Saturday, September 30, 2006

Is Torture Really That Hard To Understand

Apparently so.... The inspiration for my last comment was a blog post in which the author explained why he didn't speak out on the subject of torture.
The case of torture is a good example of the limits of my knowledge. For the reasons outlined by Charles Krauthammer, I do not believe that torturing captured terrorists to obtain information is always wrong as a matter of principle. But I don't have anything original to add to his moral argument, so I haven't blogged about it. In any event, I don't think that arguments about intrinsic morality are enough to resolve the issue. To me, the crucial question is whether we can effectively confine the use of torture to the rare cases where I believe it to be justified and prevent it from "spilling over" onto non-terrorist prisoners (as probably happened at Abu Ghraib), ordinary criminals, or even innocent civilians. A second important question is that of how much valuable information can really be obtained through torture that we could not get otherwise. Because I don't know enough to give a compelling answer to these two crucial questions, I don't have anything useful to contribute to the debate over the issue.
I deem that paragraph reasonable in part, and unreasonable in part. But then, anybody who cites a demagogue like Charles Krauthammer as an authority probably shouldn't be claiming any appreciable understanding of the issue under discussion.

The Krauthammer editorial divides the world of war prisoners into three categories:
First, there is the ordinary soldier caught on the field of battle. There is no question that he is entitled to humane treatment. Indeed, we have no right to disturb a hair on his head. His detention has but a single purpose: to keep him hors de combat. * * *

Second, there is the captured terrorist. A terrorist is by profession, indeed by definition, an unlawful combatant: He lives outside the laws of war because he does not wear a uniform, he hides among civilians, and he deliberately targets innocents. He is entitled to no protections whatsoever.
But, Krauthammer adds, we're going to treat him pretty well anyway because we're so nice. (I'm not sure how that helps us if, say, a civilian contractor working in Iraq is captured - under Krauthammer's dichotomy as he's not an "ordinary soldier" he must be a "captured terrorist" entitled to no protections whatsoever. Does anybody recall how Krauthammer reacted to the atrocity in Fallujah?) And then Krauthammer collapses his house of cards:
Third, there is the terrorist with information. Here the issue of torture gets complicated and the easy pieties don't so easily apply. Let's take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking.

Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?
This is a wonderfully stupid example, evidencing perhaps only that Krauthammer watches too many action movies. If in fact you know that you have captured a terrorist who has specific knowledge that will let you save a million lives, and he won't talk, I think we're in a situation where the vast majority of people would agree that a tipping point has been reached, and we can use pretty much any means of interrogation to try to get that information. The odds of this actually occurring? Pretty much zero.

But why is it different if we suspect that an "ordinary soldier" has equivalent knowledge, which if obtained could save hundreds of thousands or millions of civilian lives? What if the soldier has information which would enable us to disable key defense systems of the enemy state, bringing a quick end to a war that would otherwise drag on for years with high levels of civilian casualties? What if the soldier has information which would enable us to disable or destroy key offensive weapons systems, such as a network of nuclear-tipped missiled which are aimed at our major cities? What if the soldier has information which would enable us to prevent an enemy military assault on one of our cities? We torture the terrorist to get that type of information, but let the "ordinary soldier" enjoy the quiet dignity of a POW camp that is in complete compliance with the applicable Geneva Conventions?

Krauthammer further explains, sure, that the nuclear aspect is fanciful - but that you should also be able to torture to find out about the terrorist's knowledge of a possible car bomb at a coffee shop. This is supposed to make his rationale for torture more sensible? Then he speaks of the valuable information that might be tortured out of somebody like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. This is supposed to help us understand why, if captured, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should be excluded from torture?

Please don't get me wrong, here - I know that, despite his effort to couch his argument such that it might appear otherwise, Krauthammer is not trying to actually differentiate when torture should and should not occur. Instead, he is trying to set up a framework through which he can argue that the nation states he likes, which are embroiled in conflicts with forces not part of a state military, cannot torture our troops, but why we can torture theirs. It's a contextual argument - the U.S. in Iraq and Israel in the occupied territories. It's a legalistic argument - if you accept his interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, we're not breaking the law in torturing anybody who is not an "ordinary soldier" and are in no way hypocritical when we decry the wrongful touching of even a single hair on one of our soldier's heads. And it sidesteps moral questions about torture through this narrowing of the context in which he argues for torture to occur.

Krauthammer does propose limits on torture, but gives his full blessing to the torture of "(1) the ticking time bomb and (2) the slower-fuse high-level terrorist (such as KSM)". How do you know somebody is a ticking time bomb? You guess? You torture them a bit until they admit to being a ticking time bomb, then torture some more until they tell you where the bomb is (whether or not it exists)? And again, if we can torture their captured leaders to determine "terroristic" plans, why can't the other side torture our leaders to determine what we define as military plans?

Krauthammer's best - no, his only - example of the "ticking time bomb" relates to a Palestinian who, a dozen years ago, was tortured until he revealed the location of a single Israeli hostage, who was recovered. How exactly is this Palestinian a "ticking time bomb"? I won't argue that recovering the hostage unharmed was anything but a good thing. But is there any evidence or precedent which would have suggested that those holding him hostage had any intention to do him harm, as opposed to attempting to use him as a bargaining chip for a prisoner exchange? This is the best and only example? (Yet you would have to be pretty darn stupid to believe that this was the only incident where somebody was tortured on the suspicion that they might be a ticking time bomb.)

