Unfortunately, the evidence of Keller's good sense is cited by some right-wing watchdog groups as evidence of a "liberal bias" at the NYT.

Anti-fascist bias would perhaps be a better way to describe it.

June 08, 2006

Academic freedom?

Lindsay Beyerstein links to this interesting story about Juan Cole's near-appointment at Yale.

Net neutrality

This one might be worth writing your elected representatives. Not that they'd listen.

Congress is about to cast a historic vote on the future of the Internet. It will decide whether the Internet remains a free and open technology fostering innovation, economic growth and democratic communication, or instead becomes the property of cable and phone companies that can put toll booths at every on-ramp and exit on the information superhighway.

Here's a taste of what the world might look like if the cable and phone companies get their way. (Via The Health Care Blog.)

A bad idea: implied preemption of state law requirements for drug labels

Should drug manufacturers, assuming they meet all the labeling requirements imposed by the FDA, be subject to liability for failing to meet more extensive or different labeling requirments imposed by the states?

This article in the NEJM ($), criticizing the FDA's new labeling regulations, buries its most important paragraph deep in the middle of the piece:

The most troubling aspect of the FDA's new plan, however, has nothing to do with providing information to prescribers. In an unusual move after the end of a five-year period of comments on the initial rule, the agency used the passage of the new labeling regulations to quietly add a new section to its preamble that will make it extremely difficult for anyone to bring legal action against a drug manufacturer for harm caused by one of its products.

Whether you find this troubling or not will depend on what you think about the trustworthiness of the FDA and drug manufacturers, the appropriateness of private lawsuits in areas subject to extensive government regulation, and the relative role of state and federal law.

For years, the pharmaceutical industry had sought to pass legislation that would prohibit litigation over adverse effects as long as the medication was approved by the FDA; Congress has consistently rejected this idea. But after the comment period for the new labeling regulation had closed, language was added to the final rule stating that any FDA-approved label, "whether it be in the old or new format, preempts . . . decisions of a court of law for purposes of product liability litigation."

Drug manufacturers would love for Congress to explicitly preempt state laws governing drug labeling, but so far, Congress has chosen not to do so. There's nothing that explicitly prevents states from passing drug labeling laws that impose more extensive requirements on drug manufacturers than imposed by the FDA under the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

Usually when an industry wants federal preemption of state laws, but can't convince the Congress to go along, the industry relies on the doctrine of implied preemption to argue that courts should refuse to enforce state laws anyway. Their argument is that when Congress legislates extensively about a given subject, it has implicitly exercised its power to preempt state law. State legislation on the same subject, even if it doesn't actually conflict with federal requirements, would alter the federal regulatory regime in ways that Congress would never have intended.

This doctrine leaves the preemption decision to the courts. But federal agencies do influence the final decisions about implied preemption, and that's why this new language from the FDA is important. When courts are presented with the argument that federal law implicitly preempts state law, they will often grant some deference to the interpretation of that federal law by the agencies charged with implementing it. For example, if the FDA interprets the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to preempt state labeling requirements, it's more likely that a court will find that state law is preempted. That's why this part of the article is misleading:

Beginning at the end of this month, the new regulations would preempt nearly all action by patients in state courts against drug manufacturers for unanticipated injuries resulting from the use of their products. This immunity would apply even if a company failed to warn prescribers or patients adequately about a known risk, unless a patient could prove that the company intentionally committed fraud — a very hard test to meet.

The FDA's opinion about preemption isn't itself legally binding, but it does make it more likely that the courts will go along with drug manufacturers' preemption arguments.

Is any of this a good thing? There's a strong case to be made that in the absence of any state law to the contrary, a state jury shouldn't be able to hold a drug manufacturer liable for a "failure to warn" in a case where the manufacturer complied with FDA labeling requirements. The FDA does rely on clinical trial data to determine what warnings are appropriate. Its judgments shouldn't be routinely discarded by lay juries.

However, things are different when a state passes a specific law requiring warnings in addition to those imposed by the FDA. Contrary to what the FDA suggests, a drug's "safety" isn't something objectively inherent in the drug, and that can be objectively determined in scientific studies. Does a 1 in 5 chance of constipation make a drug unsafe? A 1 in 300 chance of a heart attack? Although the statistical likelihood of adverse side effects can be objectively measured, the safety of a drug is in the eye of the beholder. There's no reason why the FDA's decision that some risks are insignificant enough to be left off a warning label should prevent states from requiring that these risks be disclosed anyway. At least, not until the Congress decides to explicitly preempt state laws that require this additional disclosure.

The FDA argues that "State-law attempts to impose additional warnings can lead to labeling that does not accurately portray a product’s risks, thereby potentially discouraging safe and effective use of approved products or encouraging inappropriate use and undermining the objectives of the act." But this just amounts to an assertion that what's "appropriate," "safe," and "effective" is exclusively a matter for the FDA to decide -- and Congress hasn't explicitly given it this authority.

Implied preemption arguments should be approached skeptically, especially in cases where Congress has considered and declined to exercise its power to expressly preempt state law. The FDA's arguments for preemption should be treated even more skeptically, since they essentially restate the position of the drug manufacturers that has not succeeded in Congress.

The new regulations are here:

March 20, 2006

Al Gore, resurrected?

Ezra Klein's article asks the question.

Al Gore's Martin Luther King Day speech on executive power, Jan. 16, 2006:

Moreover, if the pattern of practice begun by this Administration is not challenged, it may well become a permanent part of the American system. Many conservatives have pointed out that granting unchecked power to this President means that the next President will have unchecked power as well. And the next President may be someone whose values and belief you do not trust. And this is why Republicans as well as Democrats should be concerned with what this President has done. If this President's attempt to dramatically expand executive power goes unquestioned, our constitutional design of checks and balances will be lost. And the next President or some future President will be able, in the name of national security, to restrict our liberties in a way the framers never would have thought possible.

Al Gore's keynote speech at the We Media conference, Oct. 5, 2005:

I came here today because I believe that American democracy is in grave danger. It is no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse. I know that I am not the only one who feels that something has gone basically and badly wrong in the way America's fabled "marketplace of ideas" now functions. How many of you, I wonder, have heard a friend or a family member in the last few years remark that it's almost as if America has entered "an alternate universe"?

Hillary Clinton, please note, isn't saying anything like this.

March 13, 2006

Trip to Emergency Department: $1870.56

The best way to learn about health care costs is to incur some yourself.

Two weeks ago I got sick from eating bad refried beans, so I went to the ER because I was dehydrated and couldn't stop vomiting. Today I got the bill. It's really amazing.

The folks there took good care of me. They gave me IV rehydration, three liters. They gave me some IV antiemetic meds so I would stop vomiting. They ran a few basic labs. They didn't overtreat me, by any stretch. No abdominal X-rays, no CT scans. No ultrasounds. No crazy labs looking for zebras like porphyria.

Today I got the bill: $1870.56. Ridiculous. Outrageous! But that isn't really the amazing thing.

Why is it ridiculous, apart from its sheer size? First of all, the itemization is insufficient. Take drugs, for example. There's a line for "pharmacy" (298.95), "drugs/detail code" ($91.98), and finally, "other rx services" ($117.00). I was looking forward to finding out how much the ondansetron would cost, but how can I tell from this? I remember how many doses of each drug I got, but how can I tell whether they made a mistake? Are they charging me for five doses instead of three?

I'd like to pay this bill, but not until I'm confident that it's correct. This skimpy information gives me no way to know if it's right or not.

The biggest single charge on the bill is "emergency room." $697.00. Did I incur that cost by just showing up and getting in line? Perhaps there's something to this argument about reducing costs by making them more transparent to patients. If patients know they'll be hit up for seven hundred dollars just by showing up at an ED, a lot of them might choose not to go at all. If people are deciding between going to a movie or going into the ED for some unnecessary medical care, this might be a good thing. But, contrary to the evident beliefs of some of the most reactionary opponents of universal coverage, I don't think many people are like this. I was reluctant to go to the ED, and I want to spend my career in one. Most people, I think, try to avoid the ED until they see no other alternative (which sometimes happens at 3 a.m., I admit). This bill is really huge (but that's still not the most amazing thing).

For the curious among you, here's the entire bill for a simple ED visit for nausea and vomiting:

Pharmacy $298.95
IV Solutions $215.31
Med-Sur Supplies $20.37
Sterile Supply $67.95
Laboratory $23.10
Lab/Chemistry $449.20
Lab/Hematology $140.30
Lab/Urology $49.40
Emerg Room $697.00
Drugs/Detail Code $91.98
Other Rx Svs $117.00

When I was treated, I put a deposit on my credit card. Thus, the last line:

Patient Payment - Thank You! $300.00

Thus, the total bill is $2170.56. Outrageous (but not the most amazing thing). The next step, of course, is to call the hospital to see if I can get a more itemized bill. I'll keep you posted.

But hey -- what's the most amazing thing about this bill? It's not that it's so big, although that's part of it.

The most amazing thing about this bill is that, even if I find no errors in my favor, and I can't get the hospital to come down at all, I'm still coming out at least even with where I would have been had I signed up for the school's insurance plan! Yep, that plan had an annual premium of about 2000 bucks. When you throw in the copay of about 50 bucks, I'd have still been up shit creek -- even with this trip to the ED -- had I signed up for the insurance. I made the judgment that I probably wouldn't incur medical bills this year beyond that, and even with this huge bill, I was right!

Lesson? For someone like me (who's lucky enough to be reasonably healthy) the only thing more outrageously expensive than medical care is medical insurance.

March 12, 2006

Censuring George W. Bush

What does it say about our country when we'll impeach a President for lying about getting blowjobs from an intern, but we won't even censure a President who illegally wiretaps Americans without a warrant? I think it says: the American people are acting like fools and idiots.

Sen. Russ Feingold's call for Congress to censure George W. Bush can't substitute for the investigation we're never going to get, but it is entirely appropriate. Too bad it'll never happen. Here's Feingold's press release.

Even if you agree that FISA ought to be amended to allow the President to do what he's been doing illegally -- if you agree with Bill Frist that we should "[support] the president of the United States as commander in chief who is out there fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and the people who have sworn — have sworn — to destroy Western civilization and all the families listening to us" -- George W. Bush still deserves to be censured.

People like Bill Frist who argue against censure aren't arguing just that warrantless wiretapping is appropriate. They're also arguing that the war against AlQaeda demands that we support George W. Bush's lawless behavior. That's absurd. In Frist's words, it's a "crazy political move." No President can be allowed to break the law with impunity. If Bush thought wireless wiretapping was essential after 9-11, he could have asked Congress for that authority. Given the restrictions of FISA, he need to ask Congress to change the law. Bush refused, and now we're going to let him get away with it without even a scolding.

Ambivalent Imbroglio's quick survey showing the highest percentage of respondents saying that we need Bush's spy program to make us safer, and Dan Froomkin's collection of reader comments about why so many Americans seem not to worry about the unchecked power Bush is claiming, suggest that Feingold's censure motion won't fly. It's depressing. Have we always been a nation so afraid? So enamored of the strongman at the top?

What if Tom Wolfe is wrong? What if we could go around saying that "the majority of the American people are fools, idiots, bumblers, hicks"? In a healthy democracy, where the citizens weren't fools and idiots, I would think that the people might actually appreciate being upbraided once in a while if they started bumbling. That's part of holding yourself to high standards, isn't it?

Even the best of us are fools every now and then. If our friends respect us, we hope they'll let us know when we are. The American people themselves surely aren't fools and hicks. But that doesn't mean they can't act foolishly, occasionally. Setting George W. Bush above the law is foolish, and we should say so. Feingold's censure motion deserves support from all of us, whether we think warrantless wiretapping is necessary or not.

February 23, 2006

Protectionism and national security

Via Prof. Bainbridge, Dan Oesterle distinguishes between national security and protectionism:

The argument against the Dubai acquisition is old fashioned protectionism in the guise of national security. National security is a legitimate concern and we should be able to block acquisitions in the name of national security but national security can also be a false front for raw protectionist sentiments. At issue here is, first, whether the national security concerns are legitimate and, second, the government's mechanism for deciding such cases [emphasis added].

When Prof. Oesterle asks whether the national security concerns are legitimate, he misses exactly half of the question. The other half, of course, is whether the protectionist concerns are legitimate. Oesterle seems to think that our national security is always consistent with global free trade, or at least that the two have nothing whatsoever to do with one another. But to assume that the sources of our goods and services and the way we distribute these goods and services among us is irrelevant to to national security is to define "national security" much too narrowly.

President Bush himself takes a larger view of national security when he acknowledges that our dependence on foreign oil should be resisted. His call for fighting our addiction to oil is a national security argument. But it's also, simultaneously, a "protectionist" argument. Unfettered global trade, unbalanced by any prudent "protectionism" whatsoever, threatens our national security by leaving us utterly dependent on others for necessary goods and services.

Wendell Berry asks the questions that Oesterle doesn't:

We thus are elaborating a direct and surely a dangerous contradiction between our militant nationalism and our espousal of the the international "free market" ideology. How are we going to defend our freedoms (this is a question both for militarists and for pacifists) when we must import our necessities form international suppliers who have no concern or respect for our freedoms? What would happen if in the course of a war of national defense we were to be cut off from our foreign sources of supply? What would happen if, in a war of national defense, military necessity required us to attack or blockade our foreign suppliers? We have already fought one enrgy war allegedly in national defense. If our present policies continue, we may face wars for other commodities: food or water or shoes or steel or textiles [The Failure of War (1999)].

February 10, 2006

Links to al-Qaeda

Everyone who reads Kevin Drum's blog knows that the former national intelligence officer responsible for the Middle East, Paul Pillar, has opened up a can of whoop-ass on the Bush administration in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. In a discussion of the intelligence about Saddam Hussein's relationship to Osama Bin-Laden, Pillar writes:

In the shadowy world of international terrorism, almost anyone can be "linked" to almost anyone else if enough effort is made to find evidence of casual contacts, the mentioning of names in the same breath, or indications of common travels or experiences. Even the most minimal and circumstantial data can be adduced as evidence of a "relationship," ignoring the important question of whether a given regime actually supports a given terrorist group and the fact that relationships can be competitive or distrustful rather than cooperative.

Substitute the word "regime" in the last sentence for "citizen" and I think this paragraph explains exactly why Bush's secret wiretapping is so dangerous. If the government can almost always come up with some evidence of a link between a target and a terrorist, it's all the more important that the executive branch not have the sole authority to determine what constitutes a "link". Without some kind of institutional check on the president's discretion to eavesdrop on American citizens "linked" to terrorists, he is free to do whatever he wants. That can't be right legally, and it certainly isn't right politically if we value a government with limited powers.

If the meek performance this week of the senators confronting Alberto Gonzales is any indication of the political opposition these days to Bush's assertion of unlimited power, it might be a while before we demand effective checks on the executive branch. We might have to wait for the scandal that is as inevitable as the sun rising in the east tomorrow morning -- the government abuse of its wiretapping powers to spy on domestic political opponents. When that day comes, I hope the Congress will muster the courage to pass a statute that sets limits on the president's power. Something like FISA should do the trick.

February 06, 2006

Good news

Canada to Shield 5 Million Forest Acres (NY Times)

Scientists say the agreement should preserve not only the few hundred spirit bears and other black bears, but also one of the highest concentrations of grizzly bears in North America as well as unique subspecies of goshawks, coastal wolves, Sitka blacktail deer and mountain goats.

"It's like a revolution," said Merran Smith, director of the British Columbia Coastal Program of Forest Ethics, an environmental group. "It's a new way of thinking about how you do forestry. It's about approaching business with a conservation motive up front, instead of an industrial approach to the forest. . . .

Because 15 feet of rain can fall in a year, the Great Bear has never suffered a major forest fire. That has allowed some of the tallest and oldest trees on earth to thrive, including cedars more than a thousand years old.

February 02, 2006


Cass Sunstein has an interesting post about what happened in Boulder and Colorado Springs when citizens got together in each city to deliberate about three controversial issues: affirmative action, a treaty to control global warming, and same-sex civil unions.

Basically, deliberation decreased diversity among the participants, and it increased their extremism. Citizens in Boulder became more liberal, and citizens in Colorado Springs became more conservative.

(Note: I read Sunstein's post to distract me from the paper I'm trying to write about Wendell Berry and liberalism, so I'm sure that's why the post made me think of . . . liberalism!)

These worrisome-at-first-glance results force us to interrogate our faith that deliberation is always a good thing. Are moderate positions at a deliberative disadvantage in comparison to extreme positions? Do people's pre-deliberation beliefs sometimes make deliberations more or less valuable? Is the "best" democratic political outcome more likely if we deliberate before voting, or if we're just polled without a lot of discussion amongst ourselves?

We still need a lot of clarification about just what the experiment measured (E.g., how was "extremism" defined?) Already though, it prods us to think about the "ought" and the "is" of liberal democratic theory. We sometimes talk about liberalism, in which autonomous agents deliberate with each other in freely-chosen associations, as both an idealized picture of the way society ought to be, and as a description of the way real democracies actually operate. We ought to act this way (some liberals say) because it's the best way we have of finding the most legitimate or the "truest" answers without violence and bloodshed, and we in fact operate this way (some other liberals say) because citizens actually do limit their deliberative appeals to "public reasons."

If the deliberation in this experiment were indeed of the liberal sort, does the fact that they promoted extremism count as an argument against the value of liberal deliberation? If these deliberations didn't conform to the liberal ideal, how anomalous are they? Does this experiment suggest that we simply don't deliberate reasonably as often as some liberals think we do?

(Ok; back to Wendell Berry...)

January 30, 2006

Shine the "lamp of experience" on Sept. 11

As George W. Bush prepares his State of the Union address, in which he is certain to try to frighten us into capitulating to his grab for unchecked power by recalling September 11, Joseph Ellis is aking the right questions:

My first question: where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic.

Here is my version of the top tier: the War for Independence, where defeat meant no United States of America; the War of 1812, when the national capital was burned to the ground; the Civil War, which threatened the survival of the Union; World War II, which represented a totalitarian threat to democracy and capitalism; the cold war, most specifically the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made nuclear annihilation a distinct possibility.

Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so.

One of the most serious failures of our political leaders after 9-11 has been the failure to debate, honestly, the actual scope of the threat posed by terrorists. George W. Bush's apocalyptically insists that AlQaeda poses an existential threat. The Democrats either agree with him, or refuse to talk about terrorists at all.

The choice for most citizens becomes: vote for Bush and risk dictatorship, or vote for the Democrats and hope they remember that terrorists do exist. Someone in Washington should have been making Joseph Ellis' arguments a long time ago. Will Tim Kaine do it tomorrow in the Democratic response to the SOTU? Let's hope that he does.

Colorado: epicenter of espionage

William Arkin reports in the Washington Post that the Denver suburb of Aurora is becoming a hotbed for national espionage:

NSA is aligning its growing domestic eavesdropping operations -- what the administration calls "terrorist warning" in its current PR campaign -- with military homeland defense organizations, as well as the CIA's new domestic operations [in] Colorado.

Translation: Hey Congress, Colorado is now the American epicenter for national domestic spying.

One of the comments on Arkin's post suggests that Colorado Springs (the city where I grew up) is getting a piece of the action, too. Yippee.

January 28, 2006

Spineless democrats?

I'm not a huge fan of blogs like the Daily Kos for the same reasons that I'm not a fan of Instapundit or Hugh Hewitt. All of these rabidly partisan blogs bury their occasional good points in so much poisonous invective that it isn't worth it.

That said, count me as firmly in the camp of the radical lefty blogs when it comes to berating the spineless Democrats who won't stand up to George W. Bush. The saddest thing about the last five years isn't Bush pushing so hard for one asinine and dangerous policy after the other, it's the lack of any firm opposition from elected "leaders" who have abdicated their responsibilities.

January 24, 2006

Vulgar Libertarianism skewered

Provoked, I guess, by another "hard-nosed quasilibertarian policy analysis" that includes unsurprising language like this:

"Mr Saletan seems to be ignoring a very basic question, implied by his own statement that half of all terminated pregnancies occur in women who weren't using any protection: why are so many people engaging in behaviour that they have been repeatedly told will lead to an unwanted pregnancy? Especially when there are cheap and effective prophylactics at the nearest drugstore? Answer: because it's not very costly to do so."

Peter Northup serves up this gem.

Doctors need a political clue

Ask any physician if there's something about the health care system that's broken, and you're likely to get an earful. Malpractice law usually heads the list, followed closely by declining reimbursement and intrusion by insurers and regulators into the doctor/patient relationship. All of these issues are so irritating for doctors in part because they can't be solved by physicians alone. Solving any one of them will involve going up against non-physician interest groups -- insurers, regulators, and trial lawyers -- that have their own ideas of what's best for the public and for themselves. In other words, doctors are going to have to fight and win some political battles.

This, by itself, is why doctors should unilaterally stop accepting all gifts from drug companies and medical device manufacturers.

Forget about whether it's legal. Forget about whether there are some vaguely plausible arguments that consulting fees and free lunches are harmless. Doctors need to convince the public that they, and not the insurers, bureaucrats, and trial lawyers, are the "real" patient advocates. They can't go on assuming that the public will trust physicians more than they will anyone else. Those days, if they ever existed, are long gone.

Because doctors won't stop playing footsie with gift-giving corporations, the public can read about how Medtronic "paid" $400,000 to one surgeon for eight days of "consulting work." They can read about how medical students are "acculturated" to accept gifts from drug companies, and about how "80% [of medical students] said they were entitled to these gifts because of financial hardship." (Here's the JAMA link, for those with a subscription.) Regardless of the propriety of these gifts, doctors can't just assume that patients and the public are going to buy their long-winded defenses of these kinds of lucrative relationships. When physicians are quoted in the newspaper defending questionable practices along with the deeply-distrusted pharmaceutical industry, they're digging themselves a deep political hole. People start to think their doctors are greedily chasing the money like everyone else.

Once we realize that we've got some important political battles to fight, physicians might be more inclined to come down hard on any behaviors that even smell funny. What would help doctors politically more than anything else is if the public could read about how the AMA and their state medical society were enthusiastically supporting a ban on accepting gifts from industry. Sadly, one of the authors of this article is quoted as saying he thinks "it's not very likely" that doctors will endorse the proposal.

I'm sure most doctors agree the consulting fees and the trips to the strip club aren't worth the hassles of a malpractice system that doesn't compensate injured patients or punish negligent doctors. The problem is that physicians don't seem to realize that these two issues are connected. But we're in the realm of politics, baby, and that means that trust is everything. Perhaps more than anything else, doctors must fight to earn the public's trust. Doctors, here's some political advice: get a clue. Stop accepting drug company gifts; make even the suggestion of improper influence manifestly absurd. You might have a chance to recover your leadership role in healtcare debates.

January 23, 2006

Taking risks for $73 million

This article, apart from its interesting discussion of the windfall profits that the Iraq war has bestowed on some pretty sleazy people, contains the following gem of a paragraph:

"The American economic system rewards those who take great risks with commensurate benefits," Mr. Rubin said of Mr. Brooks's stock sales and compensation [$73.3 million in 2004]. "The compensation Mr. Brooks received is directly attributable to the risk he undertook in aiding the capitalization of DHB and achieving extraordinary results for the company."

This is certainly the knee-jerk thing to say, but let's actually ask ourselves: do successful entrepreneurs "deserve" the piles and piles of money that they make because they "take risks?" Is it right that our economic system should reward "risk" so handsomely?

These are question that'll get me branded as a socialist kook. But before I go ahead and ask anyway, let's get at least one thing straight. The absence of any moral entitlement to such huge amounts of wealth wouldn't, by itself, be a sufficient reason to abandon our current economic system. Even if our super-rich don't deserve what they get, we could easily decide that any alternatives to our current system are less desirable than the status quo. Maybe they're all too impractical, or too risky, or just too dull and boring.

But it does seem a little strange that investing your money in a business that becomes successful somehow entitles you to such huge financial rewards. For one thing, this investment activity isn't anywhere near as "risky" as many other risks people take but which don't offer equivalent financial rewards. A soldier risks his life to defend his country, but our economic system doesn't reward him. A worker on a crab fishing boat risks his fingers, and sometimes his life, to do his job, but he'll never make $73 million a year catching crabs. If a mother goes without health insurance so she can provide for her children, her risks won't ever be rewarded with a financial windfall.

The risks that many entrepreneurs take are valuable, but are they so much more valuable than these other kinds of risks? They're certainly not more altruistic. The entrepreneur risks his money because he wants to get rich (he's 'incentivized'). These other kinds of risk-takers do it for the sake of someone else, or they do it because they don't have too many other options. From a moral perspective, it seems weird that the entrepreneur among all these people should deserve to take home so much more bacon than everyone else.

So what does it say about our economic system when its biggest winners don't always seem to be the most worthy? One thing I think it says is that "dessert" "desert" in a moral sense is actually pretty irrelevant. Some rich CEOs are fine people; others are complete jerks. None of that matters, one way or the other, for economic success. A capitalist economy just doesn't care.

Maybe that's a good thing. Non-capitalist economic systems that have tried to explicitly reward the most moral people have had to wrestle with the tough question of who's the most deserving. In practice, that usually ended up being the guy who ran the army or controlled the most effective assassins. I don't think it's easy for human beings to consciously decide who 'deserves' to have the most money, and the downside risks of even trying it are huge.

But let's cut the crap: next time some office-supply store owner starts feeding you the line about entrepreneurs "deserving" so much money because of the "risks" they've taken, think about the guys getting shot at in Iraq. We let the entrepreneurs keep their $73 million not because it's the most 'moral' thing to do, but because it'd be too dangerous to try to reallocate the money to the people who really deserve it.

Taxes are not, despite zealous protestations to the contrary, a reallocation. Only progressive taxation can even pretend to be, and none of that (in the U.S. at least) ever rearranges the hierarchy of financial winners and losers. Taxes simply allow for the state to pay for common expenses, and while we can argue about what these expenses should be, no one but a kook would say that they don't exist.

Southern baptist Jimmy Carter attacks the fundamentalists

My dad gave me the heads up about Jimmy Carter's new book a few months ago. Now, Garry Wills reviews Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis:

Carter is a patriot. He lists all the things that Americans have to be proud of. That is why he is so concerned that we are squandering our treasures, moral even more than economic. He has come to the defense of our national values, which he finds endangered. He proves that a devout Christian does not need to be a fundamentalist or fanatic, any more than a patriotic American has to be punitive, narrow, and self-righteous. He defends the separation of church and state because he sees with nuanced precision the interactions of faith, morality, politics, and pragmatism. That is a combination that once was not rare, but is becoming more so. We need a voice from the not-so-distant past, and this quiet voice strikes just the right notes.

(Via political theory daily review.)

January 21, 2006

Evangelical dissent?

Here's an interesting opinion piece from a self-described evangelical:

"The single common theme among the war sermons appeared to be this: our president is a real brother in Christ, and because he has discerned that God's will is for our nation to be at war against Iraq, we shall gloriously comply."
. . .

"What will it take for evangelicals in the United States to recognize our mistaken loyalty? We have increasingly isolated ourselves from the shared faith of the global Church, and there is no denying that our Faustian bargain for access and power has undermined the credibility of our moral and evangelistic witness in the world."


January 20, 2006

DOJ thuggery

Anthony Rickey has a nice post on the Justice Department's Google subpoena, its "thuggishness," and its "obsession with Project: No Child Sees A Behind."

I think this is the week that everyone should do a few Google searches for "Attorney General Gonzales is an asshat."*


* Mr. Rickey, of course, bears no responsibility whatsoever for my brilliant ideas.

January 19, 2006

How much is too much?

Perhaps meaning to reassure those of us who still believe that separation of powers is a good idea, Vice President Dick Cheney had this to say about the warrantless domestic wiretapping that his administration insists is lawful:

"The entire program undergoes a thorough review within the executive branch every 45 days. After each review, the president determines once again whether or not to reauthorize the program. He has done so more than 30 times since Sept. 11, and he has indicated his intent to do so as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from Al Qaeda and related organizations."

According to Cheney, we don't need to worry about all this secret exercise of power because the President reviews his own decisions regularly.

Forgive me if I remain suspicious. Apart from the fact that this kind of unilateral declaration of unfettered authority by any president would be frightening, this isn't just any president -- it's George W. Bush. If he's anything, Bush is unreflective and unrepentant, two qualities that in many cases are fine ones for a leader to possess, but aren't exactly what you want in a leader with unchecked power.

It's also not very reassuring to know that the review of these secret wiretaps is being conducted by an administration that would compel a retired Army colonel with as much experience in government as Larry Wilkerson to say:

"This is really a very inept administration. As a teacher who's studied every administration since 1945, I think this is probably the worst ineptitude in governance, decision-making and leadership I've seen in 50-plus years. You've got to go back and think about that. That includes the Bay of Pigs, that includes -- oh my God, Vietnam. That includes Iran-contra, Watergate."

Hugh Hewitt says a lot in favor of Presidential authority to disregard FISA and make stuff up in the name of national security. It seems to me that the problem with Hewitt's position (and all of Bush's apologists) is that he a) mischaracterizes the threat to the United States from Al Qaeda as an imminently existential one that puts our very existence as a nation in jeopardy (which is just hogwash), and b) fails to see that the kind of power Bush is claiming for himself is incompatible with a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances. Nothing and no one can ever check the President when national security is offered up as an excuse.

If I misunderstand Hewitt, would someone please let me know where he thinks the limits on Presidential power lie? Surely he'd be in favor of some limits--just in case the mob should go crazy and actually elect President Hillary Clinton.

The argument that the NSA wireless wiretapping is illegal is much more persuasive. The Bush administration has fired back with a 42-page "white paper" defending itself. Should be a good source of blog fodder for weeks.

Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden is rattling the sabers again. We should of course protect ourselves. Of course, we should destroy Al Qaeda. Also, of course, we shouldn't let these terrorists frighten us into giving up our system of government checks and balances that helps to protect us from domestic tyranny. Sadly, we are well on our way to letting them do just this.

January 16, 2006

Reggie Rivers lays it down

Colorado Luis links to this opinion piece by former Denver Bronco Reggie Rivers, and suggests that Rivers ought to have a wider audience. Based on this piece, I agree.

I remember hearing Rivers on KOA a couple of times, which is weird considering that I never listen to talk radio. I probably remember Rivers because he seemed bizarrely intelligent for AM radio.

January 14, 2006

Americans get what they said they wanted

This article from the New York Times talks a lot about the disappointment among Democrats that Samuel Alito will probably be confirmed. It quotes a bunch of Democratic leaders who question the strategies that failed to block Alito, and who bemoan the difficulty of building opposition to this far-right nominee.

But let's not forget that things are working just as they're supposed to in a democracy. The American people may not have elected George W. Bush the first time, but they certainly chose to re-elect him. Now, they're getting what they asked for.

Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill) gives us the bottom-line: "If you don't like it, you better win elections." The Democrats haven't won the important elections. The people are responsible for putting Republicans in charge of all three branches of the federal government. Now, it's time for the people to live with the consequences of their choice.

January 13, 2006

Legislative mugging? Not by a long shot.

When a state or city government decides to give a big corporation a tax break in order to persuade it to relocate, everyone yawns. When the Maryland legislature votes to require Wal-Mart to spend more on health care for its workers, it's immediately accused of "legislative mugging" by none other than the Washington Post. Something's wrong with this picture.

If it's OK for a government to hand out goodies to a specific corporation, then why isn't it OK for the government to impose burdens on a specific corporation? If one is acceptable, than the other should be also. Even better: if one is bad, than the other is too.

As an aside, the Maryland legislature in this case hasn't even singled out Wal-Mart. It voted today to override Gov. Ehrlich's veto of legislation that would require all employers with more than 10,000 employees in Maryland to spend 8% of its payroll on health benefits for its workers or compensate the State. As it happens, of the four employers that are subject to the requirements, only Wal-Mart does not currently meet them. So, yes, only Wal-Mart will have to scramble to comply with the new law, but it's not "unfair and overbearing," and it's certainly not specific to Wal-Mart. As critics of the bill have pointed out, Wal-Mart is free to avoid the requirements by reducing their workforce in Maryland to fewer than 10,000 people. That's the difference between this bill and one that says "Wal-Mart shall. . . ."

But -- to get back to my main point -- even if the bill had targeted Wal-Mart, I fail to see the difference between this and a decision by the state of Michigan to give company-specific tax breaks to Delphi and Visteon. Both measures are corporation-specific. Both, say the politicians, are for the benefit of their respective states. The only difference is that in one case, a specific corporation is subject to special burdens, while in the other it's given special exemptions from burdens. Either both are OK, or they're both not.

Any legislative action that singles out a specific company is a bad idea. It blatantly violates the ideal of equal treatment under the law, and it invites corruption when the legislature gets into the business of handing out special goodies or dispensing special punishments. So I'd prefer not to see any company-specific legislation. But it's even worse when corporations take their yummy tax breaks and then complain about special requirements.

I'd like to say that the corporations can't have it both ways, but in this country, they often do.

November 21, 2005

The war on what?

Commenting on "the generally unhinged condition of political discourse in America", Brian Leiter nails the bullseye:

One really can't repeat this often enough: there is no "war on terror," not only because you can't wage war on a technique, but because there is no single agent of terrorism motivated by a unitary set of concerns. The whole "war on terror" is a fraud, and anyone who speaks of such a fake war should be laughed out of serious society. [Emphasis in original.]

This is about as non-partisan a bit of common sense as you'll find. That so few people on both the left and right acknowledge it is scary. What happens to a democracy when "we the People" are all out to lunch? We're finding out day by day.

(I don't think Leiter's quite as effective when he describes Bush's characterization of the "enemy" as "a construct worthy of Tolkien." Tolkien's fiction was magisterial, at once awesomely imaginative and profoundly relevant. Bush's fantasy stories, in contrast, are much more pedestrian -- on the level of, say, Sara Douglass' weaker novels. . . .)

Immigration and the farm economy in Fresno

Many of the problems with poverty and immigration I brought up in my last post are exemplified by Fresno, California.

This article in the Washington Post describes the poverty in a city which just happens to be surrounded by "the richest farmland in the world."

. . . Fresno is still, in many ways, a farm town. The city's dominant industry, agriculture, depends on a cheap, seasonal work force that keeps renewing itself as successive new waves of immigrants arrive.
. . . .

But, [the mayor] said, illegal immigration is perhaps the greatest challenge to Fresno. "We're going to have to secure the border, he said, "reform the illegal immigration system and create a plan that addresses the 4.5 million immigrants in California that doesn't involve amnesty or sending them back."

I'm curious about a few things. First, why does the agricultural sector "depend" on low-wage labor in the middle of the richest farmland in america? Is it because food prices are so low that even the best farmland in the world won't produce enough money to pay farm laborers a decent wage and still generate a profit? Is there no attempt to enforce a decent minimum wage in the agricultural sector? If not, why not?

Who owns this "richest farmland in the world"? Are these owners local residents who depend on Fresno for their shopping and entertainment, and who would suffer along with the rest of the city if the economy there deteriorates? Do the owners of this farmland spend their profits locally?

Who buys the crops that the land around Fresno produces? Is there a vigorous market for these crops, or are there only one or two big corporate purchasers (think ADM or Cargill) that can use their market power to depress prices?

Who eventually consumes these crops? Local residents? People in Brazil? Cows? Is the government paying any subsidies to the growers in order to keep prices low?

The effects on poverty of keeping illegal immigrants out of Fresno would seem to depend on the answers to some of these questions. If the entire agricultural economy of the Central Valley is set up to keep agricultural prices as low as possible, and if the distribution of farm income is tilted too steeply towards non-local corporate landowners and purchasers, then the city of Fresno is going to be poor regardless of whether we seal our borders or not.

But no one's talking about these issues. Instead, the only suggestions for reform are coming from politicians like Tom Tancredo, whose solution is simply to get rid of immigrants by whatever means necessary. In the absence of any alternatives, it's easy to understand why the people of Fresno would sign on to that agenda.

(Update: The LA Times has this article on Fresno's "brain drain.")

November 20, 2005

Tom Tancredo's latest crusade

Especially now that Bill Owens has redeemed himself, Colorado's most embarrassing politician is unquestionably Tom Tancredo. Tancredo's schtick is stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment, and he's been doing it long enough now that he can plausibly claim to be the leader of the anti-immigrant loony fringe in Washington. His latest project? End birthright citizenship in the United States.

Prof. Bainbridge, as usual, has some worthwhile links.

Tancredo may be a demogogue, but his schtick works because he's one of the only politicians (now that Pat Buchanan has receded from the limelight) that speak to the economic worries of the working class. Unfortunately, the silence of the Democratic party on these issues leaves the field wide open for Tancredo and his ilk: right-wing xenophobes.

I'm reminded of a passage from Richard Rorty's book Achieving Our Country:

Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and uonroganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers -- themselves desperately afraid of being downsized -- are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that something has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for -- someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.

[Here follows a reference to Hitler, racism, and wars of adventure.]

People will wonder whey there was so little resistance to [the strongman's] evitable rise. Where, they will ask, was the American Left? Why was it only rightists like Buchanan who spoke to the workers about the consequences of globalization?

Although this reflexive fear of fascism may mark Rorty as among the loony left fringe, his (and Luttwak's) point is still a good one. People like Tancredo's anti-immigrant message because they're afraid of the bottom falling out. Their fears are rational. The Democrats, infatuated with the pro-free-trade policies of the Clinton administration, will do only marginally better than the pro-corporate right to blunt the impact of globalization on the working class.

Tancredo may be embarrassing, but he's riding a powerful political wave. It's too bad the Democrats don't seem very worried.

November 17, 2005

A long-delayed debate about Iraq

Rep. Murtha's news conference today advocating an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and the response by several republican members of the House, is exactly the kind of argument that should have happened a long time ago.

Here's some of what the two sides disagree about:

1. The effect of our occupation of Iraq on the risk of terrorism:

Murtha thinks the occupation of iraq is increasing the risk of terrorism; republicans think it's "keep[ing] the insurgents in the war against terror off balance." Murtha thinks the risk of terrorism has increased; republicans think the four years since 9-11 without terrorism has been because of military actions in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

2. The nature of a "free" Iraq:

Murtha thinks Iraq will be free only when the American occupation ends; republicans think our military is currently "delivering" freedom to Iraq and (coincidentally?) "delivering a nation that will be, instead of an enemy of the United States, a friend of the United States."

3. The nature of the mission:

Murtha thinks we've done our job by getting rid of Saddam. Republicans think the job isn't done yet.

Some republicans think the mission is to set up a government in Iraq that won't abuse its people. Bob Beauprez and Dan Lungren think that leaving now would be to abandon the Iraqis to a tyrannical government, just like we abandoned the Hmong and the Vietnamese.

Other republicans seem to think the mission goes way beyond that. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen thinks our military should provide "democracy, freedom, hope, the rule of law and true governance to [Iraq]." Duncan Hunter believes that "if we don't change the world, the world is going to change us." Tom Tancredo seems to think that the mission is the "spread of a wonderful idea throughout the world, and that is freedom. It's just possible that we can do this. And I am willing to take the risk. . . ."

4. The nature of dissent:

Geoff Davis from Kentucky says "the liberal leadership have . . . cooperated with our enemies and are emboldening our enemies." Murtha and most other critics of the war disagree.

5. How to characterize an immediate withdrawal from Iraq:

Murtha thinks a withdrawal is a wise tactical decision that strengthens America. Republicans think pulling out of Iraq now is surrender, which of course it is if you agree with their characterization of the mission.

Murtha sees withdrawal as a way to avoid more useless casualties. Some republicans think a withdrawal would mean that our troops that have already died will have died in vain.

6. The nature of our enemies in Iraq:

Murtha thinks most of our enemies in Iraq are simply Iraqis who want to end the occupation of their country. Many republicans think that our enemies in Iraq have much larger goals. Louie Gohmert says: "our enemies over there, those who would destroy freedom and our way of life. . . ." Jean Schmidt says: "The big picture is that these Islamic insurgents want to destroy us. They don't like us. They don't like us because we're black, we're white, we're Christian, we're Jew, we're educated, we're free, we're not Islamic. We can never be Islamic because we were not born Islamic. Now, this isn't the Islamic citizens. These are the insurgents. And it is their desire for us to leave so they can take over the whole Middle East and then take over the world."

7. Our success so far:

Both agree that getting rid of Saddam was a success. David Drier thinks that the multi-party elections in Egypt are a "ripple effect" of our war in Iraq, although it's not clear whether he thinks this is because we toppled Saddam, because we've continued to occupy Iraq, or both.

Murtha thinks that our reconstructive efforts have failed, and that the only way to achieve that goal is to pull out our troops. John Carter thinks we're "on the verge of success."

I agree with Murtha on almost every point. I don't need to say much about the irresponsible accusation that the liberal leaders who advocate a pullout are "cooperating" with our enemies. Emboldening them, maybe, but even then the issue is what's in America's best interest, and emboldening a few enemies may or may not be in our best interest depending on which enemies we're talking about and how exactly we're emboldening them. As usual, the republicans aren't making these distinctions because they don't recognize them.

