Saturday, January 31, 2004

Psychiatry, Then and Now


In "Into the cuckoo's nest", The Guardian provides an interesting essay by a psychologist who decided to recreate David Rosenhan's notorious experiment, of faking an auditory hallucination to get admitted to a psychiatric institution and then acting completely normal, to see how long it takes for the normalcy to be recognized. In this era of psychopharmaceuticals, her experience is quite different.

  1. Part One - Background on David Rosenhan's experiment, and the author's motivation;
  2. Part Two - The results of the new experiment.

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Ignorance is Bliss


I have a cousin who is a very successful lawyer, who makes a point of avoiding the news. He doesn't read a newspaper, doesn't watch TV, and doesn't surf the Internet for news related content. He works hard, and devotes his down time to the arts, good food and wine, and his "significant other". He states that he used to read the news, but that the best it would do is get him upset or angry, but that nothing ever really changed. Being informed, for him, was a net detriment. It's a bit like the rhetorical question I posed a couple of days ago - which is more important to you, your employer or the federal government? He chose his employer, and pretty much ignores the government. Hey - but he's a great host, and he really can pick a bottle of wine.

In this country, it seems fashionable to be able to assert a strong opinion even if it is at its core an uninformed opinion. When it comes to people who are motivated about an issue, even if it is an issue they don't understand, you'll typically get a strongly partisan expression of support for one side or the other - and may the deity of your choice bless you if you dare suggest that the position is incorrect. If you're lucky, you might get the regurgitation of arguments heard elsewhere, wielded as a talismanic defense against difficult facts.

My cousin is happy; yet so many politicized Americans seem angry. I don't know that I will ever advocate an uninformed electorate (arguably, despite the availability of information, we already have one), but perhaps those who don't have the time or don't want to take the bother to learn the facts and to think for themselves should draw a lesson from my cousin's deliberately uninformed happiness.

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Friday, January 30, 2004

Preventing Wrongful Convictions


In today's Guardian, author Scott Turow describes his transformation from a death penalty "agnostic" to opponent:
For most Americans, the death penalty debate goes no further than asking whether they "believe" in capital punishment. Many death penalty opponents who root their position in religious or spiritual convictions treat those who favour death sentences as barbarians or wanton sinners. Supporters of capital punishment frequently characterise those on the other side as bleeding hearts and hypocrites who would not feel the same way were it their loved ones who had been murdered. Almost no one feels detached about capital punishment.

But when people asked me, I referred to myself as a death penalty agnostic. Every time I thought I was prepared to stake out a position, something would drive me back in the other direction. I still hung in a sort of ethical equilibrium, afraid to come down on either side of the question of whether capital punishment was actually right or wise, when in 1991 I was asked to take on the pro bono appeal of Alejandro Hernandez. By then I was in private practice as a partner in the Chicago office of Sonnenschein Nath and Rosenthal, a large national firm.

* * *

When Hernandez's trial lawyers approached me, they made a straightforward pitch. Their client was innocent. I didn't believe it. I knew how the system worked. Convict an innocent man once? Not likely, but possible. Twice? Never. And even if it were true, I couldn't envision convincing an appeals court to overturn the conviction a second time. Illinois elects its state court judges, and this was an infamous child murder.
He then describes how he helped establish that Hernandez was innocent, overcoming an incredible institutional resistance to that possibility. He concluded from his experience that "If law enforcement professionals respond in this fashion to the emotion alism of grave crimes, it is foolhardy to expect anything better from the lay people who sit on juries", and
The case demonstrated to me the propensity of juries to turn the burden of proof against defendants accused of monstrous crimes. The notion of a 10-year-old girl being overpowered by an intruder and dragged from her home, sexually tortured, and then beaten to death is so revolting that I used to explain Alex's and Rolando's convictions by saying that I thought Mother Teresa might have been in jeopardy if she were in the defendant's seat. Jurors are unwilling to take the chance of releasing a monster into our midst, and thus will not always require proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Turow is, unquestionably, a very bright and accomplished man. As a law student at Harvard and as an Assistant United States Attorney, he certainly would have had opportunity to think about the death penalty, and I think his admitted former agnosticism is a reflection of a long-term struggle over competing arguments for and against execution.

I respect his willingness to now speak out about the lessons he learned both as a prosecutor and since he left that position, and how new information and experiences have changed his perspectives. In addition to his reexamination of the death penalty, he recently described his surprise at his discovery that eyewitness testimony, which he accepted with few reservations while serving as a prosecutor, is notoriously unreliable. He provides an example:
False confessions are one thing. False eyewitness testimony is another. As soon as you say false testimony, it sounds like people are perjuring themselves. Anything but. The experience of witnessing a crime is so extraordinary that our perceptions basically fail and the memory then fills in on the back end. People are highly suggestible and they then end up with highly concrete memories of what happened.

My favorite example is that on the day of September 11th, I happened to have taken off from Boston, and my editor, who knew that, was looking around fairly desperately for me. He tracked me down in Chicago and then said: "This is terrible. I was sitting there and I saw the second plane hit the second tower. You know, it was a little two-engine private plane." And he'd been so busy trying to find his friends and make sure everybody was okay that he hadn't listened to the news reports. And I was like: "John, that's not right." "Oh no," he said, "I saw it." And that indeed was his memory.
Where do you learn that lesson? "You'll learn it in the public defender's office, hopefully in the prosecutor's office. You will not learn about it in most law schools." There should not be a "hopefully" in that statement - prosecutors should learn about the type of institutional problems which lead to miscarriages of justice, and they should learn of the vagaries of eyewitness testimony. We are sometimes too quick to shrug our shoulders at miscarriages of justice - "mistakes happen" - without any effort to learn the very valuable lessons which can come from examining how and why those mistakes occurred. I hope that some prosecutors are reading Turow's latest works.

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Thursday, January 29, 2004

Investigations and Reports


In the U.K., a great furor grew over the report that the Blair government had ordered intelligence officials to "sex up" its dossier on Saddam Hussein in advance of the war, in particular Tony Blair's announcement that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of an order to do so. In short, a BBC correspondent overstated the position of an intelligence worker, David Kelly, and by most accounts the BBC did not have appropriate safeguards to prevent or detect the overstatement. Kelly's identity was subsequently discloced by the government, Kelly committed suicide, and an inquest was ordered. It was hoped by some opponents of the war that the inquiry would reveal intentional deception by the Blair government, although such a finding would be outside the scope of the inquest. It was feared by some in the Blair government that the inquiry would cast at least a shadow of responsibility over Blair.

The report has now been completed, and it is a complete exoneration of the Blair government. Not surprisingly, this has inspired questions of whether it was a whitewash and, to one degree or another, most major British newspapers question the findings. The BBC has apologized to Blair for its actions, and its Director General has resigned.

The investigation did shed some light on the "45 minutes" claim:
Evidence emerged during the inquiry from John Scarlett, the head of the joint intelligence committee (JIC), who drew up the dossier, that the 45 minutes related not to long-range weapons as had been widely assumed at the time but to battlefield weapons.

This is significant, because it supports the BBC case that the threat from Saddam was not as grave as the government dossier suggested.

