Monday, June 30, 2008

Oh, And Another Thing....

... Just as I don't need to be told that, you know, a political candidate who is running in an election is... a politician who is actually trying to win.... I don't need to hear any more metaphors involving people being thrown under buses.

If your critical thinking skills are so poor that you don't realize how tired, hackneyed and overused that metaphor now is, you should simply refrain from writing anything. (No offense.)

Is Heller Maximization The Best Idea?

Usually in gun control arguments, the slippery slope is used as an argument in favor of gun control. The inherent weakness of that argument often works in favor of those on the other side. But now, as David Kopel demonstrates, advocates of gun rights are taking a maximalist approach to Heller that reminds me of the slippery slope. "I want it all, and I want it now." Particularly when arguing for sweeping change based on a right granted not by a state constitution but by legislation, shouldn't care be taken not to signal the legislature to tighten the language? Kopel's approach of arguing for the most expansive possible reading of Heller and then arguing that New York is compelled to follow most or all of what he argues seems, to me, to be a very effective way of inspiring legislative action - and not in the direction Kopel desires.
The New York City law which most obviously violates the right to arms is the complete ban on air guns. The venerable Daisy Red Ryder BB gun is contraband. Heller and the Supreme Court's previous major Second Amendment precedent, United States v. Miller (1939) forbid the prohibition of arms "typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes."
Has Kopel read Miller, the case that upheld a ban on short-barrelled shotguns? That case said this:
In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a 'shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length' at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument. Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment or that its use could contribute to the common defense. Aymette v. State of Tennessee, 2 Humph., Tenn., 154, 158.
Note, I'm not defending the air gun ban. To me it seems excessive. I suspect that the concern is that people will commit crimes using air guns that the victims believe to be actual firearms, or that the police will encounter civilians or children with air guns potentially resulting in tragedy. But I'm not going to premise a Second Amendment argument for a right to possess air guns on, of all cases, Miller.

I recognize that Kopel is alluding to Scalia's sniffing at Miller, a case Scalia described as "virtually unreasoned", but Kopel's interpretation of Scalia's synopsis of Miller is not well supported by its text, and it seems rash to extrapolate that Miller upholds a Second Amendment right to possess air guns. It seems even more rash to disregard Scalia's open contempt for Miller in arguing that it is the "previous major Second Amendment precedent". It was major up to the time Scalia's majority opinion called it "virtually unreasoned". Now I suspect it's a footnote.

I also question Kopel's attenuated argument,
Unlike firearms, air guns (which shoot small BBs or pellets) can be safely used inside an apartment or house. An old sofa cushion is a safe backstop. In a city where target ranges are few and expensive, air guns offer a practical way for people to practice safely with a gun. The right to arms necessarily includes the right to practice arms safety.
So if you have a right to keep and bear arms, you have a right to practice firing your arms. But the government has legitimate safety reasons to prevent you from doing so in your home. And it's inconvenient to go to a shooting range. So you should be able to shoot other things that resemble the weapons you actually want to train with, within your home. Provided you stack some couch cushions against the wall. Okay - but how many people actually do that - use their BB guns to train instead of using their actual firearms? And why don't I have the right to shoot actual firearms into a stack of sandbags in my basement, assuming reasonable noise proofing?
Regarding gun carrying, Heller might, arguably, mean that New York City would have to follow a similar policy to Connecticut (and 39 other states): issue permits to carry a concealed handgun for lawful defense if the applicant is over 21, and passes a fingerprint-based background check and a safety class.
My initial reaction is, "Not gonna happen." Or perhaps it will happen, but only after a lengthy period of adjustment to the new case law and its effect on crime (which I expect to be minimal). But I can't think of a better way to cut off that process of adjustment and inspire the New York legislature to amend state civil rights law than to argue, "Second Amendment scholars are arguing that under Heller, most people will be allowed to freely carry concealed weapons throughout New York City."

Go Figure....

It looks like the much hyped "pregnancy pact" at a Massachusetts high school is an urban myth.
Subsequently, one of the pregnant student told Good Morning America that was no pact to get pregnant. The 17-year-old mother to be said that a bunch of girls who were already expecting decided that they would help each other raise their babies while staying in school. Somehow, the rumor mill twisted this benign self-help arrangement into a bizarre reproductive conspiracy.

Judicial "Sacrifice"

Reading through some letters to the editor in the New York Times, I came across this gem:
To the Editor:

After a career in public service, I regretfully say, I would not do it again.