Overall, their arguments are very sloppy. They too easily confuse the Iraqi insurgents with the al Qaeda terrorists. Even in the case of al Qaeda, but especially in the case of the insurgents, the Republican description of our foes' goals seems wildly exaggerated.

I also disagree with the republicans about the kinds of changes that military force is capable of making. They seem to think that the military can establish freedom and democracy everywhere. Even if the United States were capable of this, which I doubt that it is, I don't believe we can do it by invading and continuing to occupy countries like Iraq. Like Murtha, I think sometimes we can only effect positive change by withdrawing our troops and relying on diplomacy. In Iraq, now is one of those times.

One issue where I agree with the republicans is our obligation not to abandon the Iraqi people to a tyrannical government. Regardless of whether we should have invaded in the first place, we're there in Iraq now, and it's our responsibility to see that we leave the country's people better off than when we invaded. But I'm not at all certain that Murtha isn't right that pulling our troops out might reduce the violence suffered by the Iraqis. It's a close call, but there's a limit to how long we should be prepared to wait for continued military occupation to work. I'm not sure that we've waited long enough, but I'm not as sanguine as the republicans seem to be that all we need is a little more time.

November 10, 2005

Creed or Culture?

Via Political Theory Daily Review, this fascinating essay asks: what's really at the root of our national identity?

Yet the patriotism of indignation and fear can only go so far. When the threat recedes, when the malefactor has been punished, the sentiment cools. Unless we know what about our national identity ought to command admiration and love, we are left at our enemies' mercy. We pay them the supreme and undeserved compliment of letting them define us, even if indirectly. Unsure of our national identity, we are left uncertain of our national interests too; now even the war brought on by 9/11 seems strangely indefinite.
The author attacks the idea (which he attributes to Samuel Huntington) that the culture of Anglo-Protestantism is the "dominant strain of [our] national identity." He argues instead that our "ideology" or "creed" (universal principles such as those of the Declaration of Independence) is much more fundamental.

I think the essay's criticism of culture-centrics like Huntington is right. (Nick R., is this where we disagree?)

I do quibble with the author about what, exactly, the American creed consists of, but I'm much more comfortable with these disagreements about creed than I am with Huntington's elevation of culture as the most important element of our national identity. That road, I think, inevitably leads to the doorstep of racism, xenophobia, fascism, and all the other evils I've ever accused Pat Buchanan of flirting with.

Honoring Ted Stevens

The Washington Post's Richard Cohen has a good idea:

Stevens may be the first senator to equate pork with honor. A statue should be raised to him. . . .

A man feeding pigs is what I have in mind.

November 06, 2005

The fate of Bill Owens

For the Republican party, the fate of Colorado governor Bill Owens comes as the footsteps of doom.

Many of us, regardless of whether we tend to lean left or right, are becoming convinced that the biggest problem with George W. Bush is that he's simply incompetent. But what if Bush isn't an anomaly? Colorado governor Bill Owens' recent fall from grace suggests that the GOP might actually be selecting for incompetence in the name of ideological purity.

As Mark Schmitt writes, Owens' decision to buck the party's kingmakers for the sake of responsible government has sunk his presidential chances. Those kingmakers, such as Grover Norquist, were touting Owens as one of the best governors in America just a few years ago. But when Owens' was compelled by a combination of factors to campaign for a pragmatic revision of Colorado's TABOR amendment (the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights), the big players in Washington interpreted it as a betrayal. By supporting Referendum C, which allowed the state to keep tax revenues that TABOR would otherwise have required it to refund to taxpayers, Owens violated the ideological mantra of the GOP's national leaders: tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts.

That the GOP leadership would write Owens off for this "betrayal" demonstrates how ideologically extreme they've become. Referendum C was passed, 52 to 48 percent, by voters that favored Bob Dole in 1996 and went for George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004. Colorado isn't Utah, but it isn't Massachusetts either. Owens' popularity in Colorado -- he was re-elected in 2004 by the greatest margin in Colorado history after the National Review dubbed him the "best Governor in America" -- is itself a demonstration of Coloradans' desire for small government and fiscal responsibility.

This concern for fiscal responsibility was what put Referendum C over the top. Most people who looked at the details knew that this wasn't a license for big-government spending. It was a reasonable way to ensure that state government would continue to be lean and effective, instead of just starved and impotent.

Bill Owens supported Referendum C for good reasons. Unfortunately for Owens, though, that support revealed him to be a competent governor, not an ideological zealot. It bodes ill for the national GOP that Owens' prospects for the Presidential nomination lasted only as long as the party leadership believed he was a wingnut.

November 02, 2005

Colorado voters reject extremism

Lessons from yesterday's elections in Colorado:

  • Colorado's citizens prefer pragmatism over zealotry, as they demonstrated by embracing the pragmatic Referendum C and rejecting the ideological extremism of C's opponents.
  • By defeating Referendum D, these pragmatic voters demonstrated that they can reject Doug Bruce-style wingnuttery and still support a lean, fiscally responsible government.
  • Governor Bill Owens has redeemed himself. Supporting C for the good of his own state cost him the support of influential right-wing ideologues in Washington, many of whom are capable of vetoing a Republican presidential aspirant. Owens deserves respect for his courage.
  • John Caldara may be right that his Independence Institute was not required by law to reveal the names of its big out-of-state donors. But his screeching about the importance of preserving their anonymity might have hurt his political cause. At least we can hope so.

UPDATE: Prof. Bainbridge isn't willing to cut Gov. Owens any slack. His post exemplifies the ideological thoughtlessness of people like Grover Norquist who have never had to shoulder the responsibilities of governing.

Bainbridge is one of my favorite conservative bloggers because he's ordinarily willing to look behind simple-minded slogans. This time around he's parroting the slogans himself (as most of his commenters have noted).

November 01, 2005

Rule 21: The Senate showing some signs of life

Kudos to Harry Reid and Dick Durbin for invoking the rarely-used Rule 21 to take the Senate into closed session today. It's been so long since the Democrats showed any backbone that we've all forgotten what it's like:

The Senate's Democratic leader, Harry M. Reid of Nevada, initiated the closed session by invoking Rule 21, which was seconded by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the minority whip. In a floor speech, Reid declared that "a cloud hangs over this Republican-controlled Congress for its unwillingness to hold the administration accountable" on a variety of issues.

He was particularly incensed about what he said was the refusal of the Senate Intelligence Committee under Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) to follow up on an investigation of the intelligence that led to the war in Iraq. A report was issued in July last year, but a "phase two" inquiry into how the Bush administration used that intelligence has not been held. Reid accused Roberts of breaking a promise to conduct that investigation in an effort to "provide political cover for this administration," which he said had "consistently and repeatedly manipulated the facts" in making its case to invade Iraq in 2003.

"I demand on behalf of the American people that we understand why these investigations are not being conducted," Reid said. He then demanded the closed session.

The reaction from Senator Frist was Ted Stevensesque:
Never before, said Mr. Frist, "have ever I been slapped in the face with such an affront to the leadership of this grand institution."
At least Frist wasn't foolish enough to threaten to resign if the Democrats used Rule 21 again -- Durbin said that the Democrats would invoke the rule daily until the Republicans follow through on their oversight responsibilities.

The threat might not be an idle one, because it's so easy to carry it out. Rule 21 requires one senator to move for a closed session, and one senator to second the motion. Moving the senate back into open session requires a majority vote according to Rule 31. This means that if Rule 21 motions become a daily thing, the closed sessions probably won't last for over two hours like they did today, but they'll still be a big pain in the ass.

And well worth it. Of the many problems with the Iraq war, perhaps the most damaging for our own democracy was that it was actively sold to us with misinformation and lies. The President could have chosen instead to tell us plainly that as the commander-in-chief, he judged it in our nation's interest to invade Iraq, despite the low probability that Iraq had WMDs and despite the tenuous connections between Iraq and al Qaeda. Of course, that would have required political courage, because it's likely most people would have disagreed with him about the intelligence and the case for war would have been nothing more than "trust me." But rather than take the political risks of such a bold move, the administration (and particularly Dick Cheney) actively peddled two stories that they had to have known were spurious: the WMD threat and the connections between Iraq and al Qaeda.

The Republicans insisted not too long ago that lying about a blue dress and a blow job was a high crime worthy of impeachment. Now, they're soft-peddling the investigation into this administration's lies about national security threats for the purpose of whipping up a frenzy in support of a war of choice. All this is old, tired news by now. The democrats' unwillingness to put up with it any longer most definitely isn't.


Standing Rules of The Senate



1. On a motion made and seconded to close the doors of the Senate, on the discussion of any business which may, in the opinion of a Senator, require secrecy, the Presiding Officer shall direct the galleries to be cleared; and during the discussion of such motion the doors shall remain closed.

2. When the Senate meets in closed session, any applicable provisions of rules XXIX and XXXI, including the confidentiality of information shall apply to any information and to the conduct of any debate transacted.


UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds seems to have forgotten that the intelligence committee report was bifurcated so that the report on the Bush administration's behavior would be released after the election.

What "pro-business" means

Officials at the Labor Department are defending their kowtowing to Wal-Mart on the grounds that the agreement violated no federal laws.

It's true that executive branch agencies often have a lot of discretion. This case is just exemplary of the way federal agencies under George W. Bush have chosen to exercise it. The most galling thing for me about the deal is this:

The department denied the inspector general's suggestion that it had consulted with Wal-Mart before issuing a news release on the settlement. The department took the unusual action of announcing the agreement a month after it was signed, doing so only after some details were leaked to a newspaper.
This administration isn't just pro-business, it's sneaky too.

Plant patents: what am I missing?

It's not surprising that the American provisional authority in Iraq under Paul Bremer would rewrite Iraq's patent laws to allow for patents on plants. (See this and this.) But it raises the issue once more about whether plant patents are a good thing or not.

I understand why patents are useful. In cases where innovation costs a lot of money and/or where it's easy for an inventor to exploit his invention while keeping it secret, patents help inventors to recoup their development costs while ensuring that the public gains access to new information.

But I never understood why patents should be issued for plants, especially crop varieties like wheat and corn. Patents for plants seem less like a means of spurring innovation and more like a tool for redistributing political and economic power from one group of people to another, specifically, from farmers to corporate plant breeders. I don't see how doing this makes anyone other than the corporations better off.

First of all, I don't understand why developing innovative new seeds should cost a lot of money. When it comes to plants, nature takes care of innovation largely by itself. Farmers simply pay close attention to what kinds of plants grow best on their farms, and they save the seeds from those plants to cultivate again later. That kind of innovation is cheap.

Genetic engineering of crops, on the other hand, is expensive. But it's not obvious that this kind of innovation produces superior products. Genetic engineering produces many "new" kinds of tomatoes very quickly, but many of these are inferior plants. They aren't adapted well to the places where they're grown, and so they need lots of pesticides and fertilizers to keep them alive. Very often these varieties are engineered with specific features that are actively detrimental, such as an inability to reproduce, or a dependence upon pesticides and fertilizers. It's no coincidence that these innovations benefit the corporations that "invented" them; it's harder to see how these innovations benefit the society as a whole.

The argument for patents has never been simply that they promote innovation per se; it's always been that they promote socially useful innovation. It's hard to see how patents on plants do this.

Second, I don't understand why agricultural knowledge would suffer from excessive secrecy if patents on plants weren't available. Farmers have always benefitted by sharing their seeds with other farmers -- they've always had the incentive to exchange seeds in the hope of developing better varieties for their own farms.

Plant patents seem less about promoting innovation and knowledge than about shifting power from farmers to agribusiness. If farmers have to purchase seeds from biotech labs that they are forbidden to save or to trade, then the farmers have been deprived of a function which they have performed ably for centuries, namely, adapting their crops to the place where they farm. That function has been transferred to agribusiness, which performs it through biotech rather than by natural selection. I don't understand why this redistribution of power should be good for any society, including Iraq.

Am I just missing something?

October 28, 2005

Who's next?

Michael McConnell, Janice Rogers Brown, Edith Brown Clement, Edith Jones and Emilio Garza have all been "ruled out" by the White House for the next Supreme Court nomination, according to an article by Jan Crawford Greenburg in the Chicago Tribune.

The most likely candidates are Samuel Alito, J. Michael Luttig, Priscilla Owen and Karen Williams, with J. Harvie Wilkinson a "less likely choice."

October 23, 2005

Ted Stevens and america's Alaska problem

Here's what Alaska's Ted Stevens had to say on the Senate floor the other day.

"I will put the Senate on notice -- and I don't kid people -- if the Senate decides to * * *, I will resign from this body."

What could so seriously tarnish his sacred honor that Stevens would threaten to resign? It certainly isn't torture. Stevens voted in favor of giving the President carte blanche to torture detainees when he stood with only nine other senators and voted against the McCain amendment. That amendment is only a very, very modest Congressional exercise of its Constitutional responsibility to make rules for the treatment of detainees, but for Ted Stevens, it was too much.

No, Ted Stevens votes for torture, but he threatens to resign over Alaska's disproportionate share of federal pork:

I will put the Senate on notice -- and I don't kid people -- if the Senate decides to discriminate against our state and take money only from our state, I will resign from this body."

I posted a while ago about America's Alaska problem:

At times when it suits them, Alaskans like to clamor for the federal government to leave them alone. Especially when it comes to wilderness land management, politicians from Alaska can be counted on to complain loudly about "federal government meddling" in a subject that is "none of the lower-48's business." Arguments that the Alaskan wilderness jewels are truly national treasures that ought to benefit all Americans fall on deaf ears in Alaska.

When it suits them to say the opposite, though, the Alaskan politicians have no problem changing their tune. Instead of asking the government to leave Alaska alone, they demand that the federal government take extra-special care of Alaska at the rest of the country's expense. Specifically, the Alaskans are never loathe to chase after the most outrageous and embarrassing federal pork. Two egregious examples are homeland-security pork and highway-bill pork.

Back then, Alaska's politicians merely had to ignore deficits and the war in Iraq to bring home the federal bacon. Now we know that the wholesale destruction of the Gulf Coast isn't enough of an added spur to get these politicians to act like statesmen. Even after Katrina, the Alaska delegation still act like tawdry lobbyists. Our Alaska problem is deeper than we thought.

October 22, 2005

Police state?

Sometimes I think the definition of a "police state" just means a country where the government is just a little bit more intrusive than ours. The beauty of this definition is that the USA can never -- by definition -- be a police state.

The New York Times reports that internet access providers are being required to "upgrade" their systems so that the government can monitor online communications:

If law enforcement officials obtain a court order to monitor the Internet communications of someone at a university, the current approach is to work quietly with campus officials to single out specific sites and install the equipment needed to carry out the surveillance. This low-tech approach has worked well in the past, officials at several campuses said.

But the federal law would apply a high-tech approach, enabling law enforcement to monitor communications at campuses from remote locations at the turn of a switch.

It would require universities to re-engineer their networks so that every Net access point would send all communications not directly onto the Internet, but first to a network operations center where the data packets could be stitched together into a single package for delivery to law enforcement, university officials said.

I'd like to know a bit more about what this turning of switches means. The article makes it sound like every packet of internet data will be routinely sent to a government "network operations center" and that we'll have to trust the government not to turn any switches until it obtains a court order. If that's true, will there be any way to monitor the government's behavior? Will anyone be able to tell when the government is listening in?

This sounds like a setup for abuse. If all it takes to intercept emails is a "turn of a switch," I'll bet a dollar to a donut that the government won't always bother with the court order. The best we can hope for is that we can catch them when they cheat.

October 13, 2005

Stop trusting Bush about "enemy combatants"

Let's quickly tick off some recent instances where our trust in George W. Bush may have been misplaced. We trusted Bush to take homeland security seriously, and he gave us Michael Brown. We trusted Bush when he told us that Iraq was an imminent threat because of its WMDs, but there were no WMDs. Bush is now asking us to trust him about Harriet Miers, and for good reason, many of us aren't. Why, then, should we continue to trust him about Guantanamo?

Former Solicitor General Seth Waxman gave a lecture at the law school this week. He discussed the role of the judicial branch in the "Global War on Terrorism" (which he helpfully informed us is often abbreviated "GWOT") and suggested that the country might be better off if the courts changed their approach. Along the way, he read a chilling transcript from a hearing for a prisoner in Guantanamo that should make us all question the deference we've been willing to give to George W. Bush.

Continue reading "Stop trusting Bush about "enemy combatants"" »

October 06, 2005

Bush speech about "War on Terror" today

President Bush is going to give a speech today about the "war on terror." If nothing else, it's timely.

The Senate seems to be growing a spine (by a vote of 90-9) on the issue of torturing prisoners, and our military leaders are sounding a lot less sanguine about the situation in Iraq than Bush is. Bottom line is, Bush needs to start saying more than just "stay the course" and "trust me." He needs to start making arguments for his own positions, which look more absurd by the day. And no; "I know her/his/its heart" is not an argument.

These are the nine senators who voted to give Bush carte blanche to torture prisoners:

Allard (R-CO)
Bond (R-MO)
Coburn (R-OK)
Cochran (R-MS)
Cornyn (R-TX)
Inhofe (R-OK)
Roberts (R-KS)
Sessions (R-AL)
Stevens (R-AK)

The Allard vote is yet another indication that Colorado's mild-mannered senior senator is on the extreme fringe of rabid Bush supporters. I'd like to ask the same question of Allard that I have of Hugh Hewitt: what would it take to convince you that Bush can make mistakes?

October 03, 2005

Let's all just trust him

In his post entitled "Do You Trust Him?" Hugh Hewitt attempts to placate conservatives disappointed with the Miers nomination by posing the following rhetorical question:

Wake up people: Do you really think W is going to elevate a friend who doesn't agree with him on the crucial issues of the day just because she's a friend?

Come on, Hugh. Everyone knows that there is no such thing as a person who simultaneously a) is a friend of George W. Bush, and b) disagrees with Bush on the crucial issues of the day.

The reason the hard-right social conservatives are worried about Miers is that, for good reason, they're beginning to doubt whether Bush is committed to anything beyond loyalty to his friends. If he did (these conservatives reason), Bush should have passed up a loyal friend with an asshat resume in favor of a McConnell or a Luttig -- a competent person with a proven record of supporting socially conservative values.*

The real gripe that Hewitt has with conservatives who don't like Miers is betrayed by the title of his post. Hugh Hewitt trusts Bush, and he thinks everyone else ought to trust him as well. Never mind Michael Brown; never mind Bush's willingness to tolerate the abasement of our armed forces by condoning torture in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. One wonders how bad Bush's performance would have to get before Hugh Hewitt would stop blindly trusting George W. Bush.

I suspect that this overenthusiasm for Bush is behind Hewitt's drivel about Miers being an "Article II-inclined justice" (whatever that means) who understands the "GWOT" (conservative code for "global war on terror"). Apparently, Hewitt thinks the best way to win the GWOT is to let a strong President do what he wants, and for the Article I and Article III branches of our government to get out of the way. I think that's just ridiculous, but it certainly does reinforce the impression that a nation of Hugh Hewitts would be a nation that would turn to fascism to defeat terrorism.

* I put aside the question about whether it makes sense to talk this way about judges.

October 02, 2005

Health care priorities

Health care resources, as we all know, are scarce. How has our country chosen to distribute these resources?

In Michigan, family medicine is "dying" as medical students are lured away from primary care.

More than a quarter of Michigan's 12,700 primary care physicians are at retirement age, according to a recent report from the Michigan State Medical Society. At the same time, today's medical students are being lured to specialty fields that promise better pay, more manageable hours and the chance to work with flashy new technologies and treatments. (Via Kevin, M.D.)

At the same time in California, EM physicians are finding it harder and harder to find specialists who will care for their patients:

Hospitals are paying $600 million a year to ensure that on-call physicians are available - and still some communities are having problems finding specialists," Emerson said.

Kivela said that if a patient shows up at the emergency room with a broken jaw and has no insurance, the emergency room physician has a dreadful task of finding an oral surgeon willing to come in and take the case.

"I'll have to call eight or 10 different doctors," he said. "I'll spend two hours making these calls while a bed is taken up in the emergency room while sick patients wait." (Via Symtym.)

This may be absurd, but it's not chaotic. We have a system that draws money and talent away from the most cost-effective fields of primary care and into the less cost-effective specialties, while this same system also makes it more and more difficult for a patient to gain access to those specialists. It's no wonder that our country performs so poorly on virtually all measures of public health like life expectancy and infant mortality.

Of course, we haven't gotten here by accident. We've chosen to endure these piss-poor public health results because we don't want to disturb our unquestioned ability to provide the world's best high-tech medical care to those patients who can afford to pay for it themselves.

We've chosen to lower medicaid and medicare payments to primary care physicians because we're both unwilling to bear the tax burdens of these redistributive public health programs, and we prefer to spend what tax revenue we do collect on the development of high-tech medical treatments. These high-tech solutions are favored by the private sector because they're a lot more lucrative than low-tech primary care. We've chosen to funnel our finite amount of health care resources into the pockets of pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, hospitals, and specialist physicians who primarily treat the wealthy self-insured. This has been at the expense of cost-effective primary care and low-income chronically ill patients.

Is this a good thing? Some of us think not. More of us -- at least to the extent that our policies reflect our democratic preferences -- think it is.

October 01, 2005

Tort reform and HMOs

Most physicians who talk about "tort reform" today are talking about changing the mechanics of malpractice suits against doctors. I wonder, though, whether we're not overlooking some important issues that have nothing to do with malpractice liability caps.

Dr. Wax says the following:

Managed care plans require that a physician accept all patients who choose him, dictate how often he may see the patient, the amount he'll be paid and when, and, in many instances, what he can prescribe. They can rescind previously paid compensation at will, and do. In reality, HMOs are practicing medicine since they must approve every test, course of treatment, and referral to a specialist, yet they are rarely, if ever, legally responsible. Meanwhile, the physician is left to suffer the consequences of any malpractice suit.

Back in the late 90s this kind of complaint seemed to be a lot more common. Now, though, you almost never hear it anymore. The only issue that seems to matter these days is malpractice reform, specifically liability caps and the rising cost of malpractice insurance. What ever happened to the HMOs?

Continue reading "Tort reform and HMOs" »

September 15, 2005

Vioxx and the jury system

Evan Schaeffer has posted his defense of the jury's decision in the first Vioxx trial:

That was the promise of Vioxx, but it wasn’t to be. And now, as a result, a very small minority of commentators are calling for tort immunity for drug companies and discussing reforms to the jury system that would benefit drug companies. I think these ideas are radical and unnecessary. The tort system and the jury system may not be perfect, but they are certainly better than any of the alternatives, especially those involving granting favors to drug companies that might lead to even greater health risks.

September 14, 2005

Joe Biden steps up. Who's next?

By now, everyone except Mark Steyn recognizes that the Bush administration has gotten us into a pickle in Iraq. Bush deserves the criticism he's getting, but the Democrats also deserve criticism for failing to propose any serious alternative strategies for dealing with the national security nightmare that Iraq could (or already has) become.

Proposals like these in the Washington Post from Sen. Joe Biden are exactly what we need to see more of from both Democrats and Republicans. Regardless of whether Biden's concrete proposals make sense or not, at least he's going beyond simple Bush-bashing by offering some substantive alternatives to Bush's simple-minded "stay the course."

September 13, 2005


If you think that right-wing religious fundamentalism is the most absurd political viewpoint in America today, you're wrong. It may be the most dangerous, or the most repellent, but it certainly isn't the most absurd.

The most absurd political viewpoint in America is libertarianism. Libertarianism is absurd on at least two levels. First, it's absurdly popular for such an extremist political philosophy. (That libertarianism's attack on the entirety of what we call "government" is an extreme position should be obvious.) Most other extremist viewpoints cling to the fringes of respectable society, where their followers manage to maintain a few websites and keep a few mailing lists, but libertarianism is ensconced at the most well-funded think tanks in Washington, and is always threatening to capture the imaginations of this or that senator, governor, or President.

Second, libertarianism is intrinsically absurd. Not because it advocates for a minimalist state (this view has a lot to recommend it), but because it simultaneously argues that, with a minimalist state in place, we would experience an efflorescence of technological innovation, our economic productivity would skyrocket, and our current suburban ways of life would not only remain intact but would be enhanced with more disposable income and more consumer choice.

Folks, I've gotta say it flat out: that's ridiculous.

Even the most devout religious fundamentalists can't top the libertarians' starry-eyed faith in the unregulated "free market" (a mythological construct of the same order of magnitude as Zeus or Santa Claus) to function in the absence of (and even to replace) the web of laws, regulations, rules, taxes, and benefits that comprise the modern state. Ever since I was three years old, I've wanted to be able to fly like Superman, but unlike the libertarians' yearning for the completely "free" market, I've never spoken, argued, or acted on the faith that flying with the aid of a cape was really possible.

The war in Iraq and hurricane Katrina have inspired some writers to lay into libertarianism. I've linked to two exemplary essays below the fold.

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September 12, 2005

Obama: Democrats share the blame

The Chicago Tribune reports on its interview with Sen. Barack Obama:

"It is way too simplistic just to say this administration doesn't care about black people," Obama said in a Tribune interview. "I think it is entirely accurate to say that this administration's policies don't take into account the plight of poor people in poor communities and this is a tragic reflection of that indifference, but I also have to say that it's an indifference that is not entirely partisan.

"We as Democrats have not been very interested in poverty or issues relating to the inner city as much as we should have.

I hope the current crop of "republican-lite" Democrats in Washington is paying attention.

September 10, 2005

A little scavenger hunt

Mark Schmitt at The Decembrist describes the pitifully inadequate resumes of the people Bush chose to lead FEMA, and wonders if we might find more examples of crass cronyism at other federal agencies:

This leads me to suggest an exercise, perfectly suited for the distributed talents of the blogosphere: Where's the next disaster? Are there other agencies where the top staff is so totally unqualified to the job at hand? Let's have some digging into those agency websites. Most probably won't offer the potential for human tragedy that FEMA holds, but let's start with places like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (that director seems marginally qualified) that we know the administration doesn't care about. Foxes guarding the henhouse also qualify.

I would be surprised if we didn't find some other juicy examples out there. Surely Bush has a lot more campaign cronies than can he can stuff FEMA with. Where'd he put the rest? FDA? Treasury? As for foxes guarding the henhouse, my guess amounts to three letters: E. P. A.

September 06, 2005

We're all on ideological autopilot

With the exception of the near unanimous calls from both the left and the right for Michael Brown to be fired, the hurricane doesn't seem to have changed anyone's mind at all. Liberals view the disaster through their own ideological lenses and come to predictably liberal conclusions (see Exhibit A). Conservatives reach predictably conservative conclusions about the same disaster (exhibit B).

If Katrina has reminded us of anything, it's that ideologies are immune to worldly events. In fact, ideologies are powerful precisely because they allow us to respond to an almost limitless variety of outside events with just a few basic ideas. They save us from what would otherwise be an overwhelming need to think.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not disparaging ideologies. We'd be paralyzed without them. But don't expect disasters like Katrina, or the war in Iraq, to change anybody's mind.

September 01, 2005

New Orleans: Inevitable?

The story of New Orleans is a long one, and it's full of bad decisions.

The original decision in the early 1700s to levee the river in order to build a "permanent" settlement on the floodplain is just about the worst. But once that bad decision was made, we could have done more to postpone the inevitable return of New Orleans to the sea. Perhaps we could have even postponed it long enough to organize an orderly evacuation of the whole city to higher ground. As it is, we didn't do our best. Hurricane Katrina took aim at the inadequate levees, and the people of New Orleans got only a day's notice to evacuate. The poor, sick, and elderly, who couldn't evacuate themselves quickly enough, paid the price.

When a city like New Orleans, built in a floodplain below sea level that's in the path of hurricanes, gets flooded under fifteen feet of water, its a little inapposite to go assigning responsibility for the disaster on this guy or that guy. Nature just kind of did its thing, and no mere human being can stand up and take the credit. Some newspaper editorial pages like the NYT have already started criticizing President Bush for the stuttering federal response to this catastrophe, but I think it's a bit premature. This is mostly a natural disaster for which Mother Nature is responsible (not a political or foreign-policy disaster like Iraq, for which Bush is responsible).

Nevertheless, although the flooding of New Orleans was inevitable, we ought to distinguish between several different kinds of inevitability. For example, it's inevitable that the Sun is eventually going to burn up all its fuel and slowly bloat into a red giant, engulfing the Earth. It's not likely that anyone will be able to do anything about that.

This disaster wasn't inevitable in the same way. People could have done much more to postpone the New Orleans flood, or to mitigate its effects. If we had acted differently, there'd be a lot fewer dead and displaced people -- mostly poor, sick, and elderly people that couldn't evacuate themselves -- along the Gulf Coast than there are now. This disaster was the result of human mistakes. It was inevitable simply because we can't ever expect humans not to make these mistakes. We aren't perfect and we never will be, but the point is that if we had acted just a little less imperfectly, New Orleans wouldn't be flooded right now.

Consider, for example, that we knew the marshy wetlands of the Mississippi River Delta were crucial for protecting the city from a storm surge, but we allowed them to be degraded and destroyed anyway. We also knew that the levees protecting New Orleans from floodwaters needed to be improved to protect against powerful hurricanes, yet we refused to spend the money to improve them. Senator Mary Landrieu of Lousiana sounds prophetic in this June 6, 2005 article on the budget cuts for the New Orleans district of the Army Corps of Engineers:

"I think it's extremely shortsighted, Landrieu said. When the Corps of Engineers' budget is cut, Louisiana bleeds. These projects are literally life-and-death projects to the people of south Louisiana and they are (of) vital economic interest to the entire nation."
Yes, the levee projects were literally life-and-death (mostly death) and everyone pumping gas at $3 or more a gallon recognizes their economic interest in the health of the Gulf Coast now. (Thanks to Swing State Project for the links.)

Regardless of whether the Congress, the President, or the local leadership in Louisiana is most to blame for postponing the construction of more adequate levees, the point is that someone, somewhere, screwed up. The fact that flooding was inevitable doesn't mean that sudden, catastrophic flooding that kills potentially more than a thousand people and leaves many more homeless was also inevitable.

August 26, 2005

Things could be worse

Embattled Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose approval ratings have sunk to a lowly (for him) 53%, can still count his blessings.

After all, things could be worse. I mean, imagine if he'd lied to the American people about Iraq's WMDs, constantly referred to the nation being "at war" as an excuse to curtail civil liberties, and yet despite the war had still chosen to take more weeks of vacation this summer than the most laid-back law students working grossly-overpaid and cushy Biglaw jobs. If he'd done that, his approval ratings might be even lower.

July 22, 2005

"the best city in the world"

How's this for a brush with celebrity: last Tuesday I was heading for the revolving doors of my firm's office building, having just returned from lunch. Some guy was coming out through the same door, so I squeezed in to take advantage of having someone else besides just me pushing on the door. My lunch companions were behind me, and as they entered the building they said "did you see Daley? He just walked out." It turns out the guy in the door with me had been embattled Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, and I hadn't noticed it.

Who knows why Daley was in our building; I don't think it had anything to do with our firm. We share the building with the biggest bank in Chicago, so he might have just been making a deposit. Perhaps he just needed to get out of his office for a few minutes, especially now that U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald of Plamegate fame has been arresting some of his top officials for fraud and corruption in city hiring.

In a press conference following the arrest of two top Daley administration officials, the man who's been Chicago's mayor since 1989 vowed to "continue the work of my life, which is to make Chicago the best city in the world."

I like Daley because of statements like that. He seems to really love the city, and he seems to have done a lot to make sure that Chicago remained world-class. The mayor's been credited with improving the school system and making sure that the city's public areas were as beautiful as the budgets allowed (which in Grant Park and along Michigan Avenue is pretty damned beautiful).

The problem is that allowing officials like Sorich and Slattery to commit what looks like pretty egregious fraud seems inconsistent with ensuring that Chicago remains the best city in the world. (Yes, I know. Portland, OR has a strong claim as well...) Should we cut the Mayor some slack here? Let's wait until more of the details come out.

July 14, 2005

McClellan struts his stuff

Whatever else you might want to say about him, you've got to admit that Scott McClellan has mastered the art of adhering to his talking points. Note carefully how our President's spokesman allows the reporter plenty of time to carefully ask the question before repeating his three non-responsive talking points:

Q There's a difference between commenting publicly on an action and taking action in response to it. Newsweek put out a story, an email saying that Karl Rove passed national security information on to a reporter that outed a CIA officer. Now, are you saying that the President is not taking any action in response to that? Because I presume that the prosecutor did not ask you not to take action, and that if he did, you still would not necessarily abide by that; that the President is free to respond to news reports, regardless of whether there's an investigation or not. So are you saying that he's not going to do anything about this until the investigation is fully over and done with?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think the President has previously spoken to this. This continues to be an ongoing criminal investigation. No one wants to get to the bottom of it more than the President of the United States. And we're just not going to have more to say on it until that investigation is complete.

That's a textbook-quality demonstration of media-relations savvy, for sure.

April 28, 2005

Salazar v. Dobson

Sen. Ken Salazar has apologized for calling the Rev. James Dobson of Focus on the Family "the Antichrist" in an interview with a local Colorado Springs TV station. This probably wasn't the most statesmanlike accusation that Salazar could have made, but I'm not sure I agree with Rocky Mountain News columnist Mike Littwin that it was a "minor disaster."

Let's look on the bright side. Salazar demonstrated that he wasn't going to put up with Dobson's bullshit, and that's more than we can say for too many national politicians these days. Sure, it would have been better if Salazar had demanded that Dobson stop indulging in self-righteous demagoguery and apologize for accusing defenders of the Senate filibuster as "attacking people of faith." That would have been the more statesmanlike thing to say, but the real political disaster would have been to treat Dobson with kid gloves, like most Democrats have been doing for far too long. If anything, calling Dobson the Antichrist is like my junior high school friends and I calling our English teacher a fascist. It's kind of, well, a bit too junior-high-esque.

Immature behavior is a common politician's mistake, though; not a political disaster. At least Salazar's got the right junior-high role models.

April 22, 2005

U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar (CO)

The junior senator from Colorado might not have gotten off to a great start, but he's doing better now.

April 03, 2005

Idle thoughts on the papacy

I'm not a Catholic, so I don't usually think about the Pope very often. Now that John Paul II has passed away, though, I'd love to eavesdrop on some of the furious political maneuvering that must be going on in the offices of most of the cardinals.

Think about it -- the stakes are much, much higher here (at least for Catholics and probably not just for Catholics) than for, say, a Supreme Court nomination in the Senate. A Supreme Court nomination is only 1/9th of the whole ball game, but (major medieval schisms aside) there's always been just one Pope.

Also, cardinals get to elevate one of themselves into the Papal office. Imagine if Senators could do that for a vacant Supreme Court seat. Joe Biden would get more hyperactive than the Tasmanian Devil.

Finally, the cardinals get to do most of their political maneuvering in secret. If you'll pardon the hockey analogy, secrecy probably means that the gloves come off. I can't help but think here of the church-intrigue novels of Thomas Gifford.

Oh, while I'm on the subject of the Pope. . .

Anthony Rickey rightly takes the New York Times editorialists to task, recognizing that they "just can't resist getting their licks in", no matter how nonsensical they may be.

Mr. Rickey then asks, "when did modern liberalism become the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might disapprove of some act of sex?"

A brilliant rhetorical riposte! Anthony beats the NYT and the Washington Post at their own game.

March 25, 2005


Catching up on my blog-reading today, I noticed the discussion between LMark and Denise over whether gender-reassignment surgeries should be an employment benefit for graduate student instructors. Neither of the two have completely persuaded me. I agree with Denise that these surgeries are usually, in all important senses of the word, necessary. But so far, Larry seems to have the stronger argument about coverage -- gender-reassignment surgeries seem to me exactly the kind of treatment that ought to be left uncovered when the choice is between covering them, and leaving some workers without medical coverage altogether. (This of course presumes that such an either-or choice actually exists. If we can find the political will to get control over some aspects of prescription drug pricing and to spend more public money on relatively inexpensive public health measures, it seems that we could find the money to cover gender-reassignment surgeries for the people who need them.)

Meanwhile, Steve Sanders puts his finger on what bothers me about Terri Schiavo's parents. Of course they love their daughter; of course they should vigorously fight for what they think is best for her. To say on CNN that Judge Greer was on a "crusade" to "kill" Terri Schiavo, though, is an indulgence that gets no sympathy from me. As Steve explains, that kind of rhetoric harms the rest of us by aiding religious extremists who show nothing but contempt for earthly law.

Nevertheless, if the Schindlers really believe that their daughter is still on this earth in that hospice bed, they have a reason to be upset with the results they've gotten from the judicial branch. Tom DeLay and Bill Frist are an entirely different story. Steve's post says it well; go read it.

I'm only slightly confused about one thing, though. Why would a rational fundamentalist right-winger really want to attack the legitimacy of the judiciary? If their electoral majorities were rock-solid, I can see the temptation, but it seems like the fundamentalists aren't dominating at the polls (yet). Surely they must fear the consequences of a delegitimized judiciary if their short run of narrow electoral successes were to come to an end. Any kind of political backlash will send them running to the judges like kiddies to their mamas. Are they so confident of the national mood that they're willing to risk everything on majoritarian politics?

Perhaps all those a.m. radio talk shows have gone to their head. They should try reading some liberal blogs sometime, just to remind themselves that there are still a lot of folks out here who still disagree with them. (Hell, they should just read some secular blogs -- plenty of conservatives still disagree with them too.)

March 21, 2005

Feds intervene in Schiavo case

Via Howard Bashman, this ABC poll tells us that most folks, even evangelical protestants who split down the middle on the question of removing Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, oppose federal intervention in the case.

It might look like these numbers will prove Tom DeLay's grandstanding to be a political blunder. On the other hand, the poll doesn't measure the intensity of people's preferences, nor does it tell us how people will respond to these politicians' inevitable campaign rhetoric portraying themselves as "defenders of the culture of life."

Seems to me, this kind of rhetoric will be a lot more powerful on the campaign trail than the "I stood up against the inappropriate interference by Congress into issues which were none of its business" rhetoric.

The whole thing gets me thinking about federalism generally, and about the question of which entity should police the boundary between the states and the feds. The Schiavo case makes a strong argument that Congress isn't the best institution in cases like this. In order to pander to a few zealots on a particular substantive issue, the Schiavo case suggests that Congress will not act thoughtfully and deliberately to give voice to the less zealous but more widely-held opinions about the appropriate division of federal and state responsibility.

Anyhow, I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot of thoughtful commentary on this issue soon.

March 16, 2005

What's really at stake in ANWR

The Senate is once again about to vote on whether to allow drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We should remind ourselves of what's at stake.

It isn't oil. The Bush energy department forecasts that ANWR might reduce foreign oil imports from 68 percent of our national requirements to 65 percent during the years of maximum production. The smallest efforts to improve fuel efficiency would have a much greater effect.

It isn't caribou. Although the political taint over the issue makes most information on the effects of drilling on the caribou population hard to evaluate, it's not clear that small-footprint drilling will substantially harm the herds.

What's really at stake in the ANWR controversy is the future of wilderness. If our nation will not exercise the moderate restraint required to preserve ANWR as a place where people can experience the natural world as it existed before people were able to modify it as they wish, then there will soon be no such place left on Earth. Everywhere we look, we will see ourselves.

More importantly, drilling in ANWR would amount to a declaration that our civilization does not value wilderness above any other competing value. Even the flimsiest of suggestions that the land might be put to some moderately profitable alternative use will be enough to override wilderness protection.

This, in my opinion, is an appropriate attitude for barbarians. The hallmark of a mature and well-functioning civilization is its ability to show restraint, as opposed to more primitive and less-successful societies that must take advantage of every opportunity to expand or be threatened with extinction. Senator Pete Domenici and other supporters of drilling in ANWR act as if we were still a barbarian society.

Sadly, they might turn out to be correct.


By a vote of 51 to 49, Republicans defeated an effort by Democrats to eliminate the drilling language from the budget. The vote does not ensure that drilling will be approved. But if the budget is adopted, Senate rules would allow the passage of a measure opening the refuge with a simple majority of 51 votes, escaping the threat of a filibuster, which has killed it in the past.

* * *

Three Democratic senators, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye, both of Hawaii, joined 48 Republicans in endorsing drilling today. Seven Republicans joined 41 Democrats and Senator James Jeffords, independent of Vermont, in opposing it. Those seven were John S. McCain of Arizona, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, both of Maine.

(See Julie Saltman.)

No credibility? Big deal.

The New York Times' editorial response to the Bush administration's aggressive distribution of fake news reports strikes me as off-the-mark:

If using pretend news is one of the ways these stations have chosen to save money, it's a false economy. If it represents a political decision to support President Bush, it will eventually backfire. This kind of practice cheapens the real commodity that television stations have to sell during their news hours: their credibility.