But Lord Hutton said in his report that the distinction between battlefield weapons and long-range ones deployable within 45 minutes "does not fall within my terms of reference".
But perhaps the biggest fault of the report is the extent to which it clears the government of responsibility - according to reports, not even the government expected such positive findings, and those inclined to think that the Blair government did intentionally overstate intelligence findings and did intentionally "out" Kelly will probably reject the findings as imbalanced, and one commentator has even compared the report to the cover-up of the "Bloody Sunday" incident in Northern Ireland. Another columnist sardonically observes,
It is indeed, as Margaret Thatcher famously remarked at the time of her decapitation, a funny old world. The country is taken to war on the basis of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that almost everyone now acknowledges never existed. There, thousands are killed. Here, a scientist kills himself after raising legitimate doubts about the government's intelligence. And a six-month inquiry by an eminent judge concludes that the only people who have done anything wrong at all work for the BBC.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., we are facing more and more evidence that our own "dossier" of evidence against Hussein was a house of cards. The latest is the expression by David Kay, that he does not believe that any significant stockpiles of WMD's will be found in Iraq, and does not believe that any existed past the mid-1990's. Kay expresses that there was no pre-war pressure on intelligence agencies to, in British parlance, "sex up" their findings - and suggests that the focus of our inquiry on "how things went so wrong" should be on our intelligence agencies as opposed to the White House. He may well be right - intelligence agencies were not reluctant to shower the Bush Administration with intelligence on what was likely to happen in post-war Iraq, despite knowing that it wanted to hear about the troops being welcomed as liberators and showered with flowers and candy. The Bush White House does not pretend that those reports did not exist, although it tries to downplay their significance and to defend its choice not to prepare for the post-war riots and resistance that those reports so accurately predicted. Ultimately, the Washington Post is correct when it writes:
The president and Congress should agree on the appointment of an expert, nonpartisan commission with full secrecy clearance and subpoena power to examine why the intelligence on Iraq proved wrong and to report on how such failures can be prevented in the future. "It's not a political issue," Mr. Kay told National Public Radio. "It's an issue of the capabilities of one's intelligence service to collect valid, truthful information."
Unfortunately, it probably won't happen - or the Bush Administration will attempt to stall any investigation, shape the commission and limit its scope and authority so as to prevent any possibility of embarrassment (consistent with its approach to the 9/11 commission). If that happens, when the report comes out, regardless of its accuracy any exculpation of the government will likely be viewed as a whitewash.

Whatever you make of White House overstatements about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, there is one prior expression by G.W. Bush that is unquestionably false - his campaign rhetoric to the nation's voters, "I trust you." His exceptionally secretive and closed administration, unquestionably, does not.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2004

This Is Your Conservative... And This Is Your Conservative On Drugs


The American Enterprise Institute warns us of an emerging threat to our "truly open society".

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Rigging the System, II


Which is more important to you? Which has more impact on your day-to-day life? Your employer or the federal government? WalMart, or the federal government? Even before we look at the fact that both major parties are indentured in large part to the same powerful interest groups, should we be surprised in this era of mega corporations that our population is apathetic toward the state of democracy? That barely more than half of qualified voters, and barely more than two thirds of registered voters, bothered to vote in the 2000 presidential election?

Our media, which the founding fathers viewed as having a crucial role in the preservation and advancement of democracy, has long been asleep on the job. When covering political trends, the media rarely looks beyond "polls of likely voters" - that is, we almost never hear what the majority of Americans thinks or wants, but instead learn what the pollsters believe would likely happen "if the election were held today". This has a skewing effect, suggesting that our nation's political and social beliefs are those of voting Americans, rather than the population as a whole, and discourages groups which disagree with the "majority" view from believing that their votes will matter. While perhaps it is understandable that politicians have little interest in the needs and desires of constituent groups which don't vote, the media has no similar need to cater to the voting public. It can cover the issues in a more balanced manner. But it chooses not to do so. The media also makes no effort to educate the public on the threats to our nation's democracy - we get to see huge maps with 'red' and 'blue' states for Presidential elections, but we never see maps of gerrymandered state districts, whether for state elections or Congressional elections.

At the same time, the media's lust for scandal has led to a diminished public perception of its credibility. This has enabled the Bush White House to treat the media rather shabbily, and to engage in extraordinary acts of control to limit and shape the message the media conveys. As the media has been entirely complicit with this assertion of control, this approach has been very successful and will probably be followed by future administrations.

But then, perhaps this is a reflection of why democracy has been so rare in world history. Perhaps people are content to allow democracy to slip away, as long as they have bread and circuses.... er, I mean subsidized farm products and "reality TV".

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Tuesday, January 27, 2004

On the Lighter Side....


The LOTR Dating Manual.

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Wait a Second - There's a Deficit!


It seems like the media is finally waking up to the fact that the Bush Administration's spending is out of control, and that its poor fiscal policies are resulting in dangerously large deficits. Granted, Paul Krugman has been trying to convey that message for quite some time, and again today he presents his explanation of Bush's tax policy:
What's playing out in America right now is the bait-and-switch strategy known on the right as "starve the beast." The ultimate goal is to slash government programs that help the poor and the middle class, and use the savings to cut taxes for the rich. But the public would never vote for that.

So the right has used deceptive salesmanship to undermine tax enforcement and push through upper-income tax cuts. And now that deficits have emerged, the right insists that they are the result of runaway spending, which must be curbed.
Newsday brings us news from the Congressional Budget Office:
Washington - While the nation's finances have deteriorated in the past six months, the federal budget still could be balanced in a decade if new spending is cut by two-thirds and if all the recent tax cuts are allowed to expire, Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin said yesterday.
And that's a nonpartisan assessment. Ouch. In "Dangerous Deficits", the Washington Post picked up the story:
Because the budget office is required by law to ignore some likely costs, the more realistic scenario is that the federal government will spend about $5 trillion more over the next 10 years than it takes in.

In the face of all this, President Bush tells Americans that the deficit shouldn't concern them because he'll cut it in half in the next five years. This assurance is both hollow (the administration's glide path to that goal omits $200 billion in likely costs) and inadequate (even if the administration were to accomplish that feat, deficits would soon begin to mushroom as growing numbers of baby boomers hit retirement age.)
The Post then complains that "the Democratic presidential candidates look responsible only by comparison with the president" because, while promising corrective measures, none are making a balanced budget their priority. Similarly, USA today criticizes the Democratic Candidates, apparently for not promising huge tax increases and spending cuts as part of their campaigns, noting,
Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will go up against a president who is promising to cut the deficit in half by 2009. But Bush has yet to provide a credible plan for achieving that goal, particularly since government spending has exploded on his watch. Since he took office, spending is up 16%, or $300 billion a year, nearly enough to fund a second Pentagon.
Perhaps USA Today and the Washington Post don't recall that it is not good politics to promise painful cuts and tax increases, even if it is a foregone conlcusion that Bush's fiscal irresponsibility will ultimately force them to occur.

On a more constructive note, Robert Reich offers some suggestions as to how we can extricate ourselves from the fiscal mess the Bush Administration has created.

Meanwhile, while noting that Bush's "irresponsible fiscal policy harms business confidence and therefore job creation", the Washington Post tells us that a jobless recover is not such a bad thing:
Each worker can produce more, meaning that he or she can be paid more. Do the Democrats really mean to oppose that?
What an idiotic question - of course not. But perhaps the editorial board should take note of the fact that record worker productivity over the past year has been associated with a decline in the real dollar value of the American workforce. On the whole, only the executives have been getting raises.

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Monday, January 26, 2004

Rigging the System


In "America as a One-Party State", Robert Kuttner provides a thorough, interesting, and rather disturbing portrait of how our nation's democracy is being undermined by our elected representatives. And, although the party in control is the primary subject of discussion, and its excesses are (accurately) depicted as unprecedented in our natin's history - particularly the tactics to defeat debate and bipartisanship in Congress, as implemented by Tom Delay - Kuttner makes it abundantly clear that both parties contributed to the present, sad state of affairs.

The most obvious "cure", which might over time reverse some of the worst of the excesses, would be a reform of redistricting laws to prevent the type of gerrymandering that has become the norm. Does our Supreme Court have the backbone to enforce the obvious original intent that elections be both meaningful and contested? That's not clear, even at present. But it seems like a safe bet that if GW gets to appoint two or three justices over the course of his upcoming term, we can reasonably expect the Supreme Court to rubber stamp whatever excesses his party deems necessary to maintaining control of the government.
Benjamin Franklin, leaving the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, was asked by a bystander what kind of government the Founders had bestowed. "A republic," he famously replied, "if you can keep it."
Meanwhile, we will continue to feign an interest in exporting democracy to the rest of the world.