Moving from Krauthammer's situational sophistry to the blindingly stupid, let's take a look at the confusion of Jonah Goldberg:
I think it is a perfectly defensible and honorable position to claim that waterboarding, sleep deprivation etc. amount to torture. I don't think I agree with that view. But I certainly believe it is made in good faith. But the good faith ends when the same people then issue blanket and sweeping assertions that the people who want to legalize those actions are simply pro-torture. If the legalizers were simply pro-torture they would favor hot pokers, iron maidens, finger-nail-yanking and the rest. And the people supporting the use of waterboarding (in a tiny number of cases) aren't doing that. Not only do they think they're not in favor of torture but they objectively oppose things they consider to be torture. So even on the "anti-torture" crowds' own terms, the worst that could legitimately be said is that Bush wants to legalize "some torture" while banning most kinds of torture.
We can reasonably assert that for most people, a more accurate term than "pro-torture" would be "in favor of the minimum level of psychological and physical coercion that will cause a suspect with potentially highly valuable information to provide accurate disclosure of that information." For some, they would just as soon use the hot pokers and don't much care what the prisoner knows - they endorse torture for torture's sake - but the're peripheral to this debate.

Goldberg carefully detailed his list of "things that aren't torture" as "waterboarding, sleep deprivation etc." - I'm not sure that even the Bush Administration remains willing to share his "it's not torture" perpsective on waterboarding. But I will guarantee that I can create a context in which Mr. Goldberg will agree that sleep deprivation constitutes torture, if he's willing to undergo the type of sleep deprivation regimen we're talking about in this context. Or, for that matter, waterboarding.

Further, in a true "ticking timebomb" case - Krauthammer's nuclear bomb in NYC - I don't think that anybody is going to get into the niceties of whether or not we can use "finger-nail-yanking". If what we're really doing is drawing the outline for what constitutes reasonable interrogation of a suspect, we're doing something quite apart from determining the outer bounds of what we can or should do if we truly have a "ticking time bomb" in custody. And this implicates Krauthammer's complaint about the (now-abandoned) ban on torture once proposed by Senator McCain - it means you have to break the law in such a case. I think the Senator McCain of that time would have responded that yes, you have to break the law, but if you do so justifiably you will be protected by virtue of the President's pardon power, and that people are far less likely to cross the line if they risk prosecution. Does Goldberg truly believe that we can't use "finger-nail-yanking and the rest" to save a million civilians from nuclear incineration? If he does, what makes him different than those on the "other side" of the debate, other than his drawing a slightly different line on what constitutes permissible versus impermissible interrogation? If not, then in fact he doesn't stand by the distinctions he describes.

As for "iron maidens".... Where Krauthammer seems to get his understanding of the terrorist threat from action movies, what is Goldberg watching? Conan the Barbarian? The Beastmaster? I am at a bit of a loss as to how an iron maiden could truly be used to obtain useful information from a suspect - let's see... we inflict mortal wounds and while the subject exsanguinates we'll ask some questions. Brilliant. I can understand how somebody might be psychologically intimidated if shown an iron maiden and convinced that if he doesn't talk he'll be placed in it, but I somehow doubt that Goldberg would object to such a use.

Fundamentally, what Goldberg is arguing is that he favors methods of interrogation which are neat and clean - where you don't have to mop anything more offensive than perhaps some urine or excrement from the floor afterward, and the suspect doesn't end up with lacerations, avulsions, hematomas, puncture wounds or broken bones. Torturers of the modern world have long been aware of these western sensitivities to blood and guts, and have devised tortures which leave a prisoner looking reasonably physically sound to an outside visitor.

Straying From Your Sphere Of Expertise

Sometimes I wonder if I should join the majority of Americans who tune out politics - my cousin’s recipe for peace of mind. I know I blog for different reasons than many. I probably wouldn’t blog if nobody read what I wrote, but I’m not blogging here to show off expertise, unveil the inner workings of my soul, or to show that I am the world’s greatest political analyst, capable of understanding far more from the comfort of my armchair than anybody else in the world. And I would find it comical if somebody were to suggest to me that my blog somehow established such a credential.

So is it a lack of ego, or is it a mark of ego, which causes somebody to claim, “I can't speak for anyone else, but in my case, I try to limit blogging to issues where I have a comparative advantage: that is, questions on which I can say something useful or interesting that is unlikely to be said by others.” What if the person further explains,
Moreover, I take seriously the implications of some of my own scholarly work on political ignorance. Merely knowing a few basic facts that can be gleaned from perusing a newspaper is not enough knowledge to conclude that I have something original and important to say about an issue, except in very rare cases where the issue in question is unusually simple. My experience as an expert on political information is that there are far more issues that are more complex than most nonexperts believe than the reverse. In this regard, my general expertise on political information helps me keep tabs on my lack of expertise on specific issues.

Ah, to be blessed with such insight into your own limitations.

So let’s follow the link:
As we enter the home stretch of the 2004 presidential election, the majority of citizens remain ignorant about many of the issues at stake. Surveys show that 70 percent of American adults don't know that Congress recently passed a prescription drug benefit for seniors, even though the new law -- projected to cost $500 billion over the next 10 years -- is probably the most significant domestic legislation passed during the Bush administration. More than 60 percent do not know that President Bush's term has seen a massive increase in domestic spending, about 25 percent above previous levels, that has led to a major increase in the national debt. And despite the extensive media attention focused on employment numbers, almost two-thirds of the public don't know that there has been a net increase in jobs this year. Three quarters admit they know little or nothing about the USA Patriot Act and 58 percent mistakenly believe that the Bush administration perceives a connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks.

Oh, the irony. This editorial published by Fox News, the network whose viewers are most likely to accept the false link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. And what sort of measure is this, given that the Bush Administration has done pretty much everything within its power to suggest a link, with Fox News and various right-wing television and radio hosts “connecting the dots” that everybody is supposed to know don’t exist?