Will the television stations really lose that much credibility? I'm inclined to think not.

The 2004 elections demonstrate that the public doesn't put too much independent value on being told the truth. We knew before the election that the Bush administration's arguments for invading Iraq depended upon highly speculative evidence that was sold as "slam-dunk." Dick Cheney repeatedly suggested that 9-11 was much more closely tied to Saddam Hussein than it in fact was. This lack of truth-telling (ok, lying) was not enough damage the president's credibility in any way that mattered.

The same might be said for Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Sure, he lied, but the public doesn't seem to have held it against him.

Maybe, though, politicians and presidents can't be compared with television news stations on the issue of credibility. Dan Rather's faulty report for CBS about Bush's national guard service may have have hurt his credibility far more than any overzealous interpretation of tentative intelligence seems to have hurt Bush -- at least if you believe what what you read in the blogosphere.

I suspect, though, that CBS' credibility won't suffer too much in the long run. FoxNews, after all, continues its crusade against journalistic standards without any public uproar, and certainly without much public rejection. Ultimately, television news is probably no different from politicians. Both have so little credibility left to lose that they need not fear losing any.

What really counts, for both politicians and news organizations, may be whether or not they make the public feel good about themselves. In a consumer culture like ours, where we expect everyone to be a salesman and treat every thing as a product, the only thing that counts is whether the product makes us feel young, pretty, loved, strong, or righteous. We don't expect the real thing, but we do require the feelings.

Bush, Clinton, and FoxNews all seem to be able to do this despite their lack of credibility. Whatever the source of television news stations' success, I don't think the Bush propaganda pieces are going to wipe it out.

March 08, 2005

AMA, is this all you can do?

I was browsing the web tonight and got an unwelcome pop-up ad from an organization calling itself the "Patients' Action Network." It was the straw that broke the camel's back -- now I'm fed up and pissed off.

I'm one of those people that believe the medical malpractice system needs to be reformed. I also think that the AMA has embarrassed itself over this issue. Just at the time when real leadership is badly needed, especially from physicians, the AMA is abdicating its responsibilities to the nation and behaving like just another narrow special interest group, grubbing for money and pleading for special liability protection.

Case in point, this web site.

The AMA-sponsored "Patients' Action Network" lauds its own site as "an excellent resource for finding out all the critical health care issues facing Americans, including medical liability reform, the Medicare crisis, and more."

But all the website really tells us about medical liability reform is this, and all it tells us about the "Medicare crisis" is this and this.

Go ahead, click on the links. There's virtually nothing there. The AMA could be exercising real leadership, but instead it's just telling us to do two things: rein in "overzealous personal-injury attorneys," and pay doctors more money.

No leadership here, folks. Zilch. Nada.

The AMA has, of course, other websites. But they aren't significantly better on these two issues than their "Patients' Action Network" propaganda piece. That's not surprising. At a time when the public is justifiably concerned about medical errors and the rising costs of health care, the nation's major physician organization is acting like the base, self-interested special interest group that its worst critics accuse it of being.

I wonder why more physicians aren't embarrassed. I suspect many of them just aren't educated enough about either issue to notice the AMAs abdication of responsibility. But there are plenty of others, I suspect, for whom the AMA's short-sighted bawling for more money is just what the doctor ordered. They see no problem with the AMA as just another lobbyist, especially when it lobbies for them.

But the AMA is more than a lobbyist. It has more responsibilities than just sticking up for doctors. The nation has granted the medical profession a substantial amount of discretion to police itself, and much of this policing is performed through the AMA. In exchange for this deference, the AMA owes it to the nation as a whole to exercise real leadership on issues related to the practice of medicine.

Physicians like to complain that the medical profession's traditional perogative to police itself has been eroded. If the AMA continues to act like the American Used-Car Dealers' Association, this erosion will likely continue.

March 07, 2005

Conservative ideology: a post for Nick

I'm neither conservative nor liberal. Instead, I like to call myself an agrarian.

My friend Nick from med school is one of the few people who understands what this little idiosyncracy of mine really means. Nick's a bit more conservative than I am, but even though we don't agree about every little detail, I suspect that he sympathizes with my position, as I do with his.

Anyway, one of the things Nick and I usually enjoy arguing about is the relative worth of Pat Buchanan's brand of conservatism. So I thought I'd post the link to this essay for Nick and anyone else who might be interested:

But historicist contempt and ignorance of economics does not alter the fact that inexorable economic laws exist. You cannot have your cake and eat it too, for instance. Or what you consume now cannot be consumed again in the future. Or producing more of one good requires producing less of another. No wishful thinking can make such laws go away. To believe otherwise can only result in practical failure. "In fact," noted Mises, "economic history is a long record of government policies that failed because they were designed with a bold disregard for the laws of economics."

In light of elementary and immutable economic laws, the Buchananite program of social nationalism is just another bold but impossible dream. No wishful thinking can alter the fact that maintaining the core institutions of the present welfare state and wanting to return to traditional families, norms, conduct, and culture are incompatible goals. You can have onesocialism (welfare)or the othertraditional moralsbut you cannot have both, for social nationalist economics, the pillar of the current welfare state system Buchanan wants to leave untouched, is the very cause of cultural and social anomalies.

(Via Conservative Philosopher.)

My reaction: despite all my criticisms of Buchanan, these two paragraphs alone (and in context!) demonstrate that the free-market fundamentalists are a much sillier bunch of people.

February 26, 2005

Bush gives "speech"

Daniel at Involuntary Blogslaughter has the text of the President's "speech in Brussels."

(The scary thing is, this is more accurate than an actual transcription.)

February 19, 2005

America's pork problem

Audit Faults U.S. for Its Spending on Port Defense

Since they all say they're committed to making our country safer, I wonder who in the Bush administration is going to take responsibility for this?

After examining four separate rounds of port grants, the inspector general found that the department appeared to be intentionally distributing the money as widely as possible, instead of focusing it on the biggest ports or other locations that intelligence reports suggested were most likely to be future targets.


The audit results appear to support criticism voiced last September by Senator Frank Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, who complained in a letter to President Bush that the methods used to grant the awards did not make sense.

"Your administration awarded port security grants in the states of Oklahoma, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Tennessee," Mr. Lautenberg wrote. "While there may be some form of maritime facilities in these locations, I question whether, of the nation's 361 maritime ports, these locations are truly the front lines on the war on terror."

Looks like it'll take more than just terrorist attacks to cure America of its fondness for pork.

February 14, 2005

Senator Salazar

I thought I'd get around to answering a question that a friend asked me about a week or so ago: what up with the new Democratic senator from Colorado, Ken Salazar?

Salazar, you might not remember, embarrassed himself by voting to confirm Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General. Right out of the gate, he's lined himself up with democrats like Joe Lieberman. This is not a good sign.

I'm really disappointed in Salazar, and I don't understand why he felt the need to support Gonzales. Salazar was a moderate state attorney general back in Colorado, but I would have thought this experience would leave him less well-disposed to someone like Gonzales.

It might be that Salazar voted for Gonzales because Gonzales was a Latino. If so, I'm even more disappointed. That kind of shallow adherence to cheap identity politics isn't good for anyone.

Perhaps Salazar just made a (costly) rookie mistake. Somehow, though, I don't think Mike Miles (Salazar's opponent in the primaries) would have made the same mistake. If Salazar didn't make a mistake, if his vote is a real indication of what kind of Democrat he is likely to be, then the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's snubbing of Miles in the primaries looks even worse now then it did then.

The DSCC's argument was that Miles had no chance of winning, and the important thing was to put Democrats in the senate. Allowing the Democratic voters in Colorado to actually chose their candidate was, apparently, unimportant to the DSCC. If the DSCC hadn't been so quick to endorse Salazar, who knows if Miles could have won the primary election? And even if Miles had won the primary and lost the general election, it would have been no great loss, at least as far as the Gonzales vote is concerned.

It might in fact turn out that having Salazar in the senate is a good thing for the Democrats. But after the Gonzales vote, that issue is still not settled.

February 13, 2005

A Ward Churchill post for Mom

I got an email from my mom today. "Why haven't you blogged about Ward Churchill?"

The answer, of course, is that I cannot blog about everything. So many others, from Brian Leiter to Prof. Bainbridge and Eugene Volokh have already said what needs saying. Which is, of course, that Churchill should not be fired because of his "little Eichmanns" article.

Sometimes, though, the better part of wisdom is simply not to argue with your mother. So I'll say three things about Ward Churchill:

1. Dave Kopel's column for the Rocky Mountain News (via Volokh) purports to evaluate the Colorado news media's coverage of the Churchill story. But by what criteria? He never tells us, but it's obvious from his column that for Kopel, "good Churchill coverage" pretty much equals "reporting about various bad things that Churchill may have done at any time in his life, whether it's related to the current controversy or not."

2. Despite his nods to the value of open discourse, Anthony Rickey doesn't seem to really understand it. For Anthony, it seems, the test of the value of discourse is not, in the end, its openness, but rather its acceptability to the majority:

After all, if the ostensible purpose for academic freedom is that it benefits the public, isn't there some interest in convincing the public that they're receiving value?

Here, of course, lies the rub. Whatever the intrinsic value of knowledge, most of those who support universities focus upon their instrumental benefits: college education helps in getting a job, providing for doctors and other skilled professionals, or developing nifty new bits of technology. These goals aren't particularly furthered through subsidies towards those who would demonize the dead. Indeed, humanities departments--which tend to be much more politically polarized--do not always inspire such universal good feeling.

I agree with Anthony that the reason we ought to defend academic freedom is that we believe that it will benefit the public. I disagree with Anthony's belief that the best test for what constitutes a public benefit is always a plebiscite.

Sometimes, majorities can be horribly and catastrophically wrong. Academic freedom is valuable because it insulates dissenting voices, which are sometimes necessary to protect the majority from themselves, or to protect minorities. We decide ex ante that professorial opining will be protected in order to spare ourselves the impossible task of identifying, without the benefit of hindsight or omniscience, which dissenting voices will turn out to be helpful and which will not.

3. I never voted for Bill Owens. I probably never will.

February 06, 2005

Choosing Howard Dean

David Brooks "congratulates" the Democrats on their nearly-certain choice of Howard Dean to chair the DNC, and blames Dean's mystifying ascendancy on what what he calls the "university town elite."

Howard Dean may not be as liberal as he appeared in the primaries, but in 1,001 ways - from his secularism to his stridency - he embodies the newly dominant educated class, which is large, self-contained and assertive.

Thanks to this newly dominant group, the Democrats are sure to carry Berkeley for decades to come.

Many Republicans besides Brooks, including Tom DeLay, seem to share this opinion of Dean:
"After 10 years, you wonder if Democrats are running out of ways to say no," said Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the House majority leader. "But then again, if they make Howard Dean the party chairman, I guess you could scream it."

Stupidity, the saying goes, is continuing to do the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. Despite this Republican hooting from the sidelines, the Democrats are making a smart choice in the wake of yet another national electoral defeat at the hands of George W. Bush. The reasons are below the fold.

Continue reading "Choosing Howard Dean" »

January 26, 2005

where's the scandal?

The Washington Post reports that:

In 2002, syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher repeatedly defended President Bush's push for a $300 million initiative encouraging marriage as a way of strengthening families.

"The Bush marriage initiative would emphasize the importance of marriage to poor couples" and "educate teens on the value of delaying childbearing until marriage," she wrote in National Review Online, for example, adding that this could "carry big payoffs down the road for taxpayers and children."

But Gallagher failed to mention that she had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to help promote the president's proposal.

The recent wave of payoffs to political pundits by campaigns and interest groups has a scandalous flavor, but why?

It isn't as if we expect these openly partisan pundits to present fair and balanced arguments. Does it really matter whether they're collecting checks from the people who benefit the most from their work? Are we really upset because these columnists haven't disclosed these payments? Again, I don't think obviously slanted punditry has to worry about preserving its appearence of impartiality.

The real scandal may be that these political hacks have become so influential. Pressure groups believe that these pundits influence public opinion to such an extent that it's worthwhile to throw them a bunch of cash to keep them from wandering off the reservation.

As the major media conglomerates continue to tear down the walls between their entertainment and news divisions, and corporate profits have made ratings more important than the quality of the news reporting, responsible journalism is less and less able to counter the ravings of political hacks and pundits. More and more of the information we receive about public policy is just ranting for ratings. In this environment, the pundits have more influence over the public's opinion than they would have in the presence of respectable journalism.

That's the real scandal. I don't think the problem is solved when the left pays its own political hacks to provide equally irresponsible blather on the other side. Citizens must still wonder, "where's the beef?" What if all of these clowns are wrong? Responsible reporting can never be completely objective, but it can distinguish itself from punditry. It is more likely to avoid the undignified language that, as Don Herzog points out, can have unintended and undesirable consequences.

So, at the end, I suggest we not get our underwear in a twist about these pundit payoffs. We need to focus instead on the replacement of journalism with punditry, and the continuing influence of corporations over the raw information that we need to sustain healthy political discussions in a democracy.

January 24, 2005

Accusations of treason fall easily from the lips

Of the many unsavory influences that the so-called "war on terror" has had on our political culture, the eagerness of some (mostly conservative) commentators to accuse other citizens of "treason" is perhaps the most pernicious.

The latest example comes from Stephen Bainbridge:

A report by Barton Gellman in yesterday's Washington Post revealed the existence of battlefield intelligence units within the Pentagon that work directly with Special Operations forces on counterterrorism missions. Now it's all over the MSM...
["MSM" = "mainstream media" -- conservative code used to refer to the New York Times, CNN, etc. Basically, MSM refers to every major news organization except for FoxNews and the Wall Street Journal.]
Did the Pentagon intend to disclose this program or did only to do so in response to Gellman's investigation? If the latter, why isn't his conduct basically treasonous? Did he put personal self-interest as a journalist ahead of the national security? If operatives are killed or missions blown as a result of this story, will Gellman feel any remorse? If the countries named in his story as targets of the missions pull out of the war on terror, will Gellman accept any responsibility for the resulting harm to our national security? I think he and his fellow members of the MSM owe us answers to these questions.
Treason is a serious charge, and yet it seems to fall so easily from the tongue of folks like Bainbridge. He seems incapable of recognizing that many things other than Gellman's "self-interest as a journalist" may have motivated the article. Public service, for one thing.

Unlike dictatorships and tyrannies, democracies can only work well when citizens have enough information to pass judgment on their leaders. Our current leaders have arguably damaged our national security with a ill-considered invasion of Iraq, in support of which the Bush administration mislead the American people by alleging connections between that country and Al Qaeda, and by mischaracterizing uncertain intelligence as a "slam-dunk" case showing that Iraq had stockpiles of WMDs such that it constituted an "imminent threat."

Given this recent history, American citizens have a vital interest in learning that the Bush administration is continuing to rewrite law and custom to make itself less accountable to the Congress and to the American people:

Pentagon officials emphasized their intention to remain accountable to Congress, but they also asserted that defense intelligence missions are subject to fewer legal constraints than Rumsfeld's predecessors believed. That assertion involves new interpretations of Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which governs the armed services, and Title 50, which governs, among other things, foreign intelligence.

Under Title 10, for example, the Defense Department must report to Congress all "deployment orders," or formal instructions from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to position U.S. forces for combat. But guidelines issued this month by Undersecretary for Intelligence Stephen A. Cambone state that special operations forces may "conduct clandestine HUMINT operations . . . before publication" of a deployment order, rendering notification unnecessary. Pentagon lawyers also define the "war on terror" as ongoing, indefinite and global in scope. That analysis effectively discards the limitation of the defense secretary's war powers to times and places of imminent combat.

Under Title 50, all departments of the executive branch are obliged to keep Congress "fully and currently informed of all intelligence activities." The law exempts "traditional . . . military activities" and their "routine support." Advisers said Rumsfeld, after requesting a fresh legal review by the Pentagon's general counsel, interprets "traditional" and "routine" more expansively than his predecessors.

"Operations the CIA runs have one set of restrictions and oversight, and the military has another," said a Republican member of Congress with a substantial role in national security oversight, declining to speak publicly against political allies. "It sounds like there's an angle here of, 'Let's get around having any oversight by having the military do something that normally the [CIA] does, and not tell anybody.' That immediately raises all kinds of red flags for me. Why aren't they telling us?"

The essence of dictatorship is that the dictator alone decides what is in the nation's best interest, and what actions are necessary for national security. One of the burdens of democracy is that our government is accountable to the people for these decisions. This is one reason why we enacted laws requiring the CIA to submit to a certain amount of Congressional oversight; another reason was to prevent our government from abusing covert operations.

Gellman has told us the story of the Bush administration's attempt to circumvent these laws. This is not treason, it's patriotism. It may turn out that there are good reasons for the administration to give the Defense Department greater control over covert ops, but that decision is not for the executive branch to make unilaterally.

January 22, 2005

A radical inauguration

President Bush's second inaugural speech may well turn out to be one of the most important speeches in our nation's history. It was certainly eloquent enough to stand alongside the speeches of Kennedy and Roosevelt, if not quite those of Lincoln.*

The thing that struck me most powerfully about the speech, though, was how un-conservative it was.

There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.

It used to be that conservatives distinguished themselves from Marxists by their scorn for junk concepts like the "forces" of history. Apparently, no longer. While the Marxists proclaimed that the forces of history would result in the end of class struggle, Bush enlists these same forces to proclaim the approaching "end" of tyranny. Ending tyranny would be like ending sloth and envy. It's a radical utopian dream, which would require a transformation of human nature far more radical than anything the Marxists ever dreamed of.

Inauguration speeches are occasions for overblown rhetoric, but every political creed can draw on their own rhetorical tradition for suitable excesses. Why does Bush use the rhetoric of the radicals?

We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events.

Bush acknowledges here that human beings are responsible for historical events. Why, then, should he have "complete confidence" in their eventual outcome? Real conservatives ought to recognize a bone when it's thrown to them. Conservatives have always been the last people to have "complete confidence" in the outcome of human endeavors on this earth. This is because most conservatives would agree with what Elrond said in Peter Jackson's version of the Lord of the Rings: "Men are weak."

Bush can have complete confidence about the human future only if he doesn't really believe that stuff about human responsibility. Which means that either (a) Bush is really an old-time radical who believes in the perfectibility of mankind, or that (b) the "triumph of freedom" he talks about isn't really a human endeavor after all.

Some I know have questioned the global appeal of liberty, though this time in history -- four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen -- is an odd time for doubt.

It may be true that Bush is a leftist radical in conservative clothing, but the better explanation for his lack of any doubt about the future is his fervent belief that God is guiding his hand.

Our President's fervent beliefs about what God is up to aren't due merely to his Christianity. Many Christians are much more comfortable than Bush is with the idea that God's actions in this world are indirect. Humans were made by God, and the nature and timing of the end of the world will be decided by God, but the time in between is mostly up to us. Christians of this sort can afford to be confident about the afterworld, but not about this world. Human free will makes earthly life a crapshoot, where doubt and uncertainty are as necessary for survival as breathing in and breathing out.

If, however, you think the lines between the earthly and the heavenly realms are blurred, you might plausibly achieve the level of confidence about human events exemplified by George W. Bush.

When our founders declared a new order of the ages, when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty, when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner "Freedom Now," they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled.

History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of liberty.

It's no wonder that Colin Powell is no longer a member of Bush's cabinet. His realism and doubt was incompatible with Bush's fervent belief in a God who "means" our hopes to be fullfilled on earth, and who "authors" not only our liberty but our history as well. I've heard that Colin Powell is quite a religious man, but Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld (both of whom are quite possibly areligious) are a far better fit for the Bush cabinet than Powell.

To the extent that Bush intends to serve as God's right-hand man in His inevitable plan to end tyranny and fulfill ancient hopes of freedom, the worldly, neoconservative faith in bombs, covert operations, and interrogations free from court oversight is much easier to live with on a day-to-day basis. Bush, for his reasons, and Cheney, for his, share the same overt hostility towards doubt and reflection.

Seymour Hersh has an article in this week's New Yorker about this lack of doubt in the White House:

Despite the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, the Bush Administration has not reconsidered its basic long-range policy goal in the Middle East: the establishment of democracy throughout the region.
If the mess in Iraq will not give this administration pause, it's unlikely that any arguments against "bold action" in Iran will carry much weight with our President or his advisers either. We'd better hope that Bush is right about God's plan, and that Tom Friedman is right that "many young people [in Iran] apparently hunger for Mr. Bush to remove their despotic leaders, the way he did in Iraq."

Forgive me, Lord, but I'm doubtful.

* It was at least an eloquently written speech. Bush might have bungled the actual speaking part. Prof. Bainbridge reports: "It was poorly delivered, even by Bush's minimal standards. He consistently accented the wrong words and mucked up the flow. There was no grace to his speaking style whatsoever; indeed, he seemed to be going through an unpleasant exercise.

January 21, 2005

Maryland governor shows signs of life

Ehrlich Gives Public Colleges a Lift
Private Schools Are Allotted Less Than State Formula Suggests

By David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page B01

Maryland's public colleges and universities received a boost from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s budget this week, in the form of a $43 million funding increase that school system leaders say should help rein in soaring tuition costs.

But for the 17 private colleges that receive state dollars, the governor's spending plan represents the fourth straight year that the state has provided significantly less money than recommended by a state formula -- funds that advocates say are vital to the overall well-being of the state's higher education.

Chip DiPaula Jr., Ehrlich's budget secretary, said the state's chronic budget shortfalls in recent years have forced leaders to "focus on its core missions and responsibilities."

The disparity between public and private institutions has opened debate about whether Maryland's decades-long commitment to funding the entire spectrum of higher education institutions is wavering.

If this reporter is going to make declining state support for private colleges in Maryland the focus of the article, he should have given us more details about Maryland's "decades-long commitment" to funding private schools. What is the state formula based upon? Do any other states have formulas like Maryland's?

It seems to me the real "news" here is that Gov. Ehrlich is responding to higher tuitions at public colleges with more state support--a rare thing in this era of state cutbacks. The loud complaining on the part of private schools like Johns Hopkins just blurs the real issue, which is whether our state governments will remain committed to funding their own public institutions.

January 20, 2005

Bill Frist: Health Care in the 21st Century

Bill Frist is exercising a lot of restraint these days. For example, in his recent article ($$) about the future of healthcare published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Frist manages to resist any mention of the "marketplace" until the 48th word.

It might have been this extraordinary display of self-control on Frist's part that convinced me to read the rest of his article with an open mind. Whatever it was, I found that I agreed with most of what Frist wrote. I know it's weird, but I might even say that I shared his vision. Of course, we shouldn't get too carried away; I'm referring only to what Frist described in his article, which might be quite different from what's in his heart of hearts. (He is, after all, a Republican politician.)

Certain details in Frist's vision of the future are quite frightening, most of them having to do with some guy named Rodney, who "chooses" to have a "tiny, radio-frequency computer chip implanted in his abdomen that monitors his blood chemistries and blood pressure." To whom will this chip report, pray tell? Rodney's insurer? Frist neglects to say.

But apart from these (horrifying) details, I share many of Frist's common-sense aspirations for the American health-care system. For example, I'd love to have a system that was "responsive primarily to individual consumers, rather than to third-party payers." Hallelujah! Personal responsibility is as good for the average McDonald's eating, chain-smoking couch potato as it is for Dennis Koslowski, Ken Lay, and Martha Stewart. Isn't it?

Most importantly, Frist acknowledges that we must provide access to health care for everyone. Forget for a moment that this is the Republican Senate majority leader, and listen to this:

"First, we must agree on a guiding principle: all Americans deserve the security of lifelong, affordable access to high-quality health care. Despite pockets of tremendous quality, we are a long way today from realizing the goal of secure, lifelong, affordable access to quality health care for all. . . .

"The focus of the 21st-century health care system must be the patient. Such a system will ensure that patients have access to the safest and highest-quality care, regardless of how much they earn, where they live, how sick they are, or the color of their skin. . . .

"Organizing a system primarily around the needs of consumers and patients does not mean that people should simply go it alone. Government plays a crucial role. . . . [Government] must also provide a sturdy safety net with basic protections and additional assistance for the physically, mentally, or financially vulnerable. . . .

"The government must enroll all 5.6 million children eligible for Medicaid and S-CHIP within 24 months through a combination of streamlined enrollment procedures, increased financial incentives for outreach programs, and a new national "Cover the Kids" enrollment campaign. . . .

"To make sure every vulnerable American who needs health care gets health care, the United States will always need a strong safety net. The capacity of our community health centers should be doubled over the next 10 years, and sufficient resources should be allocated to maintaining the network of these centers. . . .

This kind of language reminds me of how fortunate we are to have Ted Kennedy Bill Frist in the Senate.

Frist, surprisingly, has enough breath left to wax poetic about things other than universal health care. Electronic medical records get a big boost. (See THCB for interesting commentary.) One of the better ideas from John Kerry's presidential campaign is resurrected--a "Healthy Mae" to administer a secondary market for health insurance. I'd have passed out if Frist had suggested amending ERISA 502(a)(3) to provide for consequential damages in lawsuits against welfare benefit plan fiduciaries, but I'm nothing if not a realist. I realize that even the most hard-core progressives have to take things one step at a time.

Some Democrats, undoubtedly, will suspect that Frist's words are just rhetoric. I know, I know, but that's politics for you. These worriworts might consider that the easiest way to make sure that Frist doesn't forget what he claims to stand for--health care for all--is for the Democrats to work with him to make this vision a reality. It's the perfect opportunity for bipartisanship, and you know how much the American people miss bipartisanship these days. Heck, between the Democrats helping out Frist on healthcare, and the fiscally conservative Republicans breaking with Bush and opposing Social Security privatization, George W. Bush's second term might just begin to overflow with bipartisanship.

At least, until our President decides to invade Iran.

January 18, 2005

Law school privatization, again

Brian Leiter posts National Jurist data on law school tuition hikes. Unsurprisingly, state schools are at the front of the pack as they struggle with declining support from state government.

In lieu of public funding, some of these law schools are aggressively supplementing tuition revenue with private funds. Wings&Vodka describes what this means.

January 15, 2005

Marie Antoinette

Laura Bush has modernized Marie Antoinette's "let them eat cake" defense of privilege in the face of suffering:

WASHINGTON, Jan. 14 - With less than a week to go until her husband's second inauguration, Laura Bush on Friday defended the decision to hold the $40 million celebration as planned despite a war abroad and the tsunami disaster in the Indian Ocean.

Inaugurations, Mrs. Bush said, are "an important part of our history."

"They're a ceremony of our history; they're a ritual of our government," she said in a round-table interview with reporters in the White House map room. "And I think it's really important to have the inauguration every time. I think it's also good for Washington's economy, for people to come in from around the country, for the hotels to be full, and the restaurants to be full, and the caterers to be busy. I think that's important."

Our soldiers may be dying, and whole villages may have been washed away, but Laura, undistracted, still recognizes the value of full hotels and busy caterers.

Medical school tuition

Should we be worried about skyrocketing medical school tuition rates and ballooning debt for new doctors? An article in this week's NEJM says yes. The solutions it proposes reinforce my growing conviction that our society has abandoned any commitment it may once have had to ensuring equality of opportunity through education.

Gail Morrison, the Vice-Dean for Education at Penn's medical school, says tuition hikes contribute to two undesirable trends in medical education. First, medical students are increasingly drawn from affluent families, and second, graduates are choosing well-paid specialties partly because their debt loads are so high:

At the same time, for the past two decades, approximately 60 percent of medical students have come from families in the top quintile of income, with the bottom three quintiles together accounting for about 20 percent,3 arousing concern that medical education may be beyond the reach of students from middle-class and working-class families. A recent national survey of underrepresented students indicated that the cost of attending medical school was the number-one reason they did not apply. An Institute of Medicine report found that though Hispanics constituted 12 percent of the population, they accounted for only 3.5 percent of all physicians, and though 1 in 8 Americans is black, fewer than 1 in 20 physicians is black. Continuing this trend has far-reaching consequences for the national health care workforce, which needs diverse physicians in order to address the needs of an increasingly heterogeneous patient population.

Moreover, 32 percent of students who graduated in 2002 indicated that their level of debt influenced their choice of specialty. Indeed, the latest match conducted by the National Resident Matching Program shows a continuing decrease in the number of medical students pursuing careers in primary care (37 percent in 2003, as compared with 49 percent in 1997) and an increase in the number gravitating toward careers in radiology, orthopedics, ophthalmology, and dermatology, which offer higher discretionary income.

It's a reflection of our era that Morrison is pessimistic about finding solutions in state or federal government policies:
How do we stop this vicious circle of increasing tuition and student debt? Although the federal government contributes to undergraduate medical education by guaranteeing low-cost student loans, it needs to do more. Securing adequate funding for Title VII health professions programs, reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, expanding and protecting the National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program, and broadening the tax-exempt status of medical scholarships would ameliorate debt. But these initiatives may not be top priorities for a government dealing with war in Iraq, a growing national debt, and threats of terrorism.

State legislatures could provide additional financial support to public medical schools to enable them to cap tuition, allow tax deductions for interest on loans, and authorize more programs whereby new physicians can pay off loans in the form of state service. But most states are also facing a precarious financial balance.

Morrison suggests that in the absence of any governmental commitment or ability to assist, the burden rests entirely on individual medical schools to find ways to slow tuition hikes. Ironically, she suggests that schools pursue the same kinds of "de-facto privatization" that others have suggested as a way of allowing schools to raise tuition.

It's a shame that there seems to be no vigorous efforts to push back against the continuing withdrawal of community support for education. Perhaps it's a sign of Grover Norquist's governmental baby being almost drowned that no one dares to propose that government use tax revenue to subsidize tuition. It would have been fantastic if Morrison had pushed a little harder for government responsibility, instead of accepting as a fait accompli the sad fact that our government sees no problem in diverting tax revenue to our President's dubious adventure in Iraq, and that it prefers to watch the middle class slowly crumble rather than rethink its huge tax cuts for the super-wealthy.

I suppose, if the battle is already lost, that all medical schools, law schools, graduate schools, and colleges should immediately privatize themselves. They should all start chasing after private donors to raise their endowments and abandon the myth that there are any such thing as "public" schools in this country. At least this might allow the schools themselves to survive. Whether it will do anything to protect against the inequities that Morrison's article complains of is much more uncertain.

January 14, 2005


Our government's infatuation with military preemption is one of the worst consequences of the Bush presidency. Even if George W. Bush was being honest when he said that his invasion of Iraq was part of the "war on terror," the aftermath of the invasion has certainly been a monumental setback for the United States. The Washington Post's Dana Priest provides a juicy overview of a new report by the National Intelligence Council, which describes how Iraq has eclipsed Afghanistan as a breeding ground for terrorists.

Low's comments came during a rare briefing by the council on its new report on long-term global trends. It took a year to produce and includes the analysis of 1,000 U.S. and foreign experts. Within the 119-page report is an evaluation of Iraq's new role as a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists.

President Bush has frequently described the Iraq war as an integral part of U.S. efforts to combat terrorism. But the council's report suggests the conflict has also helped terrorists by creating a haven for them in the chaos of war.

"At the moment," NIC Chairman Robert L. Hutchings said, Iraq "is a magnet for international terrorist activity."

Bush's little adventure in Iraq has hurt the United States in the "war on terror." It's also been a disastrous demonstration of the kind of preemptive strike that Bush embraced in his post 9-11 National Security Strategy. The United States has sunk itself in a quagmire of its own making, for the sake of preemptively striking a nation with no WMDs and which did not ever constitute an "imminent threat." In exchange for all this, we've created the world's most fertile breeding ground for the Islamic terrorists who do constitute an imminent threat.

I'm glad George W. Bush recognizes the value of "resolve," because it's about the only thing his policies have left us. Unfortunately, resolve won't do us any good until we pick the right things to be resolved about.

Bush still wants to spread "democracy" and "freedom" at gunpoint--which is not surprising given his simplistic belief that "freedom is the non-negotiable demand of human dignity; the birthright of every personin every civilization." This language warms the heart and stirs the soul, but it doesn't tell us anything. What kinds of freedom are non-negotiable? Is war the only alternative to negotiation? Bush hasn't troubled himself with these questions, and our soldiers are paying the price for their president's lack of curiosity.

In some ways this report put out by the National Intelligence Council is an antidote to the naivete of Bush's National Security Strategy. It describes the real effects of some real acts inspired by that strategy, and shows how the U.S. has suffered because of them. In other ways, though, the report isn't very helpful. For example, it remains too uncritical of preemption as a security strategy. From the report's Section 4:

Until strategic defenses become as strong as strategic offenses, there will be great premiums associated with the ability to expand conflicts geographically in order to deny an attacker sanctuary. Moreover, a number of recent high-technology conflicts have demonstrated that the outcomes of early battles of major conflicts most often determine the success of entire campaigns. Under these circumstances, military experts believe preemption is likely to appear necessary for strategic success.
This language is entirely useless. It doesn't explain why it might be so important to be the attacker in an "early battle," and it ignores the lessons of Iraq that preemptive attack is often based on false beliefs of imminent danger and may leave the attacker in a worse strategic position.

But enough of this. The fact is that Bush decided to invade Iraq, and the American people have decided that Bush should deal with the consequences of his decision. The important thing now is what Bush does next. Mere "resolve" is not an answer. The status quo is unsustainable.

January 04, 2005

Privatization of higher education continues

The privatization of this country's institutions of higher learning continues apace. The Legal Reader highlights an LA Times article about Boalt dean Christopher Edley's response to continued cuts in state funding for California's flagship public law school. The bottom line: Boalt must seek private money to replace lost public funding, but it can't succeed unless private donors can be assured that the school will dance to their tune and not to the state's. As Edley puts it, Boalt should be able to "eat what it kills."

On a campus where departments expect to rank among the best, the law school has fallen out of the top 10 in some national ratings. Its nonresident tuition has soared to match the priciest private institutions. It is losing faculty to rivals and has outgrown its aged buildings.

As Edley points out, state money has faded from 60% of Boalt's budget in 1994 to 30%. That has been offset mainly by higher tuition: California residents pay just under $22,000 a year to attend the law school, about double the rate four years ago. Annual out-of-state tuition is nearly $34,000.

The same thing is happening to public medical schools. My own alma mater, the University of Colorado School of Medicine, is seeking "enterprise status," which will enable it to raise tuition as much as necessary to cover the loss of state funding. Dean Richard Krugman writes in the most recent issue of the alumni magazine that tuition revenue has exceeded State support for the first time in more than a century, and that this "de-facto privatization of higher education in our state has received no substantive response by the public, the Governor, or the legislature."

The privatization of higher education doesn't get as much media attention as, say, the privatization of Social Security, but its consequences may turn out to be more significant. Higher education has always been the ticket to socioeconomic mobility in America. A college or graduate degree is even more important for retaining a foothold in the middle class in the face of economic globalization. And yet we are choosing, bit by bit, to limit access to higher education only to those whose families are already wealthy. As states limit access to their public universities, the federal government chooses to make financial aid harder to get.

This is a recipe for disaster. One of the reasons why class warfare is so muted in this country is that everyone here believes that anyone can succeed and grow rich. Universal access to higher education was always a critical reason why this American myth was rooted in some kind of reality. I wonder how long the AM-radio demogogues can keep the myth alive after the reality ceases to exist.

January 02, 2005

Health care in rural areas

Our rural areas might be the canary in our health insurance coal mine. Today's Denver Post has an article describing how some rural physicians in Colorado are beginning to take single-payer national health insurance seriously:

A Nebraska-bred country boy, a Republican- voting, ranch-owning, small-town doctor, he hardly fits the profile of a wild-eyed revolutionary. But White and a handful of cohorts are, in fact, trying to foment upheaval.

The revolution they are proposing: a national health-insurance program. Nothing short of that will fix what White calls "our god-awful broken system." White says he didn't jump to this conclusion. He was pushed.

Pushed by the same forces that plague health care across the country: steep insurance premiums; soaring prescription-drug costs; 45 million Americans without health insurance; bureaucracy; and Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements that don't cover costs.

The problems facing rural areas are fundamentally the same as those facing urban and suburban regions. The growing number of uninsured patients drives up the costs of health care for patients with insurance, and simultaneously drives down reimbursement rates to physicians and hospitals (the so-called 'death spiral'). The only winners in our current system of private health insurance markets are the big nationwide insurers like Aetna.

Rural areas, with their stripped-down roster of players in the health-care industry (employers, insurers, hospitals, etc.), differ from the rest of the country only because it's easier to see what's going on. The pool of wealthy patients that can afford to pay their ever-increasing health care insurance premiums is smaller in rural areas. Fewer people in rural areas can afford to indulge their ideological preferences as a means of postponing the ultimate confrontation with the problems of our private health insurance system (and with the problems of our public insurance systems, Medicare and Medicaid).

We might hope that rural America might begin to push for national health insurance, but I remain skeptical. Rural support for George W. Bush suggests that we shouldn't underestimate the power of ideology to override common sense. Patients will continue to lose their insurance, insurers will continue to leave rural markets altogether, physicians will continue to see their reimbursements shrink and will themselves continue to relocate to more lucrative locations, hospitals will continue to close.

Based on what we've seen in the last elections, though, none of this will matter. The power of the AM-radio demogogues will keep our rural population in thrall to the extreme free-market ideology that's responsible for their health care woes. And the Democrats won't offer any real alternative, so long as they allow themselves to be led by the Clintonesque DLC under the leadership of people like Al From.

Our rural areas may be our health-care canaries, but they're not going to be our health-care saviors.

December 11, 2004

Social Security privatization

Aaron Larson over at The Stopped Clock has a nice response to David Brooks' column in today's NYT. Brooks equates opposition to Bush's scheme to privatize Social Security with a generalized hostility to "the market." Larson sees through this:

So obviously I'm not one of Brooks' mythic people who opposes this faux "reform" because I am "instinctively" suspicious of the market. It is because I am sufficiently knowledgeable of the market, and of pork barrel politics, government budgeting and long-term financial projections, to be inherently skeptical of this type of "privatization".
I agree with Larson's perceptive list of reasons for rejecting privatization, except for his #1 and #2.

1. Some people will lose out, big time. Investing in the markets is a "zero sum game" - for everybody who makes a dollar, somebody else loses a dollar.

If markets succeed at allocating wealth to productive uses, then everyone could conceivably win. It's not necessarily a zero-sum game, but of course it is a game where some people could lose.

2. Nobody is going to manage these accounts 'for free'.

Well, that's technically true, but it isn't a sufficient reason to reject privatization. The reason fees are a problem is that they may be so high that investors don't realize the putative benefits of their investment, and/or that the prospect of such fees corrupts the decision to privatize Social Security. Larson identifies this last point, though, so this is just a minor quibble.

December 10, 2004


Mark Schmitt over at the Decembrist posts a searching commentary on Peter Beinart's suggestions for the democratic party.

While Schmitt is a bit more sympathetic with Beinart's views than I am, he does put the smack-down on the idea that the Democrats should renounce Michael Moore,, and everyone else who opposed the war in Afghanstan.

There exist true pacifists, Esperanto-speakers, and Level 5 vegans who won't eat anything that casts a shadow, as well as garden-variety infantile leftists. Is it my problem that they find the Democratic Party marginally more congenial to their views than the crazy-interventionist Republican Party?? Why is it my obligation to renounce them?
Read the whole thing. Meanwhile, I need to tear myself away from the blogs and study for my final exams(.)

[Oops. I was such a hurry I forgot the period...]
[So I'm compensating with ellipses.]

December 08, 2004

Al From or Howard Dean?

DLC leaders Al From and Bruce Reed describe where they'd like to take the Democrats in an op-ed piece in today's Wall Street Journal ($$ or 2004 WL-WSJ 98743742 if you have Westlaw). Coincidentally, former Vermont governor Howard Dean delivered a major speech today outlining his own vision for the party. It's easy to see after comparing these two statements that the Democrats have a real choice to make.

It is ironic if nothing else that From and Reed would announce their agenda on the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal. Their solution to the electoral woes of the Democrats consists, predictably, of quickly moving to occupy the still-warm spot on the political spectrum so recently vacated by the Republicans, before that party made their most recent shift to the right.* This "DLC shuffle" has become such a frequent feature of our political experience that it's almost become a caricature--almost. According to From and Reed, the Democrats need to "come to terms with the main reason we lost the red states: too many Americans doubt whether Democrats will be tough enough in the war on terror."

If that's true, the solution would seem to be for the Democrats to find more effective ways of persuading people that fighting to preserve civil rights, and upholding the rule of law, is a grittier and more courageous response to terrorism than unilateral war in Iraq and authoritarian secrecy at home. Despite From and Reed's quite sensible suggestion that the Democrats "put the same muscle into persuasion that we put into turnout," these DLC mavens seem to have forgotten that "persuasion" can't be an end in itself. First, you must believe in what you're trying to persuade people of. The DLC and Bill Clinton have defined the Democrats as the party that stands for nothing. Their only ideal is the electoral strategy of "triangulation," where the Democrats win the Presidency at the expense of their principles. (NAFTA? DADT? "End welfare as we know it?" Pardon Marc Rich?)