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Sunday, January 25, 2004

Crime and Punishment


Long ago when I was in law school, a rather conservative friend and I would debate a wide range of issues, including issues of crime and punishment. During one discussion, we were talking about the death penalty and "original intent" - the fact that the founding fathers accepted the death penalty, and thus did not regard it as a constitutionally "cruel and unusual punishment". I raised the fact that there are punishments which were in use at the time the Constitution was drafted which would now be declared "cruel and unusual" if applied by a court - the stocks, pillories and public floggings, for example. (I'm not a historian of unusual punishments, so I'm not sure if the same argument can be made to the mutilations (e.g., cutting off ears) or branding that were part of early colonial criminal justice.) His response was, in all likelihood, what Scalia would respond - those punishments should be deemed constitutional as well.

Back in that era, the jail was not the place you were sent to serve your sentence. The jail was the place you were held until your sentence was carried out, be it flogging, some time in a pillory, execution, or something else. As we have abolished the various corporal punishments and public humiliations, reserving only the death penalty, we now punish pretty much every serious criminal act with a period of incarceration - be it days, months or years. Yet there seems to be absolutely no regard for whether incarceration is effective.

When we want to "get tough" on a particular crime, or on young offenders ("super predators", or whatever we're calling them this year), longer prison terms are proposed. We get angry at the notion that prisoners might get college degrees or learn career skills while serving their terms (whatever the rehabilitative element), so we withdraw the grants which permitted them to afford college classes, and underfund prison vocational programs. And while we joke that the number one thing inmates learn in prison is "to become better criminals", we simultaneously seem willing to accept that status quo.

After they serve their weeks, months, or years of incarceration, prisoners are released back into society with varying levels of supervision and support. In his "State of the Union" Address, GW Bush stated,
In the past, we've worked together to bring mentors to children of prisoners, and provide treatment for the addicted, and help for the homeless. Tonight I ask you to consider another group of Americans in need of help. This year, some 600,000 inmates will be released from prison back into society. We know from long experience that if they can't find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit crime and return to prison. So tonight, I propose a four-year, $300 million prisoner re-entry initiative to expand job training and placement services, to provide transitional housing, and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups. (Applause.) America is the land of second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life.
That's $500 per prisoner - following the $20,000 - $40,000 per year we spent on incarceration. A federal judge in Massachusetts applauds the thought, but deems it "too little, too late":
The programs [used by the court's probation office] teach or reteach the most fundamental life skills -- how to dress for a job, how to eat nutritiously, how to apply for employment, how to be in a relationship, how to parent. And I am struck over and over again by how difficult the task is.

The problem is that the policies our government has implemented, long before those prison gates are open, undermine a prisoner's opportunity for a second chance. Too many prisoners are serving sentences that are too long under conditions that are not remotely conducive to rehabilitation. We must change our approach long before reentry.

In fact, Bush's $300 million initiative reminds me of a homeowner who, midwinter, turns up the thermostat but leaves the front door open. It seems like a great idea, but it misses the real problems.
The time has long passed for this nation's legislatures to take a long and hard look at their prison systems, not to determine if bad people should be segregated from society, but to determine the costs and benefits of the current system. Are there workable alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders, even those who seem like hopeless recidivists, which may be more effective in rehabitation, or which may simply be more cost-effective in terms of segregation from society? Are there interventions that could be taken with kids and young adults who seem to be destined for future incarceration (and, please - let's be a bit more sophisticated than "scared straight") which can help get them onto a more constructive path?

Are there alternatives to incarcerating drug users, which might be both less costly and more likely to help them break their addictions (and yes, in most prisons they can still get drugs)? Is it possible to determine an optimal sentence range for rehabilitation for offenders of a particular type or age? (If you ask for my conservative friend's input, he will argue that we should bring back forms of corporal punishment and public humiliation as a cost-effective alternative to incarceration, particularly for young offenders who may gain status among their peers from spending time in jail. In his blunt terms, "they won't gain much status if they urinate and defecate on themselves during a public flogging in front of their friends.")

It is a sad reality that there are some people who are too dangerous to walk the streets - and if you don't execute them, you have to lock them up for long periods of time - perhaps forever. But for those we incarcerate for a period of years but fully expect to release, are there not things we can do during that period of incarceration to encourage personal growth and development, or at least to create job skills? (The judge doesn't point this out, but many of the probationers she describes would be learning for the first time such things as how to behave during an interview, why they should arrive at work on time, why it is not unreasonable for the boss to be angry when they don't show up for a shift without notice, how they should dress, how to speak to the boss, when it is appropriate to disagree with the boss, when it is not, and how to discuss an issue without arguing - things which can be at least as important to job retention as having actual job skills.)

It also seems to be the case that some people get their lives back in balance after a term of incarceration, or even a night in jail - I think many criminal defense lawyers have encountered a client who went from alcoholic to teetotaller courtesy of one humiliating night in the drunk tank and an associated drunk driving charge. But when you spend one too many days in court watching a group of young adults laughing and joking as they sit in their jailhouse jumpsuits awaiting arraignment, it is abundantly clear that for a certain subculture neither the threat of jail nor the humiliation of arrest, public prosecution and conviction, serve as any sort of deterrent. And before we get "tough" on them by throwing away tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on their repeated stints behind bars, perhaps we should take a long and hard look at what we are doing and, for those cases where it isn't working, what we can and should do differently.

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Saturday, January 24, 2004

Kerry Must Be Back In the Lead....


The ankle-biters of the right seem to be shifting into anti-Kerry attack mode, suggesting that they now believe he is the likely Democratic nominee.

Representing the shift from "let's bash Dean" to "let's bash Kerry" is Kathleen Parker, who first swoons over Bush's "State of the Campaign" address, then proceeds to bash Dean for the weird yell at the end of the motivational speech he gave to his supporters - which, of course, means that he is nuts and unfit for office. (Why look at his record - he yelled once, and that's all a "deep thinker" like Kathleen requires.) She then proceeds to Bash Kerry for criticizing Bush's showboating aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, by contrasting it with his own bona fide war record. In Kathleen's mind, apparently, that's not "talking like grownups". She apparently prefers the grown-up "Bush-Cheney" approach to campaigning.

Meanwhile, William Buckley complains that, after returning from combat duty, Kerry opposed the war in Vietnam - and that this somehow makes it internally inconsistent that he voted to authorize the war in Iraq. Buckley does point out that the "differences between Iraq and Vietnam are considerable," - but the similarities are such that he can ignore the differences when constructing his attack on Kerry. (Perhaps Kerry should have followed a model for engagement in Vietnam which would seemingly be more revered in Buckley's eyes - such as avoiding service through a Naitonal Guard appointment, and rather than becoming politically engaged after the war, spending a decade or two in a drunken stupor. Now that's Presidential behavior.)

David Brooks gets into the act by accusing Kerry of having a long history of speaking about difficult social and political issues, but rarely following up on his thoughts. He then compares Kerry to, of all people, John McCain:
The difference is that once McCain latches onto an issue, like campaign finance reform, he sticks with it year after year.

John Kerry doesn't. He will momentarily embrace daring ideas, but if they threaten core constituencies, he often abandons them, returning meekly to the Democratic choir.

That is the difference between speechifying and leadership.
Is it just me, or did I somehow overlook the election of President McCain - I thought Kerry would be running against George W. "Let's Go To Mars" Bush. Perhaps Brooks believes that McCain would have been a better president than the one we have, but surely he can see that it would be far more relevant to compare Kerry's track record to GW's. Or would that somehow defeat his argument?

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"My Favorite Philosopher is Jesus"


Long ago, I heard an anecdote about human nature:
A couple, moving to a small town from the city, got lost on their way to their new home. They saw an old man sitting on the porch of his house, and stopped to get directions. Before they left, they asked him one last question - "What are the people like around here?"

The old man replied, "What are they like where you come from?" The couple expressed that the people of their city were very nice, neighborly, friendly, and never hesitated to help each other out in times of need. The old man expressed, "The people around here are pretty much the same."