The first question that comes to mind is, why should all Americans be familiar with these particular issues? Why should every voter care enough to follow the Medicare prescription bill, when most won’t qualify for the benefit for many years (and can reasonably assume that the entire Medicare system may look radically different by that time)? Why should an individual who is unemployed, who is working a “newly created” job inferior to the one he held a few years before, or whose family is suffering similar woes, care about raw job numbers - why isn’t their experience more important, and for that matter more relevant to their voting decision? The budget deficit? Again, an area where if you watch the wrong news programs or listen to the Bush Administration, you’ll walk away feeling that you have the informed opinion that everything’s coming up roses and we’re on a path toward budgetary balance.

Am I wrong to infer, also, that other than the budget deficit issue, the subtext of these questions is, “Why are voters too stupid to know that they should vote Republican?” (Perhaps he should have titled his work, “What’s the matter with everybody other than Kansas?”)

The author argues,
No matter how well-informed a citizen is, her vote has only a tiny chance of affecting the outcome of an election; about one chance in 100 million in the case of a presidential race. Since her vote is almost certain not to be decisive, even a citizen who cares greatly about the outcome has almost no incentive to acquire sufficient knowledge to make an informed choice. Acquiring significant amounts of political knowledge so as to be a more informed voter is, in most situations, simply irrational. But the rational decisions of individuals create a dysfunctional collective outcome in which the majority of the electorate is dangerously ill-informed.

The author illustrates this by observing, “Polls show that many more people know the names of the judges on ‘The People's Court’ than those on the Supreme Court.” Funny, though, I don’t recall ever being invited to vote for a Supreme Court Justice. I know all of their names, yet I really don’t believe that actually makes me a more informed voter, nor is it relevant to most of my voting decisions. “Gee, I should vote for Jennifer Granholm for governor, because Justice Scalia is on the Supreme Court. And I should vote for Debbie Stabenow because Justice Ginsburg looks really good in judicial robes.” Oh, sure, knowing which one is most likely to retire in a coming Presidential term may be relevant to that particular vote, but even there it is most relevant to people who vote on single issues as opposed to those making truly informed voting decisions. And even there, the individual Justice's name or political philosophy isn't relevant, as all you really care about is the political philosophy of the successor.

Moving back to the argument that it is a rational choice not to be informed about the issues, I would step beyond that and say that it is possible to believe yourself to be very informed about the issues, yet have no real grasp of them. You could spend an hour each day between reading a daily newspaper, watching the news on TV, and discussing issues with your family, yet have no real understanding of the issues the author sets forth as his litmus test. We don’t make it easy to be informed - in fact, many aspects of our current political system are designed to make it harder, and our news media is increasingly focusing on entertainment and argument, with the conveyance of information a distant afterthought. Beyond that, billions of dollars are invested annually by lobbying interests, business interests, and advocacy groups of various sorts to mislead the public about important issues.

What is more than a bit troubling about the author’s suggestion is that it in fact supports removing the vote from the public at large. It’s unreasonable to expect the public to educate itself, it’s too hard to devise a system that actually would educate the public. He reminds us that even the most informed voters can only stay on top of a small number of issues. And even if they do, he asserts that an individual vote doesn't really make any difference. So why do we let people vote at all? The author attempts to get back onto the road to democracy by proposing,
The problem of political ignorance is not going to be solved anytime soon. But it may be possible to ensure that more people possess at least basic political knowledge. At the same time, we should consider the possibility that a government with fewer functions might be easier for voters to understand and control.

Oh, good grief. Who picks the subjects for these efforts at educating the public? The government? And this smaller government that is easier to understand - is it responsible for that small set of things that the author deems important? Or will it be limited to those things which are actually understood by a significant majority of voters? “As voters really don’t understand foreign policy, but have a very good understanding of taxes on beer and gas, we have divested the federal government of making any foreign policy decisions - but it can continue to tax beer and gas.” Why are we going to pretend that the issue is whether or not the voting public understands what the government is doing, when we obviously are not going to model the government around that understanding, nor are we going to much care if the public understands matters upon which only the government (even if stripped down to its smallest form) can reasonably act?

If this is an example of the author’s “scholarly work” within his area of expertise (I snarkily comment), perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that he doesn’t want to embarrass himself on subjects outside of his areas of expertise.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

There's Another Way To Look At This....

The New York Times criticizes Bush on immigration:
Once upon a time, Mr. Bush was a sense-talking governor from a border state who understood this. Now he has joined the leaders of his party in calling on the nation to cower behind electric fences, searchlights and squad cars. It’s painful to see what he has turned into, and frustrating, in these days of immigration panic, to keep waiting for a real leader to emerge.
Another possible interpretation:
Once upon a time, Mr. Bush was a governor from a border state who pandered to Hispanic immigrants, who were viewed as an important future voting block for the Republican Party. Now he has joined the leaders of his party in calling on the nation to cower behind electric fences, searchlights and squad cars, because whatever long-term gain they sacrifice they fear the consequence of not immediately pandering to anti-Immigration Republican factions. It’s painful to see the man behind the curtain, and frustrating, in these days of immigration panic, to keep waiting for a real leader to emerge.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Legalization of Drugs as a Boon to Developing Nations

John Tierney proposes that we legalize heroin and cocaine:
Drug prohibition in Bolivia and Afghanistan has done exactly what alcohol prohibition did in America: it has financed organized crime.

The only workable solution is to repeal prohibition. Give Afghan poppy growers a chance to sell opium for legal painkilling medicines; give Andean peasants a legal international market for their crops in products like gum, lozenges, tea and other drinks. As Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance proposes, “Put the coca back in Coca-Cola.”
While there is no real question but that prohibition has led to the development of organized crime networks and crime syndicates, both domestically and abroad, there are a few problems with the second quoted paragraph.