Philosophy and point of view led me to doing good instead of doing well, so I never expected to become rich. But now that I’m in my 10th year of a frozen judicial salary - less than summer students are being paid at law firms - I have concluded that whatever I may have accomplished for the public, I have wasted 25 years of my life by serving on the bench.

Emily Jane Goodman
New York, June 23, 2008

The writer is a New York Supreme Court justice.
A recent article provides more information on the salary situation for justices.
Weighing in on a longstanding tug of war between New York’s jurists and lawmakers, a State Supreme Court justice1 ordered the Legislature on Wednesday to give the state’s 1,250 judges their first pay raise in 10 years.

The ruling, by Justice Edward H. Lehner, came in response to a lawsuit filed last September by Patricia M. Nuñez of New York City Criminal Court, Michael L. Nenno of Cattaraugus County Family Court, Susan R. Larabee of New York City Family Court and Geoffrey D. Wright of New York City Civil Court. Justice Lehner gave the Legislature 90 days to increase the current salary of $136,700 for all New York State trial judges.

* * *

Mr. Smith, the lawyer for the four judges, said he believed that state judges should earn a salary comparable to that of Federal District Court judges, who currently earn $169,300 annually.
Now I don't want to get into a debate over judicial salaries beyond agreeing that New York's sound like they're on the low side, and ten years without a raise is a long time. But even at $136,700, I find it hard to sympathize with a judge who is upset that she has "wasted 25 years of [her] life" by serving as a judge because she wasn't paid more. If her qualifications approach those of the "summer students" she complains about, she should have been easily able to join a private firm at a vastly larger salary.

So why didn't she get another job? Step down from the bench, join a law firm, and double or triple both her workload and her income? Really - could it be that there's a benefit to a judicial work schedule, vacation time, retirement plan, medical benefits, support staff, job stability and prestige that provides a benefit above and beyond private practice?

When I think of public service legal jobs, judicial positions aren't the first that come to mind. Or even government jobs in general. I first tend to think of legal aid-type jobs that pay a fraction of a judicial salary, can carry oppressive caseloads, and come with virtually no prestige. I don't wish to diminish the important role of the judge in our legal system, and it's important that quality lawyers be drawn to judicial positions. But even when underpaid, judges tend to earn more than the median salary for practitioners, tend to have much more favorable working conditions and job benefits, and can leverage their judicial experience to get back into private practice if they wish to do so. Even a stellar legal aid lawyer is rarely an attractive prospect to most big firms; a judge wishing to return to practice can be a hot commodity.

1. In New York, the Supreme Court is a trial court with civil and criminal jurisdiction. New York's highest court is the Court of Appeals.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Enough Of The Earth-Shattering Observations

You know, I don't mind that you disagree with some of Obama's positions, but I don't need to be told that Barak Obama is a politician who is "doing what he needs to do to get elected." That's a given.

You know what would be more helpful, at least from my perspective? Commentary about when Obama is not "doing what he needs to do to get elected." Because, you know, he's gearing up for an election. And it's safe to say that he's trying to win it.


Some examples from both sides of the political spectrum:

Charles Krauthammer demonstrates amazing insight by telling us, "The truth about Obama is uncomplicated. He is just a politician (though of unusual skill and ambition)."

Over at TalkLeft, champion of Hillary Clinton, we get the astonishing commentary, "Barack Obama is a conventional politician who will run a conventional general election campaign.... Pols are pols and do what they do".

Thanks for, um, sharing.

That's An Awfully Big Word....

John Yoo, who could certainly tell us what the meaning of "is" is, has trouble with the word "implemented". He and David Addington, again demonstrating that the Bush Administration is overflowing with men who have no sense of honor, apparently decided that the best defense of their decisions and actions was to alternate between playing stupid and being petulant.

The American Conservative suggests the ten lessons we can draw from this painful bit of testimony.

Count The Blinks

Terry McAuliffe says "I Love Barack Obama!".

As the Eagles said....

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Did I Hear That Right?

Yesterday on Marketplace, David Frum suggested that as the middle class realizes that their home values and stock portfolios don't "grow automatically", they may start saving more money. You know, because investments in stocks (is he talking about retirement savings accounts here?) aren't actually savings. They're... investments. Yeah. And because everybody owns stocks. And because the interest rates on savings accounts are so high.... And because there's nothing that drives savings like having less money to spend. And because it's not like people have to, you know, pay their bills or anything.