The Republicans have courted their base and have persuaded the country from the strength of their convictions to follow them further and further to the right. Al From and Bruce Reed seem to miss the lesson. The only people they seem to dislike more than Republicans is their own base: "to be a grass-roots national party again, we have to realize that grass won't grow in the desert."

The Democrats would do better to listen to Howard Dean:

What I want to know is at what point did it become a radical notion to stand up for what we believe?

Over fifty years ago, Harry Truman said, "We are not going to get anywhere by trimming or appeasing. And we don't need to try it." Yet here we are still making the same mistakes.

Let me tell you something: there's only one thing Republican power brokers want more than for us to lurch to the left -- and that's for us to lurch to the right. What they fear most is that we may really begin fighting for what we believe -- the fiscally responsible, socially progressive values for which Democrats have always stood and fought. . . .

It is time for the Democratic Party to start framing the debate. We have to learn to punch our way off the ropes. We have to set the agenda.

Nothing could be more clear than that the Democrats will never "set the agenda" so long as people like Al From lead the party. He and his DLC brethren have overstayed their welcome; they should be politely escorted off the stage and into retirement as soon as possible. Perhaps they could bend their powers of persuasion toward getting the Wall Street Journal to offer them a regular columnist spot. Who knows. They'd do far less damage to the Democrats if their right-wing criticism came from outside the party.

The Democrats will not miss them. The party has a wealth of potential leaders, not least among them Howard Dean. Dean has a track record, you may remember, of setting the agenda. He championed universal health care in Vermont for years. He still champions it now. Dean was the only major Democratic candidate in the primaries to unambiguously oppose the war in Iraq. That's what it means to set the agenda. Dean is not the only person who can lead a rejuvenated Democratic party, but he is a good example of the kind of person the party badly needs at the helm. Al From and Bruce Reed may be great people, but they are not the kind of people who lead the Democrats out of the wilderness.

Before the Democrats can win back the country, they have to win back their party.

*Ignoring for the moment that Bush is far more radical than he is conservative.

December 06, 2004

Democratic foreign policy

To paraphrase Edward Abbey, when I hear the words "new liberalism," I reach for my .357. The kind of liberalism we need is the old one, the one that the Democrats have all but forgotten.

Howard Dean has announced that he'll be giving a major speech on Wednesday about the future of the Democratic party. I suspect, and hope, that Dean's recommendations will help to crystallize a foreign policy platform that's quite different from the "new liberal" approach embraced by Peter Beinart.

Beinart says:

On health care, gay rights, and the environment, there is a positive vision, articulated with passion. But there is little liberal passion to win the struggle against Al Qaeda--even though totalitarian Islam has killed thousands of Americans and aims to kill millions; and even though, if it gained power, its efforts to force every aspect of life into conformity with a barbaric interpretation of Islam would reign terror upon women, religious minorities, and anyone in the Muslim world with a thirst for modernity or freedom.
Beinart gets it exactly wrong on both foreign and domestic policy. Domestically, the liberals have done their best to sideline the few of them who have advanced a positive vision with passion. As for the struggle against al Qaeda, the liberals (sans Christopher Hitchens, if anyone still gives him that label) have been the only people who haven't forgotten that one of our most potent weapons against stateless terror groups is our "soft power."

As the terrorists are sending forth their suicide bombers and fomenting chaos, the most effective response the U.S. can make is to model the opposite kind of behavior, which most of us would call "civilized." This means abiding by the rule of law, using military force only when necessary and only against targets that cannot be dealt with better in any other way (such as, arguably, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan), and demonstrating what it means to be a responsible member of the international community.

(Julie Saltman's responses to Beinart here and here are both on-target.)

November 13, 2004

That's what I'm talking about

I've tried occasionally to describe what I call the "agrarian" state of mind.

Scheherazade does it better.

I'm not trying to label anyone; I'm just saying that this love of place, which can flourish in Manhattan as well as in Wyoming, is the central feature of what I've been calling agrarianism. Start with the love of place, and everything else follows--all the politics and policies and arguments.


David Brooks gives me the creeps with his calls for Bush to punish his "enemies" in the CIA:

Now that he's been returned to office, President Bush is going to have to differentiate between his opponents and his enemies. His opponents are found in the Democratic Party. His enemies are in certain offices of the Central Intelligence Agency. . .

If we lived in a primitive age, the ground at Langley would be laid waste and salted, and there would be heads on spikes. As it is, the answer to the C.I.A. insubordination is not just to move a few boxes on the office flow chart. . .

It is time to reassert some harsh authority so C.I.A. employees know they must defer to the people who win elections, so they do not feel free at meetings to spout off about their contempt of the White House, so they do not go around to their counterparts from other nations and tell them to ignore American policy.

It's hard for me to tell what it is about Brooks' piece that gives me the willies. I don't disagree that insubordinate behavior should result in some kind of discipline. Maybe it's the way Brooks is so willing to use the word "enemies," the same word we use to describe the al Qaeda terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center. This implied equivalence is at best intellectually unhelpful, at worst it's downright dangerous.

Brooks implies that a CIA employee's highest obligation is to the President. This sounds right, but isn't it also true that as citizens, their highest obligation ought to be to the nation? If the President is misrepresenting the available intelligence to persuade the nation to go to war, what responsibilities to the nation do employees of the CIA have? Perhaps they should be fired for leaking information, but perhaps the nation ought to commend their courage for choosing their country over their jobs. Labeling them the President's "enemies" is misleading and dangerous.

Still uncomfortable with Brooks' piece, I turned to an article about the resignation of CIA #2 John McLaughlin. Porter Goss, the man Bush picked to head the agency after the departure of George Tenet, is shaking up the CIA's top leadership:

Mr. Goss, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, became director of central intelligence in late September and has unnerved many career officials at the C.I.A. by installing four former House Republican officials in senior advisory positions.
Why does this give me the willies too? Shakeups can be good for any organization, and there's no reason to think that Goss hasn't picked qualified people whom he trusts will do a good job.

Maybe it's just the residue from Brooks' call for a CIA purge. Maybe it's just the words "House Republican officials." Why does all this sound so creepy? Somehow I don't think the CIA can be effective when it's politicized, but it seems like that's the direction we're headed.

November 12, 2004

State pressure on churches?

Jordan Fowles has posted a thoughtful reply to my question for Irish Law: why should members of a particular religious faith worry about whether the government allows same-sex marriage? After all, the state wouldn't be dictating to the churches which kinds of marriage they should recognize, right?

Well, maybe wrong. As Jordan points out, it's not easy to keep the realms of church and state entirely separate.

November 11, 2004


I'm from Colorado, and I'm proud of it. Usually, though, my pride comes from the state's physical beauty. (Yeah, that's got nothing to do with me, but most of our parochial prides suffer from this same flaw.) The state's politics and culture have rarely given me much to be proud of. I grew up in Colorado Springs, which was uber-conservative in the Orange County mode long before it welcomed James C. Dobson's Focus on the Family and a flood of smaller wingnut fundamentalist groups. Instead, I centered my cultural and civilizational pride on my "adopted" home city of Chicago. (Obama!)

Now, though, Colorado's voters are making me proud of something other than mountains. Sure, they voted for George W. Bush, and that's disappointing. But Colorado is no Utah, and it's no Oklahoma.

Continue reading "Colorado" »

November 10, 2004

Leavitt's EPA the NCGA's monkey?

The Washington Post reports that the EPA is responding dismissively to a suggestion by a NAFTA panel that suggests Oaxacan campesinos in Mexico are entitled to a little deference. First, the EPA is failing to respect the basic dignity, let alone the property rights, of the Mexican farmers. Second--the EPA?? Mexican farmers? Shouldn't Mike Leavitt be worrying about our environment or something?

Continue reading "Leavitt's EPA the NCGA's monkey?" »

November 08, 2004


George W. Bush's reelection should cause us to take a hard look at the Democratic Leadership Council's record as custodian of the national Democratic party.

The DLC's self-styled "progressive" ideology has driven the Democratic party away from its working-class roots and into the arms of corporate technocrats, a position which has crippled the party's ability to appeal to average voters. Listen to this claptrap from the DLC's website:

New Democrats are the modernizers of the progressive tradition in American politics. We believe in the traditional values that have always propelled the Democratic Party and we believe that the best way to further those values in a new era is to modernize our policies and programs to keep up with the changing times.
What does this mean? The professed belief in "traditional values" that Democrats used to stand for is buried under an unrestrained enthusiasm for "modernization" in a "new era" to "keep up with the changing times." It's no surprise that voters don't often know what the Democrats stand for.

Thomas Frank has given us a comprehensible translation of this DLC mumbo-jumbo:

For some time, the centrist Democratic establishment in Washington has been enamored of the notion that, since the industrial age is ending, the party must forget about blue-collar workers and their issues and embrace the "professional" class. During the 2004 campaign these new, business-friendly Democrats received high-profile assistance from idealistic tycoons and openly embraced trendy management theory. They imagined themselves the "metro" party of cool billionaires engaged in some kind of cosmic combat with the square billionaires of the "retro" Republican Party.

The problem with speaking the language of values is that it tends to force you to confront what those values actually are. The DLC's values are those of the corporate class, the mega-entertainment industry (think Dianne Feinstein), and the well-to-do cosmopolitan professional class.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this, but we should be very clear about what we sacrifice when we allow the party to be guided by people who stand for Disney and Viacom. We lose any credibility we might have with the voters in Akron, Ohio who've lost their jobs to downsizing and "global competitiveness." We lose our credibility with average folks who've been told by the Republicans that, as Frank puts it, they're the "victims of a haughty overclass - 'liberals' - that makes our movies, publishes our newspapers, teaches our children, and hands down judgments from the bench."

Average folks aren't dumb. At least, they're no dumber than I am, and even my Bush-loathing self knows an "elitist liberal" when I see one. They run the DLC.

November 06, 2004

The power of persuasion

The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof is one of my favorite columnists, but this time he's talking nonsense. Arguing that the Democrats need to win more voters in the heartland, Kristof suggests something that sounds too much like surrender:

I wish that winning were just a matter of presentation. But it's not. It involves compromising on principles. Bill Clinton won his credibility in the heartland partly by going home to Little Rock during the 1992 campaign to preside over the execution of a mentally disabled convict named Ricky Ray Rector.

There was a moral ambiguity about Mr. Clinton's clambering to power over Mr. Rector's corpse. But unless Democrats compromise, they'll be proud and true and losers.

49% of America voted to get rid of an incumbent wartime President and Nicholas Kristof is suggesting that we abandon ship and start executing the retarded. If winning entails this kind of "compromise on principles," I'll remain a principled loser, thank you.

Ahem. I'm sure Kristof isn't suggesting any such thing, but his column reveals the dangers of his approach. "Jettison the base!" "Pander to the right-wing extremists!" No, Mr. Kristof, the Republicans will pander to their own base quite nicely. The Democrats need to be more attractive to the voters in the middle.

The question is, how? According to the DLC and people like Terry McAuliffe, the only way to capture voters in the middle is to move further to the right. But this approach has proven, again and again, to be a failure. Look at what the Republicans have done. By playing to their base, by unceasingly repeating the far-right mantras of people like Grover Norquist, they've managed over the past thirty years to move the whole country rightward. Their rhetoric was radical when they first started repeating it, over and over again, but now we've heard it so often that it sounds moderate. They attracted the middle by the power and energy with which they advocated their right-wing beliefs. You might even say that they persuaded some folks.

The Democrats, under the leadership of the DLC "centrists," have moved so far to the right that there's very little "center" left. They've abandoned the idea that corporations should be regulated for the public good; they've acquiesced to the idea that 45 million Americans living without health insurance is a minor glitch; they've stood by while inner-city poverty has deepened and a significant percentage of black males have been permanently incarcerated.

Bill Clinton is the exception that proves the rule. Yes, he won the Presidency by moving to the "center," but we got: failed health care reform, "don't-ask-don't-tell," and NAFTA. We got many of the welfare reforms that the right-wing was trying to get for years.

The Republicans want us to believe that the country moved to the right on its own, and found the Republicans waiting for it with open arms. But I think the reality is different: the Republicans took a firm stand, and called out to the country again and again, with courage and conviction. They believed in what they stood for. The country could see it. Forced to choose between a Democratic party who wasn't prepared to fight for anything, and a siren song of people with firm convictions, they did the reasonable thing. They moved to the right.

Can they be moved to the left again? I think so, because so much of what the left believes is appealing: dignity for all people, rich and poor. Equality for all people: gay, straight, black, white. The left could choose, as the Republicans did thirty years ago, to take a stand on these principles, and persuade the country of their goodness.

Or, they could listen to the DLC, and execute a few retarded people to pander to the heartland's worst instincts.

November 05, 2004

What one sows...

A conversation with a friend just now produced this almost-cliche:

"During his first term, Bush just threw feces. During his second term, the feces will start to land.

November 04, 2004

Rural voters

Ok, here we go. George W. Bush completely swept the rural parts of this country, and this has focused our attention on these habitually ignored (except for marketing purposes) residents of the "heartland." Stephen Bainbridge points out how eager the left is to vilify rural voters, and also (by way of his own eager identification with them), how eager the right is to put them on a pedestal. Both sides are doing these rural Bush voters an injustice.

Continue reading "Rural voters" »

Frustrated cities

Eighty-two percent of Manhattan voters cast their ballot for John Kerry. This article describes how disconsolate these voters are over the rest of the country's preference for George W. Bush. Well, not exactly the rest of the country--voters in other big cities wanted to get rid of Bush, too. In Chicago, 81 percent of voters favored Kerry. Atlanta voters went for Kerry by 73 percent; Denver voters by 70 percent, and even in mega-suburb Los Angeles, 63 percent of voters preferred John Kerry.

There were exceptions, of course. Harris County, Texas (Houston) went for Bush 55/45.

We have a dramatic rural/urban divide in this country.

November 03, 2004

Four more years...

Whoa. . .

The majority of American voters have chosen to re-elect George W. Bush.

It's not like the President Re-Elect hid anything from us; we knew about his policy goals and his methods for implementing them. We can't say, like we did last time, that we didn't really know how radical he is, how extreme, how willing he is to sacrifice procedural safeguards and open government. Nor can we say, like we did last time, that he has no mandate because he lost the popular vote and was installed by the Supreme Court.

This time, we know that the majority of American voters are comfortable enough with George W. Bush in the White house that they will drag themselves out of their homes and away from their TVs to vote for four more years of the same.

The question now is what to do about it. At this point I'm still walking around in a daze, but here are some (possibly incoherent) thoughts about where to go from here:

1) Confront and accept the fact that we are an effective minority. There may be a "silent majority" out there that agrees with us and hates Bush, but they will remain silent. Our efforts to rouse these hypothetical people were about as effective this time around as they are ever likely to get, so don't count on any nascent progressive grass-roots movements to change our electoral fortunes anytime soon.

2) Since the Republicans have demonstrated that they need not fear the Democratic Party, don't expect the Democrats to solve our Bush problem. We might want to ask why the Democrats have become irrelevant. Some will say that the Democrats need to "move to the center," but I wonder if this isn't just a euphemism for "we can't beat 'em, so we'll join 'em." The problem in this election was that there wasn't much of a center to move to--if anything, John Kerry didn't inspire any passion because he was so busy pandering to the non-existent center that he ignored his own base. There may indeed be some common ground out there, but we won't find it somewhere between the current Republican and Democratic parties.

3) If George W. Bush was a divisive and polarizing President when he had no mandate, we should plan for even more divisive behavior now that he does. We'd better dig in, keep our eyes on the Federal Register, and pray. More specifically, we should consider doing what we can to support individuals and groups that serve as watchdogs. Sending a check to Public Citizen, the NRDC, or the EFF might be a good idea.

4) When our country sets out on the road to re-electing George W. Bush, there's a lot to be afraid of. Barbarism, fascism, and theocracy are the ultimate stops along that road. But they're still a long, long, way ahead. 50% of the country is still unwilling to buy a ticket on the Bush-mobile, and that's a reassuring thought. So don't get depressed. Look at those blue areas. There are still some islands of good judgment left.

5) Democracy was never a tool for making good decisions, just legitimate ones. If we make the mistake of condemning the people who voted for George W. Bush, we're making a mistake. They're no less wise, intelligent, or concerned for the country than we are. But we do have a sound basis for being very angry with them--especially those who voted for Bush but who aren't committed social conservatives. What were they thinking? We need to be able to get angry at them without condemning them as stupid, shortsighted, or selfish.

November 02, 2004

Back from Ohio

I just returned from 13 hours of poll monitoring at a working-class precinct in Toledo, Ohio.

It was cold and rainy all day, but the turnout was still very high--perhaps higher than 70%. I've heard reports from Denver that despite bitter cold temperatures early this morning, there were still long lines of people willing to endure the cold to vote before work. The radio reports say that this kind of thing was happening across the country.

Today was the first time I've ever volunteered for any election activities; most of the other people who were volunteering with me at the same precinct also claimed to be volunteer virgins. And there were a lot of us--observers inside and outside the polls as well as "get-out-the-vote" teams and rovers moving from precinct to precinct.

This election was very important to a lot of people. And so far, it seems like the country is, if anything, even more regionally polarized than it was in 2000. If a state was blue last time, it's blue by a bigger margin this time around. Ditto for red states. The amount of common ground between the two parties seems to be shrinking. Regardless of how the major swing states go tonight, we're going to have to deal with this intensifying cultural divide for at least another four years.

I'm clear about which side of this divide I stand. So I'll probably be volunteering for more elections in the future, win or lose tonight. But election victories are only temporary, and they aren't conclusive. Lasting "victory" can only come through persuasion--either us of them or them of us. We've got to find some common ground. That, however, is a job for tomorrow.

Tonight, let's have a few big swing states tip for Kerry so I can start celebrating!

November 01, 2004

Thank you, Wal-Mart

Today's NYT reports that Wal-Mart, the nation's largest employer, provides health insurance to only 58 percent of its "eligible" work force. Full-time workers have to wait 6 months to become eligible, and part-timers have to wait 2 years. These rules, plus the high turnover in the service industry, explains why Wal-Mart only covers 45 percent of its total workforce.

And you wonder where the low prices come from.

In our euphemistically-called "system" of health care, employment is the surest route to health insurance. Except if you're employed by Wal-Mart. Since Wal-Mart is the employer everyone else is trying to emulate--gaining market share by slashing prices, which is only possible by slashing labor costs--our entire employment-based health insurance system is probably heading in the direction of Wal-Martization. Only 45 percent coverage, that kind of thing.

Before we condemn Wal-Mart, we should consider that it may be doing us a favor. If its growing refusal to shoulder the burdens of health care coverage for its employees leads us to reevaluate our employment-based insurance system, we might want to say 'thank you.' Economic conditions in this country have changed dramatically since employment-based health coverage was instituted on a large scale in the middle of the last century. Jobs are not as permanent as they were before, and employers are under more global competitive pressures to keep prices (and labor costs) low. It makes much less sense now to expect employers to be the ticket to health insurance for America's population.

If employers don't do it, though, who should? In my opinion, that's a no-brainer. The United States should try to have the courage to resist its fear of creeping Communism, and recognize that the government is the proper entity to offer basic, universal health coverage to all its citizens.

With Wal-Mart sending its employees to "the state" for coverage, this is quickly becoming a fait accompli.

October 31, 2004


It should come as no surprise that this blog supports John Kerry.

Continue reading "Enblogment" »

October 30, 2004

Poll monitoring

A tremendous number of students at my law school (e.g. Denise, Heidi, and many others) have volunteered to monitor the polls on Tuesday. Democrat, Republican, and none of the above--everyone wants to see this election go down right.

I went to a "large meeting" today in Ohio as part of the Kerry campaign's poll monitoring efforts. Some things I heard scared me--it would be so easy to create chaos at the polls if you had enough committed troublemakers who wanted to do that kind of thing. Chaos, of course, would drive down voter turnout, so I'm under no illusions that there won't be anyone trying to do this kind of thing on Tuesday.

On the other hand, I think it would take an overt troublemaker to mess things up badly. Most volunteers from whatever party or organization don't really want to be troublemakers, or at least that's what my optimistic self says. My cynical self thinks that's naive, but for now I'm inclined to keep my cynical self in the closed box where he belongs. I think that most Republican volunteers on Tuesday will be there for the same reason we are: to see that everything works well. So long as the few hard-core, ballot-destroying looneys stay away from our polling place, I think we'll all have a pleasant day at the polls.

My fingers are crossed. . .

October 28, 2004

Does George Lakoff have the answers?

While walking to dinner this evening with a friend, we got to talking about the sad state of American politics. Liberals and conservatives seem to have lost the ability to persuade one another.

They don't even seem to be speaking the same language. For example, many conservatives expressed their outrage over Bill Clinton's "conduct" with Monica Lewinski in moral terms. Clinton's behavior was "immoral" not only because he lied about "having sex with that woman," but because he shouldn't have been having extramarital sex in the first place. Liberals acknowledged that Clinton lied, but it didn't seem to bother them very much. Some of them even sympathized with Clinton, who shouldn't have had to face an inquiry about his private (and off-limits) sexual life in the first place.

Now we're dealing with George W. Bush, and the tables are turned. Once again, a President has lied to us, this time about an imminent threat from a foreign state that justified a preemptive war. Now, though, the liberals seem to be the only ones upset by the Chief Executive's lies.

Both liberals and conservatives claim to disapprove of "lying," but it seems like they're talking about two different things when they use the same word. How can they be expected to persuade one another of anything when they don't speak the same language?

George Lakoff has offered the best analysis of these misunderstandings that I've seen. His book Moral Politics attempts to explain the language and worldview of conservatives and liberals. While I'm not sure I share Coturnix's view that the conservative outlook has been "thoroughly refuted by the past century of cognitive psychology and neuroscience," I find Lakoff's description of the conservative "strict father" and liberal "nurturant parent" worldviews persuasive.

Conservatives, according to Lakoff, see the world through the lens of heirarchy. In the "strict father" model of parenting, subservient children are taught self-discipline and morality by an authoritarian father, who dispenses punishment when his moral edicts are violated. The strict father's goal is to raise children who will be fully capable of leading independent lives as adults--to the extent that his grown children still depend on him for anything, the strict father has failed. Subservience and authority are necessary stages along the path to complete independence. Implicit in this "independence," however is the notion that the adult will govern himself according to the moral edicts passed down from his father, and will in turn pass these on to his children. There is not much room at any time in life for exploration, and there's no room for alternative moral precepts. Conservatives translate this heirarchical model onto the wider society. It explains their simultaneous embrace--so confusing to liberals-- of government "paternalism" in the social realm and laissez-faire in the economic realm. The social realm is where the fundamentals of life are learned, much like childhood in the life of an individual. Here is where the "strict father" government must impose rigid discipline upon the "children" citizens. The point is not to discipline for discipline's sake, but to produce citizens that are capable of governing themselves (according to the imposed moral order). These citizens will not need further guidance as they go out into the adult world of the marketplace, and any attempt by the government to interfere with the market is akin to a father interfering in his adult child's life--a sign that the parent has failed to do his proper job. Conservatives defend "liberty" in the context of this model: it is the liberty of the well-raised adult, who has internalized the morality of his father and who is prepared to pass it on to his "children"--welfare moms, Mexican immigrants, and Iraqis--with harsh discipline if necessary.

Liberals, on the other hand, adopt what Lakoff calls the "nurturant parent" worldview. Here, the role of the parent is to provide a nurturing environment for the child to explore on his own. On this model, the child will turn out well-adjusted and moral if he is allowed to learn things on his own. His moral worth is measured by whether he has chosen what is best for himself. This explains why liberals are more tolerant of other cultures and subcultures than conservatives are. Being gay is neither morally right or wrong; what matters is whether you're gay for the right reasons. A parent should discipline the child only as much as necessary to keep her safe, because safety is a necessary component of the nurturing environment that children need. The goal of childraising is to produce well-adjusted adults who can work well with others. Being human, adults will never lose their need for a safe, nurturing environment, so parents can and should continue to contribute to their children's development throughout their lives. A good parent is never too authoritarian, but never withdraws too completely. When the liberals translate this model onto the wider society, they are unsurprisingly tolerant of "alternative" lifestyles and cultures. What the liberals see as morally praiseworthy freedom to explore, the conservatives see as deviance worthy of punishment. In the economic sphere, the liberals reject the notion of fully independent economic entities who should be left to their own fates. Citizens will always be at risk for economic injury, and the responsible government should make sure that adequate safety nets are in place for those who fall between the cracks. A government has a responsibility, say the liberals, to take care of its citizens.

Undoubtedly, Lakoff provides a helpful way for liberals and conservatives to understand each other. He helps us see why we sometimes seem so incoherent: it only looks incoherent through the other guy's worldview. But is this enough? Is an awareness of how the other side uses language like "morality" and "freedom" enough to enable us to persuade one another in the political arena? On some days, I think so. On other days, I'm not so sure. Lakoff's models simply alert us to other ways in which we disagree.

As for "cognitive science," well... Even if the "strict father" method of raising children is completely discredited by "science," the strict father political worldview remains just that--a worldview. This worldview cannot be proven or disproven by any kind of science that I know, and it is, ultimately, completely independent of how one raises one's children. We shouldn't forget that Lakoff has provided us with helpful metaphors.
(Thanks to Majikthise for the reminder.)

Bush cronyism

SEATTLE, Oct. 27 -- The Bush administration has proposed giving dam owners the exclusive right to appeal Interior Department rulings about how dams should be licensed and operated on American rivers, through a little-noticed regulatory tweak that could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the hydropower industry.

The proposal would prevent states, Indian tribes and environmental groups from making their own appeals, while granting dam owners the opportunity to take their complaints -- and suggested solutions -- directly to senior political appointees in the Interior Department.
. . .

"It is not legal because one party is being treated very differently than another, and that is very much the opposite of what we have been trying to do for years," said one senior Interior Department official who is involved in the dispute and who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. "Suddenly, a licensee can walk away from everybody else and have a private meeting with the assistant secretary and bring in new conditions that haven't been reviewed by anybody before."

October 25, 2004

Absentee Ballot

My absentee ballot came in the mail today. Whew! What a relief! I thought it was never going to get here, and that I'd be disenfranchised--I'm so happy!

To celebrate, I opened the envelope very carefully and took out the ballot. I read the instructions carefully: use a #2 pencil or a black pen. Complete the arrow next to your choice like this (example provided).

I reread the instructions to make sure I wouldn't be voting for Pat Buchanan by mistake. I looked up all the state and county judges that were up for retention, and voted to retain all of them (judges should be insulated from the momentary whims of people like me). Then I voted for state legislators. Then the ballot measures.

At last, it was time. I turned my attention to the upper-left-hand corner. George W. Bush/Dick Cheney. Hm. John F. Kerry/John Edwards.

Well, now. I filled in the arrow next to my choice, stood up, went to the kitchen, and poured myself a small glass of wine, to celebrate. Tomorrow, I'll take my ballot down to the post office and mail it in. I've voted.

October 24, 2004

Speaker of the House

It seems that the House Republicans' intransigence on the intelligence reform bill is part and parcel of how many of them behave on a regular basis. The next President, whoever it is, will have to deal with these ideological zealots.

Before we blame all of this on well-known extremist Tom DeLay, we should listen to what the longtime student of Congress Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute has to say about a guy who's less well-known as an extremist, Speaker Dennis Hastert.

October 23, 2004

Privatizing higher education

We live in a time when Americans seem incapable of critically scrutinizing what politicians tell them--4 out of 10 Americans still believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the attacks of September 11, and 3 out of ten believe he personally planned them.

This staggering public ignorance can be traced back to a trend that (like so many other modern plagues) initially gained steam during the Reagan administration. I'm talking about the privatization of American higher education. We have lost sight of the fact that an educated population is a public good; we are paying the price in an uncritical and ignorant electorate.

This report on the most expensive colleges notes in passing that the rate of tuition hikes at public universities continues to skyrocket. State officials say that this is a response to tough economic times, but this explanation is too simplistic. In many cases, public university tuition has increased because of state schemes to privatize the universities.

Colorado, for example, has approved a new system of vouchers for higher education. Instead of supporting public education directly with state funds, Colorado's program sends the funds directly to students in the form of vouchers, which can be used at state universities or at selected private colleges. This redirection of state money means that for accounting purposes, many of the state's public universities will be receiving less than ten percent of their funding from the state. Under Colorado law, this means that schools would no longer be classified as "state funded."

Under the voucher program, schools would no longer be technically state funded, and could pursue enterprise status - freeing them from a wide variety of state regulations regarding hiring, firing, tuition, contracts, and more. Some say it will allow schools to operate more like a private business.

Texas, meanwhile, is moving toward privatization by "deregulating" tuition. This means that individual schools will be able to set tuition rates as they see fit--again, allowing them to operate more like private businesses.

In Massachusetts, Governor Mitt Romney proposed the outright privatization of three of the state's public campuses.

In every case, these privatization schemes are shifting more of the burden for supporting the work of the universities to the students, and away from the taxpayers. This fits with the post-Reagan view that higher education primarily benefits the individual students--the "customers"--and does very little to benefit the public at large.

During the great expansion of higher education during the 1960s, there was great public support for universities. It was assumed that universities were a "public good," that investment in them served the public interest, and that the chief beneficiary of that investment was the public itself. Beginning around 1980, a conservative mood swept the country, resulting in the election of President Reagan; Reagan led a tax revolt that systematically reduced public investment in everything except national defense. Whereas in the 1960s universities had been seen as central to national defense, that assumption dissipated in the 1980s . . . . The notion developed that the chief beneficiaries of universities were the students educated, not the public at large, so that it should be the students themselves who bore a larger portion of the cost of education. Faced with substantial inflation and declining support, universities increased fees. From the early 1980s to the present, for example, annual fees at the University of California have risen from zero in 1960-61, to $450 in 1971, to $3600 at the present time, down from two years ago. State support for Berkeley's operating budget has fallen from over 60% in 1980 to 34% at the present time. In the process of privatization of public universities, the largest single group of private contributors is the students, who now contribute about 15% of the operating budget of the University.
The consequences of privatization go beyond the tuition hikes that make higher education less accessible to the less affluent. Privatization also means that the universities no longer see themselves as agents for the public good. Their goals are reoriented toward serving their customers: the students who can afford to attend, and the corporations that offer funding in exchange for a say over what questions are asked and what research agendas are pursued.
When the market interests totally dominate colleges and universities, their role as public agencies significantly diminishes -- as does their capacity to provide venues for the testing of new ideas and agendas for public action. What is lost is the understanding that knowledge has other than instrumental purposes, that ideas are important whether or not they confer personal advantage.

The increasing ignorance of the American public can arguably be traced to two phenomena, both of which are exacerbated, if not caused, by our unwillingness to treat higher education as a public good. First, fewer university-educated people have had the benefit of spending time in an environment where "knowledge has other than instrumental purposes." Second, fewer people can afford the education that the remaining bastions of public liberal education (like the Universities of Colorado, Texas, and Massachusetts) still provide.

And so we are left with a society increasingly bereft of those accoutrements of civilization that can't be provided by the private market. Like good consumers, we all know how to express our preferences, but we are increasingly unable, as citizens, to critique the political marketing campaigns for the products that are offered to satisfy those preferences.

We think that Saddam Hussein planned the 9-11 attacks. And we flirt with reelecting George W. Bush. Charmin really is softer!

October 22, 2004

Intelligence failures

My Legislation course has a 9 a.m appointment tomorrow with Michigan Senator Carl Levin, who will be talking about Congressional oversight processes generally and the Senate report on pre-Iraq war intelligence specifically. He's also likely to offer some comments on the reorganization of the intelligence agencies that Congress has been working on.

I've been thinking about what to ask the Senator tomorrow. I think I'll ask him this:

The push to reform America's intelligence services has been spurred by two major reports citing intelligence failures--the Senate report on pre-Iraq war intelligence (links here), and the 9-11 commission report (here). These two reports, to the best of my knowledge, seem to point out at least two different kinds of "intelligence failure." One is the failure of the various services to cooperate and to share information. The other is the politicization of intelligence, such that the Bush administration characterized the Iraq threat as imminent and beyond all doubt, when in fact the underlying intelligence demonstrated that the threat was highly ambiguous and uncertain.

The differing legislative proposals that have passed the House and Senate seem to address the first kind of intelligence failure. Creating a national intelligence director with control over agency funding might solve the coordination problem. My question is, what is being done to address the politicization of intelligence?

Creating a single intelligence director might actually worsen the problem of politicization. If the Bush administration had had this single national intelligence director on board when it was leaning on the intelligence agencies for a rationale to support its decision to invade Iraq, it might have been able to distill the aluminum tubes, the Niger uranium, and the Muhammad Atta-Iraqi-intelligence-meeting-in-Prague stories much quicker than it did under our more fragmented intelligence organization. The "groupthink" that the Senate report criticized might have been even worse.

Our intelligence services failed in many different ways, but it seems to me that the current fixes address only one of these failings.

[As an aside, the House version of the intelligence reorganization bill is an argument for voting the Republicans out. It tried to add to the Senate version things that shouldn't be added (making it easier to deport foreign nationals to countries where they will be tortured (via Fafblog)), and remove things that shouldn't be removed (a civil-liberties watchdog board).]

October 20, 2004

America's Alaska problem

Politicians from the state of Alaska are trying to have their cake and eat it too, at the expense of the rest of the country. In this era of war abroad, security problems at home, and record-level federal deficits, every American is affected by the irresponsible behavior of Alaskan politicians.

At times when it suits them, Alaskans like to clamor for the federal government to leave them alone. Especially when it comes to wilderness land management, politicians from Alaska can be counted on to complain loudly about "federal government meddling" in a subject that is "none of the lower-48's business." Arguments that the Alaskan wilderness jewels are truly national treasures that ought to benefit all Americans fall on deaf ears in Alaska.

When it suits them to say the opposite, though, the Alaskan politicians have no problem changing their tune. Instead of asking the government to leave Alaska alone, they demand that the federal government take extra-special care of Alaska at the rest of the country's expense. Specifically, the Alaskans are never loathe to chase after the most outrageous and embarrassing federal pork. Two egregious examples are homeland-security pork and highway-bill pork.

Representative Don Young (R-Alaska), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is the king of highway-bill pork. The non-partisan Taxpayers for Common Sense awarded him the Golden Fleece Award for his attempts to include funding for two "bridges to nowhere" in the current federal highway bill. Young wants taxpayers to shell out $200 million for one bridge and $2 billion for the other. Both bridges would benefit virtually no one at a time when the country is running huge deficits, waging war in Iraq, and struggling to find a way to adequately fund everything from homeland security to education. And yet Young is not embarrassed in the least:

"I'd like to be a little oinker, myself," Young told a Republican lunch crowd in Ketchikan, taking mock offense at the suggestion that Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, directs more pork to their state than he does. "If he's the chief porker, I'm upset."
Alaska is also guilty of gobbling up too much of the nation's scarce homeland-security funding. Under the current formula for dividing the federal government's largest source of homeland security money,
each state receives 0.75% of the $2 billion pot regardless of population, accounting for nearly 40% of the money. The rest is divided among the states on a per-person basis. Other factors, such as population density, potential targets and threat levels, are not taken into consideration (source).
The result is that Alaska gets three times the amount per resident than New York gets. Alaska's biggest homeland-security challenge is deciding what to do with all that federal money. One Alaskan proposal that was wisely turned down by the Department of Homeland Security was a new jet for the governor. No one with any sense of propriety could look you in the eye and say that Alaska deserves this kind of federal money when more attractive terrorist targets elsewhere are underprotected. Yet most of the Alaskan politicians do just that.

Don Young, Senator Ted Stevens, and Governor Frank Murkowski might be forgiven for zealously advancing Alaskan interests. But when these politicians are prepared to sacrifice the national interest for the sake of their state, the rest of the country should be alerted to their behavior, and act to stop it.

October 19, 2004

Drafting medical workers

[Preliminary aside: Via TaxProf Blog, I found a new blog today that should interest law students interested in antitrust: the AntitrustProf Blog. If I could only find the ErisaPreemptionProf Blog, I'd be set for the rest of the year...]

Now let's talk about the draft. The NYT reports that the Selective Service has developed a contingency plan for drafting medical workers.

The idea of a separate draft for medical workers isn't new. The Health Care Personnel Delivery System was authorized by Congress in 1987 (details here). Unlike the regular draft, it includes both men and women up to the age of 55. Actual implementation of the medical draft will require a separate act of Congress, but reports that the details of the plan are being worked out now suggest that the bureaucrats are already gearing up for action.

The Selective Service and the current administration deny, of course, that any such plan will ever be implemented, but contingency plans are not made for non-existent contingencies. The daily reports of the Army's personnel shortages and the "back-door draft" (the stop-loss policies) already implemented by the Bush administration suggest that some form of draft is a real possibility, regardless of what this President says. (Bush's willingness to mislead the American people is no longer in doubt.)

Medical workers young and old, male and female, might want to read this helpful information now--just to form their own contingency plans.

October 16, 2004


Via Howard Bashman, here's George Will, drooling with excitement at the prospect of a second Bush term:

Any president who serves two terms likely will replace half that judiciary; Bush already has replaced one-quarter. But he is about to become the second president (Carter was the first) to serve a full term without filling a Supreme Court vacancy. It has been 10 years since a new justice (Stephen Breyer) was confirmed; not since 1812-1823, when the court had only seven members, has it gone that long unchanged. Bush's second term could be dominated by nomination battles: Chief Justice William Rehnquist just turned 80, and the average age of the nine justices is 70.

This election is the last before the boomers begin retiring in 2008. It will be won by either a reactionary liberal, whose plan for coping with the demographic deluge consists of complaining about any changes in the welfare state's entitlement menu, or an activist conservative who Wednesday night tartly told his opponent that "a plan is not a litany of complaints."

If George Will is excited, we should be scared.

October 14, 2004

Agrarian politics

Ming's decision to vote for the Libertarian candidate for President is refreshing. Even though I'm solidly behind Kerry, and implacably against George W. Bush, it's nice to be reminded that the political world isn't black and white.

Although from day to day I hew pretty closely to the standard liberal line, when I let myself imagine the kind of world I'd really like to live in, I realize that I'm not really a liberal. Liberalism has a lot to recommend it, but it has several important flaws. For example, there is really no way to criticize modern consumerism within the liberal tradition. The liberals share with neoconservatives the idea that everyone ought to be able to afford to eat at Olive Garden. Everyone ought to have the opportunity to sign up for cable TV. Everyone ought to have a job (liberals) or at least the opportunity to find one (neoconservatives). This is ok, as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough.

If you believe that human happiness can't be bought at the mall, neither liberalism nor neoconservatism offers a useful political roadmap, because both ideologies argue that theirs is the best way to put a mall in everyone's neighborhood. They argue over the means, not the goal. This is why the "fringe" political parties are so important. Libertarianism, for example, doesn't assume that everyone's idea of happiness is the same. Paleoconservatism rejects the idea that globalization is akin to nirvana.

On a day-to-day basis, I usually hew to the standard liberal line. The modern Republican Party's positions are bad for many of the reasons that the liberals give, so it's not hard for me to come across like a standard liberal. When I ask myself what policies I actively support, though, I realize that I'm not a liberal. I'm an agrarian.

I like the idea of self-sufficiency. I'm not opposed to trade, but I am opposed to the kind of economic centralization that makes continental populations dependent on just a handful of corporations for their incomes, their entertainment, and their food. Outside of our large cities, entire towns are employed by one or two employers that ship their goods all over the world. Everyone in the town buys all they need at Wal-Mart, who can sell for less because their size gives them certain economies of scale. Their radio stations are all Clear Channel, their TV stations are Sinclair, and their movies are all Disney. Neither liberalism nor the modern strain of conservatism sees this as inherently problematic. Agrarians do.

As an agrarian, I think that industrial, centralized agriculture is a bad thing, compared with numerous family farms. I think we would be better off if a higher percentage of our population were farmers. The ideal of self-sufficiency isn't limited to agriculture, though. It's a theme that runs through most of what my kind of agrarianism advocates. Freedom has an inverse relationship to dependency, and that relationship is why private property is so important. Property isn't a consumer good, it's a means for insuring independence. Democracy has an inverse relationship to centralization. The responsibilities of democracy are more willingly discharged when people know that their votes matter. They matter more when the political decisions are made locally, rather than nationally or internationally.

Agrarianism does not imply a distaste for cities. It doesn't equate to Luddism, or a desire to go backward in time to the last historical moment when family farms were the norm. It does mean that we might progress furthest by recognizing those elements of our past that are superior to what we have now, instead of holding to the irrational belief that newer is always better. Agrarianism does mean a critical evaluation of new technology, and a realization that some new technologies are more harmful than helpful.