First, is he truly speaking only of repealing prohibition of heroin and cocaine as derived from plants? Because if we're speaking of a broader legalization, synthetic drugs enter the picture - drugs which can be significantly more potent (and significantly more pharmaceutically pure) than those derived from plants. If we include synthetics there will probably be no significant boost to the developing world, as synthetics will generally be cheaper and safer. For manufactured products like gum, it would likely be much easier to use a controlled amount of a synthetic drug than to import, process, and control the concentration of a "natural" drug.

Second, the coca is in Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola continues to use a "de-cocainized" extract of the coca leaf as a flavoring ingredient. It is a given that Coca-Cola, despite its massive scale, is not using much of the world's coca crops. With all due respect to the fact that a tea containing cocaine, even in small amounts, would have quite the kick as compared to a modern Coca-Cola, how much of a market does Tierney anticipate for coca tea and other drinks?

Third, is he proposing a free-for-all, with a return to patent medications containing perhaps inconsistent amounts of cocaine or an opiate extract? Absent significant regulation and control, you might end up with the same type of toxicity that is frequently found in street drugs, cut with whatever is cheap and available before being sold to addicts. (Besides - there's too much money involved. I'm quite confident that the major manufacturers of "adult beverages", pharmaceuticals, and tobacco would successfully lobby for enough regulation to create a significant barrier to entry for any smaller players.)

Synthetic drugs, particularly the class formerly referenced as "designer drugs", present a significant conundrum for legalization. It is conceivable that a company could design a drug that is technically not physically addictive, and arguably has minimum effect on performance, and is many senses much safer than "street drugs", but which turns out to be highly psychologically addictive. For that matter, if all bets are off and everything is made legal, why not design a drug that is highly physically addictive?

I agree with Tierney's sentiment, consistent through his articles on the war on drugs, that the war has proved to be a costly mistake. I agree with his suggestion that it's time to try something different. But I suspect that a true legalization would create at least as many problems, perhaps more, than the current drug war - at least domestically. This is an issue where you can think yourself in circles, and never come up with a good answer. Although I would feel more comfortable with Mr. Tierney's proposal if he would at least provide a 100% effective addiction treatment, and describe how it would be made universally available as part of his initiative.

(Do you have a solution? Please share....)

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Foundering Democratic Party

The Democratic Party is frequently criticized, often from within, about its inability to forge a clear agenda, or to articulate a platform which resonates with voters. But the problem is a bit more complicated than that. It's apparent that the Republican Party has managed to secure itself some (for now) solid voting blocks among social conservatives, whereas comparable leftist groups do not share the same level of loyalty to the Democratic Party. In the London Guardian it is argued that the difference is that the Republican Party delivers on its agenda. In my opinion, more accurately, as described at Eunomia the Republican Party delivers as little as necessary to keep the social and religious conservatives on board.
Forget questions of growing wage inequality for a moment; forget all of the “bread and butter” issues on which Democrats are (in their own quaintly deluded minds) “better.” What Edsall claims is what some traditional conservative already know: the GOP is diffident, if not sometimes outrightly subversive, in its support for precisely the things that cultural conservatives take seriously. Then, having successfully conned these people out of their support in exchange for no substantive policy changes, they throw them bones in the form of obviously over-the-top, zany crusades, such as federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case.
The sentiment of self-delusion is shared by the author of the Guardian editorial:
Unlike the Republicans, who openly lobby for the class interests of their supporters and deliver on them, Democrats do not promise substantial changes to the lives of ordinary working people in America and rarely deliver even on the symbolic ones.
I think both pieces understate this: even if the Democratic Party offers little more to the voting public than four more years of treading water, that's still better than electing the guy who will try to push you under. But no matter how you look at it, it's hard to get enthused.

I recently read an MP's argument, responding to some critics of Tony Blair as having "sold out" the party's traditional labor agenda, that it makes no sense to be true to your ideals if you become a perpetual opposition party, powerless to advance that agenda. It's a cynical view, similar to that expressed by "Jack Stanton" in Primary Colors, that if you have to take two steps backward to take three steps forward, at least you're moving in the right direction. But that's the nature of western democracy. If a political party remains paralyzed between the opposite extremes of trying to appeal to everybody, and catering to its traditional constituency despite its demanding an agenda which will be rejected by a majority of voters, it will be lucky to win control of your nation's government. Really, it will not win. There's a lot of pain and even danger in reshaping and focusing a party's political agenda, and in telling a traditional group of supporters, "Sorry, but we can no longer adopt your desired position on your pet issue."

On this front, the Democratic Party has a larger problem than the Republican Party as, despite some efforts, it's hard to convince the single issue voters on the left that token or incremental measures are sufficient. This is not because those political factions are smarter than those on the right, or that the groups on the right are more patient than those on the left. Take abortion rights, for example. For the "pro-life" political right, each step toward reversing the effects of Roe v Wade is a tangible victory, even if small, and they can correctly perceive a trend toward their desired outcome. A political candidate won't satisfy pro-choice voters by trying to convince them that it's okay to cede that ground to their opponents, or by trying to fool them into believing that the law is trending their way. Similarly, and against weaker opposition, even with small measures and some which seem like tokenism, the religous right can see an increased role of religion in government. The environmentalists have the problem that while many agree with their goals, leaving aside the influence of corporate America, the majority of Americans are not willing to pay any significant price to achieve those goals, and they are far from satisfied by the small measures which could get passed. Recall that this is a faction which did not see any significant difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore on environmental issues.