Approaches To Global Warming

Bjorn Lomborg, who seems to be trotted out these days as an alternative to the largely discredited "global warming deniers", has an editorial in the Times opposing "cap and trade" carbon policies. (I'm not arguing that Lomborg doesn't make valid (sometimes amusing) points on global warming, or that "cap and trade" is an ideal solution. But whatever his intention, Lomborg has won himself a lot of favor with the "do nothing" crowd.)
Politicians favor the cap-and-trade system because it is an indirect tax that disguises the true costs of reducing carbon emissions. It also gives lawmakers an opportunity to control the number and distribution of emissions allowances, and the flow of billions of dollars of subsidies and sweeteners.

Many people believe that everyone has a moral obligation to ask how we can best combat climate change. Attempts to curb carbon emissions along the lines of the bill now pending are a poor answer compared with other options.
Okay, that's fair. So what are the other, superior options?
The answer is to dramatically increase research and development so that solar panels become cheaper than fossil fuels sooner rather than later. Imagine if solar panels became cheaper than fossil fuels by 2050: We would have solved the problem of global warming, because switching to the environmentally friendly option wouldn't be the preserve of rich Westerners.
Imagine? You mean, the superior alternative to doing something now is... imaginary?
Research for the project was done by a lead author of the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- the group that shared last year's Nobel Peace Prize with former vice president Al Gore - who noted that spending $800 billion over 100 years solely on mitigating emissions would reduce inevitable temperature increases by just 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. Even accounting for the key environmental damage from warming, we would lose money, with avoided damage of just $685 billion for our $800 billion investment.
And the human genome project will be complete in... oh wait. Those projections of what might happen in the future aren't always accurate, are they? The imaginary solar energy solution may come to fruition in a decade... or never. I would also note that global spending $800 billion over a century, $8 billion per year, is a pittance, even if we assume it results in a net loss of $1.15 billion per year. By way of comparison, we spend considerably more than $8 billion on the Iraq war each month, and the total projected annual loss is less than four days of Iraq war spending. (Is he using a European notion of "billion" - what we would call "trillion"? Because otherwise....)
Even if every nation spent 0.05 percent of its gross domestic product on research and development of low-carbon energy, this would be only about one-tenth as costly as the Kyoto Protocol and would save dramatically more than any of Kyoto's likely successors.
Yet there's no reason we can't do both - implement the best available existing solutions that we know will reduce carbon emissions while also researching energy alternatives that may eventually supplace or augment existing carbon policies.

Meanwhile, Lomborg proposes spending $30 billion per year or so on research, to try to get better solar energy and biofuel solutions by 2050. But what if it takes until 2100? What if nations dismiss the idea that they should have to spend money on research, and thus the plan goes nowhere? Also, why does this need to be government money - if the cost of Kyoto, which will presumably fall largely on industry, will be ten times that amount, why won't affected corporations pour money into alternative energy R&D?


David Broder has an interesting piece on gerrymandering and its effect on voter turnout.
In 2002 and 2006, the most recent off-year elections, about nine out of 10 congressional districts were won by more than 10 percentage points -- a clear sign that the game had been rigged when the lines were drawn in the state legislatures. In the first of those years, only eight incumbents lost; in the second, only 21.

As scholars have pointed out, the scarcity of real competition in nearly all districts has many consequences -- all of them bad. It makes legislators less responsive to public opinion, since they are in effect safe from challenge in November. It shifts the competition from the general election to the primary, where candidates of more extreme views can hope to attract support from passionately ideological voters and exploit the low turnouts typical of those primaries.

Gerrymandered, one-party districts tend to send highly partisan representatives to the House or the legislature, contributing to the gridlock in government that is so distasteful to voters.
I've written on this subject before. I would welcome reform.

Unfortunately, Broder dilutes his piece by opening with a silly attack on Barack Obama.
When Barack Obama decided last week to throw off the constraints on campaign spending that go with the acceptance of public financing, he was rightly criticized for rigging the system in his favor.
It's "rigging the system" to say, "I'll pay my own way instead of taking public money?" How so? Obama was rightly criticized, but not for rigging the system. The valid criticism is that he retreated from his prior commitment to public financing, and his promise to work with his opponent to stay within that system.