The next day, another couple from the same city also stopped for directions, culminating in the same question. Again, the old man asked, "What are the people like where you come from?" The couple stated that the people of their city were cold and distant, kept to themselves, and were brusque, unfriendly, and sometimes more than a bit rude. The old man commented, "The people around here are pretty much the same."
Granted, it is simplistic, but it does reflect a pattern of human thought and behavior. People tend to project their own thoughts and philosophies onto others, and people respond to them accordingly. A cold, distant couple who expects everybody to be cold and distant will likely find exactly that - even in the warmest and friendliest of surroundings. While a warm, friendly couple can do a lot to melt the ice, even if they find themselves living amidst curmudgeons. How you approach others can greatly affect how they respond to you.

Today, I saw a short and rather shallow review of Thomas Sowell's new book, which ostensibly tells us of the different mindsets of the "conservative" and the "liberal":
In A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, Sowell uses a refreshing but systematic approach to explain this phenomenon in terms of differences in underlying assumptions about human nature: whether human nature is inherently imperfect and hasn't essentially changed throughout history (the "constrained vision"), or whether human nature can be improved through education, programs, and spending (the "unconstrained vision," or essentially the vision of the Age of Reason).

Those who adhere to the constrained vision, Sowell argues, reject the notion that mankind has the ability to create all-encompassing "solutions" to social problems. Instead, such adherents tend to favor practical trade-offs that benefit society at large, but which work within the constraints of existing laws and social processes. Similarly, adherents of the constrained vision generally revere the wisdom inherent in religion, tradition, and timeless experience, rather than the subjective and changing moral interpretations of the "intellectual elite." Consequently, this vision naturally lends supports for capital markets, limited government, strict Constitutional interpretation, and general social stability.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the unconstrained vision. This view assumes that there exists a morally superior "intellectual elite" class which has the ability (and therefore the responsibility) to make key and sweeping social decisions on the behalf of society at large. According to Sowell, this vision naturally lends support for policies that promote equality of results, regardless of whether or not the underlying processes are fair. It should be no surprise, therefore, that adherents of the unconstrained vision deem it acceptable to espouse redistribution of land and wealth to the poor, affirmative action, judicial activism, and direct government involvement in social issues.
It is apparent from the outset that Sowell isn't actually arguing "constrained" versus "unconstrained" - at least as presented, his philosophy is barely more sophisticated than "some people think humans are inherently good; others think humans are inherently evil." To the extent that he deviates from that stance, it seems more as a justification for the political, social and economic models he favors, as opposed to an attempt to truly understand the "left" and "right." Perhaps the better analysis of Sowell is that of the old man on the porch - he's a guy from the city who sees people as being like him, treats them in such a manner that they reinforce his perceptions, and never looks for the other side.

My initial reaction was that it is true that "human nature is inherently imperfect and hasn't essentially changed throughout history", and it is also true that "human nature can be improved through education [and social] programs" - recognizing, of course, that education and social programs require spending. So I am simultaneously constrained and unconstrained? Sorry Thomas - your philosophical house of cards is falling down.

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Friday, January 23, 2004

Reefer Madness


In a move condemned by the Conservative opposition leader, Michael Howard, Britain has downgraded cannabis from a class B to a class C drug, significantly reducing the consequences for illegal possession - yet the Guardian's John O'Farrell has a hard time taking the matter seriously.

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Thursday, January 22, 2004

Comparisons To Hitler


Suzanne Fields of the dubious "Washington Times" brings us this moment of unintentional hilarity:
We must wish Al Franken well. Heaven knows the left needs all the help it can get in its search for a place on the radio dial, but Al is going unarmed into a battle of wits and humor against Rush Limbaugh.
I've never been a huge Franken fan, but... c'mon. The rest of her editorial is a contrived effort to accuse liberal humorists of relying excessively on obscenity and the comparison of Bush to Hitler. (Conservatives would never do anything like that - not in a million years.)

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Tax Policy


Today's London Guardian takes on Blair's opposition to higher taxes on the wealthy:
On the scale of jaw-dropping claims by politicians, Tony Blair's remarks on the "myth" of higher tax rates were pretty seismic. Displaying a hitherto unknown expertise in accounting, he boldly predicted that introducing a 50% tax rate on incomes of over £100,000 [$184,000] would fail to raise the extra billions that its supporters predict.

In his interview with the Guardian yesterday, Blair went further: "Every single piece of analysis that has ever been done indicates that ... large numbers of those taxpayers - probably the wealthiest - would simply hire a whole lot of new accountants to do this and that. And actually your tax take would be a lot less."
The editorial goes on to explain the basis for this assertion:
The only explanation is that Blair was referring to the famous "Laffer curve", conceived by the US economist Arthur Laffer in 1974. Laffer's diagram was a simple bell curve, illustrating his idea that growth in tax revenue falls away after a certain point, as higher rates of tax give people less incentive to work and a stronger incentive to evade paying.

The Laffer curve has become the holy grail of low-tax, rightwing politicians, especially in the US, where it was warmly embraced by the neo-conservatives who clustered around Ronald Reagan in the 80s, and continue to cluster round George Bush.

But like the holy grail, the Laffer curve is an article of faith, not a rigorous piece of analysis. Laffer himself was clever enough never to put any hard numbers on his curve, and no piece of research has discovered the "sweet spot" that would maximise tax revenues.

More importantly, Laffer's curve - which he sketched on the back of a bar napkin - was the product of an era in which some countries, including Britain, had tax rates as high as 98%. In the 30 years since Laffer drew his curve, the entire tax structure has changed markedly, with a shift to value-added taxes.
The editorial notes that fears that the rich would utilize tax shelters and havens are misplaced, as the rich already shelter their income from taxes. It also points out that tax avoidance is driven not only by tax rates, but also by the complexity of the tax code, "hence the ceaseless process of closing loopholes that absorbs so much energy of the officials at the Treasury and the Inland Revenue." It responded to an argument Blair once made about driving wealth abroady by noting that one of Britain's most famous footballers, David Beckham, moved from the UK (with a 40% maximum tax bracket) to Spain (where the highest rate is 50%). It also provides a reductio ad absurdum) of Blair's argument which " taken to its extreme, is not an argument against a higher tax rate, it is an argument for no tax at all" Finally, it notes that raising the maximum tax bracket would be much easier to implement and enforce than Blair's proposed "top up fees" for University students.

Like it or hate it, it is an important argument. Britain doesn't coddle the rich to anywhere near the extent of the Bush Administration, but a major newspaper remains free to challenge his tax policy and to suggest that it may be better to increase taxes on the rich than on the working classes. There is not a blind obedience to the notion that tax cuts and low tax rates for the rich benefit everybody, let alone one coupled with the notion that increasing the tax burden (and decreasing the public benefits available to) the working classes is appropriate. It's not a lonely Paul Krugman challenging the President's tax policy, while the nation's corporate media blithely ignores the issue.

Whatever you think of tax policy and the structure of the U.S. tax system, all taxpayers would benefit from a vigorous and public debate over its precepts, and over possible reforms focused on making our nation's taxes more understandable, more simple and more fair. When the Bush Administration provides staggering tax relief for the rich, associated with meager tax relief to working families which he knows will soon be largely clawed back by the "Alternative Minimum Tax", and his deception passes pretty much unchecked by either the opposition party or the media.... Well, at a certain point you have to ask yourself if the American people want to be deceived.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Moving Past "Affirmative Action"


In "The Continuing Struggle for Equality", Armstrong Williams notes some of the central issues facing African Americans in today's society. He concludes,
We don't need more entitlement programs that dispense money to the underprivileged like some government-subsidized tranquilizer. We need to confront the real problems threatening our communities. We will achieve Dr. King's dream not with quotas and affirmative action, but with the determination to face those social conditions that truly underlie inequality - eroding family life, disintegration of moral character and the devaluation of human life.
With all due respect for the failures of affirmative action and entitlement programs to resolve poverty and discrimination, and for the frustration inspired by the perpetuation of poverty and discrimination, I still think it would benefit us if we were told something more than "We need to throw out every tool in our toolbox, and find something new" - such as, "And here's something that might work...."