Part of the problem is how the issues are framed, and the Democratic Party needs to take responsibility for its clumsy framing of the issues. If the Republican Party can convince the majority religion in the U.S., that it's under constant threat and persecution, how hard can it really be to frame some traditional Democratic issues as those of an underdog against the system - such that the small advances likely to occur in our political system can be seen as political victories? Part of the problem is a refusal to commit, resulting in a mushy message which isn't particularly appealing to anyone - "We're the party of reproductive freedom, unless you disagree with reproductive freedom in which case you're still welcome, because we have a 'big tent'". Part of the problem is professing one set of ideals, such as support for the working family, but failing to come through - or voting the wrong way - on issues which affect workers. Part of the problem is being unwilling or unable to distance the party from issues which have been rejected by the majority of Americans, but which continue to resonate with voters, such as federal gun control legislation and welfare. And a big part of the problem is the consistent failure to point to the inadequacies or failures of the Republican Party, so as to poke holes in conventional wisdom. You don't have to be as Machiavellan as Karl Rove to figure out what the Republican Party advances as its strengths, and to find ways to point out their weakness on those issues. (Although, unless you're sticking with ad hominem, swift-boating type attacks, it helps if you can enunciate how your proposed way is better.)

So... there's a lot of work to be done. On this front I disagree with those who argue that prominent Democrats like Senator Obama should keep their mouth shut and not talk about what the party needs to do; but I do agree with those who argue that he needs to do more than talk. It's long past time to start serious discussion of serious proposals.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Celebrity Conversions

If this doesn't convert you to Christianity, perhaps nothing will:
"What being born-again means for me," he explains, "is that I'm having so much fun in this interview that we're not going to go out an get an 8-ball of blow tonight and go crazy ... Inasmuch as I'd like to do that, I'll just go home and read some scripture with the wife."
Yes, that's right - noted actor Stephen Baldwin is preaching the Gospel, Hollywood stye. I should have seen it coming with Bio-Dome, a movie which caused thousands of people to pray... that it would be short, or that the ushers wouldn't notice them sneaking out to go to a different movie across the hall. But don't expect him to appear as Moses in any upcoming films....
Although Stephen struggles to list more than five of the Ten Commandments - "I should know this," he muses, "I spank my children because they don't know this"....
To avoid a spanking, I wonder if his kids just make up the other five.... "Dad, Commandment 9 is 'Thou shalt not date thy brother's ex-wife unless he gives you permission first', number 6 is 'Don't hire a hooker unless thou knowest for sure that she's actually a woman', and number 10 is 'Thou shalt not take from thy neighbors stash unless thou art prepared to share thine own.'"

Friday, September 15, 2006

Unfocused Education Reform

Somebody commented that I was being unfair to David Brooks in my last post, because at least Brooks is tossing out some ideas. I think that assessment is far too generous to Mr. Brooks, as his ideas were weak and sorely lacking in specifics (e.g., bank accounts for newborns), reflected his lack of knowledge and possibly a sexist bias (making single men eligible for the earned income tax credit - they already are), contradicted his prior positions while failing to address costs he had previously suggested were unaffordable (high quality daycare for the poor), or, again without respect to cost, something that sounds good in concept but would be exceptionally difficult to achieve (tailoring education to each individual child). Oh yes, and the notion that you can "strengthen the family" or "strengthen marriage" by cutting a (small) check to people who aren't necessarily even married.

I know where Brooks is coming from with his proposal for individualized education, particularly given his implicit biography of his own high school experiences. He feels, quite rightly, that a smart, well-behaved kid who has been resistant to the temptation of marshmallows since toddlerhood is underserved by an education system that focuses on teaching kids to sit still, be quiet, and behave, and which more than ever is focused on bringing undreachievers up to average. The kids who operate at a level well above average, as I assume Brooks did (despite his often obtuse columns) are assumed capable of taking care of themselves. And if they can't, who really cares - they sit quiety and behave, and do better than average on standardized tests. Under "No Child Left Behind" schools don't fail for declining to help the smart kids get ahead. They fail if they don't focus on the lowest common denominator.

Meanwhile, people who should know better present such arguments as, "We'll just import engineers from China" or "It doesn't matter if our public schools are bad, because Americans have a lifetime of educational opportunity".
Up to a point, you can complain that this system is hugely wasteful. We're often teaching kids in college what they should have learned in high school -- and in graduate school what they might have learned in college. Some of the enthusiasm for more degrees is crass credentialism. Some trade schools prey cynically on students' hopes and spawn disappointment. But these legitimate objections miss the larger point: The American learning system accommodates people's ambitions and energies -- when they emerge -- and helps compensate for some of the defects of the school system.
And we can make up for that by buying books from the "For Dummies" series, or getting a dipoma from a community college or private diploma mill? Seriously - if we look at the leaders of commerce and industry, review inventors on patent applications, or look at the best and the brightest in any given profession, we're going to find large numbers of late bloomers who overcame weak public school educations by getting Associates Degrees at the University of Phoenix or reading "Excel for Dummies"? Or we hear arguments for meaningless or counter-productive reforms, such as same sex schools or eliminating teacher certification.

Don't get me wrong - I think it is important to make education available to people who, at some point after they leave high school, realize that they want or need more education in order to pursue their personal or career goals. But having those options available, or having huge self-help sections in bookstores, does not make up for dropping the ball in elementary and high school education, or for the economic and social pressures which are diminishing the value of a college education.