Did somebody attempt to "rig the system" (I would probably say "game the system", and perhaps "break campaign finance laws") in relation to public financing, using a commitment to public financing in order to get on a state primary ballot and to get loans for his campaign, then flip-flop on his entire record of "campaign finance reform", breaking his word, and declining public money? Absolutely. But that person was John McCain.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Home Ownership

Paul Krugman convincingly argues that the glories of home ownership are overstated, but I think he overstates his own case.
Listening to politicians, you’d think that every family should own its home — in fact, that you’re not a real American unless you’re a homeowner. “If you own something,” Mr. Bush once declared, “you have a vital stake in the future of our country.”
Krugman correctly notes that home ownership carries financial risk (made all the more clear by the bursting of the "housing bubble"), ties people down, and increases commuting costs. On the second issue, I would respond that many of the costs and complexity of moving - real estate agent commissions, title insurance, transferring title, etc. - are unnecessarily inflated and could be significantly reduced with some common sense reforms of how property is titled and transferred.

But despite the risk, under the traditional model of a down payment and the use of home equity loans for home improvement as opposed to discretionary spending, owning a home is very likely to result in the long-term accumulation of wealth. It also helps create community - sure, you're tied down, but you're much more likely to take care of your own home than your rental property, and that benefits your other "tied down" neighbors. Consider what often happens to housing values when there are "too many rentals" in a neighborhood.

At the same time, we should not overlook the tax burdens created by suburbanization, which raises not only the costs of commuting but also requires substantial infrastructure costs - roads, highways, emergency services, extending utilities, etc. - to be largely borne by other taxpayers. When most people own homes, that cost arguably is spread around such that it may not seem unfair, but it's a substantial cost and is largely invisible. There's a big something to be said for encouraging people to live in existing urban centers instead of building new suburbs.

There probably is a population for which the "American dream" of owning a home overshadows a realistic appraisal of whether home ownership is a good idea for them. Do they have a sufficient, stable income to afford a home - including upkeep and commuting costs? Will they be moving soon or frequently, or should they expect to? Do they understand and wish to assume the responsibilities of home ownership, or would they be better of renting (or buying a condo)? The solution there is education.

Medical Equipment Costs

The Washington Post opines,
There is little doubt that Medicare has been paying far too much for equipment — including wheelchairs, hospital beds, oxygen concentrators, diabetic test kits, and walkers — under fee schedules based on historical charges. According to federal officials, Medicare currently pays $1,825 for a hospital bed that can be bought online for $754, and $4,023 for a power wheelchair that can be bought online for $2,174.
There's a big element missing from that price comparison. A local equipment vendor will often deliver equipment to a patient's home, set it up, and train the patient in its use. They often arrange service and repairs, and may offer a loaner unit while repairs are being conducted. A mail order vendor will add a shipping charge to deliver the item to your driveway, and that's about it.

I'm not arguing that there's not a lot of waste, or that some vendors may be charging too much for some of the services they provide, but I think the Post is grossly oversimplifying the issue and missing other potential areas for cost savings. For example, what happens to the hospital bed Medicare purchases after the patient dies or moves into a nursing home? Why aren't the beds, or other pieces of expensive equipment, collected, refurbished, and used for other patients?
Meanwhile, many patient-oriented groups have also called for a delay, apparently fearing that switching suppliers, perhaps from a local company with personalized service to a lower bidder elsewhere, could diminish the quality of service. These fears seem overblown and should be easily addressed in coming months, partly by strengthening oversight by ombudsmen and surveying beneficiaries to detect and remedy any problems.
Appointing an ombudsman does little to help a patient with an urgent health need. Surveys? Really.... The patient fears may be greater than are justified by the program, but if you're going to claim they can be "easily addressed" you should do just that rather than dismissing them.

Try For A Little Internal Consistency....

Michael Gerson complains that Obama wants to tax oil companies:
High oil prices, like a walk under the summer moon, can drive normally rational people to do foolish things they later regret. For Barack Obama, it is a fling with a windfall profits tax on American oil companies - one of the most thoroughly discredited economic policies of the past few decades.
Fair enough. I doubt that the tax would cause harm, but to me it seems like pandering - awfully similar to the gas tax holiday Obama was quick (and correct) to criticize. It would be much more sensible, for example, to instead repeal the billions of dollars in subsidies G.W. Bush has channeled to these energy companies. As you might expect, Gerson is silent on that possibility. But he makes it plain as day - once you pay your money at the pump to a domestic oil company, it's theirs.