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A Thought on Estate Taxes


To hear the wealthy complain about estate taxes, you would almost think the world was ending. Well, I suppose it is for the person whose estate pays the taxes, but certainly not for the heirs.... Still, if there's any point in time when it should be relatively painless to pay tax, it seems to me that the time would be after you are already dead.

There is a lot of misinformation - deliberate misinformation - circulated about estate taxes. The wealthy interests which oppose and decry them as "death taxes" do their best to convince average people that they are likely to pay estate taxes, even though only they have historically been paid by a tiny minority of estates. They also attempt to convince the public that estate taxes force people to sell family farms and businesses - without pointing to even a single apocryphal example where this has happened. (Perhaps the thinking is, "Well, it has never happened but, like an invasion from Mars, it could") They also gloss past the estate planning structures used by the wealthy to avoid paying estate taxes.

But perhaps there's something behind their opposition to estate taxes - something more than, "I earned it, so I should be able to leave it to my heirs without tax." Perhaps it is a recognition of the inherent vagaries of U.S. society. Despite the incredible advantages that the family wealth buys for the children of the rich, the combination of skills, opportunity and luck which combined to create that wealth are not likely to repeat with each generation. Even with the incredible head start of a multi-million dollar inheritance (after taxes), the wealthy seem to realize that absent being shielded from taxes their heirs will see their station in life decline over time. The legacy cannot be extended by notions of hard work and opportunity intrinsic in US culture - that's the "Horatio Alger" myth used to sell tax protections for the wealthy to the working masses. Does this whole "death tax" debate boil down to this: While the average taxpayer still believes in "the American Dream", the rich know better?

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Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Corporate Conduct


In an interesting article about the online game, Alphaville by Maxis, the Independent details what online gamers already know - absent rather rigid policing or restrictions on player activity, some virtual players turn into virtual criminals.
Alphaville could have become a socialist utopia, a grand experiment in free-market capitalism or simply a reflection of the allure and the pitfalls of any real Western city.

As it was, Alphaville quickly turned into a hellhole of scam-artists, crime syndicates, mafia extortion artists and teenage girls turning tricks to make ends meet. It became a breeding ground for the very worst in human nature - a benign-sounding granny, for example, who specialised in taking new players into her confidence, then showered them in abuse. Then there was the scam-artist known as Evangeline, who started out equally friendly and then stole new players' money.
An attempt to crack down on player misconduct has been of limited success, with many banned players attempting to sneak back into the game.
That, in turn, presents a thorny set of philosophical problems. How do you seek to curb the baser instincts of a community of autonomous players? Is repression the answer? Or do you have to give people incentives to behave better all by themselves? Such questions have been pondered even within the august confines of Yale Law School, where one student, James Grimmelmann, wrote recently: "On the one hand, Maxis is close to losing control over their game world. TSO is a positively Brechtian world of violence, flim-flammery, and low-down dirty tricks.

"On the other hand, Maxis acts like a classic despot, using its powers to single out individual critics for the dungeons and the firing squads. The usual real-world justification for this kind of arbitrary action is the need for a strong central hand to protect public safety and common welfare. But since Maxis isn't all that good at those aspects, the Herald censorship [the closing of a virtual "newspaper" which documented player excesses] smacks more of tyranny for its own sake."
Which brings us to the corporation. Stripped of normal social mores, and instructed to maximize shareholder profit at the expense of most other values, is there a significant distinction between the way executives direct their companies and the antisocial fantasies of teenaged gamers in Alphaville? Do multinational corporations see people as something more than blips in a computer program? If you were to apply DSM-IV criteria to a corporation's conduct, would you diagnose it as psychopathic?

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What an Interesting Day....


So we end the Iowa Caucus, not with a Dean victory or a Gephart surprise, but with Kerry overwhelming Dean (with Edwards close on his heels). Rather than seeing Kerry as the diminished candidate who withdraws from the race, that role has been passed to Gephardt, who seems to have exited quite gracefully. (I hope Lieberman was taking notes.)

Meanwhile, the nation is gearing up for the State of the Union Address, deliberately timed to follow the Iowa caucuses, where Bush will try to convince us that he is a "visionary" President (as opposed to one suffering from hallucinations) - in no small part by pitching an immigration policy many Republicans see as alien, and a new space program that many Republicans view as being 'from Mars'. (But apparently only Republicans are supposed to observe the wackiness of Bush's proposals - Dems are supposed to take them seriously.) Oh - and I'm sure we'll also hear that Iraq is going swimmingly (without a word about Gitmo).

No wonder overseas commentators seem so confused.

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Monday, January 19, 2004

(Faux) Democracy In Time For the (U.S.) Elections?


Is the Bush plan for Iraq falling apart?

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Parochial Schools and Education Reform


The London Guardian today discusses claims about the relative performance of parochial schools, in what could be a response to efforts by the Bush Administration to force public shools into "competition" with religious schools through voucher programs.
You're a parent with a 10-year-old who's starting at secondary school this September, so you've been looking at local schools. In your borough, three out of the four secondary schools are Muslim. You are not a Muslim. Two of them only admit Muslims, though one of them holds out the hope that, if not oversubscribed, (which it generally is) they could give a place to a non-Muslim child if the child attends a Muslim primary school. The third school will take non-Muslims, but only if they demonstrate "an aptitude for the visual arts".

Looking outside the borough, you find another school which seems promising until you discover that it, too, is a Muslim school which requires not only that prospective pupils and their parents have gone to the mosque every week since the start of primary school, but also that parents must sign a statement saying that "they have not applied or taken steps to apply (including the sitting of a selective test) to a non-Muslim school". (Guess that rules out Eton then.)

Does something look wrong? Surely a society where government departments are too tactful to mention Christmas on their greeting cards wouldn't sanction such blatant discrimination? Well, in real life, the schools are Roman Catholic rather than Muslim, but otherwise you're looking at examples of current admission policy in London. (The borough so enthused by Catholicism is Kensington and Chelsea.)
Obviously, that is a concern here as well - at least among those who don't think that parents should be forced to choose between a public school that is failing in no part because of poor public policy, and a school operated by a religious order to which they do not adhere. And I believe the editorial properly highlights the different reaction inspired when a Christian parent might be faced with having to choose a Muslim school, as opposed to the collective yawn that seems to arise from Republican factions when Muslim or Hindu children would be forced to choose Christian schools.

The editorial raises another point - which should be obvious, but is often lost in the rhetoric about school performance - school performance is tied to "intake advantage". "Schools which can select (and perhaps more importantly "deselect") their pupils will therefore do better on [standardized] measures than schools which can't." The article also points out that where there is competition for a limited number of seats in a school (and this would also apply to better performing public schools), parental choice dissolves into an expression of preference, which may or may not be realized.

When politicians intentionally mislead the public about the goals of the school "reforms" they propose, or the "voucher" systems they endorse, they do not do so for the public good. And for those of us who expect words to be backed up by action, Bush's primary goal appears to be to damage and underfund the public school system so as to divert public resources into parochial schools, and to leave a dismal wreck of a school system behind for the children of the inner cities, and for the children of the working poor and lower middle classes. Meanwhile, the rest of us will face a "voluntary" tax in the form of additional school tuition on top of the school taxes we continue to pay - but the wealthy, whose kids are already in private schools, will receive yet another subsidy.