Agrarianism isn't monolithic, either. Just like conservatism has several factions, agrarianism can be roughly divided into two major versions. One, the one that I don't subscribe to, is a socially traditionalist philosophy that emphasizes religion and hierarchy. Russell Kirk is a good example of this version of agrarianism. The other strain, the one that I like, is best exemplified by writers like Wendell Berry and Edward Abbey. This strain emphasizes localism and respect for the earth.

Anyway, it's too bad there's no agrarian candidates on the ballot this year.

"A leader leads from in front, by the power of example. A ruler pushes from behind, by means of the club, the whip, the power of fear."

--Edward Abbey

October 13, 2004

The last debate

Republican candidates are often described as "pandering to their base." After this debate, I'm sure I'll see various left-wing bloggers claiming that George W. Bush sent a few more "signals" to his "base." I agree that Bush did this tonight with some of his statements about religion and morality. He also used a lot of free-market rhetoric, saying that he believed the "role of government is to get out of the way."

I wonder if John Kerry tried to send any signals to his base? Maybe because I'm closer to Kerry's base than to Bush's, I thought Kerry spent most of the night using rhetoric that most of us associate with Republicans. Kerry bent over backwards to tell us how many times he cut taxes. He continued to try to talk "tough" on foreign policy. He spent a great deal of time using Bush's words for his health care plan, "government controlled," in the context of denying Bush's charges.

I'm not quibbling with Kerry's choice of rhetoric; he might have used the words he needed to in order to get elected.

I wonder, though, if there's any real democratic "base" out there that's powerful enough to compel a candidate to speak their language, in the way that Bush speaks the language of the hard-core right wing. Unions? Kerry used the words "shop steward," but did he really have to? Unions seem to be a dwindling political force. "Universal health care?" Kerry said he wanted to "cover every American," but the exchange seemed to be played out using the Bush rhetoric of "government-controlled healthcare." Religion? Rather than criticize Bush for his policies that have shaded toward theocracy, Kerry felt compelled to match Bush's obvious religious fervor.

I'm listening to the commentary on the radio right now, and the pundits seem to think that Kerry won this one going away. I hope they're right.

What does it mean, though, that the rhetorical playing field still seems to be so firmly located on the far right? I hope I'm wrong about that. I think I'll go read Instapundit or Andrew Sullivan, who I'm sure willl comfort me by pointing out how liberal John Kerry is.

October 12, 2004

$5,741 for health insurance

In this week's issue of the student newspaper at my school, the Res Gestae, there's an article by one Ryan B. Parker.

Mr. Parker points out that the health insurance plan offered by the University of Michigan costs $5,741 per year for a married law student and his or her spouse. That comes out to $17,223 over three years of law school.

Now, I might be wrong, but I think these figures apply to a policy that covers students for only 8 months out of the year, leaving them uninsured over the summer.

Mr. Parker did some investigations, and found that some of our classmates had "wives and kids on Medicaid." Two of the six students Mr. Parker spoke with claimed to be uninsured.

Fortunately, most law students are young and healthy, which makes it all the more ridiculous to expect them to spend this kind of money for insurance that they'll probably never need. It makes far more sense for them to buy high-deductible, low-premium insurance, or to go without insurance altogether. I can't blame anyone who refuses to spend that kind of money for health insurance.

When young, healthy people do what makes sense for them, however, it burdens those people who aren't young and healthy and who have to have health insurance. The insured risk pools get smaller, and the people who are left are mostly old and sick. The costs go up, which drives more of the healthy people out, and forces costs up. Meanwhile, the unlucky young, uninsured law student who comes down with some nasty neurological disease, or gets hit in the face by a drunk 1L at Bar Night, can find themselves in the hospital with no way to pay the bills. Either he gets less care, or these costs are shifted to the hospital's insured patients, and their premiums go up, too.

Our emotional and political attachment to the free market makes it hard for us to recognize that everyone, eventually, pays more in a system based upon competing private health insurance carriers. If people act rationally, costs will go up and up and up, even if we ignore the bans on reimporting drugs from Canada and even if the Bush Medicare fiasco had enabled Medicare to negotiate drug prices with Big Pharma, instead of mandating that the government pay whatever Merck asked.

Mr. Parker says, "I'm not pointing a finger at a guilty party; to be honest, it's such a complicated issue that I wouldn't know where to start if I were."

I agree that it's too damned complicated. I don't have all the answers. But we're going to have to start making changes soon, because $17,223 is too much money for twenty-somethings to have to pay, and choosing to go without health insurance at all isn't a civilized alternative.

October 09, 2004

"Our Guys" redux

Remembering that accusations don't prove anything, high school football players in an affluent New Jersey suburb have been accused of raping a 15-year old girl:

At Montclair High, a pastoral campus of broad lawns and brick buildings shaded by large oak trees and traversed by a brook, several football players emerging from practice said that a sports psychologist, Dr. Ben Brennan, had warned team members to be cautious around girls, and expressed concern that the accusations could reflect badly on the team.

It's good to know that the football players are being taught to be "cautious around girls." Those dangerous girls are liable to say all kinds of things that could really hurt the football team's reputation.

Ed Walker, 14, a freshman at Montclair High, said that many students were skeptical of the girl's account. "I think she's just saying stuff," he said. "A lot of people around the school say she's not serious." He called the accused youths "two of the most popular guys in the school."

Let's hope the freshman boys are the only ones on campus who aren't taking the accusations seriously.

"I think everyone in town is distressed by this," [the school superintendent] said. "Even though the incident didn't occur at the school or on school premises, these are still our students, and you feel a certain responsibility. Our main concern is for the well-being of the alleged victim and for the privacy of all involved."

Perhaps the Superintendent should also be concerned about preventing any further episodes of this kind of behavior. Some good old fashioned publicity might actually be good for the safety of the students on campus.

Corinne Cuozzo, 15, a sophomore at the school, said she was not surprised that Montclair students may have been involved in a sexual assault case. "I could definitely see this kind of thing happening here," she said. "It was just shocking that they got arrested for it. Kids here usually get arrested for something like lighting a garbage can on fire."

Anyone who's read about the 1989 rape of a retarded girl by several students on the football team in neighboring Glen Ridge can definitely see this kind of thing happening again, too. The only question is whether the willful ignorance of Glen Ridge will be repeated as well.

October 08, 2004


This Presidential election must be particularly difficult for people who oppose abortion. Many people who oppose the availability of legal abortions find this issue so central to their moral view of the world that it is almost impossible for them to vote in good conscience for any candidate that supports legal abortions. On this issue, George W. Bush is the only choice.

That is why I feel so much sympathy for these voters. An opposition to abortion does not necessitate a tolerance for stupidity, lies, or a reckless disregard for the public good, but these is exactly what George W. Bush offers. Abortion opponents are left with a candidate who won't violate one of their fundamental moral principles, but who will lie to them, lead their country into unnecessary wars, and work to destroy the system of social responsibility that we've built up over most of the twentieth century.

In our two-party system we often have to swallow our distaste and vote for the lesser of two evils. George W. Bush has reminded many abortion opponents of this suboptimal feature of our electoral system.

October 07, 2004

Perot in '92!

The other night I was looking at this electoral vote map. "What's up with this looking exactly like the map four years ago!" I shrieked. "What does it take to get people to change their minds?"

After four years of Bush's radicalism and terrorist attacks and whatnot, you'd think people wouldn't be voting the exact same way they did in 2000. I'd have thought that the map would either be all red or all blue, but not equally red-and-blue in the same pattern that we saw in the Bush-Gore election. Apparently, people just don't change their minds that fast.

This got me thinking about myself; after all, if I'm going to be critical of tens of millions of people, I'd rather not be subject to the same criticism myself. I prefer to criticize others from the safety of a holier-than-thou position.

So I thought back to my own history of voting in Presidential elections. This record is equivocal:

1992: Perot over Clinton and Bush
1996: Clinton over Dole
2000: Nader over Gore and Bush

I haven't been a one-party voter, and this shows at least that my vote isn't captured by the Democrats. Some folks would think that my Perot vote demonstrates that I'm not captured by the liberals, either. So in this sense, I've proven my ability to change my mind.

On the other hand, I haven't once voted for a Republican. The closest I came to considering it was Jack Kemp in his primary battle with Dole, and John McCain in his primary battle with George W. Bush. (Both of my preferred Republicans lost, so clearly as a Republican voter I'm out of step with the party. Bastards.) So I suppose that on one issue at least, I haven't been able to change my mind. The Republican Party generally runs the most inferior candidates for President of any party in America.

So, can I safely criticize the hundreds of millions of people who seem poised to vote for the same party in 2004 as they did in 2000? Of course. Even if I can't really say I'm holier than anybody else, I'm gonna do it anyway.

October 06, 2004

Flu vaccine shortage

In 1918, the world suffered through an influenza pandemic that killed close to 40 million people. This was before the increased transmissibility made possible by air travel.

If a similar plague came by today it would kill about 1.5 million Americans. That is more than die each year from the ten major killers combined, like cancer, heart disease, strokes, Alzheimer's disease, and AIDS, for example.
For at least the second year in a row, we're going to be short of flu vaccine. Some doctors and others accuse the government of failing to take action:
"The vaccine shortages have not been addressed for the past 10 years," said Dr. J. Colin Forrester of Callao, Va.

Dr. Michael Good of Middletown, Conn., said he can't understand why the problem was not addressed years ago. "Since this has been a problem almost every winter for the past four years, isn't it time we figure out a way to consistently procure and produce vaccine?"

As long ago as the winter of 2000-2001, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a series of reports describing breakdowns in the nation's flu shot program, which the newspaper described as "as unstable as it is huge."

In some ways, this looks like a straightforward technological problem. Flu vaccine is incubated in sterile chicken eggs, which are susceptible to contamination and can therefore spread disease. We need to find a better way to manufacture the vaccine. Government should perhaps do more to encourage research in this area, especially when resources are available.

Whether or not resources are available is a political issue. Will the resources be available now that we've unilaterally invaded Iraq, spent more than $50 billion to date, and find ourselves in a quagmire that we can't simply abandon? Will the resources be available if we continue to spend like drunken sailors on a space-based missile defense system, which won't do much to protect us from nuclear weapons?

The problems with our public health infrastructure are political issues. President Bush has shown no leadership on this issue, even after September 11 and the increased concern over bioterrorism. He continues to think that space-based missile defense and unilateral invasions of nations that posed no imminent threat to America take precedence over real threats to our health and safety.

It's time to give George W. Bush the heave-ho.

October 05, 2004

Cheney-Edwards debate

Before I read the spin:

  1. Dick Cheney doesn't want to talk about an amendment banning gay marriage. "I didn't think the amendment was necessary. It should be left to the states. But the President wants the amendment. I support the president."
  2. Dick Cheney doesn't want to talk about Halliburton: "Gwynn, I'll need more than thirty seconds to respond to [Edwards' charges about Halliburton.]"
  3. There were times when Edwards talked too fast, but when he slowed down he sounded great.
  4. The Republicans are probably hoping that the final debate featured Dick Cheney. He is poised and articulate.
  5. Unfortunately for them, they've got to endure another performance from the least qualified candidate on either party's ticket: George W. Bush.

October 03, 2004


I've got a new Kerry-Edwards link on my masthead. I lifted the image from Michael Froomkin's blog.

Thanks, Professor Froomkin. Let's give George W. Bush the heave-ho.

Christopher Hitchens' mistake

This is the story of a really smart guy, and how even smart people can get tripped up by dumb fallacies. The smart guy is Christopher Hitchens, and the dumb fallacy is: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Hitchens was, once, primarily known for his attempts to get Henry Kissinger convicted for war crimes. The left loved him. Now, though, he supports George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. The left doesn't love him anymore.

Hitchens is undoubtedly a smart man, if only because he's refused to surrender his thinking to an ideological autopilot that so many zealots on both the left and the right find so irresistible. In this sense, he should remain a role model for everyone who aspires to think for themselves. Ideologues of all stripes still have much to fear from Hitchens' acid pen, even those on the right with whom Hitchens seems currently to be aligned. They shouldn't assume that Hitchens will follow their ideological roadmap any more closely than he followed the roadmap of the left.

But Hitchens, like almost everyone else who supports George W. Bush, is making a mistake. He apparently agrees with the neoconservative element of the Bush administration that the best way to fight Islamic fundamentalism is with preemptive war and with the long-term military occupation of large areas of the Middle East. Like the neoconservatives, Hitchens ignores the reality that Islamic fundamentalism isn't a government that can be wiped off the face of the map with sufficient firepower and enough bombs. It is, rather, an ideology, and like all ideologies, it's very difficult to eliminate by simply killing the people who subscribe to it.

The American right wing has enjoyed great success over the past twenty years in part because they recognize the importance of the "battle of ideas." Their legions of prominent think thanks and AM-radio talk show hosts have served the conservatives well. Hitchens himself has been one of the most potent weapons in this domestic battle, although neither the left nor the right has been able to wholly appropriate his services. It's too bad that Hitchens, who might have legitimate grievances with the left's responses to terrorism, seems to have perceived the military solution offered by the neocons as the only viable alternative.

There are many other options, of course. While the military should be used to disrupt the terrorist infrastructure (which remains minimal) and to kill individuals who commit acts of terrorism, America's strongest weapon against terrorism is ideological. This is a battle of ideas far more than it is a battle of armies. If the Left hasn't offered a coherent plan for waging this war of ideas, the solution is not to resort solely to military force but to come up with a better ideological strategy. Christopher Hitchens would seem to be ideally suited to such a project. But alas, he has failed to perceive the potency of this alternative and has chosen to subscribe to Wolfowitz's confusion of the war against terrorists with the far more important war against terrorism (which would be an absurdity in any sense other than as a purely ideological war).

Islamic fundamentalism, like any other "ism," will be defeated only by another ideology. So far, the United states has chosen to oppose it with militarism. It would do better to choose something more potent, such as the ideals of civilization, human dignity, fairness, respect, and democracy. Our invasion of Iraq is none of these things. Our decision to take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is none of these things. Our increasing contempt for civil rights and due process is none of these things. These strategies will certainly succeed at eliminating a few governments (Afghanistan and Iraq, so far) and individual terrorists, but they will most likely strengthen the fundamentalist ideology that sustained them. It's the strategy of fighting fire with gasoline.

Christopher Hitchens is an implacable opponent of fascism, and has recognized the evil of the Islamic fundamentalism that spawns terrorism and suicide bombers. For this he deserves respect. But he's made the mistake of associating himself with neoconservatives whose only respectable position is a similar hatred for Islamic fundamentalism. The enemy of Christopher Hitchens' enemy has become his friend, but it didn't have to be this way. Let's hope Hitchens' gift for independent thought leads him to recognize that there are other, better alternatives to Paul Wolfowitz and the neocons.

October 01, 2004

Bush/Kerry debate

I think the actual exchange of views was pretty shallow--no surprise there--but it was clear that one candidate was a committed multilateralist while the other was not. I suppose this clear differentiation of views is about as much as you can hope for in these overly-scripted debates, so I'll take it.

I do wish Kerry had made the case for multilateralism as an important way to build America's strength, which might have been more appealing to undecided voters. Just a few words to the effect that, "goodwill in the international community is a much richer source of American power than Bush's 'missile defense' nonsense."

Anyway, the thing that counts is the post-debate spin, where the pundits tell the American people what to think. That spin seems to be going for Kerry.

September 30, 2004

Advantage: Bush

I plan to watch the debate tonight between George W. Bush and John Kerry. If this were an intellectual debate, I would be sure of the victor: John Kerry in a blowout.

But this is a political debate, and that means the rules are different. You don't win political debates with argument, with reasons, with logic, or with evidence. Unfortunately, John Kerry's advantages all spring from his superior grasp of argument, reason, logic, and evidence, so in this debate with Bush, Kerry has no advantage at all.

You win a political debate with emotion, and that means the advantages all belong to Bush.

George W. Bush is certain that he is right. And that's his advantage, because this certainty--however unsupported by facts or logic--is emotionally more compelling than John Kerry's more nuanced beliefs. It feels good to be right. This is why some people find it so hard to admit when they're wrong. Willful denial is such a common phenomenon because people feel so badly when they admit their mistakes.

Bush's certainty gives him the advantage in two ways. First, he'll look good in the debates no matter what Kerry says. After all, he's right. He's fighting the evildoers. Iraq is a mere logistical issue. All the viewers watching with less than 100% attention won't notice what either candidate says, but they will notice that George W. Bush looks Presidential. Confident. Self-assured. People will like that.

The other aspect of Bush's advantage is that many Americans are unsure of what policy is correct. They live with the uncomfortable feelings of not knowing whether Iraq will ultimately turn out to have made the nation safer. They don't know for sure if the need to prevent terrorism justifies the surrender of their civil rights. Kerry's message is that in this uncertain new world, we need a President who recognizes this uncertainty, and who is willing to reevaluate the situation and to correct mistakes. Intellectually, this position is close to being unassailable. But many people will sacrifice this superior intellectual position to obtain the more pleasant emotional condition modeled by George W. Bush.

After all, if the President is sure of himself, it might be OK for each of us to be sure of ourselves, too. And that would feel so good.

Call it the "inherent political advantage of the stupid" or whatever. It is a real advantage, and George W. Bush will have it in tonight's debate.

September 21, 2004

Golf course genetic engineering

Thanks to two major agricultural corporations, suburban golfers might have to wrestle with some issues that have up until now been addressed primarily by farmers and people with an special interest in agriculture.

Monsanto, producer of the glyphosate herbicides known as Roundup, and Scotts, a major producer of "lawn and turf products," are hoping to market a variety of bioengineered bentgrass for use on golf courses that is resistant to Roundup weedkillers. Their plans might be delayed for a while after a recent study showed that the engineered gene is capable of spreading much further into the surrounding environment than previously demonstrated.

Critics of bioengineering have raised concerns that once an engineered gene is introduced into the environment, it will be impossible to contain, and that the consequences of "escaped" human-made genes are potentially dangerous and impossible to predict.

All of this seems plausible. What's confusing me is why this new study, which demonstrates that engineered genes can spread for 13 miles, is so much more helpful to bioengineering critics than the older studies which showed that the genes can spread up to 0.62 miles. All the studies have shown that the genes will spread, and there's no arbitrary distance that anyone could specify that would avoid the critics' argument about the unforeseen consequences of human-made genes in the environment.

But, be that as it may, if this new study helps convice policymakers to SLOW DOWN the approval of bioengineered crops (or grass), it will be a good thing.

As an aside, note how Monsanto is burning the candle at both ends. On one hand, they develop and market Roundup as an effective weedkiller. On the other hand, they are testing and developing crops containing a gene that makes them resistant to Roundup. This is good strategic thinking that will please Monsanto shareholders, at least in the short term. In the long term, will the Roundup resistance gene spread to the extent that Roundup isn't a useful herbicide? Will small mutations in the gene lead to "superweeds" that resist not only Roundup but also many other herbicides? Perhaps that scenario can be resolved by Monsanto, if they can develop an herbicide that targets plants with the Roundup resistance gene. Now that would be a great strategy.

September 14, 2004

Blogs: missing them

This lack of access to the internet is starting to get to me.

In the odd moments I've grabbed to read blogs, I realize how much I miss them. For instance, I wonder about whether my perceptions of a revitalized and feisty opposition to the right-wing policy juggernaut (in this post) is finding a voice in the Kerry campaign (Jessica Wilson doubts it).

I just got an email earlier today about a volunteer opportunity this Sunday. It involves canvassing the neighborhoods around the University to sign up voters, many of whom will vote for John Kerry. I think I'd better sign up to do that. A Bush victory in November wouldn't be as bad as a Vladimir Putin power grab, but it would be a complete disaster of a (thankfully) much less extreme American kind.

Exactly the opposite, Mr. Leavitt

Here's the Bush administration's interior secretary, Mike Leavitt:

"There is no environmental progress without economic prosperity. Once our competitiveness erodes, our capacity to make environmental gains is gone. There is nothing that promotes pollution like poverty."

Sentence 1: "There is no environmental progress without economic prosperity." Leavitt has it exactly reversed. If you consider the long term, there can be no economic prosperity without a healthy environment. If, however, you consider the worldview of this administration--maximum short-term economic gain for favored elements of society, regardless of the costs borne by others--then Mike Leavitt is 100% correct.

Sentence 2: "Once our competitiveness erodes, our capacity to make environmental gains is gone." This is simply wrong. It presumes that a well-functioning economy and environmental health are mutually exclusive. They aren't. If, however, by "competitiveness" Leavitt refers to the Bush administration's commitment to maximum windfall profits for the energy industry regardless of the cost to everyone else, then Mike Leavitt may once again be 100% correct.

Sentence 3: "There is nothing that promotes pollution like poverty." Irrelevant, since responsible environmental stewardship does not force us to choose between "poverty" and some other condition. What Leavitt should have said is that there is nothing that promotes pollution like Bush administration policies that enrich energy industry tycoons and increase the risk of poverty for many other citizens. Then Mr. Leavitt would have been 100% correct.

September 06, 2004

A town for industry, not people

Here's another example of this country's rejection of Thomas Jefferson's rural vision, and of the seemingly inexorable economic drive toward the large-scale: Greyhound is eliminating many small-town stops like Ritzville, Washington.

Residents of these small towns have very few transportation options open to them anymore; all ways out of town are in the car, either yours or someone else's. This shrinkage of transportation options seems at odds with most of modern society, where technology seems to provide a constantly expanding set of choices for doing just about everything that human beings habitually do. At least, that's the way it seems for residents of the modern economy's favored mode of social organization, the megacities with their associated suburbs and exurbs and satellite settlements. If you live in "San Francisco" or "Atlanta" (the scare quotes mean that the precise city limits aren't what matters), you can be sure that you'll have access to every new gadget, restaurant concept, movie, investment vehicle, health-care plan, and advertising gimmick that the modern economy produces. You'll be participating in the modern miracle of economic expansion and greater consumer choice. The one choice you don't have is to move to Ritzville, Washington and expect to participate in the same way. The large-scale dynamism of modern society seems to have required the sacrifice of rural vitality and the health of small-town life.

The abandonment of rural areas isn't limited to transportation. Ironically, rural areas also suffer from a restricted range of food availability (as this study exemplifies). The rural regions that we've abandoned as places to live and wholly given over to agricultural production suffer from food scarcities.

The success of the megacities at the expense of the hinterlands, at least as a pleasant place for people to live, can't easily be described as the result of "choice" or of the American people "voting with their feet." Instead, it seems more like a physical imperative. Greyhound doesn't describe its withdrawal of service as anything other than an economic necessity. Small-town stops aren't profitable, and so this move more closely resembles a natural phenomenon than it does a human decision. Greyhound is as much a victim of implacable economic forces as the town of Ritzville. The limited food availability in rural areas is the seemingly inexorable result of large-scale agriculture designed to produce large volumes of single crops for transportation across the entire globe. These economic forces are slowly but surely killing small towns outside the orbit of the megacities. There seems to be no room in the modern economy (i.e. the modern reality) for the small-scale, local, decentralized, and independent way of life, completely apart from any consideration of what actual people "prefer."

The internet is one example of a modern technology that could make small-scale, independent communities more appealing. But this seems to be an isolated exception. The general rule is that small towns have no place in the modern economy, regardless of whether individual people might prefer the small-town life.

Ritzville, of course, still has a function, but it isn't as a place for people. Instead, it serves as a "destination point for grain from the surrounding farms, but little else." The grain doesn't get milled and sold in Ritzville, but "is loaded onto freight trains here and shipped to Portland, Ore., then on to Asian markets, where it is used in noodles." Ritzville is slowly becoming a mere waypoint for the worldwide industrial production of food products, and as it does so, it slowly ceases to be a community of people who farm.

August 19, 2004

No need to worry

Over the past few days I haven't been keeping up with the newspapers much, either in print or online. The world could have been going to hell in a handbasket and I wouldn't have known it.

I'm not too worried. The other day I glanced at some newspapers, and two of the headlines were enough to reassure me that the bastards still aren't getting everything they want.

First, Venezuela reelected Hugo Chavez by a solid margin (story here). I'm not saying that I like Chavez or that I don't like him; I'm just saying that it's good to see that the Venezuelan voters can't be shepherded around at will by the country's wealthy elite, and that the Bush administration will still have to work with Chavez despite his insufficient kowtowing to U.S. corporate interests.

Second, charter schools took it in the shorts (story here) after the first major study comparing charters with regular public schools showed public schools performing better. There are many ways to interpret the study, of course, but you can't use it to argue that charter schools are the silver bullet that some conservatives have played them up to be.

July 27, 2004

Improving ourselves, not others

From self-help books to germline genetic manipulation:

However, if our happiness as individuals is impeded by desires and emotions that we want to disown, there are more everyday ways to try to change ourselves than using genetic modification. Perhaps we are best off if we can make the changes we desire through individual self-examination and insight, associating with people who already seem to have the kind of species-atypical psychological makeup that we aspire to, reading books about the experiences of such people, and so on.

Yet some of the desires and emotions that we want to disown might be too deep for us to reach by these methods. In this case, I see nothing wrong in principle with more direct physical changes to ourselves, such as if we can design safe, effective drugs that help reduce our craving for sugar (or our fear of death, and so on).

The point of this debate, then, should not be that there is a general moral rule against tampering with our inherited nature. Indeed, such tampering might be justified. Rather, we need to acknowledge that it would necessarily be a piecemeal, iterative process. It would begin with efforts by individuals to change those aspects of themselves that they rationally disapprove of. At one end of the spectrum of possibilities, a program of genetic alteration of the personalities of our children would be undesirable. All that said, there is no overriding objection to using technological means to modify our own personalities, and ultimately to reshape human nature. After all, self-help books are a type of technology too [italics mine].

Au contraire, mon frere. You were going great up until the "reshape human nature" bit, at which point you reached too far and fell on your face.

Germline genetic alteration, according to the article, is undesirable because it's "risky" and because it "may never be feasible." In other words, it's undesirable for technical reasons. These are NOT the only, or the most important, reasons why we should not manipulate our germline.

Self-improvement is one thing; if I choose to take Prozac or have my vision corrected surgically, or even tinker with my own genes, I'm engaged in self improvement, which is one of the most admirable and impressive human abilities.

But when I meddle with the germline--even when the technology has been perfected and I am able to do exactly what I wish to do with no risks of making a mistake--I'm no longer engaged in self-improvement. I'm engaged in other improvement, of a profound and largely irreversible kind.

Who among us is arrogant enough to presume to know what makes a "better" human being?

On one hand, this kind of hubris has been deployed in defense of genocide. On the other hand, it doesn't seem that different from a parent's efforts to prevent birth "defects" by seeking quality prenatal care.

The crucial distinction may be between the protection of others, and the improvement of others. Protection may sometimes be justified, as when a mother makes the decision that her unborn child would be better off without cerebral palsy. Even here, the decision has to be made very carefully.

The "improvement" of others through manipulation of the germline is too presumptuous. We cannot know that a higher IQ or an increased lifespan, no matter how much we may want those things for ourselves, will benefit someone who has not yet been born.

Self-improvement and other-protection can be justified. Other-improvement cannot be, so long as we respect each person's privilege and burden to make these decisions for themselves.

(Via political theory daily review.)

July 24, 2004

"War" or "Ideological conflict?"

David Brooks discusses the suggestions of the 9-11 commission that "we're not in the middle of a war on terror. . . . We're not facing an axis of evil. Instead, we are in the midst of an ideological conflict."

It seems like a small distinction - emphasizing ideology instead of terror - but it makes all the difference, because if you don't define your problem correctly, you can't contemplate a strategy for victory.

More commentary from Kevin Drum.

July 23, 2004

Private benefits, or public welfare

News that United Airlines is suspending pension plan contributions, and may soon terminate these plans altogether, is more evidence that workers shouldn't count on corporate benefactors to provide security for them in their old age.

Stronger unions would help. Ironically though, the unions themselves may have contributed to current worker insecurity with their strategies of the 1950s and 60's. By focusing their energies on winning more generous private pension benefits, instead of on increasing public-sector benefits like Social Security, the unions may have sacrificed long-term stability for short-term gains.

Michael B. Katz explains what happened:

In the 1950s and 1960s, federal officials would have accepted a tradeoff: lower private pensions for higher Social Security. Unions, however, balked at this alternative and cut their own deals with business for higher pensions. In fact, the slow rise in Social Security benefits during these decades reflected the growth in private pensions. After major unions had "carved out a . . . private welfare state for their own members," pointed out historian Nelson Lichtenstein, they "no longer saw an increase in federal welfare expenditures as an urgent task." . . .

"After World War II," argued Charles Noble in his history of welfare, "the best organized industrial workers all but gave up the struggle for universal public provisions to wrestle with employers over private benefits . . . . Organized labor's determined pursuit of the mixed-benefit strategy made it impossible to mount an effort to win universal public benefits or redistributional taxes." [Katz, pp.176-77, footnotes omitted.]

"Private welfare" as Katz calls it, including pensions and employer-provided health insurance, may have seemed safe back in the 1950's when Dad could get a job with Ford for the rest of his life. If the dollar value of the benefits unions could win from private employers was higher than what they could get out of Social Security, it might have made sense in that bygone era to focus on private welfare benefits. Even if , as Katz suggests, this strategy "divided the American working class into a unionized segment, which until recently enjoyed an almost West European level of social welfare protection, and a growing group--predominantly young, minority, and female--who were left out in the cold." [Katz, p.177, internal quotations omitted.]

Today, though, the differences between the solid working class and the poor unemployed riffraff have melted away. Everyone who lives on their wages, and not on their invested capital, is subject to becoming a new member of the riffraff class in the blink of an eye. In this environment, public benefits seem to be the only sure way to provide economic security to wage-earners in their old age.

Another problem with private benefits in America (including employer-sponsored health insurance) is that the "right" to these benefits is always trumped by the right of private business to pursue profits. This, in itself, might not be a bad thing. Why, after all, should private business be expected to provide for the public welfare? That seems to be a role that private business is least well-equipped to play.

The public welfare ought to be provided for by the public, acting through the democratic state. Risks that threaten all of us ought to be insured by the only entity that represents all of us--the government. This includes the risks of old-age poverty, and it also includes the risks of unexpected sickness and injury. So long as we continue to rely on private pension plans and employer-sponsored health insurance, we will ensure that only those citizens fortunate enough to hold a stable job will be protected from risks that confront all of us.

July 21, 2004

Bio of a Senate candidate

Here's a short bio of Mike Miles, courtesy of the Denver Post. Miles is the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from Colorado who received the most delegate votes at his party's convention (and whose name will appear first on the primary ballot). Try to imagine making the same career moves that Miles has made:

Mike Miles

Age: 47

Hometown: Born in Panama Canal Zone; raised in Fountain [a small, lower-middle-class town south of Colorado Springs]

Occupation: Assistant superintendent, Fountain-Fort Carson School District

Family: Wife, Karen; three children

Education: West Point, B.S. in engineering, 1978; University of California at Berkeley, B.A. in Slavic languages and literature, 1986; Columbia University, M.A. in international affairs and Soviet studies, 1989

Career: U.S. Army Ranger, 1979-81; promoted to company commander, 1981-83; custodian, Colorado Springs, 1983; analyst, Congressional Research Service, summers 1987-89; presidential management intern, U.S. State Department, 1989-90; foreign service officer, U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, 1991-93; general services officer promoted to special assistant to the U.S. ambassador to Russia in Moscow, 1993-94; teacher, Fountain-Fort Carson High School, 1995-99; principal, Fountain Middle School, 1999-2003

Community service: Human Relations Coalition in Colorado Springs, 1996-99; Citizens Project, 1997-99; Black Leadership Forum, 2000-present

What must have motivated Miles to leave the Foreign Service in order to become a high school teacher? He wasn't chasing brass rings -- not like, say, the Democratic Party fat cats who pretend that Mike Miles doesn't exist.

July 20, 2004

Two words:

Industrial food production.

July 19, 2004

Don't hide behind "science"

Many creationists and would-be theocrats in this country don't really understand science.

Sometimes, neither do doctors.

This week's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine carries a letter from one David S. Huckins, M.D., of Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts. Huckins expresses his indignation that the President's Council on Bioethics has not done enough to ensure that its deliberations are unbiased. "Medical research conducted with the same bias would be summarily rejected by the scientific community as irrelevant and worthless."

There are plenty of grounds for criticizing the President's Council on Bioethics, and the process used to select its members. Failing to "rigorously exclude preexisting bias" is not one of them. Huckins, apparently, doesn't understand science or the purpose of the Council on Bioethics.

The aim of the President's Council on Bioethics is not the pursuit of scientific truth. Instead, the Council is charged with answering questions that aren't scientific--questions about ethics, values, and morals. These questions, by definition, can never be free from bias.

Perhaps Huckins can be forgiven for confusing the Council's purpose with the subject matter with which it deals. Among the ethical questions facing the Council is whether or not to pursue scientific inquiry using human stem cells derived from embryos. Stem-cell research may be scientific; the questions about whether or not we should do it are ethical.

What Huckins really objects to is not that the Council is biased, but that it is composed of too many individuals that subscribe to the wrong "political and religious ideology." That's a fair charge. But Huckins should stop waving his hands about "science" and own up to the fact that he is simply advocating a different political and religious ideology.

July 17, 2004

Hannah Arendt

My undergraduate thesis was on Hannah Arendt. I don't think it was wholly successful, but in fairness to myself, I can't think of too many people who believe that their thesis was a smashing success. Even when, unlike mine, it really was.

There's one sense in which my thesis did succeed, and that is that it didn't kill my interest in Arendt. When I turned it in, I thought that (a) it was a crappy thesis, but that (b) I'd love to rewrite it. Alas, other priorities: ambulance jobs, medical school... law school. *Sigh* Since I don't like golf on principle, maybe I can come back to it when I retire.

In the meantime, here is one of the pithiest attempts to describe some of what Hannah Arendt was trying to do. The whole article is interesting; here are excerpts.

"Her task was to formulate the morality that kept average people from doing evil in emergency situations. The emergency she had in mind was Nazi Germany. She wished more people had possessed principles that led them to refuse the Nazis. Refusal was exhibited by rare individuals of every social type. Set against them, though, were those "normal" people who couldn't be relied on: Eichmann-types on the one hand, and advanced "intellectuals," her former colleagues, on the other. These two groups loved to judge things by rules-but in the Third Reich all rules had been reversed. "Thou Shalt Kill," she liked to say, became the First Commandment. Therefore, Arendt set herself the difficult task of a morality that would not depend on rules. [Arendt focuses on two faculties that she thought some "banal," average people like Adolf Eichmann had lacked: thinking and judging.]

"Finally, though, it is her idea of judgment that is most alien to us. On Arendt's model, we must judge, and judge, and judge: thoughtfully, implacably, publicly. At both the individual level and the level of the community, people must always be judging the acts and characters of others. If you think of our current world, there may be truth to her charge that we are afraid of judging. We complain about people, we hate them, we love scandals, we opine about what people shouldn't dare say in public. But we would think it arrogant for one person to stand up and coolly say to another-"I, so-and-so, having considered it carefully, judge that what you, Mr. X, did, was morally wrong. I need no more authority to judge you than the fact that I am a fellow human being, and that I have judged by good examples, and asked myself what I, myself, could not live with doing."
Of course, it would be a very curious world in which one constantly dared to judge others, and not so much one's enemies. As Arendt always insisted, the real moral issue was never with one's enemies, who like the Nazis could be so obviously evil) but with one's friends, and those one loved.

More on Arendt here.

July 16, 2004

Terrorists or traveling band?

Annie Jacobsen's "Terror in the Skies" has gotten a lot of attention today, helped along by Michelle Malkin.

(Apropos of nothing, Malkin's continuing attempts to refashion herself as a columnist/commentator/journalist/pundit/blogger are each more embarrassing than what came before. I hope someday she'll find her natural talent, but none of these things are it.)

I won't take a position in the debate over how much of Jacobsen's account of Flight 327 is embellished by her own fears, except to say that I think Donald Sensing is (mostly) right. She was already terrified by the sight of a large group of Middle Eastern men waiting in the terminal when she boarded her flight; all of her observations past that point (i.e. the whole damn story) is filtered through this lens of fear.

We can be sure of only one thing. There weren't any other passengers on that flight who avidly read conservative blogs. If there had been, they probably would have posted a comment or two on these blogs corroborating Jacobsen's story. As of now--nada.

(Conservative blogs, for example, here, here, here, and here.)

July 13, 2004

Conservative realignment

The inevitable embarrassment of the bankrupt neoconservative ideology has occurred in Iraq. Since virtually no one prior to this debacle had the backbone to stand up to the neocons--the overwhelming vote of confidence the Congress gave Bush is evidence of this--I suppose we should be thankful that we haven't had to wait for two or three more pre-emptive invasions to realize that we don't need what the neoconservatives are selling.

An interesting question now is, which other factions of American conservativism will benefit the most from the neconservative fall? Well, it might just be the paleoconservatives.

The paleos, whose most popular figure nowadays is Pat Buchanan, have several reasons to think that their fortunes might be looking up. The paleos were the faction of the American right most critical of the neocons before the invasion of Iraq. In fact, you'd have to look all the way over to the Greens on the left to find another group that resisted the lure of thinking war would be cheap and easy. This gives the paleos more credibility now. Second, the paleoconservative focus on sealing our borders against third-world immigration might play better now that border security can be recast as a defense against terrorism. We might want to start paying attention to the paleos again.

Let's peek in on a paleoconservative critique of the Iraq war, shall we? Here are excerpts from an article by Andrew J. Bacevich in Pat Buchanan's American Conservative magazine: ten lessons to take away from Iraq.

First, ideology makes a poor substitute for strategy. With the invasion of Iraq, it became impossible to deny that in the heady aftermath of the Cold War American grand strategy became uncoupled from reality. Certain that history had spoken and that Americans were uniquely able to interpret its meaning, policymakers both Democratic and Republican uncorked old vials of Wilsonian illusion and breathed deeply. As a consequence, zealotry supplanted calculations of power and interest as a determinant of U.S. policy. . . .

Continue reading "Conservative realignment" »

July 10, 2004

"Let's roll"

Law professors Michael Froomkin and Brian Leiter link to examples of small-minded harrassment in the name of "homeland security."

Every time I read stories like this, I'm reminded of Todd Beamer's more effective approach to security: "Let's roll." Beamer, Mark Bingham, Tom Burnett, and their fellow passengers and crew who fought the terrorists for control of Flight 93 are heroes. But they're more than just heroes, they're also teachers. It's too bad some of the smallish officials and bureaucrats who see homeland security as an excuse to abuse their authority haven't been paying attention in class.

The heroes of Flight 93 taught us how strong America really is. Within minutes of discovering that the old rules of thumb for dealing with hijackers were not going to be effective any longer, they rewrote the rule book. They demonstrated that the American people are not like a flock of sheep. They're more like bears. Independent, inclined to keep to themselves, sometimes a little frumpy and self-absorbed, but deadly when attacked.

If the analogy seems strained, it might be because the government and the media have saturated us with the sheep analogy for so long. According to the standard line out of Washington, the terrorist threat calls for "strength," not so much from everyday American citizens, as exemplified by the passengers and crew of Flight 93, but from the military and police apparatus assigned to protect the passive public flock from terrorist wolves. When Tom Ridge announces his color alerts, and John Ashcroft warns of "nonspecific intelligence" suggesting the possibility of another attack, the advice from our government is always the same. "We, the Authorities, are on the case. Defer to us when we walk among you. Don't take pictures of those public buildings. Submit to our lordly displays of officiousness, for we are strong, and we are here to protect you." Not enough talk of "strength" these days refers to the kind of strength that was most effective against the terrorists on 9-11, namely, the strength of citizens like Todd Beamer.

Does this mean there is no role for the military, or for the police, or for the courageous people who make it their job to fight terrorists? Certainly not. It would have been better had the terrorists never gotten so far as to provoke the wrath of the passengers of Flight 93. Todd Beamer and Mark Bingham should never have had to demonstrate their strength the way they did. But when the police act as though we were sheep, and harass citizens to demonstrate that they have the power to do it, they reject their strongest and most effective ally in the fight against terrorists.

Legislation like the Patriot Act is based on the idea of two warring powers, the government and the terrorists. The citizens, caught in the middle, are mere sheep amongst whom the terrorists hide, and through whom the government's gaze must penetrate to identify and capture the terrorists. This twisted idea of the "war" against terrorism explains why civil liberties are nothing but obstacles. From this perspective, people who oppose the Patriot Act seem to value their privacy over their lives--since the citizens' only means of protecting life is through greater government power. Similarly, from this perspective, it makes no sense to complain about having your film confiscated by an overzealous security guard, or about being dressed down by some small-fry bureaucrat in an airport. Every sphere of privacy you defend for yourself is a hindrance to the government's ability to protect us against terrorism.