In individualizing education, can we assume that Brooks is not speaking about kids who qualify for special education, as they already receive individualized learning plans? Can we assume he isn't complaining about the kids who fall into the great center - the pool of kids who, by virtue of their interest or aptitude, are adequately served by the present system? That is, isn't he really talking about gifted education - while avoiding that word to avoid its "elitist" implications? If so, he should take note of the fact that post-No Child Left Behind, budgets for gifted education are being slashed. I don't personally have a problem with expressing that some kids demonstrate a lot more aptitude than others, sometimes for particular subjects and sometimes across the board, and that yes, we as a nation would benefit from fostering their gifts and interests. But it's not going to happen. We're not going to hire more teachers. We're not going to change teacher certification in a manner which increases teacher salaries. We're not going to invest in significant infrastructure improvements for public schools. We're not going to fund voucher programs in a manner which would significantly benefit secular private schools.

Meanwhile, in the real world, there are schools in this country for which a fresh coat of paint would be a marked sign of progress. The problems can be significant, and the sources of the largest problems may be external to the school.
Those [Baltimore] teachers [who overcame bureaucratic obstacles and taught the author's children] were real gems, and we were grateful to be working with them. Some other teachers seemed burned-out and disinterested, unable to muster even a smile or a greeting for visitors. We also encountered a phenomenon we'd often heard about but hadn't seen firsthand: The spectacle of white (usually young) female teachers totally ill-equipped to deal with preadolescent black boys who, we often discovered, were being raised by adults who had no detectable interest in their children's education.

When my wife held her first meeting as president of the PTA at our former school in Montgomery County, Md., so many parents attended that their cars filled the parking lot and several surrounding blocks. When she held the same event as the president of the PTA at our Baltimore school, eight parents showed up. Most of them formed the tiny but critical core of involved parents who helped organize school events throughout the year.
When will Brooks, or any other columnist of similar prominence, call in unambiguous terms for the investment of money, resources and political will necessary to turn around even a single inner city school? (And no, their sputtering, "But I support No Child Left Behind" isn't quite what I'm proposing here.)

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Investing in Human Futures?

When I read the headline to the latest Brooks piece, Investing in Human Futures, I half expected to read something about a futures market for humans. Instead I found his formula for how to beat inequality - he proposes the "socially conservative" model of throwing money at the problem.

He opens with a false dichotomy:
[I]magine we could get every kid in that classroom to graduate from college, and that we could get every kid in every classroom to graduate from college. Don’t you think that’s the most important thing we could do to make America a richer and fairer place?

Some people, actually, don’t think that. Some people don’t think wage stagnation is mainly about education and skills. They think the economy is so broken, the Republican Party so malevolent and all-controlling, that almost all the gains would go to the top 5 percent or 1 percent anyway.

I may be a sucker, but I think they’re wrong.
So the solution Brooks proposes is that every American get a college education, even if they aren't interested in college, even if they're not academically suited for college, and even if they will end up in jobs which do not require college degrees. In fairness to Mr. Brooks, perhaps he envisions a future America where every citizen has a white collar job and every other task necessary to the continued function of society is performed by... guest workers? Robots? Well, perhaps he'll tell us in a later column. I'll be sure to tell one of my former employers, a college drop-out who made $millions in business, or my wife's uncle, who never attended college yet has made $millions as a builder, how they have been left behind by the U.S. economy due to their failure to obtain college degrees.

Mr. Brooks lists five proposals that he believes will cure inequality.

Mr. Brooks first proposes "strengthening the family". This, it seems, he will achieve exclusively by raising the child tax credit to $5,000.

His second proposal is "strengthening marriage". He notes that there are "many cultural ways to strengthen marriage" but endorses only one financial step: "the government could extend the earned income tax credit to single males". This, he tells us, would induce more men to work, and make them more attractive as marriage partners. (Does he mean increasing the tax credit? Would he also have his changes extent to single women? If so, why didn't he mention them?

His third proposal is to make people "think about the future". This he will achieve by creating a $1,000 savings account for every child at birth. (I think the going rate on money market accounts with a $1,000 balance is... a bit under 1%. At 1% interest, and assuming no bank fees, kids can see that amount grow to a whopping $1,250 or so by the time they finish college. Using Chase as a guide, if bank fees of $12/month apply, they can watch the account shrink to nothing by the time they're nine. Hey - maybe we can make growth a sure thing by giving them $1,000 in U.S. Treasury Bonds, and....)

His fourth proposal is for giving "quality preschool" to children "from disorganized homes" so that they can learn to resist marshmallows by the age of three. David Brooks sees a problem with this - "Small, intensive preschool programs yield tremendous results, but realistically, they cannot be done on a giant scale" - but fortunately, as it turns out, David Brooks doesn't see that as a problem. (???) As David Brooks isn't satisfied with Head Start, he's presumably suggesting something much more ambitious (and thus almost assuredly much more expensive).

Finally, he argues that "schools need to be tailored to the way children actually are":
Different human beings have radically different learning styles. So long as diverse individuals are forced to sit in the same classroom and endure uniform teaching techniques, they’ll underperform. It doesn’t matter whether the school is public, charter or administered by Martians.
The necessary investment to achieve this personalized learning environment will be in the hudreds of billions, with vastly increased education budgets required nationwide to sustain it. But apparently that's not a problem when you characterize your proposals as "socially conservative and economically progressive".
But this debate is not going to be won either by the free-market fatalists or by the angry but amorphous populists. It’ll be won by the human capital reformers, the alliance of progressive conservatives and conservative progressives (like the Clintonites) who believe that the market fundamentally works and that social mobility requires what it has always required, skill and effort.
It almost makes you wonder why Canada's "Progressive Conservative Party" changed its name....

Online Attorney Location Services and Confidentiality

I stumbled across a site I hadn't seen for a few years the other day, LegalMatch, and for no good reason it occurred to me that there were some serious potential confidentiality issues for people who use the site to find lawyers. The site permits potential clients to submit a description of their case online, which (if all goes according to the site's plan) is subsequently reviewed by subscribing lawyers who decide if they wish to pitch their services (and fees) to the potential client. The potential client can then choose from those lawyers and, if all goes well, find one with the right set of qualifications and an affordable fee.