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Sunday, January 18, 2004

Friedman Emerges from his Shell


After a few years of cheerleading the U.S. invasion of Iraq (for humanitarian reasons, of course), Thomas Friedman has returned to a prior subject - the question of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Friedman opines that Israel should withdraw from the occupied territories in a meaningful fashion, and that "Ideally, this withdrawal should be negotiated along the Clinton plan." (The Israeli peace group, Gush Shalom, provides an overview of the peace proposals from Camp David, and also from Taba, which preceded the election of Ariel Sharon and Israel's withdrawal from peace talks.) Friedman concludes:
In sum, Israel should withdraw from the territories, not because it is weak, but because it must remain strong; not because Israel is wrong, but because Zionism is a just cause that the occupation is undermining; not because the Arabs would warmly embrace a smaller Israel, but because a smaller Israel, in internationally recognized boundaries, will be much more defensible; not because it will eliminate Islamic or European anti-Semitism, but because it will reduce it by reducing the daily friction; not because it would mean giving into an American whim, but because nothing would strengthen America's influence in the Muslim world, help win the war of ideas and therefore better protect Israel than this.

The Bush team rightly speaks of bringing justice to Iraq. It rightly denounces Palestinian suicide madness. But it says nothing about the injustice of the Israeli land grab in the West Bank. The Bush team destroyed the Iraqi regime in three weeks and has not persuaded Israel to give up one settlement in three years. To think America can practice that sort of hypocrisy and win the war of ideas in the Arab-Muslim world is a truly dangerous fantasy.
I don't personally believe that Israel can unilaterally impose a final border which can bring about peace, save perhaps for an unqualified withdrawal to the Green Line. If it unilaterally annexes Palestinian lands as part of an imposed border, the border will continue to be a point of conflict (and violence) for the indefinite future - albeit, likely at a much lower level than present violence, or what is likely to follow the line of Sharon's "land grab" fence. (While today's news from Kashmir suggests that a cold peace can be constructed around a persistent border dispute, after decades of hot conflict, I fully expect that conflict to renew if a final resolution is not ultimately reached.)

But as long as the hardliners on both sides oppose compromise, and are empowered to prevent peace talks or to frustrate ceasefires, joint progress is impossible. Given that most Israelis and Palestinians recognize that the ultimate peace agreement will look a lot like what was proposed at Camp David and Taba, moving to establish the approximation of that agreement could do a lot to remove the uncertainties that are impeding peace. The Palestinians would have to confront the fact that Israel was overtly willing to relinquish most of their land, abandoning decades of unfortunate (and sometimes express) policy to keep as much of that land as possible, which may in fact jar the collective consciousness into realizing that the path to peace is both available and preferable.

I don't think that Ariel Sharon has either the personal desire or the fortitude to move Israel toward peace. His entire career has been build on the principles of escalation, disproportionate response to Palestinian "provocation", and the expansion of settlements in the occupied territories and annexation of Palestinian land. Don't take it from me - his words: "No one will touch Judea and Samaria [the occupied West Bank]! Or Gaza either! (Judea and Samaria) belong to us. They have been ours for thousands of years, eternally."

I really don't like the idea that Israel requires U.S. pressure to take appropriate steps toward peace. To put it mildly, that seems to be a very condescending attitude. I hope that by the time of its next elections, Israel is ready to reject Sharon's obstructionism and try a more constructive path toward peace, even if unilateral in nature.

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Saturday, January 17, 2004

Rebuilding Iraq


I have long advocated that the Iraqi people should have as large a role as possible in rebuilding their own nation. There are a number of reasons for this. Financially, it is much cheaper to rely upon domestic labor than it is to jet in foreign corporations and contractors to do the same work. In terms of experience, Iraqis managed to build their country, rebuild (to the extent possible) after the first Gulf War, and to maintain their infrastructure despite the embargoes - if foreign help is needed, it might be to supplement the local skilled labor, but not to supplant it. In terms of the peace process, allowing Iraqis to rebuild creates local jobs, and it also creates a personal local investment in the rebuilt infrastructure. Generally, people are probably less likely to try to destroy that infrastructure if they have built it, if doing so will incur the wrath of their neighbors, or if doing so will put their neighbors out of work. Further, if permitted to participate meaningfully in the reconstruction, Iraqis will learn the skill set necessary to perform similar tasks and to maintain infrastructure projects without foreign assistance, and to the extent that they work alongside western companies will learn how those businesses operate. The same work performed by a subcontractor from Texas or South Korea? There's no local investment of time and labor, no local ownership interest, and the local people may not perceive much of a benefit.

Further, the operations of various U.S. officers, handed slush funds of money seized from the old Iraqi regime, document that if you improve the lifestyle of the local people and give them work, they are happier and more supportive of the occupation forces. That's just human nature. Freezing the Iraqi people out of the reconstruction and future economy of their own nation seems like a recipe for disaster.

Today, in "The $500 billion fire sale The Guardian points out that some work is being performed by Iraqi "subcontractors" - and some involved in the bidding process are pretty shocked by the financial shenanigans:
For the Iraqi expats in the audience, Basri's is a tough lecture to sit through. "To be honest," says Ed Kubba, a consultant and board member of the American Iraqi Chamber of Commerce, "I don't know where the line is between business and corruption." He points to US companies subcontracting huge taxpayer-funded reconstruction jobs for a fraction of what they are getting paid, then pocketing the difference. "If you take $10m from the US government and sub the job out to Iraqi businesses for a quarter-million, is that business, or is that corruption?"
There is an associated concern among those who are being asked to insure the reconstruction. Initially contractors and subcontractors were insured through the federal USAID program.
But with bidding now starting on Iraq's state-owned firms, and foreign banks ready to open branches in Baghdad, the insurance issue is suddenly urgent. Many of the speakers admit that the economic risks of going into Iraq without coverage are huge: privatised firms could be renationalised, foreign ownership rules could be reinstated and contracts signed with the CPA could be torn up. Normally, multi-nationals protect themselves against this sort of thing by buying "political risk" insurance. Before he got the top job in Iraq, this was Bremer's business - selling political risk, expropriation and terrorism insurance at Marsh & McLennan Companies, the largest insurance brokerage firm in the world. Yet, in Iraq, he has overseen the creation of a business climate so volatile that private insurers, including his old colleagues at Marsh & McLennan, are simply unwilling to take the risk. Bremer's Iraq is, by all accounts, uninsurable.
Investors from the United States are being assured that U.S. tax dollars will protect them:
A US government agency, Opic provides loans and insurance to US companies investing abroad. And while Lempres agrees with earlier speakers that the risks in Iraq are "extraordinary and unusual", he also says that "Opic is different. We do not exist primarily to generate profit." Instead, Opic exists to "support US foreign policy". And since turning Iraq into a free-trade zone is a top Bush policy goal, Opic will be there to help out. Earlier that same day, Bush signed legislation providing "the agency with enhancements to its political risk-insurance programme", according to an Opic press release.
While Opic is supposed to operate at no cost to taxpayers, its spokesperson was unable to explain how it could do so if there were a multi-billion dollar expropriation and re-regulation by the new government of Iraq. (Microsoft, which plans to invest, understands where the Bush Administration and Opic have shifted the risk of loss. According to their spokesman, "In theory," he says, "the US treasury stands behind us.")

Some have pointed out that this creates a double standard, where Iraq's economy is subjected to "free market" forces, but the U.S. companies which are taking it over are heavily subsidized.

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Friday, January 16, 2004

It Looks Promising


The Columbia Graduate School of Journalism has launched the CJR Campaign Desk to act as a nonpartisan monitor of the media during the 2004 Presidential election campaign.

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Tell Me He's Smarter Than This....


In "O'Neill's Vanity Fair", Michael Kinsley sputters,
Speaking of blindsided, howzabout that killer quote describing Bush in Cabinet meetings as being "like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people." O'Neill says this is "the only way I can describe it," and I fear that may be true. It's vivid, and certainly sounds insulting. But what on earth does it mean? According to the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, it means Bush is "disengaged." The Washington Post story began, "President Bush showed little interest in policy discussions in his first two years in the White House, leading Cabinet meetings 'like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people . . . ."

I'm sorry, but how is being uninterested in policy like being a blind man in a roomful of deaf people? Are blind people uninterested in policy? Or, more accurately: Do blind people become less interested in policy when they find themselves in a room with deaf people? Does a blind man surrounded by deaf people talking policy issues think, "Oh, hell. These folks are going to go on and on and on about the problems of deaf people. Who needs that? I've got problems of my own." Is that O'Neill's point? And even if there is something about a roomfull of deaf people that makes a blind man disengage from policy issues, what does this have to do with President Bush and his Cabinet?
Is it truly that difficult for him to figure out? (Does anybody here need an explanation?)