This idea of the passive role of average citizens reveals an ignorance of the lessons that Todd Beamer and his fellow passengers taught us on September 11. One of those lessons is: the government is not the only entity that can neutralize terrorists. The "shoe bomber" Richard Reid got through the government screens at the airport, but not the citizen screens on the airplane. The police and security forces would not be as eager to harass people if they saw the public as their ally and not merely as their flock. For one thing, civil liberties and protection from terrorists would not be cast as mutually exclusive goods. And the petty officials that harass people just because they can, would be much less likely to be tolerated.

July 09, 2004

Time for something different: religion in politics (v.2)

Religion, as used by the right, is a tool for getting the government into your private life. And I'm not talking just about abortion, which would probably be an item of fierce public controversy even without religious arguments. I'm talking about things like marriage, sex, the social roles of men and women--all those things that social conservatives find so necessary to regulate by means of government surveillance and supervision. Lacking the necessary logical or empirical connections between many of the decisions that consenting adults make as they live their private lives, and any consequences for the community that would ordinarily serve as the rationale for the government to regulate behavior, the conservatives reach for another rationale--morality. Faced with the obvious fact that people disagree about which consenting domestic behaviors are immoral, the conservatives reach for their trump card--it's immoral because God says it is. And who are you to disagree with God?

Perhaps because the social conservatives have the greatest desire to regulate private life, they've also had the greatest need for religion in politics. It's the only justification in an otherwise freedom-loving nation for imposing their particular preferences on everybody else.

The left views religion very differently. Religion is itself one of those very personal commitments that people ought to make without the state's interference. This is why the left is perfectly content with a public discourse that never appeals to, or even acknowledges, religion. It isn't that everyone on the left is anti-religious, it's simply that they think legitimate policy questions can be answered without an appeal to God. Instead, the left would prefer to evaluate public policies on some kind of measurable, secular scale, like income inequality. This allows them to reserve questions of religion to each individual's private conscience. All this is perfectly reasonable and persuasive, but...

I think the left needs to get back into the religion business for strategic reasons.

Liberals and others (agrarian traditionalists, for example) who oppose the modern right-wing agenda cannot forget that public religious rhetoric is a powerful weapon. The conservatives have demonstrated this over the past twenty years, to such an extent that religious people will often vote for the religious Republican even when that candidate's policy positions aren't very palatable.. Even though leftists might prefer that this weapon not be used at all, the right wing's zealotry makes this a pipe dream. Since the best option isn't available, the left should choose the second-best--combat with a rough equivalence of arms and ammunition. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

For one thing, supporters of fair, rule-governed markets could benefit from a religious critique of right wing economic rhetoric. One of the reasons this rhetoric seems so shallow is that it seems to ignore important values:

It is curious that in American politics, "values" issues are always social issues but never economic ones. Yet how the disadvantaged among us are treated is clearly a reflection of who we are as a people. Similarly, how workers are treated on the job -- their safety, their working conditions, their remuneration -- also speaks volumes about our values as a nation. This is also true for child poverty.
A young person born in the 1980s, and raised in a non-religious household, might be forgiven for thinking that religion had no way to make this kind of argument. But thankfully, they'd still be wrong. A good example is the tradition within Catholicism that remembers history, and is capable of offering a critique of "modern liberalism" (economic laissez-faire) without succumbing to the fallacy that the alternative is Marxism:
In the same way, John Paul II has recognized some genuine good in a market-based economy and recognizes it as a potential force for human betterment. But . . . he is no different from his precedessors in recalling, at times with language even stronger than theirs, the philosophical errors that undergird liberal capitalism and the worldly excesses to which the free market system is not only prone but, today, utterly abandoned. And it is this overarching and radical Catholic critique of the modern liberal ideology that I have never seen even a slight appreciation of in those who loudly proclaim the virtues of the unregulated free market, of government minimalism and so forth.
Other examples abound. The Jewish tradition in the pages of magazines like Tikkun is one that springs to mind. The commenters on my last post remind us of nuns who chain themselves to fences in civil disobedience; the many African-American Baptist churches that have fought injustice for most of America's history, and the old tradition represented in today's public life by civilized people like Bill Moyers. My own favorite, of course, is the agrarian tradition exemplified by people like Wendell Berry.

These people all have something different to say about religion than we're used to hearing. We should listen to them more often. Most importantly, the left should seek them out and give them a big bullhorn, if they'll agree to take it.

There's an article in this week's New Yorker by David Greenberg that I think reveals a lot about the the religious right:

The problem lies, rather, in the specific ways in which Bush uses religion. Abraham Lincoln, in his second Inaugural address, invoked God, but he did so in a spirit of humility, questioning his own certitude and thus inviting further questioning. Bush does the opposite: his use of religion seems designed to remove any doubt -- first in his own mind, then in the public's -- about his course. It doesn't assist Bush with his reasoning; it substitutes for reasoning. Instead of providing a starting point for careful judgments, it assures him that the instincts on which he has based his policy are unerring.
It's time for something different.

July 08, 2004

The rise of the religious left (v.1)

One of the most consequential victories of the American right wing over the past three decades has been their virtually complete capture of the rhetoric of religion.

Their victory has been so complete that the phrase "religious right" seems redundant. Just consider how confusing the phrase "religious left" sounds.

The right wing has made devastatingly effective use of their religious rhetorical dominance. Without the close association that the right wing has managed to cement in the minds of most Americans between "religion" and "conservative," the electoral support for the right would collapse. In virtually every substantive policy arena, the Democrats champion the more centrist, moderate, and mainstream position, when compared with the Republicans' hard-right agenda. If policy was all that mattered, the right wing couldn't have amassed the impressive track record that it has without moderating its approach. Call it a gut feeling, but I don't think America has drifted to the right; I think it's been dragged by extremist right-wing politicians.

But policy, of course, is not all that matters. The politicians may have dragged the country to the right on policy, but the people have willingly followed when it comes to values. As someone who finds doctrinaire religions, churches, and religious writings distasteful, it's a bit difficult for me to get emotionally upset by the absence of the left from the rhetorical field of values. For me, policies embody values; a policy position is a way of expressing a value. I don't want a bunch of pandering politicians to start preaching to me about "family" and "patriotism" and "God." I don't think politicians should be in the preaching business. If I think their policy positions are humane, sensible, fair, and honest, I'll support them. If not, I won't.

But I also have to realize that my opinions aren't shared by everyone. Many people want to hear elected officials talk about values, and affirm religious faith, which undergirds so many of those values. The worst thing that a politician can do in the eyes of many people is not to profess a faith that differs from their own, but to fail to profess any faith at all. That's why I think so many people vote Republican. It isn't that they agree with the Republicans' agenda, it's that they'll vote for the candidate that seems to favor "religion" over the one that doesn't. And the left, since it has no religious vocabulary to speak of, can't win this person's vote.

We need a religious left. I don't think it has to be created. It just needs to speak up.

July 06, 2004

Chicago renaissance?

The pride of post-industrial American business is moving into an abandoned cosmetics plant on Chicago's depressed West Side. It will be the first Wal-Mart in the city.

On one level, this is a good thing for Chicago. Wal-Mart will employ people, although it won't pay them very much. It will sell things at low prices, although neighborhood businesses who sell similar items will go out of business. Most importantly, it will ensure that the neighborhood remains populated, if not prosperous, instead of being gradually abandoned altogether as has been the fate of large areas of the city's South Side.

So I suppose we should count our blessings.

One thing's for sure, though. Wal-Mart isn't going to be the savior of Chicago's old industrial neighborhoods. The jobs it creates and the products it sells aren't like those of the old factories that they replace. Those old jobs provided the waves of immigrants who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods with new wealth, which enabled them to save money, raise families and, eventually, climb the rungs of America's economic and social ladder. Those jobs were unionized and well-paid.

The Wal-Mart jobs, to a large extent, simply move the existing money around, subject to a healthy remittance back to Bentonville.

It's a good thing Wal-Mart has low prices, because the people in the neighborhood won't be able to afford to shop anywhere else.

June 30, 2004

Waging "war" (v.2)

Because fighting a war is so significant a thing, we shouldn't cheapen the word by casual overuse or calculated misuse.

The discussions surrounding this week's Supreme Court review of Bush's "wartime" detentions of "enemy combatants" make it clear that when national security is at stake, much of the daily civilian law that we take for granted is liable to change in fundamental ways.

This is as it should be. Which is why we must not allow the words "national security" and "war" to mean just about anything, which is what some supporters of the Bush administration have been far too eager to do -- whether out of intellectual laziness, a giddy attraction to fascism, or overweening fear.

AlQaeda, for all its spectacular and murderous "success" on 9-11, has never threatened our national security. The terrorists have threatened American citizens; they continue to threaten American citizens; but they have never threatened America.

AlQaeda has never even come close to threatening America's consumer lifestyle, let alone our national security. Back in the last real national-security war that America fought, World War II, our national security demanded that we sacrifice our preferences for keeping women in the home and put them to work in factories building fighter planes instead. An equivalent national security threat today might lead our government to actually discourage our wasteful oil consumption, or some other such liberating but unpopular adjustment to the demands of war.

If there's one way AlQaeda has been able to actually threaten the national security interests of the United States, it's in the way their attacks have caused the American people to glibly swallow the notion put forward by the opportunists in the Executive Branch that we're at war. And because we're at war, say the opportunists, the special features of America that make our nation worth protecting have suddenly become too burdensome. The notion of limited executive power? Obsolete! And despite the fact that the Supreme Court has simply said that the Executive must provide some justification for detaining citizens incommunicado other than just their word on it (cross my fingers, hope to die, Iraq has WMDs I swear) some conservatives are only able to see the "tyranny" of the judiciary.

This emperor has no clothes, and his dog doesn't hunt. We are NOT "at war."

June 28, 2004

Psst... it's a metaphorical war

Today's series of Supreme Court decisions defining the breadth of Executive Branch discretion over who is held incommunicado where and for how long, is ably summed up elsewhere.

Having little to add to the analysis of the Court's opinions, I'll throw in my two cents about the Blogosphere's opinions, which appear predictably to be divided between the Left, who support limits on Executive discretion, and the Right, who seem not to mind at all.

My goal -- and I'm not sure I've succeeded -- is to try to explain why I think this discussion is laced with absurdity. It's all very rational and learned; don't get me wrong. It's just that I keep thinking that somehow we're arguing about the wrong things. Or rather, that we're not arguing about enough things.

There's an unexamined premise that needs digging up -- before we can decide whether today's Supreme Court decisions are worthy of celebration or scorn:

"We are at war."

We're at war with Afghanistan. We're at war in Afghanistan. We're at war with insurgents in Afghanistan, although the government there is our ally. We were at war in Afghanistan, and that war was fought by the prisoners held in Guantanamo. So we're still at war with them, although they're in custody. If we release them, the war in Afghanistan will flare up again, because the people we were at war with will return to Afghanistan and restart the war.

We're at war with Iraq. We were at war with Iraq, but the government that we were at war with has been replaced. We took over the country, but now we've transferred sovereignty back to the Iraqis. Our troops can't leave because they're needed to provide security.

We're at war with Al Qaeda. We can't tell if we're winning or not. Tom Ridge raises the alert level to yellow from time to time. Al Qaeda wants to kill Americans. They've already killed several thousand on 9-11. Before 9-11, we were at war with drugs. Drugs have already killed thousands of Americans.

We're at warwith Terrorism. We can't tell if we're winning. We don't know whether we'll ever defeat Terrorism. Maybe John Ashcroft will tell us when it's over, and whether we've won or not. Maybe he won't.

June 24, 2004

milking aphids

Do the people lead, or do they follow?

It's not easy to tell sometimes. For example, the people of Colorado gave U.S. Senate candidate Mike Miles the victory in the Democratic State Assembly, which means that Miles' name will appear first on the August primary ballot. Nevertheless, the web page for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee doesn't even acknowledge that Mike Miles exists. Well before the primary, the DSCC is pretending that the race for U.S. Senate in Colorado is between state attorney general Ken Salazar and the eventual winner of the Republican primary.

The DSCC, led by a bunch of current Senators, is of course free to support any candidate it wants to. It can pretend that Ken Salazar has already won the primary election. But instead, DSCC spokesman Brad Woodhouse (never trust a man named Brad) defends its snub of Miles by arguing that, really, the outcome of the primary is not in doubt, and that to acknowledge the reality of Mike Miles' existence would be ignoring reality. This sounds more surreal to me the more I think about it.

Most of us think that in this country, "the people" rule. That's what it means to be a democracy, right? After all, in an election, "the people" "choose" the winner, who becomes a public "servant" who "does the will of the people" while in office.

All of this isn't entirely true, of course. The people follow, most of the time, and the most successful politicians are those who groom their constituents most effectively, like a shepherd tends his sheep, or an ant milks his aphids.

The DSCC is milking their aphids in Colorado. The Commission on Presidential Debates was milking aphids when it refused to allow Ralph Nader to debate George W. Bush and Al Gore. "Come on little aphids," say the political elite, "give us your sweet honeydew, by selecting from among the wonderful alternatives we've provided for you."

And the people lead, by making "their" choice.

June 23, 2004

Colorado politicians: nothing to be proud of

Usually, the Colorado delegation in the U.S. House and Senate is invisible.

Unfortunately, Colorado's delegation seems to emerge from obscurity only to garner more than their share of embarrassment and ridicule, as exemplified by the recent posturing over gay marriage.

Marilyn Musgrave, a congressional lightweight, has finally been able to grab some media attention by sponsoring a House bill to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage. The idea is either so trivial, or so constitutionally flippant, that it can't even win support from conservative Rep. Bob Barr, who notes that the Defense of Marriage Act hasn't been found unconstitutional (yet).

And which statesman has sponsored this featherweight legislative idea in the Senate? Yep, Colorado's Republican Senator Wayne Allard, whose other job is to serve as one of President Bush's automatic Senate supporters, no matter how ridiculous the proposal.

Maybe one of these days, Colorado voters will elect a real statesman to either the House or the Senate. But their recent track record doesn't suggest that such a deed is imminent.

June 16, 2004

Wendell Berry on farming, Jesus, tradition, and corporate tyranny

From an interview with Wendell Berry:

BERGER: Of all your writing, Life is a Miracle is the one that I think is the most brilliant because it calls into question the entire myth of progress.

BERRY: You know, it helps an old man to hear that!

BERGER: There are not enough people who are asking questions about the post-Enlightenment era, and the myth of progress and where it's taking us. Even our contemporary Christian mindset is just built on this myth that the world just keeps getting better and that the past was worse than the present.

BERRY: It gets taken for granted, that's why it's so easy to attack. People are handing out this stuff without thinking about it.

BERGER: How is that myth of progress operating on us as people, and what are the reasons for calling it into question, or subverting it?

BERRY: Well, that's two questions, isn't it? How does it operate on us? It substitutes this infinite advance toward better and better life in the material sense for the old pilgrimage, which you make by effort and grace, to become a better person. And I guess that's the reason you need to subvert it if you can. It takes people's minds off the important things. It becomes, at it's worst, a kind of determinism: All we have to do is just passively go along and things will get better and better, and we'll be happier and happier. That's why we need honest accounting.

I think all the time about the medical industry's emphasis on longevity. It's a substitution of quantity for any idea of completeness or wholeness or any sense of real fulfillment or real worth, so that you prolong life past the time where it's worth living, and then you brag about it. Without any acknowledgment of the possibility that somebody's life might become a burden, or that some things are worse than death.

(Via political theory daily review.)

Spite voters

Here's the poor man's David Brooks.

Happiness is the scarcest resource of all, not money. And the happy supply has been cornered by the beautiful, famous and wealthy coastal elite, the ones who never age, and who are just so damned concerned for the have-nots' well-being. In that sense, you can see how the Republicans were able to successfully manipulate the meaning of "elitism" to suit their needs. They weren't just selling dogshit to the credulous masses; they were selling pancreatic balm to the needy.

(Via political theory daily review.)

June 06, 2004

Remembering Ronald Reagan

One of the reasons I never became a right-winger is because most of my earliest memories of politics date from Reagan's first term in office. Although I was concerned for Reagan's health when he was shot by John Hinckley on that day in fourth grade, my memories of Reagan's Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt made "Republican" a bad word from the time I first learned what the word meant. I also remember the suspicions that Reagan's election team plotted to delay the release of the American hostages held in Iran until just after the election, so Jimmy Carter wouldn't be able to take credit for it. "Who would do that kind of thing," I asked as a fourth-grader, "except for low-down, lying, cheating, powermongerers who can't be trusted?" Even if I didn't use those exact words, they convey the essence of my memories fairly accurately.

The Democrats, I've learned, often cheat and lie as well. But my first exposure to lying politicians during my formative political years was, thanks to Ronald Reagan, of lying right-wing politicians. The first cut is always the deepest, eh?

My political education continued as I started high school and Reagan was in his second term. I know Reagan is praised for being a staunch anti-Communist, but somehow his anti-Communist rhetoric always seemed clownish and facile to me. By the time I was in high school, I knew something about Vietnam and about the discredited domino theory, so it seemed absurd that Reagan was so obsessed with the "Communist threat" in Central America. The Nicaraguan Sandinistas couldn't have been much worse than the dictator they'd overthrown, and the right-wing death-squads that Reagan propped up in El Salvador didn't seem like such great guys either. The lesson I took from all of this is that the American right didn't give two stones about the people in any of these countries, but they were willing to support the most brutal dictatorships to ensure that American multinational corporations could maximize their profits.

The Iran-Contra scandal taught me that the hard right, exemplified by people like Oliver North, would violate any rule or principle in order to achieve the results they wanted. "Congress says it's illegal? What does Congress know? I'm a real American patriot! And I say, selling guns to the repressive mullahs in Iran to give money to the repressive (but anti-Communist) Contras in Nicaragua is good policy by my lights--and my opinion is the only one that counts." Ahh, good ol' Oliver North. Even if he wasn't making cameo appearances on Fox, I still wouldn't be able to forget him. All the foreign policy clowns in the current administration are cut out of the same mold. Some of them are actually the same people--John Poindexter was indicted for his role in Reagan's Iran Contra and is now runs George W. Bush's Total Information Awareness project. It's good to know that you can't keep a good man down.

Ronald Reagan may have been the Great Communicator and all that; he may have given the generations older than mine who remembered Vietnam and Stagflation some optimism. But for me, he shaped my perception of right-wing politicians in a way that pretty much guarantees I won't be voting for George W. Bush in November.

June 04, 2004

Paying for Hank McKinnell's fun ride

Some of the nation's big dogs of business have been schmoozing on Mackinac Island as part of the Detroit Regional Chamber's annual Policy Conference.

While GM's CEO G. Richard Wagoner complains about how rising health care costs are crippling American business, Pfizer's Henry McKinnell reminds us that not every American business has been crippled by the high costs of health care.

While GM's Wagoner didn't single out the cost of prescription drugs, I wonder whether he ever considered mentioning it. Did it ever cross his mind?

Decades ago, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca started grumbling about the costs of health care. It was partly because of Iacocca that the managed care revolution happened at all, back when everyone thought HMOs would save us from skyrocketing health care costs. Despite the bad rap that managed care has earned for itself, it might just have worked if the only engine driving health care inflation was the fee-for-service system where third party payers coughed up whatever a doc decided to charge, without question.

We know now that fee-for-service wasn't the only thing driving the rise in costs. Most people who follow the issue these days agree that there are many different reasons why health care costs continue to rise so quickly. Drug prices are one factor getting a lot of attention. So far, the argument that any serious attempt to lower these prices will destroy all hope of ever developing any new drugs has held sway in Washington, with the help of pharmaceutical industry lobbying dollars to make the logic more persuasive.

But how much worse do things have to get before the chairman of GM stops whining about the high costs of health care and actually proposes to do something about it? And when he does, what solutions will he suggest? Will he and Hank McKinnell be able to conjure up some scheme that doesn't touch Pfizer's profits, or will Rick Wagoner say to Hank: "Hank, you've had a great ride. But the rest of us have been buying your circus tickets for way too long."

June 02, 2004

The "Bush Draft"

Say goodbye to our all-volunteer Army, and hello to the "Bush Draft."

Faced with the need for far more troops in Afghanistan and Iraq than the civilian Pentagon leadership had anticipated, the U.S. Army has issued orders that will keep soldiers in the military for a longer period than they volunteered for.

The Army has implemented this de-facto draft because it has been "stretched" by the burdens of what Bush is now calling his "Greater Middle-East Initiative." In his commencement address today at the Air Force Academy, Bush hinted at what this new "initiative" might mean:

Overcoming terrorism and bringing greater freedom to the nations of the Middle East is the work of decades."
Decades? With initiatives like this, we'll need a draft--even if it's a draft by another name. Bush can't find enough willing volunteers for his new brand of imperialism, so he'll have to start relying on unwilling conscripts instead.

May 29, 2004

Farm Corporate subsidies

We already know about the huge subsidies going to the pharmaceutical industry, thanks to that (other) Bush administration fiasco known as the Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Corporate welfare, however, is ubiquitous. It has been blessed by both political parties. Farm subsidies are possibly the worst form of corporate welfare, because most people think the subsidies go to family farmers and not to corporations and wealthy individuals. Think again.

Lawmakers, summoning outdated stereotypes, assert that farm subsidies are needed to prevent the bankruptcy of millions of family farmers, who perform backbreaking labor for poverty incomes. Yet farming in 2004 is a stable, profitable industry dominated by large agribusinesses using 21st-century technology. The typical farm household reports an income 17 percent above the national median and a net worth of more than $500,000 -- despite living in rural areas with lower costs of living.

Go read this fascinating (and very short) article from that bastion of liberalism called the Heritage Foundation.

May 27, 2004

"We wish we had been more aggressive"

On Wednesday, the New York Times admitted that it had too often failed to scrutinize pre-war claims that Iraq represented a clear and present danger. The Times now wishes that it had practiced more aggressive journalism, and not passively fed the public every wild and unsupported claim that Chalabi and Bush administration neocons were making in favor of starting a war.

That's nice. It's a little too late, though, since the yahoos have succeeded with every deceptive, self-serving plan they ever had for putting our armed forces smack in the middle of the Iraqi oilfi... uh, Iraqi desert. We gave the rabid neoconservatives as much rope as they wanted, and then they hung us with it. Good and high. Now we're just kicking our feet, mewling ineffectual apologies about how sorry we are that all our genuflecting before Bush-Cheney prevented us from thinking for ourselves. I'm a little tired of it.

Folks, the hard right has been running this country for too long. Ever since Ronald Reagan, and maybe even earlier, we've deferred to the conservatives whenever they chose to make their arguments forcefully. With a little bit of feeling and a good Southern accent thrown in just to prove that God was on their side, the conservatives have gotten whatever they wanted. Tax cuts? Got 'em. Welfare reform? Got that too, from Clinton no less. Wars? Who cares if we have to start them ourselves. Our conservative, Bible-thumping, free-market idolizing, deregulating, free-trading, right-wing Republican masters should not be denied. They should not be crossed. After all, they're "real American patriots" with the cojones to tell those left-leaning, tree-hugging, pot-smoking, gullible, naiive, limp-wristed, morally bankrupt pathetic losers on the Left just exactly what they are: too spineless in the clutch to be taken seriously.

During the Clinton years, when the stock market was booming and Gary Condit was the only threat we had to worry about, we could tolerate the left. We could even give internet-inventing Al Gore the most votes. Nothing was really at stake. Then September 11 happened. All of a sudden, we needed to get serious. We had to turn to the hard right. They were the only ones who were "tough enough" to keep us safe. Of course the New York Times shouldn't have practiced aggressive journalism if it meant that Bush and his yahoos would be inconvenienced in their obviously superior approach to terrorism. Of course the silly arguments of the Left were too silly because... because they were made by leftists. We all knew the leftists could contribute nothing when the times get tough. When John Ashcroft sat in front of a Senate committee and accused anyone who opposed the Patriot Act as traitorous, no one uttered a peep of disagreement, let alone got angry. It was time for the Left to sit down and shut up.

So the New York Times is apologizing for rolling over and wagging its tail, when it should have been practicing journalism. Sigh. So what. What I'd like to see is some aggression. John Kerry could, and should, tear Bush a new asshole, but so far he's chosen not to. Strangely enough, Al Gore seems to be the only big-name politician willing to demonstrate that Bush can be attacked. Resignations can be called for. The neocons can be called out.

But no one seems to be noticing. Sure, Bush has gotten us all into a fix. But we're all waiting, it seems, for this Abu Ghraib thing to blow over, and for Cowboy Bush to get back on his horse and ride to the rescue. We're at a fork in the road. We're holding our breath.

How much bullshit will it take for us to wake up and realize that the hard right might not have all the answers? I certainly don't know, yet, how much bullshit it will take. But four years from now, I hope we won't have to read any more heartfelt apologies. I don't want to hear later that, in the face of a President who obviously never knew what the hell he was doing, who's surrounded himself with stooges of the oil industry and Machiavellian powermongers who'd rather cut off their left testicle (or equivalent feminine appendage) to avoid telling the American people what's going on at Guantanamo, and whose idea of America doesn't include people who don't think morality is exhausted by chewing tobacco and quoting the Bible--I don't want to hear later how sorry we are for not being aggressive enough.

The Right doesn't, after all, have all the answers. They have no secret magic powers. We've tried their ideas, and they've failed. Enough is enough.

It's time to get more aggressive.

May 24, 2004

Wisdom from the prairie

"Agrarianism in today's world is a fairly loose garment, especially as so many of us live in places where you can't even pull weeds. That is why its mindset can still be useful."

Paleoconservative attack

Sounding a bit like Lewis Lapham, paleoconservative Thomas Fleming takes Bush and his cronies out behind the woodshed for a bit of old-fashioned ass whoopin'.

I wish John Kerry would try it sometime. . .

May 20, 2004

What does it mean to "be American"?

Ever since my friend Nick so eloquently raised the issue with me, I've been following the debates about our national identity, and the question of what it means to be an American.

Samuel Huntington's recent book, Who Are We?, is a book I'd like to read but, alas, haven't read yet. It's generated a lot of controversy, and I have read some of the reviews, such as this one by Tamar Jacoby.

Huntington's book is controversial because he identifies what a lot of us are afraid of: that waves of Mexicans are diluting our national identity by failing to assimilate to the American "Anglo-Protestant" identity.

I've always thought this idea was hogwash. Jacoby's review reflects many of my own views on the subject. I've never bought into the idea that there's anything particularly American about the "Anglo-Protestant" identity, whatever that might be. It's true that anglo-protestant culture was a strong influence upon early America. But as Jacoby puts it, those who confuse this sectarian identity with a general American identity are mistaking origins for essence.

This nation has welcomed waves of non-Anglo, non-Protestant immigrants for most of its history. The similarities between these prior waves of immigration and the current wave of Mexican immigration are, in my opinion, far more important than the differences. Mexicans are glad to be here. They see a land full of opportunities, and they seize them, often far more vigorously than today's Anglo-Protestants who've lived in the United States for several generations. Their children born in this country overwhelmingly learn to speak English.

We've benefitted as a nation far more than we've suffered from Mexican immigration. Suggestions like Huntington's, that we retreat behind an Anglo-Protestant "cultural fortress" (Jacoby's words) seem silly at best, and possibly pernicious.

May 19, 2004

John Kerry better not go there

After the wanton destruction and havoc wreaked by four years of the Bush administration, what we need more than ever is a President with two things: wisdom and guts.

John Kerry has more of both than George W. Bush, but some of his recent statements make me think that he may not have very much more.

Kerry has been playing the role of the pandering politician lately, criticizing Bush for not doing more to reduce gasoline prices. Kerry hasn't gone so far as some Senate democrats in calling for Bush to open up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, but he has tried to turn rising gas prices to his own political benefit in an embarrassingly crass manner.

Folks, gas prices in this country have been way too low for way too long. One of the reasons we're in Iraq is because we're addicted to low oil prices, and we want to control more of the world's supply. One of the reasons we haven't gone after the corrupt regime in Saudi Arabia--a regime that's much more responsible for the kind of terrorists that attacked us on September 11 than Saddam Hussein's regime ever was--is that the Saudis have played ball with us on the oil issue.

One of the reasons the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is perennially under threat from the oil lobby is that we want cheap gas so badly we're always vulnerable to any argument for new drilling, no matter how spurious.

Cheap gas begets gluttonous gas usage. Our love affair with big, gas-guzzling SUVs is the manifestation of our gluttony for cheap oil. SUVs aren't a problem, except that they waste a non-renewable resource for doing dumb suburban things like driving to the Macaroni Grill or driving 20 miles one-way into work every day because you just had to buy that big house in Highlands Ranch even though you had no plans to leave your downtown job.

David Brooks to the contrary, this kind of behavior is gluttonous, embarrassing, and signals a cultural decay that's far more profound than Janet Jackson's boob on TV. When politicians like John Kerry continue to pander to our addictions in order to get himself elected, I wonder why we can't just all vote for Ralph Nader.

New president


"We had a plan that anticipated, I think, that we could proceed with an occupation regime for much longer than it turned out the Iraqis would have patience for. We had a plan that assumed we'd have basically more stable security conditions than we've encountered"

"My resolve is firm. This is an historic moment. The world watches for weakness in our resolve. They will see no weakness. We will answer every challenge."

One of these guys has been able to change his rhetoric, and to come to grips with reality. Maybe we'd be better off if we made Paul Wolfowitz our new President.

May 18, 2004

Even a blind hog...

Most everything about the Bush administration is embarrassing or much worse. Its foreign policy aspires to imperialism, not to antiterrorism; its environmental policy is a Xerox copy of the oil & gas lobby's "favors to ask for" list; its Enemy Number One now that Saddam Hussein is out of the way is the idea of open government at home.

But even a blind hog will root up an acorn every once in a while (thanks, Edward Abbey).

This Administration's acorn is the President's advisory council on bioethics.

Yes, I know. It's chaired by Leon Kass, and he's an anti-abortion conservative, and many liberals don't like him or the Council. The liberals have it wrong. In an Administration that's stunningly anti-intellectual, mean, and petty, the council is an oasis of thoughtfulness, wisdom, and good citizenship.

It's not perfect. As its critics point out, it has been ignoring some of the most important bioethical problems facing our country, such as the increasing inaccessibility to basic health care for a substantial number of our citizens. Nevertheless, the Council deserves credit for focusing on issues that are completely ignored by almost everyone else. These issues are those of the problems posed by technology, and perhaps more importantly, by our unquestioning faith that new technology will always make things better.

Faith in technology is to us what Catholicism was to Europe in the Middle Ages. It's a religion that's so widespread that it's invisible. No one can think about the world in any other way. But just as medieval Catholicism was both good and bad, building great cathedrals but also sending young farmers off to fight the Crusades, our faith in technology benfits us as well as harms us. More importantly, our faith is a historical contingency. We take it for granted, but there is a time when it didn't exist, and there will probably be a future in which it ceases to exist, at least as the all-dominating worldview that it is today.

President Bush's advisory council on bioethics is to us something of what Copernicus was to the Dark Ages. At a time when no one can even comprehend the possibility that the solar system might not be revolving around us, the council raises the possibility. Leon Kass deserves a lot of credit for this. Who else besides tree-hugger Bill McKibben and hillbilly Wendell Berry calls our attention to the risks of trying to build a world that's without any trace of given nature, that's entirely and everywhere a product of human design? Kass, of course, isn't plainly "right" or "wrong." But he's asking the right questions.

That an administration this bad should produce such a valuable advisory council never ceases to amaze me.

May 02, 2004

neocons disparaged

I'm not a libertarian.

I do, however, understand why a libertarian would loathe the neocons, and when I read Justin Raimondo's perceptive critique of the neoconservative program, I was more than willing to sign on to most of it:

Continue reading "neocons disparaged" »

April 22, 2004

Anti-immigration candidates defeated

Members of the Sierra Club have rejected a slate of candidates for the Club's board who had been characterized as "outsiders" and who had been criticized for their anti-immigration views. Among the defeated candidates was the former Governor of Colorado, Richard D. Lamm.

This result shows that the advocates of restricting immigration haven't made much headway in persuading environmentalist liberals of their ideas. Why is this?

Perhaps the most important reason is that the loudest voices opposing immigration are those of far-right politicians like Representative Tom Tancredo (R, Colorado). Mr. Tancredo praises almost everything George W. Bush does, except of course for his "amnesty" program for illegal Mexican workers.

More importantly, though, the non-uberpatriot advocates of restrictions on immigration simply haven't made their case well enough. Which is too bad, because they do have a case. They've failed to explain how restricting immigration isn't the same thing as restricting the freedom to travel. They've failed to put forth any convincing arguments for why denying citizenship is different from callously denying poverty-stricken immigrants the vital opportunity to rise out of poverty and misery.

I personally do not favor the harsh immigration restrictions advocated by people like Rep. Tancredo. But I recognize an intuitive sense that handing out citizenship without any restrictions whatsoever would not be a good idea.

I'm counting on other people who know more about this issue than I do to make some non-racist, non-fascist arguments for sensible limits to immigration.

April 21, 2004

Are we really "at war?"

Here's a few questions I wish more of my political opponents would ask me:

"What would it take for you to support the Patriot Act?" "How threatened would the country have to be before you'd start trusting Bush to set things right without aggressive oversight?"

These questions would seem to pin me to the wall. Surely there must be some conceivable scenario in which I would acknowledge that our government needed to be freed up to fight the enemies of our nation as it sees fit.

There is, indeed, such a scenario. A whole lot of them, actually. But we're a long, long way from any of them.

The problem with the arguments made by folks like Eugene Volokh (which are otherwise quite good) is that they take it for granted that we're somehow "at war." Sure, George W. Bush has said so. But that's obviously not going to be enough. Proponents of restricting civil liberties have yet to overcome their first burden, which is to explain how September 11, 2001 "changed everything." They assert it without argument, as if it were obvious. I don't think it is.

Continue reading "Are we really "at war?"" »

April 14, 2004

I blogged this instead of watching hockey?

I've given the question of corporate wrongdoing, as carried on between myself and Ben from That's News to Me, some (ok, downright perfunctory) thought.

It seems that the most productive next step is simply to try to clarify what the issues are, and then decide if any are worth the blog-time to pursue further.

My concern is with the harm that often results from the "actions" of corporations. The scare quotes are necessary because I agree with Professor Bainbridge that corporations do not in fact "act" in the same way that individuals do. Specifically, corporations aren't "moral actors" in the way that all individuals are (at least if you subscribe to a belief about morality that says this of individuals). Therefore, when morally condemnable actions are taken by a corporation, it makes no sense to morally condemn the corporation. Far better, as Bainbridge points out, to condemn the directors.

But (and this is the point I was making in my first post), this is easier said than done. Many people fail to pin the responsibility for corporate harm on the directors for several reasons that all relate to the nature of the modern corporate entity.

  1. We fail to recognize that the corporation isn't a moral actor. Instead of blaming the directors of Bristol-Meyers Squibb or Abbott for their unconscionable pricing of Taxol or Norvir, we blame the corporations themselves. This sometimes results in punishment of the corporation (e.g. driving Arthur Anderson into bankruptcy and putting many rank-and-file employees out of work) and the failure to punish the individual executives responsible for the decisions.
  2. We confuse the moral criteria which apply to a corporation (maximize profit for shareholders within the law) with the moral criteria which apply to the individuals who serve as directors. We say, mistakenly, that these individuals have no moral obligations other than to maximize shareholder profit within the law. But this is plainly wrong; no one really thinks a person's moral obligations are exhausted by their job descriptions.
  3. To the extent that a corporate director can be fired for failing to maximize returns because she thought doing so in a particular instance was immoral, the corporate structure incentivizes (to use an ugly word) the commission of immoral acts. So long as they are technically legal, do them even if you think they're immoral. Throw into this mix the Posnerian/Holmsian arguments that you should do them even if they're illegal, so long as the monetary liability is less than the profit realized, and we have a dangerous incentive structure.
  4. That this incentive structure is ubiquitous and possibly unavoidable does not make it less dangerous in the case of corporations. Sure, the corner grocer might have a similar incentive structure to maximize profits (with a lesser threat of losing his job if, for moral reasons, he chooses to forego the occasional extra dollar of profit), but the corner grocer has much, much less power to adversely affect the lives of the people around him. If he's a ruthless opportunist, an occasional employee might get fired, or a few aluminum cans might not get recycled. But if the guy who runs Abbot Laboratories behaves in the same way, thousands of AIDS patients suffer (and some die) who wouldn't have had Abbot foregone a few percentage points of profit.
  5. Believers in the "mystic powers" of free enterprise will often say that the pursuit of profit is, virtually by definition, incapable of harming the society in ways that I seem to be afraid of. And this is the scariest thing of all. Sure, these true believers will sometimes even acknowledge the distributional problems (profit for whom?), but they usually go on to assert, without argument, that even the less-advantaged will ultimately be better off. A rising tide lifts all boats. What's good for GM is good for America. The corporation is, for the true believer, the exemplar of their brand of theology. Drug prices too high? They not only aren't, but they can't be, because, by definition, the more profitable the pharmaceutical industry, the more research, and the more research, the more cures, and the more cures, the more happiness. There is no such thing as an unconscionably, immorally large profit. That kind of religious zeal is frightening.

I think I agree with Ben about what constitutes "good" (i.e. effective and legal) corporate governance. This isn't a point of contention. What I'm interested in is the question of whether "good" corporate governance means that many people are at risk of getting hurt, and whether the government should therefore structure the laws and arrange the regulatory schemes to keep this well-governed corporation from hurting people.

I therefore agree with Ben that we ought to control corporations with incentives--i.e. laws and regulatory environments. I'm as pessimistic as Ben is about the feasibility of abandoning regulatory and legal control of corporations for some form of individual scrutiny of the directors. My discussions of the problems of accountability are meant not to support more accountability (nice, but difficult), but to argue for stringent and watchful regulation as a more effective alternative. If I caused confusion about this point, I apologize.

I disagree with Will Baude's suggestion that corporations are not inherently more dangerous than equivalently wealthy individuals. Corporations allow the individuals who decide in their name to hide from view and to disclaim responsibility; they tend to be reified by observers as the "moral actor" when in fact they are not (see Bainbridge's criticism of the LA Times columnist for making this error); and the corporation is "expected" to maximize profit at the expense of all other values in a way that individuals usually are not.

As convenient support for this last claim, I quote Ben:

Once we start with individual punishments, community allegiances, etc, we get into a world where the whole purpose of a corporation is put at risk -- we no longer know what managers should do (obey the law, or listen to shareholders?), what corporations are (entities which are required to obey the law, or a series of contracts, in which case the duty is still to maximize wealth), etc.

Corporations, unlike people, are presumed to have only one purpose. It's revealing that it's an argument against a policy merely to say that this singularity of purpose will be compromised.

Anyway, I've wasted far too much time on this. The Avalanche are in overtime again...

April 07, 2004

Real passion in the blogosphere

I go off to the other side of campus for a few measly hours, and what do I find when I get back?

A delicious, passionate argument about the only subject that seems to inspire this kind of thing these days: law school rankings intelligent design.

Hey, I don't give a rat's ass either way about evolution, but I do love arguments. It's fun to just watch this furious battle. Listen to this rhetoric:

Side A: Although Im a bit rusty I do believe this is the proper way to deduce outcomes using Bayesian probability. I could have also put in in this form: P (U1 v U2) = (N1) + (N2) + (N3)P(U1).P(U2)

Side B: Break out that tetanus shot because you go way beyond rusty. Somehow or other, N1, which is an event, gets added to N2, which is an event, gets added to N3 and there are dots and probabilities--what is the mathematical character of that ellipses connecting P(U1), and what exactly are U1 and U2? Different universes? What the hell are you trying to do? Do you have any idea what you're talking about? You can't add events and get probabilities.

Doesn't get any zestier than that, folks!

April 04, 2004


David Brooks apologizes for the suburbs:

The reality is that modern suburbia is merely the latest iteration of the American dream. Far from being dull, artificial and spiritually vacuous, today's suburbs are the products of the same religious longings and the same deep tensions that produced the American identity from the start. The complex faith of Jonathan Edwards, the propelling ambition of Benjamin Franklin, the dark, meritocratic fatalism of Lincoln -- all these inheritances have shaped the outer suburbs.

Which prompted a (check out the pictures) response from Crescateer Amanda Butler:

I'm a college student: I sympathize with the desire for cheap towels of better quality than the ones you get in a Motel 6. But it's not the old-field pines that are encroaching today. Instead it's the new housing developments and McMansions where there are no trees left worth speaking of. Maybe they'll look ok in another thirty years. But until then, I want to either live somewhere where the neighborhood trees are tall (as is the one towering outside the window of my second-floor apartment) or I want there to be places to escape to where there just are no neighborhoods, only trees. I want to go some place where cell phones just don't work [but I've got my broad band internet access]. God help us if there's never a West to go to. Where will we go when we want to flee, when we want to be reassured that all of America isn't like the place that we currently find ourselves hating?

Brooks, the suburban apologist, explains the suburbs as a product of a "paradise spell" and a "fruition myth." We have suburbs because we dream of better things. Butler emphasizes the other side of this coin, in a way that's more to my taste: we have suburbs because we hate our current lives, and wish to flee.