The site makes very clear that no attorney-client relationship exists when a potential client posts a description of a case. It seems to me that this gives a potential source of the person's unvarnished story to any opposing counsel who learns (or guesses) that they have used the service. Is there any reason that the person's description, as posed to LegalMatch, can't be subpoenaed?

I've actually seen worse - there was a site a few years back which permitted users to email, en masse, subscribing law firms, who would in theory reply to the email with offers to take the case. The company focused on personal injury claims. The site was apparently having some difficulty getting plaintiff's firms to sign up, and had padded its directory by adding some prominent defense firms to their listings even though they had not subscribed. Which, of course, could have resulted in the unsolicited submission of the user's description of their claim to a defense firm that ultimately ended up defending their lawsuit.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Internet Fraud Goes "Old School"

I've been informed by a couple of people that they have received letters, postmarked in Spain, which they believed to be associated with "my company", due to the expropriation of a logo from the ExpertLaw website:

The letter itself is one that most reading this have received by email - the representation that somebody who happens to share their surname died in Africa, and the law firm is so eager to find an heir for their multi-million dollar fortune that they'll give it to anybody who happens to have the same surname. (The letter I was sent was carefully personalized - the recipient identified as "Dear UHIRIG".)

The letter indicates that Mr. PETER UHIRIG and his wife were killed in the Madrid train bombings, for some reason leaving $14 million in the hands of Mr. Cook. If you know the drill, Mr. Cook has searched exhaustively for heirs, but can't find a one. So because you share the last name, you win the lottery!

I like how they even included the ® symbol - but can you really expect participants in advance fee fraud to extend a great deal of respect to intellectual property law? I doubt that there is truly a "Christopher Cook & Co Solicitors" in Madrid, and if there is I truly doubt that their email address is "". If that's the case, perhaps Mr. Cook needs to devote some time to figuring out if he is a solicitor or a barrister.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Law Firm Spammers

Mike at Crime and Federalism recently wrote of spam email he received from a lawyer soliciting his membership in a referral network of some sort. Today, I got spammed with a mass solicitation trawling the Internet for anybody who knows anybody who has used Vioxx:
That spam was sent through "", which claims to build permission-based "email marketing solutions". Yeah, right. Permission. That must be why they offer no information about their sponsor or services on their website, which is registered to what seems to be a fake address.

The site behind the ads is, which is registered anonymously. The site does include an address - The Legal Leads Network, Inc., 14545 J. Military Trail #137 Delray Beach, FL 33484 , USA - which is a post office box at a UPS Store. But the site is mirrored at, and beyond the other similar anonymously registered legal lead generator sites, that site's server hosts a website registered to one "Arthur Frischman" of "PCSecurityShield, Inc.". A couple of years ago, Mr. Frischman was lamenting the CanSpam Act:
Now comes the fun part. The FTC is going to make an example out of someone. It certainly will be a lot easier to make an example out of NextAisle, if we didn't perfect the art of suppression lists, than it would be to track down some hard-core spammer sitting in cybercafe in Indonesia. Let's hope that the FTC opts for the hard-core spammer.

For those of us that derive revenue from email, the reality of all this is that we are in for a tough few months. Soon, we will all understand this law better, adjust to it and move on and the email industry will come back strong and probably a whole lot cleaner. Mark my words.
Cleaner? Yeah, right.

But who is buying his leads?

It's All About Merit

When one of the punditocracy's greatest living examples of the Peter Principle propounds the glories of meritocracy, it's probably safe to assume that he's made, oh, one or two errors.

I don't think that the case for meritocracy in this nation is so weak that it requires distortions and misrepresentations of fact and economic data to document its existence. But Brooks doesn't really care about that meritocracy, does he. Instead, he seems to be all about the type of "meritocracy" which eliminates taxes on wealth, and which caps taxes on income below the level at which the wealthy would notice them.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

She Can't Find A Lawyer....

How's this for an inquiry:
I had a car accident last year (April 2005). Another car crashed into the driver's side rear of my car. Because I had the signal, the accident was deemed to be my fault. ... I had a passenger who put in a claim against my insurance company. The other driver, who admitted to the claim adjuster that she was going 5 miles over the speed limit, also put in a claim. ... Because the accident was my fault, since I had the signal, I cannot find an attorney who will take my case and sue the driver who hit me. I'm looking for help.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Please Explain These Economic Theories To Me....

Please speak slowly and use small words.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) was on Real Time with Bill Maher, advocating a VAT (a significant national sales tax) as good policy, premised upon his position that imported goods are sold without contributing to Social Security or the general fund. There, he argued, European nations have better tax policy than the U.S. So help me out here - how is he not arguing in fact for tariffs? And why is it better to have a VAT which affects all goods - whether or not they are manufactured in the U.S. - even though by Issa's logic that would amount to the double-taxation of U.S.-manufactured goods? (And wouldn't the VAT, a regressive tax, swallow whole Sebastian Mallaby's notion of Wal-Mart as a giant welfare program?)

And speaking of Mallaby, in today's homage to labor, he proposes saving us all through tax reform - but surprisingly not a VAT. (I guess he wants to preserve the benefits of those low Wal-Mart prices.) Trade protection, he tells us, is bad - so I guess he's really not at all on the same page as Rep. Issa. He argues that "The case for unionization appears better than it has in a generation," but sees it as at best a minor part of the solution to inequality. He also argues that a minimum wage increase won't have much benefit as it will only "directly benefit fewer than 6 million workers" - apparently indirect effects don't count.