I guess an alternative is that Kinsley thinks his readers are stupid, and hopes to confuse them. Either way, it doesn't say much about Kinsley.

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Thursday, January 15, 2004

If There's Something Worse, Anything's Better?


In a continuation of yesterday's comments, another thing occurred to me while I was reading Kristof's column on Cambodia and sweatshops. Southeast Asia is notorious for its sex industry. As Thailand has tried to legitimize itself and to seem "safer" for tourists, it has worked to diminish some of the less savory aspects of its sex industry. These elements are setting up shop in Cambodia.

If we were to tweak Kristof's column a bit:
I'd like to invite George Bush and the other Republican puritans to come here to Cambodia and discuss "morality" with scavengers like Nhep Chanda, who spends her days rooting through filth in the city dump. One of the most unfortunate trends in the Republican party has been the way nearly all of the major voices, including the President, have been flirting with anti-prostitution positions by putting the emphasis on human rights standards in international agreements.

My guess is that they sincerely believe that such policies would help poor people abroad — and that's why they should all traipse through a Cambodian garbage dump to see how economically na├»ve shutting down Cambodia's brothels would be. Nhep Chanda, age 17, averages 75 cents a day for her efforts. For her, the idea of being exploited in a brothel — working only six days a week, inside instead of in the broiling sun, for more than $2 a day — is a dream.

All the complaints about third world brothels are true and then some: they use child prostitutes, foster drug addiction, and spread disease. But they have raised the standard of living in the Philippines and Thailand, and they offer a leg up for people in countries like Cambodia. In Asia, moreover, the brothels tend to hire mostly girls and young women with few other job opportunities. The result has been to begin to give girls and women some status and power, some hint of social equality, some alternative to picking garbage or working in sweatshops. The fundamental problem in the poor countries of Africa and Asia is not that brothels exploit too many workers; it's that they don't exploit enough.
I'm not intending this to be a fair criticism of Kristof - he specifically recites the sex industry as a source of employment that the sweatshops permit women to avoid. But once you get past issues of "morality", his arguments seem to apply equally in both contexts - and he seems quite willing to set aside issues of morality in the context of the conduct and operation of sweatshops.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Globalization and Sweatshops


A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the ancient Khmer temples in Cambodia, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat, but also lesser known temples such as the amazing Angkor Thom City and Bayon, and the amazing Banteay Srei. Huge numbers of tourists flock to Siem Reap to see these ancient temples, and there is an incredible amount of hotel construction in that small city. The most expensive hotels are costly even by western standards, and the cost of a night's stay in a standard room at the five star Sofitel Royal Angkor is scarcely less than a typical Cambodian earns in a year.

It is impossible to visit the temples without observing Cambodia's poverty, as people live in an astonishing density along the roads into the temple region. The typical home is a single room, elevated from the ground to accommodate the high water levels of the rainy season, which may house a sizeable family. Anywhere there is standing water, somebody is growing rice. Many of these houses are along a small river, but although the water has many domestic purposes it is not by any standard safe or potable. A more affluent family, not likely to live in this area, may have a motorcycle, and it is not unusual to see an entire family riding a single motorcycle - mom, dad, and three or four kids. Even among the healthier and more successful adults, you can often see the effects of the mass starvation which occurred under the Khmer Rouge, or the chronic malnutrition that exists among the poor - you see relatively short adults with small frames and heads which seem disproportionately large for their bodies, a permanent reminder of their malnourished childhoods. When you learn the age of children, it is frequently surprising to realize how much smaller the typical Cambodian child is than is a typical child of a similar age in Thailand or Vietnam (let alone the U.S.)

As you close in on Angkor Wat, you have to pass many vendors with small booths, selling a variety of trinkets. At most temple sites, you are likely to be mobbed by children trying to sell you post cards and Wrigley's gum. (Many of these children have amazing contextual language skills for selling their wares - sufficient fluency in English, German, French, and Japanese, and probably one or two other languages, to make their sales pitches, attempt some emotional manipulation, and negotiate price.)

Within some of the temple areas, you will see Cambodian victims of land mines, often playing music to try to earn donations from visitors. An amputee in a nation like Cambodia has virtually no job prospects, and the government is apparently teaching many how to play traditional instruments so that they can raise money from tourists in a more internationally palatable manner than through begging. If you choose to go a bit off the beaten path, you can visit the war museum, or the landmine museum, where the extent of mining and the impact on the population is made plain. While at the temple sites you are most likely only going to see adult victims of landmines, at the landmine museum you will meet children with missing limbs. Many limbs were lost not only during periods of warfare, but in subsequent periods where the hope of scavenging items to sell or of harvesting tropical woods led the locals to enter areas which they knew to be heavily mined, in the hope of earning some money. You won't see any of the tropical rain forests that once dominated the region, save for a few trees of astonishing size which have grown around some of the walls in Angkor Thom City - the giant trees have been harvested and sold.

Cambodia's climate can be difficult for westerners, as it is hot and extraordinarily humid. A rain can seem cooling, but after the rain stops the precipitation evaporates from the ground and the humidity increases significantly. Flying into Cambodia, as your plane lowers to land many of the structures on the ground appear water worn from the heavy rains and flooding of rainy season. If you do a bit of reading on the country, you will learn that the climate is also very difficult on the nation's poor - which, sadly to say, is pretty much everybody. Impoverished children and adults suffer from frequent lung infections, which can have a significant cumulative effect on lifespan. Due to the close proximity of housing, it would be difficult to contain even a mildly infectious disease before it rippled through a community.

There's a certain naivete to the population, which appears to emerge in no small part from the loss of so many educated adults during Pol Pot's purges - in essence, a nation of children and teenagers was left to fend for itself. When we stopped at a small holocaust memorial, around which a group of very small children were playing "hide and seek", our tour guide commented in an almost off-hand manner, "We had a killing field here. A small one." There was no apparent concern about the conduct of the Hun Sen government, and I saw no sign of resentment that the best road in Siem Reap was sealed from local traffic - it was reserved exclusively for the King's use should he visit the city.

There is a lot of ambition among Cambodians - they see the opportunity for a better life - and there are many schools which offer to teach English to the locals, an artisan's school which teaches the creation of traditional crafts and stonework which may be sold to tourists, and there are certification programs for tour guides. (A certified tour guide will be competent in the language of his or her clients, will know the history of the temples, and will know the best locations for photographs.) Cambodians proved to be a very welcoming people, and remarkably upbeat. Their resilience is amazing, even if you don't know the nation's history of war, occupation, and genocide.

When I read Nicholas Kristof's column, "Inviting All Democrats", in which he described his visit to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and his observation of the poor trying to survive by scavenging in a garbage dump, I can't say I was surprised by the economic conditions he described. I did not visit Phnom Penh, but I understand that its poverty goes well beyond that of Siem Reap, and that it has developed an enormous slum region where the poor have congregated in an effort to find a better life in the city. In addition to disease, poverty, and malnutrition, these urban poor also face risk of fire and at times violent confrontation with the police. (Some might note that this type of circumstance is not unique to Cambodia - that description could as easily have been of a slum area in Guatemala City.)

There seem to be two major arguments about global trade policy. One is that worker rights and wages should be dictated by "market forces" (or even suppressed through global trade organizations), such that the people of the developing world can have access to jobs in what we would deem "sweatshops". The counter-argument is that the industrialized world should impose some form of minimum wage, working condition, and environmental conditions on the developing world - whether premised on protecting domestic jobs, or out of concern that multinational corporations are exploiting the world's poor in a manner not likely to help them or their nations pull out of poverty. With self-serving special interest groups backing both sides of the argument, it can be difficult to discern which approach is ultimately best for the people.