Brooks' vision inspires (if that's the right word) quietism and acceptance. His description of suburban reality may allow for lampooning and sarcasm, but Brooks leaves no room for real criticism. The most greedy, selfish, thoughtless, repugnant, stupid, and lazy behavior becomes for Brooks just a quaint side-effect of an American Utopianism that has made us the greatest nation on Earth and under God.

Butler's vision is by far the more responsible. It allows us in certain cases to say to the people of Suburbia: "Stop. Your utopianism is irresponsible. You need to clean up your own mess before you simply flee to somewhere else."

I don't want to put words in Butler's mouth. But I don't have to; her approach to suburbia allows for a reasoned debate about the pros and cons of the suburban way of life. Brooks, by equating suburbia with every success America has ever had, implies that if you bitch about the suburbs, you're really bitching about Mom, Apple Pie, Antibiotics, and a Rising Standard of Living.


EDIT: Kevin Drum writes a fascinating post about this topic, with statistics that let you see into the world of urban planners and commercial developers.

April 02, 2004

Fatal Errors

Via Political Theory Daily Review, a summary of Bush's war rationale:

"More than anything, the administration's war in Iraq resembles a software program that, at first, works brilliantly, but then catches the user in a cycle of "fatal error" messages."

March 29, 2004

The vitally important words of George W. Bush

There may be plenty of reasons to vote for George W. Bush in November, but his commitment to fighting AIDS in Africa (2003 State of the Union speech) and his desire to put a human being on Mars (2004 State of the Union speech) aren't among them. Rather, it is his ability to brazenly pretend to do these things that makes Bush an effective leader in these troubled times.

An article in the New York Times today suggests that the Bush Administration is, predictably, not following up on its pledge to spend $15 billion to fight AIDS in Africa:

While Mr. Bush promised in his 2003 State of the Union address to spend $15 billion over five years on AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean, his budget requests have fallen far short of that goal. For the most recent donation to the Global Fund, he requested only $200 million, although Congress authorized $550 million.

The President's future budget requests are unlikely to do anything but shrink, given the continuing need to clean up after our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the need to solve Medicare's fiscal crises, and so on. There doesn't seem to be any room for funding a manned mission to Mars anytime soon.

But this news isn't new. It's not surprising, and it isn't even particularly troubling. Anyone with any rudimentary understanding of how our elected leaders speak recognizes that Bush's last two State of the Union pledges weren't descriptions of substantive policy. They were, instead, rhetorical nods to our vital need for make-believe.

We need to believe that our nation's abilities have no limits. We need to pretend that the United States can maintain and strengthen its position as the pre-eminent global military power, capable of acting unilaterally across the globe to reshape societies, nations, and cultures to our liking. We also need to pretend that our pursuit of these ends don't constrain our ability to eliminate AIDS in Africa, or to advance the frontiers of human space exploration. After all, if we abandoned either one of these fantasies, we might actually have to admit to ourselves that our pursuit of one goal limits our pursuit of the others. We would have to acknowledge the costs of our desires, and we would have to choose from among them.

Of course, we must actually choose some goals over others. But we'd rather not face that fact, since it would make us uncomfortable. Since the goal of global military hegemony is the goal we will actually pursue, it's important to pretend that America is also committed to fighting AIDS in Africa, and to putting a human on Mars. Hence, the words of George W. Bush in his last two State of the Union speeches aren't "empty and meaningless," as some on the Left believe. Rather, they are vitally important national fantasy stories, which allow us to send our military forces into conflict across the globe without feeling bad about it.

If we decide to throw George W. Bush out of office, we might run the risk of disrupting our carefully-constructed imaginary image of America as a nation without limits. We might have to engage in an unpleasant discussion about real policy and its consequences--and this would probably make us uncomfortable.

So, for the sake of the willful blindness and self-deception so crucial to America's pursuit of global hegemony, let's re-elect a master of make-believe, George W. Bush.

As a second choice, please vote for write-in candidates David Blaine or David Copperfield.

March 23, 2004

Lying in politics

Why does it matter that George W. Bush lied? Lied about Iraq's "imminent threat"? Lied about the costs of his medicare reform?

Does it somehow matter more that George W. Bush lied than it matters that Clinton lied about "not having sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky"?

(You might think that neither of these lies matter. We'll get to that in a moment. What you can't say with a straight face is that Clinton's lies matter more than George W. Bush's. If they did, don't you wonder why all the self-righteous moralists (think Bob Barr and Henry Hyde) who seemed to believe in the absolute value of "honesty" in a President, haven't been clamoring for time on FOXNews to excoriate George W. Bush?)

When lying in politics seems so ubiquitous and routine, it's a fair question whether any of it actually matters. Clinton is let off the hook for lying to a grand jury. Bush gets a pass because Saddam was a "bad man." Why not just drop this exaggerated outrage about Presidential lies entirely? The outrage is getting tiresome, and the lies aren't stopping.

Those of us who think that all this lying ought to matter can make several arguments. One is the "down this road lies totalitarianism" argument. Under Josef Stalin, the Soviet government lied so thoroughly and completely that it seemed to forget what the truth really was. These lies had to be accepted by the citizens for their own safety, and so the people sometimes lost sight of the truth, too. Soviet society became absurd, comic, and tragic because it was built with fictions upon fictions. Our own society, the argument goes, isn't immune from this fate, and drifts ever closer to doom whenever a President's lies are trivialized (or, as with Bush's lies and even worse, are accepted).

Another argument is that democracy can't survive in an environment where the government is allowed to lie with abandon about the big issues, like war (or entitlement programs for the elderly). The reason is that citizens are deprived of their ability to judge, weigh, and consider the consequences of this or that policy. Of course, some people will criticize this version of democracy, arguing that citizens do not and should not judge, weigh, and consider public policies. Instead, they should merely choose between competing politicians on a regular basis, similar to the way in which a homeowner must choose between the Cuisinart and the Kitchen-Aid when the time comes to buy a food processor. (Yes, I'm thinking here of Judge Posner.) But even on this description of "democracy," it's impossible for the citizens to make a decent decision between politician Tweedle-Dum and politician Tweedle-Dee without a warranty that the advertisements don't misrepresent the essential features of the product. We don't lightly tolerate bald lies in ads for housewares; why should we tolerate bald lies from our Presidents?

Perhaps the weakest argument (or the strongest) is that these lies are insulting. The only thing worse than the insulting belief of these politicians that they can lie to us and get away with it, is the humiliating fact that we are, in fact, letting them get away with it.

For me, it all started with Ronald Reagan and Iran-Contra. Now that Oliver North, so central a figure in the history of the Reagan Administration's insulting lies, is pulling an occasional gig as a (fair and balanced) talking head for FOXNews, it shouldn't be surprising that the administration of George W. Bush is following in the fine tradition of Ronald Reagan: lying to the American citizen to dupe him into buying whatever they're selling. Before we fault them for this, we should ask, why shouldn't they lie? We, as citizens, don't seem to mind all that much. "Just give me a remote control, a bag of Cheetos, a beer, and all the televised college basketball that I can handle, and I'll let the President say whatever he wants."

"Just don't send me to Iraq. And don't bother me with the costs of medicine until I'm an old geezer."

March 19, 2004

Bush must go

Via Adam Wolfson, this gem.

Folks, it's not just about Saddam Hussein, or WMDs.

It's about George W. Bush's disregard for democracy and disrespect of the American people. He may have had a case for going into Iraq. But he didn't trust that the strength of his own case would convince the nation. Instead, he chose to lie to us. Either he believed we were all somehow un-american, and wouldn't recognize danger if it hit us in the face, or else he thought that his inability to justify his invasion was no reason not to satisfy his desires, and send American troops to their deaths in the process.

Bush must not be rewarded with a second term.

March 15, 2004

Disengagement and Judge Posner

This essay is a hopeless mess, but since it brought to mind Judge Richard Posner, I thought I'd say a few things about it.

A fan of sci-fi and fantasy, this author nevertheless claims (mistakenly in my opinion) that fans of sci-fi and fantasy are somehow disengaged:

But the criticism of science fiction and fantasy fans - that we are infantile and escapist people, and socially inept to boot - sadly has a little more truth to it. Of course, there are many pastimes that people pursue obsessively, and it may seem a little unfair to stick the boot into sci-fi geeks rather than car fanatics, opera buffs or stamp collectors. But of all the hobbies and interests out there, being preoccupied with the details of otherworldly settings and characters, at the expense of being engaged with the world you actually inhabit, does bespeak a certain retreat from society into the safety of one's imagination.

Why must an enthusiasm for fantasy and sci-fi be 'at the expense of' an engagement with the actual world? Answer: they're not mutually exclusive, and the author is mistaken. But Starr isn't primarily interested in a criticism of imaginative stories or of their fans; he wants to use this common misunderstanding as a springboard to a discussion of his main concern--a general waning of concern for this world:

No, the broader reason why mainstream society has become more disposed to immerse itself in fantasy is because of a general cultural stagnation that exists today. At a time when we feel less certain of our ability to impact on the world around us, we tend to retreat into fantasy worlds instead. One consequence of this is that we are increasingly more comfortable contemplating the ins and outs of life in Tolkien's Middle-Earth, than we are confronting the ins and outs of life on Earth proper. As Hollywood serves up ever more lavish fantasy spectacles for us to marvel at, the society that lies outside of the cinema and the comic shop stagnates.

I won't attempt to rescue this essay. But I do think the author's observations are fairly accurate. More and more, people are feeling impotent, and believe that they cannot have any meaningful impact on the world around them. Since I don't believe that this is due in any way to fantasy novels or to the internet, I'm left wondering what it is due to.

Which brings me to Richard Posner. The first thing I did today was settle in to my usual spot in the coffee shop and read more of Posner's Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy (see link at right). Posner believes that the great mass of the people don't give a rat's whisker about politics. Instead, he claims, they care passionately about what he calls "private interests," by which he means interests that are the subject of markets. According to Posner, most people would be happiest if the whole of their public lives were spent in the market, and if the realm of politics disappeared entirely, good riddance! (Assuming of course that this disappearance wouldn't have bad consequences for the market itself.)

This is exactly the opposite of what Hannah Arendt believed. She thought that people were most fully actuated and fulfilled when they left the marketplace and moved into the agora, where buying and selling were left behind to make room for politics. The lot of a Greek slave was miserable in part because the slave, although occasionally allowed to buy and sell, could never be a political actor.

It seems to me that some judicious mix of the two activities will actually prove to be the elixir of happiness for most people. But although I will readily admit that Posner's position is probably at least as (partially) correct as Arendt's, I've always been much more attracted to Arendt's position than to Posner's. The market has never seemed to me like the nirvana that Posner describes. If it was, for the majority of people, I would not expect to see an increasing disengagement from the world in an age where the values and practices of the market are swallowing every bit of public life, including the realm of government and politics. People should be happier than ever, and yet many seem plagued with feelings of impotence and irrelevance.

Perhaps my observations are simply wrong. Perhaps people today are so happy and wealthy that the only chance they have to indulge in the pleasure of whining is to complain that they feel irrelevant and impotent. Perhaps. Unlike the author of the article I've quoted, I won't use the box-office receipts for The Return of the King to try to make my point.

I may be wrong, but I don't think so. I think Posner is wrong. He's mostly right, but he's wrong in just the right places.

March 02, 2004

The price of mobility?

Everyone is so eager to assert that feudalism would be inferior because it would limit social mobility.

Even if this were true (which I'm not convinced it is), let's not forget the price we pay for this mobility: at-will employment.

See, e.g., Donahue v. Federal Express Corp., 753 A.2d 238 (Pennsylvania 2000).

Donahue, the poor bastard, was fired because Fed Ex didn't need him anymore. His various and sundry pleas for legal redress fell on deaf ears. Pathetic, really. Workers in our modern system can't look beyond the next paycheck; no one owes them anything.

Under a well-ordered feudal system, your allegience to a lord would be balanced by the lord's obligations to protect you. That's more than Fed Ex is obliged to do. . .

February 25, 2004

Protecting the powerful at Yale

Something about this story troubles me. As an episode of "sexual harassment," it isn't particularly egregious. But Naomi Wolf has accurately identified the bigger problem: Yale University's unwillingness to act on behalf of the less powerful members of its own community when they are abused by the more powerful.

Perhaps the reason why this story troubles me so much is that many of the rationales for protecting, as Wolf argues Yale has done, those with more power against those with less, are becoming more and more ascendant in our society generally.

Perhaps I'm troubled because I've been reading Richard Posner's attack on the idea of a deliberative and participative democracy in favor of rule by political elites, on the grounds that elite rule is both more realistic and normatively superior to what most of us mean when we say "democracy." Posner asserts, without argument (at least in what I've read so far), that people so consistently act in their own narrow self-interest that any pretentions of laws or political systems to tap into anything more noble is not only doomed to failure, but is also bound to cause more trouble than it's worth. Hence, the only valuable form of "democracy" is one which realizes that the "commercial man" of law-and-economics is the only kind of man that ever really matters.

The practical outcome of this kind of thinking is a thoroughgoing disdain for anything even remotely "aspirational." This is Posner's real target: anything that might presume to rely upon people actually doing, occasionally, what they aspire to do, or dream of doing, in their best moments.

I don't know if Posner is right. He may be. But I think that even if he is, it would be a terrible mistake to give up on the idea of acting as if we believed we could be better than we usually are. I think this surrender of the aspirational leads to institutions like Yale choosing not to side with students against famous professors, on the grounds that boorish behavior will happen anyway--we're all just boors, after all.

It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: tell someone they're nothing but a consumer often enough, and it will become true. Tell someone they're not interested in politics often enough, and it will become true. Tell someone that nothing can be done about people who choose to abuse their power often enough, and nothing will be done.

Here's some excerpts from the article to encourage you to read the whole thing. The emphases are mine.

In the late fall of 1983, professor Harold Bloom did something banal, human, and destructive: He put his hand on a students inner thigha student whom he was tasked with teaching and grading. The student was me, a 20-year-old senior at Yale. Here is why I am telling this story now: I began, nearly a year ago, to tryprivatelyto start a conversation with my alma mater that would reassure me that steps had been taken in the ensuing years to ensure that unwanted sexual advances of this sort werent still occurring. I expected Yale to be responsive. After nine months and many calls and e-mails, I was shocked to conclude that the atmosphere of collusion that had helped to keep me quiet twenty years ago was still intactas secretive as a Masonic lodge. . .

Once you have been sexually encroached upon by a professor, your faith in your work corrodes. If the administration knew and did nothingbecause the teacher was valuable to themthey had made a conscious calculation about his and our respective futures: It was okay to do nothing because Iand other young women who could be expected to remain silentwould never be worth what someone like Bloom was worth.

All the women who have come forward want only to fix what is broken. Critics of sexual-harassment standards argue that you cant legislate passions; true enough. But you can legislate what to do about people who act on them improperly. Powerful men and woman who belittle and humiliate their subordinates manage not to belittle or humiliate their supervisors. Neither men nor women tend to harass upward in a hierarchy. . .

The saddest part? If a Yale undergraduate came to me today with a bad secret to tell, I still could not urge her to speak up confidently to those tasked with educating, supporting, and mentoring her. I would not direct her to her faculty adviser, the grievance committee, or her dean. Wishing that Bart Giamattis beautiful welcoming speech to my class about Yales meritocracy were really true, I would, with a heavy heart, advise that young woman, for her own protection, to get a good lawyer.

February 22, 2004

The CU football rape scandal

This has been beaten to death. I know. Sorry.

But when I read a great article like this one, what choice do I have?

You can tell by the media tempest that this Gary Barnett character has perpetrated an appalling offense to American society. Indeed, he has.

He has - get this - just gone 5-7. Five and seven! You wonder how a coach could let things slide to such depths.

* * *

Proving again that conservatives become liberals the moment the firmness of their alleged standards threatens the cause - see Rush Limbaugh for details - they would lament the young man's difficult upbringing, assuring themselves he can repent best under the structure of coach Father Flanagan, a good man because ... well, he just went 11-1 or 12-0.

Then, hooked up to the methadone of 11-1 or 12-0, many could begin the strange but true process of discrediting victims.

Who does she think she is, calling the cops on our party? Why does she have to make such a fuss? You know, I hear she's a little crazy ...

Examples abound, but the most shining came from the mid-1990s, from the heartland, the region that routinely congratulates itself as the "normal" America.

Nebraska reigned amid an astonishing dynasty in 1995 - long before it fired a coach because he committed the blatant peccadillo of going 9-3 - when at one wee hour that September, running back Lawrence Phillips dragged a woman down a stairwell by her hair.

Coach Tom Osborne, revered practitioner of virtue, eventual landslide congressman, first dismissed Phillips, then reinstated him to a half-stadium cheering seven Saturdays after the assault.

And you wonder why those of us who didn't vote for Bush get nauseated when red-state voters start preaching about "morality."

EDIT: And here's a Mike Littwin piece that's worth it, too.

February 16, 2004

Pieces of the Dean puzzle

Over at ambivalent imbroglio, the puzzle of Howard Dean's campaign trajectory gets clearer with the emergence of more little pieces. . .

The best part of the analysis is this summation:

The point is not to pin AJHPV's nastiness on Kerry or Gephardt or any other campaign, but to point out that:

1) Now that Kerry has taken over the "frontrunner" position, he isn't getting any of this kind of nasty treatment from fellow Democrats, and

2) Dean didn't lose "frontrunner" status because his campaign "imploded" or "self-destructed," he lost that status at least partly because his opponents assassinated his character and terrified voters.

As we wait for the definitive history of this campaign to be written, let's steel ourselves for the job we must do: Re-defeat Bush.

February 15, 2004

Creeping privatization of higher education

In Colorado, the budget crunch is pounding the state's system of higher education, and leading some to consider privatization:

Colorado may have to solve a $450 million budget crunch in the next three years at the expense of the state's colleges and universities, a legislative budget writer warned Friday.

* * *

He intends to propose cutting $150 million from higher education in the 2004-05 budget, $200 million in the following year and $100 million in the third year.

* * *

"In order to avoid the problem of the tuition coming in and creating TABOR (Taxpayer's Bill of Rights) problems for us, I would propose that we turn CU first of all into an enterprise."

That action, which also was considered last year, would free the university from current constitutional fiscal restrictions. It also would prevent any income that the school makes from being counted against the state's revenue restrictions.

* * *

Teck originally was looking at "privatizing" the University of Colorado, but he said discussions with CU President Betsy Hoffman convinced him to back off on that. She says the university would lose many of the protections it now has as a state-run institution if that were to occur.

Piece by piece, this country's commitment to ensuring the equality of opportunity crumbles. How bad will it have to get before we collectively say "Enough!"

February 13, 2004


A voice of reason in the discussion of the "John Kerry juggernaut."

Christopher Hitchens opposes "barbarism"

I go back and forth about Christopher Hitchens. While I like his irreverency, I often suspect it's just a self-serving act.

These days, he's making hay by taking a 'courageous' stand against barbarism:

I'm a single-issue person at present, and the single issue in case you are wondering is the tenacious and unapologetic defense of civilized societies against the intensifying menace of clerical barbarism. If in the smallest doubt about this, I would suggest a vote for the re-election of George Bush, precisely because he himself isn't prey to any doubt on the point. There are worse things than simple mindednesspseudo-intellectuality, for example. Civil unions for homosexuals, or prescription-drug programs, are not even going to be in second or third place if we get this wrong.

Why do I get the impression that the only 'courageous' thing about Hitchens' position is his willingness to ignore the barbarism that we risk by re-electing a president who doesn't know what he's talking about?

Why does Hitchens believe that our only choices are between 'simple-mindedness' and 'pseudo-intellectuality'? Well, I'm sure he doesn't actually believe this, but in his strained effort to appear irreverent and iconoclastic, he chooses rhetoric that suggests this non-existent dilemma.

My question is, does this piece display Hitchens' simple-mindedness, or his pseudo-intellectuality?

Barbarism is an obvious risk. Hitchens isn't courageous when he warns against it; he merely repeats a bit of (correct) conventional wisdom. Only when Hitchens tells us that electing a know-nothing simpleton like Bush will reduce the threat of barbarism rather than increasing it can he make any claim to courage. But I suspect, though, that Hitchens is merely indulging in the same kind of pseudo-intellectuality which he claims to despise.

And why shouldn't he? The Slate editors have been "good enough to ask" Hitchens for his opinion because he can be counted upon to cough up controversial opinions on demand.

Well, I suppose from my perspective I ought to thank Christopher Hitchens, if not for saying worthwhile things, then for providing such good fodder for blog entries. . .

February 12, 2004

Thought experiment

Just for a moment, let's try NOT to be realistic. Let's try a thought experiment, and see where it takes us. What is there to be afraid of? After all, we're just letting our minds wander.

Imagine for a moment that you are a Machiavellian-type elite associated with the US government, or with a major American corporation. Your only philosophical commitments are that a) remaining in power is an end that justifies most means, and that b) you believe that government assistance to poor people is immoral, because it comes at the cost of taking money away from people who've earned it fairly.

Now, imagine that this person takes a moment to quietly think about the future. What does he see?

He might see the continuation of the processes of "globalization." Technology continues to knit the world closer together. Multinational corporations continue to purchase the cheapest labor available anywhere in the world to lower their costs of production. As most models of global free-trade predict, the standard of living across all nations continues to equalize.

Since our hypothetical leader is a level-headed realist kind of guy, he realizes that this process of globalization and worldwide laissez-faire approach to markets does not necessarily mean that the whole world will end up looking like Ohio in the 1950s. It's much more likely that Ohio will soon begin to resemble present-day Mexico or Argentina. Most important for our leader, however, is that the American middle-class will likely disappear, and the very rich will get a whole lot richer.

So, says our realist guy, what will happen when the middle-class disappears? Ever since the New Deal, there's been an expectation in this country that there will be some sort of social safety-net for those who fall out of the middle class. As more and more people become relatively "poor" (intermittently employed, unable to afford even a basic education, and without health insurance), the demands on the government for welfare assistance will increase.

Now, we've already postulated that our realist guy doesn't like welfare, because he thinks it's wrong. He agrees with Grover Norquist that the government needs to be "drowned like a baby in the bathtub." So he thinks, we've got to insulate the government from this impending increase in the demand for social services. Paeans to the free market from the Heritage Foundation might not continue to be enough. (Our guy is nothing if not a level-headed realist.)

So our guy is wasting time one day and comes upon a suggestion that running up huge deficits might be a good way to eliminate welfare. Does he scoff, and say "this is unrealistic!" No way, Jose. After all, he's been listening to Grover and the boys over at Americans for Tax Reform for years. What's more, he immediately realizes that he can kill three birds (please pardon the expression) with one stone. Spend like crazy on the military, and cut taxes. This will run up huge deficits by increasing America's power to enforce its version of globalization (laissez-faire worldwide markets) at the same time that fundamentally immoral taxes are being slashed. A budgetary perfect storm.

Our guy may be a level-headed realist, but at this point his balding pate is beginning to sweat from too much excitement.

After he calms down a bit, our realist guy starts thinking about all those disgruntled poor people whose parents used to comprise the great American middle-class. If they can't get a fair shake from the government, where will they turn? And what about all those poor people in whom our imperialist military is continuing to inspire hatred? What will they do?

Clearly, in the absence of a stable, satisfied middle class, the ruling elite will need to take action to prevent violence. Terrorism and other violence common to two-layered societies will obviously be a big problem. How to solve it? The UK Home Secretary has a good idea.

In this guy's idle thoughts about the future, the unlimited ability for the rich to get richer leads to the loss of the middle class and, along with it, the loss of civil rights.

Will our realist guy worry and fret? Not about any supposed loss of "American ideals" or other such mumbo-jumbo. That's nothing but sentimental longing for days of yore, and our guy is nothing if not a realist.

February 06, 2004

Read this and think

Like it or not, this reflects what many Americans believe.

And though it's hard to find, there is some truth there somewhere.

(More later...)

February 02, 2004

The Decembrist on fire

Responding to David Bernstein, Mark Schmitt of The Decembrist demonstrates that liberals can actually articulate their values for themselves instead of relying on the pejorative labels that the conservatives hand them: "...liberalism is not about throwing money at problems. It's about trying to solve public problems by public means."

That's right. And as for Bernstein's assertion that Bush and Nixon are domestic policy bosom-buddies:

The shorter version of Paul O'Neill's complaint in The Price of Loyalty, after all, is "I thought this would be the Nixon or Ford administration, but it wasn't." What liberals dislike about Bush is the very same thing that O'Neill disliked: reckless incompetence, Karl Rove running policy, nihilism on a grand scale.

Here's the difference between Nixon and Bush: When Nixon left, his successor could proclaim that "our long national nightmare is over." With Bush, we'll be feeling the consequences for generations.

The eventual Democratic nominee could do worse than try to emulate Mark Schmitt a little bit.

February 01, 2004

Another chance to withhold documents

President Bush is apparently creating a blue-ribbon panel to study intelligence failures surrounding the Iraq debacle.

Any intelligence failures that occurred are far less troubling to me than the political failures that led Bush to lie to the American people in order to whip up support for an unprecedented pre-emptive war against a nation that the Administration knew was not an imminent threat to the United States.

Even if this panel is a good idea, we have to worry that George Bush will hinder its work in the same way that he has hindered the 9-11 commission by refusing access to necessary information and refusing to turn over notes. So far, Bush has not shown that he's willing to trade an iota of undemocratic secrecy for any amount of truth.

If it sounds like I don't trust Bush, it's because he's given me plenty of reasons not to.

January 31, 2004

David Brooks hits the bullseye

I think David Brooks, unfortunately, has it right.

"This, after all, is a party of ideas."

January 30, 2004

Taxes, of the Payroll and Income varieties

The always thoughtful Chris Rangel, MD reminds me that people like John Stossel like to point out that rich people pay more income taxes then poor people do.

This is, in itself, unproblematic. But, you know where this goes. Stossel and others of his ilk (Stossel is clearly an ilk, of the Brit Hume variety) quickly move on to claim that this is either a) unfair on its face, or b) evidence that any further attempts to increase the discrepancy in income taxes between the rich and poor is unfair.

Unsurprisingly, I reject both a) and b). Let's listen to Stossel:

Still you may feel the rich should pay even more. It's a tempting thought, since they have so much.

But let's remember the facts: the top 1 percent of Americans those who earn more than about $300,000 a year pay 34 percent, more than a third of all income taxes, and the top 5 percent, those making over $125,000, pay more than half.

Notice that John (can I call you John, Mr. Stossel?) only talks about income taxes. As if that's all the taxes there were. Just income tax.

Yes, John, let's "remember the facts." The fact is that John forgets about payroll taxes. These are, primarily, Social Security and Medicare, often collectively referred to as FICA after the legislation which established them. When politicians talk about tax cuts, they're always referring to the income tax or to other incidental taxes like estate taxes.

Payroll taxes have never been cut. Payroll taxes are the type of tax that most people pay more of than any other, including the income tax. Payroll taxes fall heaviest upon lower-income wage earners.

You might hear the argument (maybe even, if we're lucky, from John Stossel) that payroll taxes aren't like income taxes because they are returned to you in Social Security retirement benefits. Wrong! Remember Al Gore's lock box? He wanted to put Social Security funds in the lock box and throw away the key. Because now, of course, there is no lock box; it's more like a cookie jar, where the poor contribute the cookies and the rich eat them. Most people don't get back what they pay in to Social Security (and those who want to privatize Social Security try not to let us forget this).

George W. Bush, in his rush to cut those nasty income taxes that John Stossel complains about, depends upon the Social Security cookie jar to finance income tax cuts for the wealthy.

Taxes should be progressive. The rich, within reason, should pay more, for the simple reason that one less dollar in a poor person's pocket might affect how much he eats that day, whereas one less dollar in a rich person's pocket wouldn't be noticed. The rich shouldn't be raped, they should simply stop pretending they're solely responsible for their success. The stable society which taxes make possible enabled them to succeed, and they ought to give something back.

So please. John Stossel, (everyone, all together now)...


Macho politics

Every morning since Iowa, I've asked myself, "where did John Kerry come from?" Needless to say, I haven't been able to answer myself. John Kerry? Perhaps it's because I'm not from Massachusetts, but I don't remember any enthusiasm among Democrats for this perma-senator (a la Bob Dole) before the Iowa caucuses.

One explanation that's as plausible as any other I've heard is that Democrats are looking for the macho man. Just as the Democratic Leadership Council argues that Democrats can't win the White House unless they nominate a Republican, this guy argues that many Democrats also believe they can't win unless they nominate the most manly guy. I suggest that if he's right, it's largely for the same reasons the DLC has looked to right-winginess as the criteria for Democratic electability: the Republicans have won with manliness, so we need manliness, too.

This is ridiculous. It's either ridiculously false, or else it's ridiculous because it's true.

Call it a response to 9-11, a reaction to feminism, or show business taking over the world. But the kitsch of masculinitythe studwear, the Clint Eastwood stare, the programmed finger-stabbing darehas enormous credibility now. We are trusting our very lives to the man who makes the best action figure. That's a lot scarier than Howard Dean at his screamiest.


January 29, 2004

Howard Dean and Joe Trippi

I'm not sure yet what to make of Joe Trippi's replacement as head of the Dean campaign. On one hand, Trippi deserves a lot of credit for doing what people said couldn't be done. Remember only a year ago when everyone thought Dean was a long-shot? He confounded the punditry by propelling the Dean campaign to what many of the pundits were calling "front-runner status." Trippi has been tremendously successful by any rational measure.

Nonetheless, it's true that Dean didn't get the results he wanted in Iowa and New Hampshire, despite spending more money ($9.2 million) overall than John Kerry ($6.9 million). Dean spent almost $6 million in Iowa and New Hampshire, and didn't win either. When you consider that in America, people usually vote for the guy who spends the most money, it's fair to wonder whether the Dean campaign should be trying something different.

I'm not saying it's Dean's fault, or Joe Trippi's. The decision of the national media to hammer on Dean for weeks leading up to Iowa surely played some part in the disappointing results. But the fact is, Dean isn't getting the results he wants. The question is, what should change?

Maybe, of course, nothing. Perhaps nothing Dean could try would persuade voters to vote for himself over John Kerry. But let's be realistic; most political campaigns can reliably influence voter behavior, and it's empirically true that most of them succeed by spending more money on television. Sad, but true. The probability that Howard Dean is some rare exception to this general rule is small.

So what's left? In professional sports, if the team isn't winning, the coach gets the boot, even though the players are fumbling too much, not scoring enough power-play goals, or failing to grab enough rebounds. The theory is that the coach has a lot to do with the poor performances of the players. If Joe Trippi were a coach, no one would be surprised that he got fired.

I support Howard Dean because I think he's the best candidate running for President. I'm amazed at Joe Trippi's success at moving Dean from the status of obscure to the status of major candidate. But the results in Iowa and New Hampshire need to be taken seriously and not ignored. Firing Joe Trippi might not be the best response, but no one can know whether it is or not. It's a judgment call.

One idea that's probably clearly wrong is that Trippi's absence will cool the enthusiasm for Dean. The suggestion that it will mischaracterizes Dean supporters in the same way that Dean's opponents often try to do. Here's the New York Times:

But if such a dramatic move was necessary to signal understanding that something has gone awry, losing Mr. Trippi who may be followed by several top loyal aides is risky, since he has become a sort of cult hero to the legions of Deaniacs at the core of the movement.

Again, the suggestion is that people who support Dean form some kind of a "cult." Where is the evidence for this? How are Dean supporters any more "cultish" than Kerry supporters? This is an example of why many Dean supporters suspect the national media hasn't been fair to their candidate. If you're going to refer to "Deaniacs," let's start referring to "Kerryacs" and "Edwardsiacs" too, please.

January 21, 2004

let's not criticize PC, let's emulate it

A friend sent me this about University of Colorado students attempting to document what they say is the "indoctrination" of students by left-leaning faculty members.

I wish I was teaching at CU. I'd give them something to complain about.

Conservatives: a question for you

If any conservatives read this blog, I have an honest question for you.

Let me say right off that I support the right to own guns, and I oppose most kinds of gun control. So on that issue, most people would call me a conservative, too.

But I'm confused about what seems to be an inconsistency among Republicans. Perhaps some of you could help me out.

On one hand, the omnibus appropriations bill in the Senate, which Republicans support, contains a provison which seems to increase the privacy of gun buyers:

The omnibus bill also includes a little-noticed amendment that has led to sparring between the gun industry and gun control advocates over the use of firearms records. The amendment, drafted in the House with the aid of the National Rifle Association, would require federal officials to destroy records on gun purchases within 24 hours instead of waiting 90 days, as is now required.

My question is this: how do Republicans reconcile their support for destroying records of gun purchases with their support for the Patriot Act, which enables the government to snoop through your library records without showing probable cause or even informing you that your records have been snooped?

Why do republicans seem to trust the government here, and distrust the government there?

Bush's Priorities

On the national stage last night, President Bush made no mention of his off-the-cuff proposal to go to Mars, but he made sure to remind us that he wants the Patriot Act renewed.

The speech President Bush gave was much more about his own reelection campaign than about the state of the Union. As such, it suffered from the faults of most campaign speeches: too little information, too much vacuous rhetoric. But it is an important speech nevertheless, for it gives us a glimpse of how Bush will sell himself this time around.

Last time, remember, he was the "compassionate conservative" who would "govern from the middle." This year's sales pitch will be more closely tethered to reality. This time around, Bush will portray himself as the kind but strict father who will protect the nation from terrorists and gays, in roughly that order of priority.

Even as Bush tells us that our weakness against terrorists justifies a new Patriot Act, he will ask us to believe that the economy is "strong," and that it will be even stronger if we decide to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife refuge. He will tell us that minimizing the government's role in health care will "preserve freedom" even as patients are abandoned to the mercy of corporate insurance firms whose main goal is to boost their stock price by keeping sick people off their insurance rolls.

Bush's sales pitch this time around has the great benefit of being based on reality. Bush is a profoundly conservative man; almost messianic. His Administration will fight for these values (at least when Dick Cheney isn't selling the spoils of office to his cronies in the back hallway). And thus, Bush will appeal to roughly 1/2 of the American people. The other half will find him repellent, patronizing, authoritarian, and wholly unfit to lead our nation.

One thing that Bush's speech makes clear is that he won't try to hide, as he did last time, as a moderate. Now, we all know what Bush stands for, and this time he won't cowardly deny it like he did in 2000. The election of 2004 will be the most important Presidential election in a long time. Because this time around, the voters are likely to get what they ask for.

January 19, 2004

Disappointing, but not dispositive

As Bob Dole recounted tonight on CNN, he won Iowa in 1988 but lost the nomination to George H.W. Bush. Iowa is important, but it's not crucial. Here's some initial thoughts after the Iowa caucuses.

Iowa's caucus system is a little odd. Anyone who watched tonight on C-SPAN saw how odd it was, and probably saw a disproportionate number of elderly ladies at the caucuses. It's likely that the vote for Howard Dean was skewed by this unrepresentative participation. We will see next week how Gov. Dean does in a state with a primary.

We'll also have to see how the media treats John Kerry. Over the past month the media has hammered on Dean, and while no one knows the one "right" explanation for why this happened, a plausible explanation is that Dean was perceived as the front-runner. Now that Kerry has some real numbers suggesting that he is a front-runner, it will be interesting to see if the media hammers on him the same way they hammered on Dean.

Dean still has the best 50-state campaign organization out there, and is the best-prepared for a nationwide battle for the nomination. If anyone could afford to come in third in Iowa, it was Howard Dean.

(Thanks to Ambivalent Imbroglio and Professor Bainbridge for links.)

January 18, 2004

Who wants Justice?

This post, cited approvingly by a great blogger (rhymes with Grian Bleiter) asserts that left-wing writers want justice, and right-wing writers want to perpetuate and increase injustice.

This is too simplistic. Moreover, to the extent that anyone on the left actually believes it, it weakens their ability to prevail over the right-wingers.

The left and the right disagree not about whether justice should be the goal of public policy, but about what justice is. The left thinks justice entails some fair distribution of goods, an obligation on the part of communities to assist individuals who suffer, and a recognition that cooperation is equally or more important than competition for establishing a just society.

The right believes different things about justice (or believes that different things take priority). They envision justice primarily as "just desert" for an individual's bad behavior, strict punishment for individuals who transgress authoritative norms, and a primary obligation of the community to avoid involving itself in the private economic life of individuals. (This book by George Lakoff explains this further and, I think, essentially gets it right.)

When right-wing writers (at least the honest ones) advocate policies that seem unjust to the left, it isn't because they don't want justice. They want a different kind of justice that the left believes is unjust.

This explains the right's tenacity and repeated successes. It isn't that they're cheats, or that they're corrupt, or that they're unscrupulous, or that they're wealthy (although some of them are these things also). At bottom, the right succeeds because it is successful at persuading people that its version of justice, and not the left's, is the correct one.

If the left's version of justice is going to prevail in the public arena over the right's version, the left shouldn't mischaracterize their opponents as enemies of justice. Instead we should argue that they honestly adhere to a notion of justice which is deeply flawed.

The stakes are too high for the left to casually dismiss their opponents. Rather than dismissing them, let's focus on prevailing over them.

January 16, 2004

Cheney's vision: unending war

Michael Froomkin points to a disturbing speech delivered by Dick Cheney, in which the Vice President describes his vision of the future. Mostly, Cheney envisages "war" and "mobilization" and "dramatic overhauls" of our "national security apparatus."

All of this depresses Prof. Froomkin, who admits that "even the politics of this elude me." I won't pretend that I can guess any better than Froomkin why the Vice President sees fit to make these apocalyptic predictions. Nevertheless, I will hazard a guess, and it's a guess I feel fairly confident of.

Dick Cheney does not like democracy.

Dick Cheney's behavior repeatedly shows that he cares little for the idea that "the people" govern America; instead he favors a system wherein the people must take what their leaders choose to give them. Dick Cheney is for increasing the secrecy of government operations. He has made it more difficult for the people to watch over their government by delaying the declassification of presidential papers, by supporting the Justice Department's decision to fight Freedom of Information Act requests, and by arguing that the executive branch can detain U.S. citizens incommunicado solely on a declaration that they are "enemy combatants."

Dick Cheney has chosen to forget that most voters in the last Presidential election preferred someone other than Bush and himself. Although he could have tried to govern from the center, he used the Supreme Court's coronation of his ticket to run the country as if he had a madate from every citizen to radically restructure America's domestic and foreign policies in a way that most citizens find unsavory, and many find deeply repellent.

Dick Cheney, when he wanted to wage war against Iraq, decided to justify his actions not with earnest entreaties and reasonable arguments, but with lies and deceptions about a fictitious "imminent threat" from Iraq. Dick Cheney did not care about the process of taking the nation to war so long as he was able to do so by whatever means necessary.

Dick Cheney wants to call the shots, and does not want to be second-guessed or evaluated by the American people.

Which brings us to Dick Cheney's vision of the future: another long, open-ended "war" against a concept. The constant threat of terrorist attacks will justify the kind of radically anti-democratic policies which Cheney advocates: strengthening the Patriot Act, diverting tax dollars away from domestic programs and toward an imperial military, and shielding the government from public scrutiny by keeping more of its deliberations secret.

The genius of Cheney's vision is that no actual terrorist attacks have to occur to justify these changes. All that is necessary is that the public continue to be frightened by the possibility of such attacks. Dick Cheney chooses language that encourages people to be frightened:

"Scattered in more than 50 nations, the al Qaeda network and other terrorist groups constitute an enemy unlike any other that we have ever faced. . . And as our intelligence shows, the terrorists continue plotting to kill on an ever-larger scale, including here in the United States.

Instead of losing thousands of lives, we might lose tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives as the result of a single attack, or a set of coordinated attacks."

Dick Cheney is making use of the convenient fact that he does not have to tell anyone what "our intelligence shows;" the intelligence is top-secret. Nevertheless, he does not hesitate to refer to this intelligence in a way that's calculated to increase people's fear. Once people are scared, they're more likely to accept the assertion that "next time" we might not lose merely thousands of lives, but "tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives."

There's a word for Dick Cheney's style of communication: demagoguery.

And there's a word that describes Dick Cheney's style of leadership: authoritarian.

Authoritarian leaders are always more valued in times of crisis and war. This is why Dick Cheney wastes no opportunity to tell us how scary and warlike the future is likely to be. The politics behind his vision is, I would guess, one of the oldest and most reliable sources of political motivation known to humanity: a lusting after power.

January 13, 2004

Bush immigration proposal and the question of assimilation

President Bush's recently announced temporary worker program is interesting for many reasons. Briefly, the program establishes a temporary legal status for undocumented foreign workers. It requires that they be employed (or have been offered a job), and that the employer serve as the worker's sponsor for the application process.