Gerson goes on to whine that high oil prices are enriching "Persian Gulf states". (Don't forget Venezuela, Michael.) And those nations are doing crazy things, like investing the money, buying land overseas to ensure their future food supply, or, alas, exporting their way of life. Gerson then announces,
It should not surprise us that oil producers pursue their interests, excesses and ideologies with our money.
No, Michael. Once we buy a barrel of oil from another country, our money belongs to them. That is, it becomes their money, just like when we buy gas from a domestic oil company.
But the massive transfer of wealth to some of the world's least responsible nations should disturb us. And confronting this problem - with rapid increases in auto fuel efficiency and the urgent encouragement of alternatives to oil - will involve a cost and commitment more general and more serious than a misguided windfall profits tax.
Forgive my lapse of memory. Where was Michael Gerson when Dick Cheney declared, "Conservation may be a personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy"? Oh yeah....

You know, if those inside the Bush Administration at that time had through to increase auto fuel efficiency and encourage alternatives to oil, rather than cheering consumption and subsidizing the oil industry, we might not be having this discussion. It's nice that Gerson's eyes may be finally starting to open, seven or so years late, but really - what's his excuse for the lack of commitment and seriousness in the White House while this problem was developing?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Paradox? What Paradox?

In yet another effort to reinvent "the surge", David Brooks heaps praise on G.W. Bush. Everybody in the world - the Republicans, the Democrats, the generals, the punditocracy - Brooks tells us, was against the surge.
In these circumstances, it’s amazing that George Bush decided on the surge. And looking back, one thing is clear: Every personal trait that led Bush to make a hash of the first years of the war led him to make a successful decision when it came to this crucial call.

Bush is a stubborn man. Well, without that stubbornness, that unwillingness to accept defeat on his watch, he never would have bucked the opposition to the surge.
This is an implicit endorsement of my theory of the surge - not as a calmly reasoned strategy, but as a "Hail Mary" pass. Brooks also glosses over a lot of the criticism of the surge - which was not just that it might be too late, but also that it was too little. The tenuous nature of the pacts that keep sectarian violence relatively low have even General Petraeus worried that violence may again flare up. Meanwhile, there is scant political progress.

The best sound bite Brooks can find suggests scant political progress:
Iraq has moved from being a failed state to, as Vali Nasr of the Council on Foreign Relations has put it, merely a fragile one.
If the measure is "statehood", by what measure, other than its having being a state prior to the war, would Iraq satisfy the traditional elements of statehood? If it were a territory arguing for statehood, would we accept that there was effective and independent government control of its entire territory? That it can effectively and independently engage in foreign relations? That it controls its own population? Hardly. The real question is what it will take to transform Iraq into an effective state, even in the absence of U.S. troops. Brooks and Bush have no answer to that, and McCain's best answer to date is to post troops in Iraq indefinitely.

Brooks sneers at opponents of "the surge",
The cocksure war supporters learned this humbling lesson during the dark days of 2006. And now the cocksure surge opponents, drunk on their own vindication, will get to enjoy their season of humility. They have already gone through the stages of intellectual denial. First, they simply disbelieved that the surge and the Petraeus strategy was doing any good. Then they accused people who noticed progress in Iraq of duplicity and derangement. Then they acknowledged military, but not political, progress. Lately they have skipped over to the argument that Iraq is progressing so well that the U.S. forces can quickly come home.
So... Brooks is saying that it took him until 2006 to realize that "Bush to make a hash of the first years of the war"? Fair enough. But what about his present attack on those who dare question "the surge"?
  • "First, they simply disbelieved that the surge and the Petraeus strategy was doing any good." - Didn't Brooks just tell us (rather dishonestly) that the only people in the entire world who believed in the Surge were G.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and... a whopping six other people? So this attack is aimed at... the other six billion or so people in the world?

  • "Then they accused people who noticed progress in Iraq of duplicity and derangement." - That seems like a fair response to people who lie to you, repudiate G.W. Bush's own benchmarks as being unfair measures of progress, shift the date the surge began so they can attribute pre-surge improvements to "the surge", etc. But people who lie to you never like to be "called out", so I can see why Brooks takes umbrage.

  • "Then they acknowledged military, but not political, progress." - Right. Fierce opponents of the surge like General Petraeus did exactly that. You know why? Because the surge has resulted primarily in military, not political, progress. Again, examine the Bush Administration's own benchmarks.

  • "Lately they have skipped over to the argument that Iraq is progressing so well that the U.S. forces can quickly come home." - Because the six billion or so people that Brooks tells us opposed the surge think as a monolith? Well, leaving that aside, those presenting rosy scenarios invite the question - if things are going so well, why shouldn't people ask, "When will the troops come home?"