Kristof suggests that it is more altruistic to allow expansive sweatshop labor than to regulate the developing world in a manner which might dissuade multinationals from manufacturing goods in nations like Cambodia:
The Democratic Party has been pro-trade since Franklin Roosevelt, and President Bill Clinton in particular tugged the party to embrace the realities of trade. Now the party may be retreating toward protectionism under the guise of labor standards.

That would hurt American consumers. But it would be particularly devastating for laborers in the poorest parts of the world. For the fundamental problem in the poor countries of Africa and Asia is not that sweatshops exploit too many workers; it's that they don't exploit enough.
A politically partisan response is that the impact of the regulation proposed by politicians such as Gephart are not likely to have any greater impact on the developing world than the apparent "weak dollar" policy and legal and illegal tariffs imposed by the Bush Administration. But that partisan tit-for-tat really doesn't interest me.

In a nation like Cambodia, where the economic conditions are dire, it is a bit simplistic to say that "given the choice of two evils, who are we to take away the lesser". There are echoes in Kristof's voice, I'm sure, of the sentiments of the factory owners from the British industrial revolution, rationalizing why it was okay to open the world's first sweatshops to improve the lot for England's poor - and yes, how obvious it was that if the alternatives were better, people would seek them. It was minimum wage and maximum hour laws, as well as laws granting a right to collective bargaining, which elevated the industrial world's workers out of similar conditions. While there is a fundamental truth to the argument that if sweatshops were worse than the alternative, people wouldn't work in them, I am not as quick as some to begrudge the workers of the developing of legal rights and benefits similar to those which helped create a prosperous middle class in the developed world, particularly in the name of "helping the poor" of those nations.

There's a certain obscenity in Nike's willingness, at the drop of a dime, to move production to the nation with the lowest labor cost, while simultaneously entering into $100,000,000 endorsment contracts with domestic celebrities. While Kristof notes that there is a loss to a nation which loses a sweatshop to a cheaper labor market, that already happens. The goods produced in the sweatshops he applauds in Cambodia were likely formerly produced in sweatshops in Thailand and Vietnam, before Cambodia became sufficiently stable that its population could be put to work. Next stop, Laos - or perhaps Burma, where the government will certainly be helpful in squelching any worker unrest.

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Pharmaceutical Policy


In an update to past discussion of pharmaceutical policy, and the questionable efficacy of high-cost, patented medications, The Guardian provides insight into how drug companies manage to get such favorable results in studies of the efficacy of their products. Common techniques include avoiding any head-to-head comparisons with other medications (as opposed to testing against a placebo), comparing a new medication with an inadequate or excessive dose of a competing product, and, most frequently, conducting a trial that is too small to produce results which might prove a competing product to be superior.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Political Amusement


Sure, it's way too simplistic, but this is still a rather amusing way to sort through the Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination.

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Who Said "Conservatives" Can't Be Funny?


This column is funnier than the column it attempts to explain - Dennis Prager, a radio talk show host, offered his brand of parody, suggesting that Jimmy Carter responded to the Lord of the Rings trilogy by condeming the movie, attributing statements such as,
"Who knows what might happen if enough young people start thinking that war is an option, or that some people or countries can be labeled 'evil,' or that there is something noble about a soldier who kills for a 'just' cause?"
Although it seemed obvious to me that Prager was trying to be funny, his only overt notice was at the conclusion of his piece, "This story is fictional, but not false."

Now he reports receiving feedback from four groups: (1) those who thought he was funny, (2), those furious for his false attribution of various statements to Carter, (3) those who didn't recognize the joke, and thanked him for bringing Carter's comments to light, and (4) those confused about the last line, asking "What part of your column was fiction?". Prager explains that the last line was meant to label the piece as a parody, as was the false news service line he used. He then compares himself to Bill Safire, who has parodic, fictional conversations with public figures in his columns (without this type of confusion, presumably, by virtue of being a better writer). Then he complains that he has never and would never falsely attribute quotes. But this is the funny part:
Jonah Goldberg, an astute observer of contemporary life, actually excerpted my column, "Jimmy Carter: 'Compassion for Mordor,'" on his National Review Web site.
Yup. How's that for astute. Goldberg's readers set him straight.

Okay, this part is funny, also - Prager complains about those who did not understand his final line - declaring that he, like "Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and other great writers revealed great truths through fiction, and I guess everybody should have realized that he kept such rarified company. (I wonder if poor Bill Safire felt the sting of not being referenced in that list of great writers.) He of course concludes with an overt attack on Carter as "deeply morally confused about good and evil, who damaged his country as president, and who hurts it today." Um... I guess if you're as self-important as Prager, or as he now demands to be called "Shakespearevsky", you have every right to judge.

(Incidentally, if you found the original piece to actually be funny, please speak up.)

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Monday, January 12, 2004

Pitching to the Partisan Center?


In today's Times, Christie Whitman offers her take on The Vital Republican Center. Needless to say, she spends a lot of time complaining about how she was treated when she ordered the reexamination of reduced lead levels for drinking water. But her larger point is that the Republican party needs to be more centrist:
A true majority party should not be in such a potentially precarious position [where a few thousand votes or a single state can swing the balance of control in the Senate or control of the White House]. We find ourselves in this situation in part because we too often follow the advice of political consultants to appeal not to a majority of the electorate but only to the most motivated voters — those with the most zealous, ideological beliefs. Both parties now concentrate largely on turning out greater numbers of their most fervent supporters.
Well, guess what? That's the price of power. It's easy enough to pitch to your motivated extremists when you don't have control of Congress or the White House. As the Republicans have demonstrated, those motivated voters can get you into power. But when you're there, how do you expand your power base so as to keep your power?

The Democrats, for a long time, helped keep the center on their side through entitlement and social programs which, while providing significant benefit to their voter base, earned them the title "tax and spend". The Republicans have avoided that same label, particularly under G.W. Bush, through massive deficit spending - but there's a price to that form of fiscal irresponsibility. First, it offends fiscal conservatives on both sides of the political spectrum - and, despite the stereotypes, there are a lot of Democrats and independent voters who are fiscal conservatives. Second, it places the nation in a precarious position, as ultimately we will either face massive tax increases or we risk a fiscal crisis of unknown proportions.

G.W. Bush seems to believe that if you cut taxes you'll miraculously generate massive economic growth which will result in an overall increase in tax revenue. That's more or less what Reagan argued, before even he gave up and raised taxes. Clinton never bought into what G.W.'s father deemed "voodoo economics", and demonstrated quite clearly that you can increase taxes and still foster an unprecedented economic boom. (But perhaps I'm giving G.W. more credit than he deserves by suggesting this belief - after all, he has argued that tax cuts are the tool to keep a strong economy booming, that tax cuts are the tool to invigorate a faltering economy, and that tax cuts are the cure for a recession. When all you have is a hammer, every economic problem looks like a nail?)

On the whole, Whitman is wrong. G.W. has not lost track of the need to pitch to the center - he has enacted illegal trade barriers, offered gargantuan subsidies to business, launched an extraordinarily expensive new entitlement program, proposed a bizarre "guest worker" immigration reform, and offered sleight of hand tax relief (at least for the middle class, what the tax cut giveth, the "Alternative Minimum Tax" will soon take away) - all in the name of appeasing the center. That he won't also reach out to certain factions, such as environmentalists, reveals not a disinterest in the center or in building a new Republican base, but with the fact that he thinks he can get more money and more votes by catering to big business and opening up the wilderness to as much economic development as possible.

Ms. Whitman argues, "Politics that writes off large parts of the electorate is both counterproductive and short-sighted. Yet both parties seem determined to pursue that course." The fact is, you can't be both pro-life and pro-choice. You can't simultaneously protect our pristine wilderness and permit clear-cutting and strip mining in those same areas. You can't cut lead levels in drinking water and appease the companies which put the lead into the drinking water. One fault Bush doesn't have is a tendency to sit on the fence - but on virtually any significant issue, once you pick a side you will inevitably alienate some voters.

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