The effects of this proposal are hotly debated. My only contribution on this point comes from a conversation with my dad, who suggested that it might get a whole lot of new wage-earners on the payroll tax rolls. Our great nation is increasingly reliant on payroll taxes to generate revenue, and President Bush has cut taxes of every kind except for payroll taxes. Given the dizzyingly huge deficits that prompted expressions of concern even from the IMF, it makes sense that this administration would try to broaden the payroll tax base, and this immigration proposal seems to attempt just that.

Apart from the nuts-and-bolts effects of this proposal, it has pushed to the fore a debate about immigrants and their role in America. One concept that's being brought up fairly frequently is "assimilation."

Conservatives and liberals differ, unsurprisingly, about what "assimilation" means. This is unsurprising, because conservatives and liberals disagree about what makes America a unique and praiseworthy nation.

Liberals are more likely to see diversity itself as a strength of American culture. We are the nation that is made up of many different cultures, each respecting the others. For the liberal, "assimilation" means that you agree to live with people of other cultures without asserting that your own culture deserves somehow to be the dominant one.

Conservatives, on the other hand, see assimilation as a check upon diversity. America can thrive, they claim, only if everyone signs on to a more or less extensive "core" of fundamental American values, and limits diversity to ethnic restaurants and cultural holidays.

Both positions have merit but, of course, they also have weaknesses. The liberal view of multiculturalism too often descends into a simplistic and knee-jerk identity politics, which almost always generates more heat than light.

The conservative position often ignores the fact that American values are contested, most obviously by the right and the left. Conservative paeans to assimilation too often parrot only the list of conservative values under the name of "American" values, and so come off as overly parochial and willfully blind to the real diversity of America.

The truth, if any, is probably somewhere in the middle. Damn. How dull.

January 11, 2004

Borders strike over in Ann Arbor

The vote was 20-12 in favor of accepting a new contract and ending the strike at the Ann Arbor store. More details from the Borders Union site. Hopefully this demonstrates how collective bargaining can produce results that are more fair and just than would have been possible without a union.

The article mentions that sales at the Ann Arbor store were down anywhere from fifty to seventy-five percent, thanks to shoppers who chose not to cross the picket lines. While this public sacrifice wasn't very difficult compared with what the striking workers were doing, it did take some commitment: the Ann Arbor Borders is a fantastic place to browse. I really look forward to hanging out in Borders again through these perpetually gray days of the upper-midwestern winter. (Beautiful, yes, but also perfect for bookstore browsing...)

January 10, 2004

Cruisin' for a losin' again

The conservative punditry says the Democrats have no chance against Bush.

Their problem is, they've said this before.

January 08, 2004

Contra polls

With the election season heating up, I thought it might be a good time to criticize the predictable obsession with polling that seems to infect everyone before each round of actual voting.

Polls seem to be an especially attractive target for the best bloggers. Here's The Decembrist; here's Talking Points Memo; here's Calpundit. Conservative bloggers love 'em too: here's Instapundit and Andrew Sullivan.

What do these polls really mean? Not much. They're undoubtedly useful for campaign managers as they try to assess whether voters might respond to their candidate's message. In the worst cases, a candidate may even choose to change her position on an issue or two in order to get a bump in the polls. But if you're not a campaign manager or a candidate, these political polls are like the daily odds line for sporting events in the newspaper. In other words, they're pretty much meaningless.

Poll results don't determine anything. They're the classic example of "made-up" news; something to talk about when you're impatient for the real election and want to root for your candidate like you root for a boxer, or for a racehorse.

Sometimes, though, polls can be damaging. The metaphor of a political campaign as a horse race is usually harmless, except when people forget that it's a metaphor. Campaigns aren't horse races, they're an exposition and an explanation of a candidate so that voters can decide whom to vote for in an election.

Until the actual election, voters might be smitten first with this candidate and later with that one, but none of these opinions really matters: only when the voter walks into the booth and realizes that he only has one vote, and that he has to synthesize all his previous infatuations with his rational calculations in order to cast that one vote correctly, does his professed support for a candidate actually matter.

But these calculations are too often swayed by otherwise meaningless poll information. The voter really likes candidate A, but he's read in the papers again and again that the polls show candidate B with a "commanding lead" over A. Mistaking the horse-racing metaphor for reality, the voter decides not to "waste" his vote, and votes for B. All on the basis of meaningless poll data.

The poll has perversely made itself meaningful by masquerading as a tangible fact about the campaign. It has erroneously proclaimed one candidate "far ahead" of another, when the candidates were never actually "racing."

In our politically tuned-out society, with rates of voter participation among the lowest of any democracy in the world, this distorting emphasis on polls becomes even more destructive. Many voters choose to stay home when they hear of a poll showing their candidate either "way ahead" or "way behind." But in fact, all candidates are standing in the same place until the actual election pulls one of them out from the crowd and crowns her an "elected official." There never was any such thing as a "front-runner."

But yet, thanks to an obsession with polls, many voters have altered their votes or decided not to cast a vote at all because of meaningless poll data. All the bloggers cited above know this.

I don't want to say that polls aren't interesting; I would get impatient if I couldn't get some hint of whether or not Clark's tax plan was "catching on," or if Dean was "inspiring people," or if Lieberman was "putting voters to sleep." But let's remember that polls aren't very meaningful, and they can be dangerous. For the sake of running a good election, let's not give any more weight to pre-election polls than they deserve.

More on nanotechnology

I've responded to the thoughtful comments on my entry about Bill McKibben's book Enough.

If you're curious about what a typical libertarian argument sounds like for the zealous and irrational pursuit of nanotechnology, here's a piece from Reason magazine.

I won't say too much about this (in my opinion seriously defective) argument here, because I think it will be obvious to most of you who read the article. I'll only point out the author's curious choice of subtitle (the "limitless promise" of nanotechnology--sounds messianic and irrational to me), and the not-so-subtle way in which the author mischaracterizes the call to slow down and think as a call to ban new technology forever.

This is a great example of a flawed, fallacious, and misleading argument if I've ever seen one.

January 07, 2004

What the DLC still doesn't understand

Via Jessica Wilson, some thoughts on the Dean campaign by Arianna Huffington:

The folks besmirching the good doctor's Election Day viability are the very people who have driven the Democratic Party into irrelevance; who spearheaded the party's resounding 2002 mid-term defeats; and who kinda, sorta, but not really disagreed with President Bush as he led us down the path of preemptive war with Iraq, irresponsible tax cuts and an unprecedented deficit.

Dean is electable precisely because he's making a decisive break with the spinelessness and pussyfooting that have become the hallmark of the Democratic Party.

* * *

Far from Dean not being able to "compete" with Bush on foreign policy, he's the one viable Democrat who isn't trying to compete on the playing field that Bush and Karl Rove have laid out. No Democrat can win by playing "Whose swagger is swaggier?" or "Whose flight suit is tighter?" Instead Dean unambiguously asserts that "We are in danger of losing the war on terror because we are fighting it with the strategies of the past... The Iraq war diverted critical intelligence and military resources, undermined diplomatic support for our fight against terror, and created a new rallying cry for terrorist recruits."

Meanwhile, the Democratic Leadership Council continues to cringe on the sidelines, supporting the Bush foreign policy in all of its substantive positions but cowardly refusing to say so explicitly.

The DLC is betting that there aren't any real Democrats left. Howard Dean is out to prove them wrong.

January 06, 2004

Why do paleoconservatives care about Serbia?

One of the many things that confuses me about paleoconservativism is this: if paleocons are isolationists, nationalists, and implacable opponents of an American empire, than why are they so interested in what happens to Serbia?

As Americans, why should they care? Why are the pages of the paleoconservative flagship magazine Chronicles loaded with articles on this small, distant part of the world?

This interest in Serbia seems so out of place with so much of what the paleoconservatives profess to believe.

Except. . . Except for the issue of race.

Racism is the heavy chain dragging the paleoconservatives down. Despite their vigorous denials, they can't seem to shake the criticism that their policies on immigration, and their calls for the repeal of the civil-rights laws of the '60s, are anything other than thinly veiled racism.

I'd like to believe the paleocons when they say that they aren't racist. Logically at least, it's possible to not be a racist and to also believe that the federal civil rights laws should be repealed. Paleoconservatism doesn't logically entail racism.

But if the paleocons aren't racist, then why do they seem so ready to take sides in a conflict halfway around the world between white, Christian Serbians and brown, Muslim Albanians? Why is it so easy for the paleos to care so much about Serbia while simultaneously brushing off all the genocidal wars in Africa? Is it because in this latter case, the combatants on both sides are black, and that's what blacks do, and we should just stand back and let them do it?

Paleoconservatism has its good points; most importantly its opposition to the neoconservative myth that America can and should spread American values around the world with force if necessary.

But the reason I'm not a paleoconservative is, among other things, that they stink of racism, despite their denials. And until a paleoconservative can explain their anomalous (for American nationalists) interest in Serbia as anything other than mere empathy for beleagured White Europeans faced with a threat from Brown Muslims, the paleos will continue to look like racists to me.

January 03, 2004

Linking to just say no

One of the first decisions I made as a novice blogger was not to link to or to Barnes&Noble. Although I expected to be in the minority of bloggers who chose to link to independent booksellers instead of the giant behemoths of online bookselling, I've been surprised to find no other bloggers who have made the same choice.

Thanks to this entry from en banc, referencing this post from Three Years of Hell, I'm now beginning to understand why this is the case.

Apparently, both and Barnes&Noble offer "associate programs" for people who run websites. Amazon's tempts you with this:

Link Up With the Leader. We have the largest and most successful online affiliate program. Over 900,000 Web sites have joined Associates because our program works for you. If you are a Web site owner, Amazon seller, or Web Developer, you can start making money today and earn up to 15% in referral fees.

These "associate programs," as well as their offers of free shipping and their habitual discounts, have got me really down and depressed. It seems that there's no reason why any rational person wouldn't just collapse under the marketing weight of the behemoths and abandon all their foolish attempts to support their locally-owned independent bookstores. Even if, as the en banc post points out, the terms of Amazon's associate agreement doesn't sit well with everyone, the obvious solution is simply to link to Barnes&Noble. Anyone who willfully, like myself, continues to link to Chicago's Seminary Co-op, or to Denver's Tattered Cover, or to Portland's Powell's Books, must simply be a fool.

Well, I may be a fool, but I'm proud of it. I'll continue to support independent booksellers. Here's why:

There is no such thing as a free lunch. True, you can reliably find the lowest prices at Amazon or Barnes&Noble, but you pay extra for their books in other ways. The Sylvester Stallone movie Demolition Man has gotten a lot of press lately for unwittingly predicting the political rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but that movie had another prediction which is on the verge of coming true:

Lenina Huxley: [T]aco Bell was the only restaurant to survive the Franchise Wars.
John Spartan: So?
Lenina Huxley: So, now all restaurants are Taco Bell.

I don't like monopolies in the book business any more than I like monopolies in the TV or radio business. When all the independents are gone, the big booksellers will no longer feel the competitive pressure to sell cheaply or to offer free shipping. When all the independents are gone, we won't hear from authors that Barnes&Noble didn't schedule for readings. When all the independents are gone, the ability for smaller, local publishers to get their books on the shelf might decrease.

Given the tawdry history of's non-respect for privacy, do you think they would have stood up to an intrusive subpoena in the same courageous way that the Tattered Cover chose to do? I'd rather not have to rely on Amazon to keep my book-buying habits private.

If the only choice is or Barnes&Noble, that's no choice at all.

December 29, 2003

Here's how Bush apologists think

Donald E. L. Johnson of The Business Word criticizes an article in the Denver Post about the Bush medicare reforms.

He apparently believes the only proper response to Bush's $400 billion giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry in return for inadequate drug coverage and ballooning deficits is gratitude:

The Medicare Prescription Drugs, Improvement and Modernization Act of '03 (PDIMA '03) is a huge gift to today's seniors and almost seniors who have never paid for the benefit and will never pay enough premiums to cover the prescription drug benefits that many of them will receive.

But Democrats and their mouth pieces in the media, like the Denver Post's Jim Spencer are spinning PDIMA '03 as an insult to seniors rather than as the gift that it is. . .

This debate is an example of the kind of politicing that would go on if the U.S. were to adopt a single-payer system for all Americans. Articles about such a system would be silly, incomplete, pandering and outrageously dishonest, just as the the complaints about the PDIMA '03 donut hole are. Articles like this are being written by editorial writers, columnists, politicians and ungrateful seniors all over the country. . .

You've got to read the whole thing to see the disapproving tone of the column.

Egad! Imagine how ungrateful you'd have to be to write a column with a disapproving tone about Bush's policies!

Johnson's post doesn't actually defend these policies at all. Instead, it merely demonstrates that Bush apologists and right-wing bloggers all over the country are writing articles that are "silly, incomplete, pandering," and conclusory.

I won't say "dishonest," because I really do think these bloggers are more blinded than dishonest. They simply can't comprehend how anyone with any common sense could possibly disagree with the Bush agenda.

For this, they deserve pity more than criticism.

December 28, 2003

My kind of conservative thought!

Bill McKibben's recent book Enough is sounding an alarm. Its thesis is that the new and converging technologies of germline engineering, robotics, and nanotechnology will destroy what little meaning is left in our lives.

If, as McKibben expects, these technologies succeed in extending our lifespan, increasing our intelligence, improving our emotional makeup, and solving the problems of material scarcity--in other words, if the techno-visionaries' dreams come true, we'll all be profoundly worse off for it.

From Enough, by Bill McKibben:

It has perhaps crossed even your dull old-fashioned human mind that there is something of an irony at work here. Even as the genetic engineers work busily to upgrade us, adding IQ and memory, the robotics engineers are hard at work making sure we'll be surpassed, and the nanotechnologists to make sure all our wants will be satisfied by pushing buttons. What, on other words, are we being enhanced for?

* * *

Look--I don't know for sure what this world would feel like. What it would mean if we were "seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines" or if "the realm of the born and the realm of the made. . .become one." I can imagine what a cat feels like stretching in the late afternoon sun, but I can't quite channel what it would be like to inhabit "a warm, energized, super-sensual morphing device of graceful complexity and beauty." It's a thought experiment almost beyond our powers. . . Having focused on our own kind to the exclusion of others, we're urged on to a kind of species suicide. Instead of backing down a little, leaving room for the rest of nature, we're firing up the pyre for man as well.

* * *

We need to do an unlikely thing: we need to survey the world we now inhabit and proclaim it good. Good enough. Not in every detail; there are a thousand improvement, technological and cultural, that we can and should still make. But good enough in its outlines, in its esssentials. We need to decide that we live, most of us in the West, long enough. We need to declare that, in the West, where few of us work ourselves to the bone, we have ease enough. In societies where most of us need storage lockers more than we need nanotech miracle boxes, we need to declare that we have enough stuff. Enough intelligence. Enough capability. Enough.

I think McKibben has it right. Although the stakes may be higher because the consequences are more profound, the current crop of what McKibben calls "technoprophets" are nothing new. They're simply the most recent version of people who've had a pseudo-religious conversion. Although most of them would vehemently deny that they were anything other than strictly secular, these people share a religious faith in the power of technology to solve all of our problems.

Rather than confront the problems generated by our behavior and its consequences, these technoprophets seek to transcend the difficult question of "how should I live?" with technological solutions that make it all a moot point.

Confronted with a consumer society that ignores long-term consequences for short-term pleasures, the technoprophets mean to conjure the problem away with nanoassemblers which, they promise, will eliminate the dilemma. We'll be able to consume as much as we want with no waste. Voila, problem solved.

Confronted with the problems of uncertainty about our children's futures, and the difficult parenting choices that this entails, the technoprophets propose to give parents the ability to select genetic upgrades for their kids, ensuring that they'll be smart, athletic, and happy. Voila, problem solved.

McKibben reminds us of the story of King Midas, whose wish that everything he touched would turn to gold was granted. The poor bastard suffered. And so will we, McKibben argues, when germline engineering gives a kid the ability to run fast but causes him to question whether it's really him that's doing the running, or some company's running-gene that his parents picked out of the catalog.

This faith in the magic of technology is analogous to the faith in the magic of the free market. Both of these pseudo-religious cults are so attractive because they relieve us of the burdens of facing the consequences of our actions. Just as technology conjures away tough choices, the belief in the free market as a failsafe mechanism for allocating goods relieves us of confronting the distribution of wealth in our society and asking the tough question: is this just? The free-marketeer can replace this tough question with an easy one: is this a result of market mechanisms? The moral weight of the question drains away in one easy step, leaving the free-marketeer carefree, light-hearted, and untroubled.

Needless to say, neither of these abnegations succeed. And thankfully, there are people like Bill McKibben around who will call our attention to these easy cop-outs and remind us that merely feeling good about our choices isn't enough.

December 25, 2003

Merry Christmas

In the spirit of the holidays, let's say something about bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, aka Mad Cow Disease).

Imagine, if you will, a fantasy world. Imagine a world where people ate food which was produced locally, on small family farms. A world where communities of people were self-sufficient in agriculture. A world where people actually knew where their beef came from.

In such a world, Ann Veneman wouldn't need to tell us not to panic.

Happy Holidays!

December 24, 2003

Persuasive (and depressing) analysis

Mark Schmitt of The Decembrist considers what kind of a President George W. Bush really is.

Though Schmitt makes a good case for labeling Bush a "Nixonian Liberal," the post reinforces my own preferred label: a terrible, rotten, no-good, miserably bad President.

A President who, for reasons Schmitt describes, may end up having his cake and eating it, too.

December 15, 2003

Political Map

Via The Decembrist, a new political map from the publisher of Commonwealth magazine:

As Mark Schmitt puts it: "Anyone can talk about red states, blue states and swing states, but it takes a lot of discipline, data, and insight to understand the United States in terms of 3000 counties and their voting patterns."

Plus, it's nice to see a map that recognizes the fundamental political similarities between eastern Oregon and eastern Colorado.

Helping us win the war

From Turquoise Waffle Irons:

"It's a good thing that this 'mother fucker' and this `cock sucker' are making sure the United States Congress is taking time to address the really important issues."

December 11, 2003

An 'A' from Cato means children lose

A few months ago, George Will was crowing about Bill Owens, the governor of Colorado. Owens is beloved of conservatives, winning praise from the likes of the National Review and the Cato Institute. Along with Jeb Bush of Florida, Owens is one of only two governors to recieve an 'A' grade from Cato.

But while conservatives are crowing about how well Owens plays the game of competitive federalism and how well "Governor Asphalt" takes care of the state's business community, the state's children are paying the price: dead last in childhood immunization rates, down from a less-than-impressive 35th out of all the states a few years ago; the nation's most restrictive pediatric public health insurance programs; one of only six states that require asset testing for children enrolling in its Medicaid-funded health plan.

If this is what a governor needs to do to earn an 'A' from Cato, I wish Colorado would elect a 'C' candidate next time around. We might not get as much of George Will's attention, but more of our children would be vaccinated.

December 07, 2003

It's made out of people!


Introducing. . .

Jessica Wilson, assistant professor of philosophy at Michigan and supporter of Howard Dean:

The purpose of this blog is to keep a record of the often disturbing, and occasionally heartening, information I come across in the course of my fairly frequent news-surfing. My current focus, news-wise, is on keeping track of the Bush administration's violations of Constitutional law at home and international law abroad (especially in Iraq), as well as lesser atrocities perpetrated (and gaffes committed) by the administration. Relatedly, I'm paying close attention to the upcoming presidential election, especially concerning how Howard Dean, my preferred candidate, is doing.

December 05, 2003

Law professors say (and blog) strange things. . .

I'm so thrilled to be a 1L. Why? Because I'm likely to learn a lot in the next few years. Like, for example, how to argue against the idea of "competitive federalism" described by one of my favorite bloggers, ProfessorBainbridge.

I am an unabashed proponent of competitive federalism i.e., the idea that having corporate law regulated at the state level promotes competition between states seeking to attract corporations to incorporate in their state, which competition tends to lead to efficient legal rules.

(Note to self: must ask how, exactly, "efficient" legal rules differ from "insufficient" legal rules, or "inadequate" legal rules. . .)

Continue reading "Law professors say (and blog) strange things. . ." »

Joe Lieberman, sunk costs, Eomer of Rohan

In the course of describing Joe Lieberman as irrational for factoring sunk costs into his decisions, ProfessorBainbridge manages to quote Eomer from The Two Towers.

I simply must link to this.

December 03, 2003

Fascist Mormon threat

Tyranny, like fog, sometimes creeps in on little cat (Mormon) feet. I point you to Orson Scott Card's policy preferences vis-a-vis homosexuals (via Atrios):

When I was an undergraduate theatre student, I was aware, and not happily so, how pervasive was the reach of the underculture of homosexuality among my friends and acquaintances. . . I did learn that for most of them their highest allegiance was to their membership in the community that gave them access to sex.

According to Card, then, one objectionable thing about homosexuals is their "allegiance" to a community that "gives them access to sex." One might ask if that's all that this community provides, but let's look instead at the kind of "allegiance" Card thinks might be more appropriate:

Continue reading "Fascist Mormon threat" »

December 02, 2003

Rural life, v.2

Here's another link to an NYT article on rural life over at En Banc, thanks to Jeremy Blachman.

rural life: desirable?

Would you choose to live in a place like Reydon, Oklahoma?

As the plows of depopulation and decay slice through the Plains, these are the people who remain. Many would never think of moving. Some are too old or unskilled to have a choice. Many families like the Bartons, the Yowells, the Calverts and the Lippencotts in Reydon have members who do go away, for the Army, maybe, or college, and then come back to build new generations.

Some aspects of this kind of life appeal to me. I admit, though, that even if you could find productive and satisfying work, rural life might somehow stifle your cultural and intellectual life. You'd be reduced to eating baked beans at the diner and talking about. . .sports? Hunting?

What if you had access to broadband internet?

While the Internet is changing the world economy, technology experts say, "large parts of rural America are losing out on jobs, economic development and civic participation" because of inadequate access to the Internet. Traversing vast expanses of remote and often rugged topography presents unique financial and technological barriers.

Perhaps, if it's true that our economy is shifting to a greater reliance on "information" and away from activities that require people to concentrate in one location, the trend toward the depopulation of our rural areas might be reversed. It might be possible to live in Reydon, Oklahoma and still find a diverse array of economic opportunities.

Here's to hope.

November 30, 2003

SEC budget slashed

It's comforting to know that Martha Stewart hasn't been forgotten.

Unfortunately, it's looking like the Bush Administration (predictably) has no interest in prosecuting corporate crime beyond merely staying out of the way as Martha Stewart is lamb-ified and sacrificed.

Nathan Newman links to a story (via The Big Picture) about the cutbacks in the SEC's enforcement budget. As Newman puts it: "Thank god for New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer, who is about the only force out there putting any check on corporate corruption of the financial markets."

November 26, 2003

Orrin Hatch

Thanks to the Philosophical Scrivener for calling our attention to the obscenity of Orrin Hatch.

Education in Colorado

My home state of Colorado is magnificent in so many ways. In other ways, my home state embarrasses me. Its senatorial contingent is embarrassing. So is its non-commitment to education.

Simply put, the state does not adequately fund education.

K-12 funding is weak. Colorado ranks 50th (last) in K-12 spending per $1000 of income. Here's more gloomy numbers from the Colorado Legislative Council.

Funding for higher education is similarly weak. Colorado's public universities would be downright atrocious were it not for the fact that they are in Colorado. Location gives the state a powerful recruitment edge that has attracted top-flight faculty in many disciplines. Unfortunately, the state of Colorado chooses to use its location as an excuse to skate by, rather than as a basis for building world-class institutions.

Its law school and medical school both exemplify this lack of commitment.

Colorado's law school has been caught with its pants down. The ABA is threatening Colorado with the loss of its accreditation if it does not find a way to replace its "inadequate" law building, hire more full-time faculty, and increase faculty supervision over student internships, among other things.

Continue reading "Education in Colorado" »

November 25, 2003

John Kerry. Joe Lieberman.

From The Bloviator:

John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, by abstaining from voting on the most important piece of legislation in their political lifetime, should be ashamed of themselves, and are completely undeserving of the Democratic nomination.

What else can be said? There is no excuse for this.

November 19, 2003

Iraq Index

Although the debate about American involvement isn't centered on whether or not we're repairing public utilities or getting the gas to flow, this Iraq Index by the Brookings Institution could be helpful...

The Iraq Index is a statistical compilation of economic and security data. This resource will provide updated information on various criteria, including crime, telephone and water service, troop fatalities, unemployment, Iraqi security forces, oil production, and coalition troop strength.

November 18, 2003

private health insurance fails us

Calpundit discusses the impending Medicare reforms:

But here's the problem: in theory, private companies can deliver services more efficiently than the bad old federal government bureaucracy and can therefore deliver those services at a lower cost. But if that's the case, why does the bill have to pay them a bribe of $12 billion to get them to participate?

The answer, of course, is that the idea of competition in the Medicare market is a mirage. Private healthcare companies plainly don't believe that they can, in fact, provide services any more efficiently than the feds, and since the goal of a private company is to make money, that means that the only way for them to maximize profits is to reduce benefits and do their best to insure only the healthiest people.

This is, of course, completely correct and very well-stated. I would add that even if we acknowledge the efficiency gains that private insurers would generate (and this is certainly debatable), we still cannot justify getting rid of the government's role entirely.

Continue reading "private health insurance fails us" »

November 17, 2003

Privatize air-traffic control?

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, the nation rushed to federalize the nation's baggage screeners.

Now, we're having to beat back the Bush administration in their rush to privatize the air traffic controllers.

The FAA wants to contract out more air-traffic control jobs in the name of "efficiency." Translated from Bush-speak, this means "eliminate labor protections."

But there was optimism among several lawmakers that negotiations with the Bush administration would yield a temporary moratorium on privatizing more air traffic centers and break the legislative deadlock as early as Tuesday.

Senate Democrats are outraged that a Republican-led House-Senate negotiating committee stripped language from the final version of the bill passed by both houses this summer that would have prohibited the Federal Aviation Administration from contracting out more air traffic jobs.

President Bush threatened to veto the bill if labor protection provisions were not removed from the final bill.

Apparently, Bush's "war on terrorism," which justifies the infringement of civil liberties and the unprecedented preemptive invasions of oil-rich nations, doesn't justify abandoning the far-right ideological commitment to eliminate worker protections everywhere.

political compass

Another political survey here; for the grid full o' blogs, go here.

November 16, 2003

Why Howard Dean?

In response to a pointed question from a reader, I thought I'd talk about why I'm so excited about Howard Dean.

Back in 2001 or thereabouts, when I was still a medical student, the word on the street was that the only potential presidential candidate that might actually support universal health care was the obscure former governor of Vermont. To be a Dean supporter back then was utopian. It's very, very exciting to support an obscure candidate early and watch as he methodically earns his status as front-runner.

After browsing his policy statements on his website, I realized that I could do no better than to quote Howard Dean himself, and to urge people who wonder what all the fuss is about to visit his website themselves.

On health care:

For a year now, I have been traveling this country advocating a repeal of Bush's tax cuts so that we can provide universal healthcare and restore fiscal discipline.

I believe. . . that given a choice between having health insurance or keeping all of the Bush's tax cuts in place, most Americans will choose health insurance. My plan will cost $88.3 billion -- less than half of the president's tax cut -- with money left over to pay down the deficits run up by this administration.


On foreign policy:

Last October, four of the major contenders for the Democratic nomination supported the President's preemptive strike resolution five months before we went to war without, as we now realize, knowing the facts.

I stood up against this administration and even when 70% of the American people supported the war, I believed that the evidence was not there and I refused to change my view. As it turned out, I was right. No Democrat can beat George Bush without the same willingness that John F. Kennedy showed in 1962. A President must be tough, patient, and willing to take a course of action based on evidence, and not ideology.

On Rural Communities: (and who else is even talking about rural communities?)

The bottom line is, though George Bush may choose his words to appeal to Americas heartland, his actions are starving it. We must decide whether we will be a country that lives in fear of the slow destruction of our agricultural base, or whether will we honestly address the reasons it is falling apart.

I believe that we cannot give up on our nations ranching and farming communities. In addition to restoring those measures that Bush has tried to undo, I believe we can foster an economic revival in rural America.

November 14, 2003

Don't forget to boycott, too

If you support the Borders strike, remember that the union is asking that you also boycott and Waldenbooks.

Since I'm on the subject, I note an amusing comment on the above link by "anonymous." Let's disuss, shall we?

Continue reading "Don't forget to boycott, too" »


Lawrence Solum (many posts), Crescat Sententia (Curmudgeonly Clerk et. al.), and many others have been getting hot under the collar about the "politicization" of the judicial confirmation process. I have argued (more than once) that this concern is misguided, and I continue to believe that it is. Hence, it's good to find Nathan Newman with an eminently sensible take on the issue:

There is no reason in a democracy why either superior virtue or intelligence entitles you to office. Judges have too much power in my view to not be judged based on their views before given lifetime appointment. As things stand, the appointment process is the one check on judicial power for the lifetime of a judge. It should be a tough check for that very reason.

Some other persuasive arguments come from, as usual, Brian Leiter:

It's hard not to feel that our public culture, and our public discourse about law, would be a lot healthier if the truth of legal realism were more widely acknowledged. Consider the battle over federal court nominations: if we're realists, then we can say plainly that these are battles over life-time appointments of government agents who will be called on to make moral and political judgments, by which the force of the state will be brought to bear against the parties so judged. Ergo, it is perfectly reasonable, indeed, appropriate, for Senators to oppose nominations on moral and political grounds.

Three cheers for Schumerism! (and for legal realism!)

November 13, 2003

Israel and the Palestinians

Arafat and Sharon: old warriors who can't, it seems, make peace.

medical malpractice crisis

You may have heard, somewhere in the background of the daily barrage of complaints which plague your life, a low noise, a din, a grumbling that seems omnipresent but which rarely grows so loud that you are forced to pay any attention. I'm talking about the "medical malpractice insurance crisis."

This panel discussion tomorrow will bring the problem to the fore and hopefully offer some interesting ways of thinking about it.

In brief, the problem is that doctors are being charged a lot for malpractice premiums, causing some of them to leave high-risk (and high-premium) practices like obstetrics.

That's it. That's the problem.

"What?" you say, "that's it? Aren't you going to say anything else?"

Nope. In fact, I've probably already said too much. Virtually every element of this "crisis" is contested. The doctors' groups (like the AMA) maintain that high premiums are the result of runaway jury awards in malpractice suits. The trial lawyers say that's ridiculous; the problem is that insurers are charging too much and scapegoating the jury awards that justly compensate patients who've been victimized by negligent doctors. The insurers accuse the trial lawyers of taking all the money awarded by juries, leaving none for the patients.

And a few policy wonks (can anyone say, glorfindel?) think it's unlikely anything will get better until a) patients and juries feel they have some degree of control over what they believe to be a health care system built for everyone but them, and b) the medical profession finds some rational way of addressing medical error that doesn't involve sweeping it under the rug or denying that devoted doctors ever screw up.

But that's enough for now. I'll go to the discussion tomorrow, and post more on this topic later.

"10 Commandments Judge" kicked off the bench

Roy Moore, the Alabama Chief Justice who defied a federal court order to remove a display of the Ten Commandments from the state Judicial Building, was stripped of his post today.

The decision is a good one. Moore himself would not support a litigant's bald refusal to comply with an order handed down in his courtroom; neither should Moore expect to disobey a federal court order to remove the religious display. If Moore disagrees, he can appeal the order, he can attempt to have the law changed. He can even (as in this case) choose to disobey and to suffer the consequences. Losing his job as Chief Justice is an appropriate consequence.

Judges who willfully disobey judicial orders shouldn't be giving judicial orders themselves.

Michigan football coach to Borders workers: Up Yours!

Borders browsing is a no-go for me until the strike is over.

Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr, unfortunately, seems not to care:

Sightings of football coach Lloyd Carr outside the football arena are usually few and far between, so it came as a surprise when Borders union supporter and alum Irfan Nooruddin told the Daily that Carr was spotted last Saturday crossing the picket line at the East Liberty Street Borders bookstore. While Carrs position on the ongoing strike is unknown, what is clear is the message he is sending: Picket lines are of no consequence.

Read more from the Michigan Daily.

Howard Dean earned it

Nathan Newman describes why Howard Dean got the SEIU endorsement, and how this shows that Howard Dean may be the most electable Democrat.

Brian Leiter is right; Newman's blog is no-bullshit.

November 11, 2003

Rumsfeld preparing to duck out the back door?

Remember way back when Donald Rumsfeld was getting media attention for leaning on the generals to tell him what he wanted to hear?

Before we invaded Iraq, Rumsfeld wanted to hear that the invasion could be done with a smaller number of ground troops than some of his generals were suggesting. Famously, Rumsfeld and his neocon civilian advisers in the Pentagon publicly undercut former Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki by suggesting to a Senate panel that Shinseki's estimate of the troop strength required for Iraq was too high. A good chronology, with links, can be found here.

Rumsfeld, it seemed, thought the Army leadership was mistaken about America's defense needs both in the specific case of Afghanistan and Iraq and in the general case of weapons procurement and defense spending broadly construed. A good summary is here.

Now that things might not be going so well in Iraq, Rumsfeld is portraying himself as relying upon the advice of his generals--something he never seemed to want to do before.

"Needless to say, if at any moment the military commanders indicated that they need more U.S. troops, I would certainly recommend it to the president and we would increase the number of troops but the advice we're getting is just the opposite. . ."

Asked if U.S. commanders might be sugarcoating their reports, the defense secretary insisted: "What I want to hear is the truth. And I hope they're telling the truth and you believe they're telling the truth and if they're not, they're not serve their country very well because I have no bias one way or the other."

Might Rumsfeld be setting up the field commanders to take the fall for bad consequences in Iraq? It's not a conclusion we're compelled to accept by the claims of his recent "deference" to the advice of his generals. But it's something we should remember if Rumsfeld and the Bush Administration attempt to duck the responsibility for a less-than-perfect outcome, while claiming all of the credit for the successes.

November 10, 2003

Bush apprend dcouper et colorier

My French isn't superbe, but it's good enough to make me laugh at this.

Wal-Mart throws its weight around

Wal-Mart is using its tremendous influence in the marketplace to compel suppliers to adopt radio-tag technology.

Is this compatible with a "free market?" It depends on your conception of what a free market really is.

If "free" means "unregulated," then any private compulsive power, like Wal-Mart, is OK.

If "free" means that each participant in the market meets the other participants on a roughly equal footing for the purpose of negotiations, then maybe Wal-Mart is incompatible with a free market. Maybe they just have too much compulsive power.

But maybe not. Is anyone compelled to shop at Wal-Mart? Does Wal-Mart have power only to the extent that they seem to be the choice of a large number of shoppers?

Chickenblogger down

Follow the link from Atrios.

November 06, 2003

political compass

I've been plotted on the political compass, which has led to the discovery of some great blogs, Phersu, for example.

November 02, 2003

Is employer-provided health insurance a good thing?

There's some interesting points made here.

October 31, 2003

Whining Congressional leaders

Yeah, guys; keep giving Bush everything he wants: his tax cuts, his no-strings-attached $87 billion, his "blank check" warmaking support. That'll make him respect you.

October 27, 2003

The great Agrarian Internet Tour

No one really knows what an agrarian is. And I can't blame them.

If you search for "agrarianism" on google, the first thing that comes up is this:

"...the English words, agrarianism, and agrarian generally, imply theories and movements intended to benefit the poorer classes of society by dealing in some way with the ownership of land or the legal obligations of the cultivators."

Well... "benefitting the poorer classes" might be a consequence of agrarianism, but I don't think that's the intention. Let's try again.

A Wikipedia search yields, among other things, "Agrarianism is a social and political philosophy." Way to play it safe, guys. Later on in the entry one finds:

"The agrarian philosophy is not to get people to reject progress, but rather to concentrate on the fundamental goods of the earth, communities of limited economic and political scale, and simple living--even when this involves questioning the 'progressive' character of some recent social and economic developments."

That sounds better. But let's leave the neutral sources behind for a while, and go to a website from a self-styled agrarian called, unsurprisingly, The New Agrarian. Here, you'll find the assertion that agrarians are often conservative:

"A liberal, in other words, believes that people are basically good; a conservative believes they are basically rotten, or at least highly corruptible."

When placed in proper context, that's essentially correct. But the interesting thing is not what an agrarian believes about people per se, but what those beliefs often lead to:

"Agrarians abhor concentrations of power. This is nearly universal, whether it makes them politically conservative or liberal; some find concentration of political power more abhorrent, some concentration of economic power. But power corrupts, and New Agrarians detest all its forms equally. Concentration of political power withers free thought and voluntarism; concentration of economic power stifles initiative and innovation; concentration of military power enforces tyranny and breeds barbarism."

Ahh, now we're getting somewhere. But let's not forget why we went on this tour. Just when we seem to have agrarianism pinned down, we get what seems to be a variant calling itself Christian agrarianism. Is this an isolated spinoff, or is agrarianism inextricably tied up with Christianity? Rummage around some more and you'll find that virtually everyone claiming to be an agrarian finds a way to bring in God--usually in the Christian sense. Do you need to be a Christian to be an agrarian? I think not.

You'll also find that there's a frequent association with the Old South, starting with the "Twelve Southerners" of I'll Take My Stand, and continuing through a randomly selected list on

Do you need to be a Southerner, or at least a Southern sympathizer, to be an agrarian? I think not.

Which brings me to the several points of our tour. Agrarianism isn't well-defined. Agrarianism has many versions. I can understand that when I claim to be an agrarian, you might plausibly want more information. (You might make an FRCP Rule 12e motion for a more definite statement, if the civil-procedural view of life floats your boat...)

So over the next few months I'll try to address the issue on this blog, and maybe I'll have the time to get a good agrarian website up and running. Until then, please feel free to take some self-guided tours of your own.

October 19, 2003

the Wal-Mart effect

Every thoughtful citizen ought to ask themselves: Is it OK for me to shop at Wal-Mart?

The decision to shop or not to shop at Wal-Mart carries so many consequences for ourselves and for our society that the decision should not be made lightly or unconsciously.

Why should we care about Wal-Mart? Consider the recent California grocery strikes, which were apparently spurred by Wal-Mart's decision to enter the Golden State's grocery market. On one hand, it seems clear that consumers will benefit from prices that are 14 percent lower than at Wal-Mart's competitors. But on the other hand, employees will be hurt by wages and benefits that when taken together are 50% less than the current average of unionized grocery workers.

It may seem at first glance to be a no-brainer. Wal-Mart is cheapest! As consumers, we want the best prices we can get. Wal-Mart has earned our business by selling us the things we want for less.

But that's not the whole story. Wal-Mart's low prices are bought at a high cost. As the world's largest retailer, its business decisions affect the entire economy. Not only do its low wages tend to pull down wages for other retail workers, its clout with suppliers tends to force down their suppliers' wages too. This downward drag on employee compensation eventually involves all of us.

Of course, Wal-Mart isn't some external force acting on our society, even though it's often described this way. Wal-Mart only succeeds because we choose to shop there. Their "clout" and "weight" is our clout and weight, collectively.

So we have a decision to make. Do we want the kind of society where wages and benefits are so low that our only real choice is to shop in low-end retailers like Wal-Mart? Or will we say: "Wal-Mart, I've heard about you. I know your low prices are at the expense of worker salaries and benefits. And I've decided that I don't want to buy things from people whose hard work is rewarded with bare-bones wages and virtually non-existent benefits."

And remember: Wal-Mart includes Sam's Club, too...

October 08, 2003

Childish diddling in California

Let's start with Governor Schwarzenegger. While some have characterized the California recall election as a referendum on the Democrats, or as a principled rejection by the voters of politicians-as-usual, I incline to an interpretation of the recall election as a sign of the decadence and desperation, not to mention flippancy and triviality, into which our democracy has sunk.

The voters of California certainly have a lot to be "angry" about. But what does it say about their maturity and wisdom that they so recently re-elected the guy that they decided to recall yesterday? If they had been paying attention, nothing about Gov. Davis' second aborted term should have come as a surprise to them. Gov. Davis didn't change overnight. The state of the California economy did not change overnight. I suspect instead that the California electorate has simply not been paying attention for years. They've been diddling away their time on the stream of corporate-produced "entertainment" while Enron was rigging their electricity markets and the stock market bubble was doing what all bubbles eventually do.

So the voters were angry. Angry like spoiled children, who don't understand that they bear some responsiblity for the mess California is in. And how have they reacted? Like naiive children. Ahnold avoided debates and refused to say anything substantive about his policy ideas (if any), and the voters have rewarded him with the Governorship, probably because, like small children, they remember that the big man with muscles has entertained them in the past with all the neat-o movies and cool explosions. Like children, the voters of California try to soothe their troubles with more entertainment.

Democracy, we forget, burdens us with responsibilities. We seem not to want them. And so, we deserve what we get. Let the Ahnold regime begin...

October 02, 2003

The case for hating Bush?

Have a look at this

More will follow later...