Then he proposes his first "meaningful" reform - the elimination of the mortgage interest deduction. "More than half of this subsidy flows to the top 12 percent of households with incomes over $100,000; the poor get very little." Okay... so if the problem with the subsidy is inequality, why eliminate it? Why not cap it, the way we cap contributions to Social Security in order to be, um, fair to the wealthy? Yes, as he argues, "affluent families would own their own homes anyway," but how would the elimination of the mortgage interest deduction increase home ownership? Or if it wouldn't - if he really believes it makes no difference - what alternative does he propose that will help the poor obtain homes, the middle class keep the homes they have, and let the rich carry on as usual? Even if he sees the mortgage interest deduction as flowing largely to the wealthy, by his own assertions its elimination would effectively significantly increase the tax burden on the middle class - and is there any real question that without the mortgage interest deduction a significant number of people in the middle class will have to move to lesser housing? This is a tax reform that will reduce inequality?

Then he proposes eliminating tax subsidies on retirement savings. Again, its that the rich will save anyway, so they don't need the subsidy. He argues that the poor don't save. He somehow forgets to mention the middle class. If you subsidize savings, it seems, "A chance to boost national savings is wasted." How, exactly, does he come to believe that eliminating a subsidy for savings will boost national savings?

Finally he complains that some people have really good health insurance (probably himself included) which "throw money at health services; health inflation goes up, making insurance too expensive for poor families". He argues that "the ranks of the uninsured could be reduced by at least 1 million if the tax deduction for health insurance were capped at a reasonable level." Okay.... As we approach fifty million uninsured people in this country, he has a plan that in theory will cause the rich to get less insurance coverage. Unlike their houses or savings accounts, when it comes to their health the rich apparently won't spend their own money to make up the difference, so there's less money flowing into treatment and health inflation drops. And that means we end up with 45.6 million Americans who are uninsured instead of 46.6 million? Wait - didn't he just tell us that it's not even worth doing something if you only directly benefit six million people?

And seriously - he suggests that if we cut these subsidies, which he argues largely benefit the middle class, we will be able to redirect the increased tax revenues (we won't call it a tax increase) to "a big expansion in the earned-income tax credit plus a cut in the regressive payroll tax"? It seems fair to assume that he's not proposing that Social Security contributions be paid out of the general fund, so those would stay the same? So... it will be a greater contribution to Medicare from the general fund to allow the reduction in payroll taxes? Does he truly anticipate that the "big expansion in the earned-income tax credit" will result in more of the poor people who qualify for that subsidy to save money or buy houses?

I would venture that Rep. Issa would propose a reduction in income taxes in association with the implementation of a VAT, such that the rich pay a lot less tax and the poor pay a lot more. Mallaby seems to believe that the rich don't need tax deductions and the middle class will take care of themselves, but does he sincerely believe that this nation is in any sort of mood (particuarly following the elimination of tax deductions which significantly benefit the middle class) to increase its subsidies to the poor? Fergudnissake, we already let them shop at Wal-Mart.

Our nation's tax policies are pretty awful, and they could use a lot of heavy-duty housecleaning. But look at the Tax Code - look at the manner in which it caters to the wealthy and to various special interest groups. Oh, you may be able to get changes through which benefit those groups, while tricking the middle class into going along. (Isn't that the story of GW's "tax reforms" to date?) But if you truly believe you can take away deductions which you argue don't matter to the rich (as if such a deduction exists) at significant detriment to the middle class, so you can provide an increased subsidy to the poor... is it really necessary to tell you, "Ain't gonna happen?"

Don't Say "Vexatious" - She May Sue You

Have you heard about the psychologist who is suing Google because it kicked her out of the AdSense program after she clicked on ads in violation of the program policies? (She's also suing Yahoo!, but I'm not sure that the basis of the suit has been made public.) Somebody at GeekVillage did some digging and learned that this isn't her first lawsuit.... My favorite calendar entry: 9/2/2001 - Petitioner's Motion For Reinstatement Petition For Writ Of Mandamus Directed To The Florida Bar And Motion [To] The Rotten, Corrupt And Incompetent Supreme Court Of Florida For Reinstatement Are Hereby Denied. Somebody else emailed her and, like any sensible person with a case pending before a court, she replied.

Over at WebmasterWorld, it is speculated that this may reflect a teensy bit of résumé padding.

Is This Waste?

Let's say you are insured through one health insurance company, but for one reason or another (a change of employer; a decision to change plans during "open enrollment", expiration of COBRA eligibility, etc.) switch to another plan. You have commenced treatment for a medical condition with the first plan, which requires that they invest in medical equipment. You buy the equipment, or "rent to buy" over a relatively short period of months, with the insurance company paying the significant majority of its cost.

The new insurer requires that you switch doctors, which means that you also need a new evaluation, perhaps new testing, and at the end of the day a prescription for new medical equipment which is slightly (but significantly) different from that you (and your former insurance company) recently bought.

Or perhaps you're under treatment for a condition which, although generously covered under your former plan, is covered more stingily under your new plan. That may not be immediately apparent - that is, the coverage may look the same on paper, but each insurer interprets the terms of the policy and bounds of medical necessity differently. So instead of getting continuous coverage you spend hours on the phone with the new insurance company, and bounce between doctors who are included in the plan trying to get authorization for treatments they don't normally cover, for doctors who don't participate in the plan but who offer a treatment unavailable from doctors "in the network", or both.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, there's a mad scramble to try to get medical records transmitted from the old doctors to the new, with an alarming frequency of medical records being somehow lost in transmission. A doctor may apologetically tell you that although he is not certain that the records were transmitted to his clinic, they may have been misplaced, and thus you need to again try to secure copies.

Does all of this count toward the 20% of U.S. health care dollars lost to waste?