    By the same token, why do the most dogmatic proponents of the surge suggest that our troops may never come home? Why does Bush want fifty-eight permanent military bases in Iraq (up from a claimed "zero" only a few months ago) if he's expecting it to have a stable, successful government at any time in the foreseeable future? To state the obvious, he wouldn't.

Brooks carries on,
But before long, the more honest among the surge opponents will concede that Bush, that supposed dolt, actually got one right. Some brave souls might even concede that if the U.S. had withdrawn in the depths of the chaos, the world would be in worse shape today.
Actually, I think the surge highlights the worst of Bush - narcissism, ineffectiveness and cowardice. He was afraid of admitting mistakes, so he threw his "Hail Mary", but as with every other stage of the war he was afraid of the political consequences of committing enough troops for enough time to ensure success. The decrease in violence justifies cautious optimism but, despite his cheerleaders' efforts to point the other way whenever the subject of "political progress" is raised, if political progress is not achieved "the surge" will become yet another entry in Bush's long line of missed opportunities.
Life is complicated. The reason we have democracy is that no one side is right all the time. The only people who are dangerous are those who can’t admit, even to themselves, that obvious fact.
That's rich. Here's Bush admitting his mistakes on Iraq: he made "a miscalculation of what the conditions would be" in post-war Iraq." Why? Because he refused to listen to the experts, including his own generals. Yet Brooks tells us, "Bush was at his worst when he was humbly deferring to the generals and at his best when he was arrogantly overruling them." At this point, Brooks' mistakes are compounding almost as quickly as Bush's; but I see no sign that either is going to admit them.

So What's Cohen's Excuse

You can understand why David Brooks would develop amnesia about John McCain's flouting campaign finance laws, in order to attack Obama's decision to forego public financing. It's understandable why McCain backer Dan Schnur would have similar amnesia, even as he praises himself as "a long-time supporter of campaign finance reform". But what's Richard Cohen's excuse?
In some recent magazine articles, I and certain of my colleagues have been accused of being soft on McCain, forgiving him his flips, his flops and his mostly conservative ideology. I do not plead guilty to this charge, because, over the years, the man's imperfections have not escaped my keen eye. But, for the record, let's recapitulate: McCain has either reversed himself or significantly amended his positions on immigration, tax cuts for the wealthy, campaign spending (as it applies to use of his wife's corporate airplane) and, most recently, offshore drilling. In the more distant past, he has denounced then embraced certain ministers of medieval views and changed his mind about the Confederate flag, which flies by state sanction in South Carolina only, I suspect, to provide Republican candidates with a chance to choose tradition over common decency. There, I've said it all.
Well, no, Richard, you haven't.
But here is the difference between McCain and Obama -- and Obama had better pay attention. McCain is a known commodity. It's not just that he's been around a long time and staked out positions antithetical to those of his Republican base. It's also - and more important - that we know his bottom line. As his North Vietnamese captors found out, there is only so far he will go, and then his pride or his sense of honor takes over. This - not just his candor and nonstop verbosity on the Straight Talk Express - is what commends him to so many journalists.
Amazing. Cohen not only has amnesia about McCain's inability to "walk the walk" on campaign financing, his mention of Vietnam didn't even trigger memories of McCain's flip-flop on torture.

What does that paragraph really say? To me it says, "I've known McCain a long time, he gives me lots of access, and I like him, so I don't really care about his flip-flops. Obama hasn't paid me sufficient homage."

Monday, June 23, 2008

High Achieving Students

The Fordham Institute has published a report on High-Achieving Students in the Era of No Child Left Behind noting that in the NCLB era, although there have been advances for the lowest-achieving students, the interests of gifted students are being neglected.

Dare I say, they're stating the obvious?

It Should Be Easy Pickin's, But....

If I were a right-wing columnist, fresh out of ideas on what to complain about today, I might say to myself, "What's MoveOn been up to lately?" Then I make fun of it, and I'm done. It should be easy, right?
I was having trouble putting my finder on just why until I came across a post by a mother of a soldier recently deployed in Iraq, at the Web site
I was having a little bit of trouble putting my finder finger on what was wrong with that sentence, then I realized... Kristol doesn't even proofread his own work. He's entirely reactive, presents no new ideas, and mostly regurgitates Republican talking points. He's blogging for the New York times, for an easy six figures per year. But, okay... he's picking on MoveOn, they do things that are easy to pick on, so a typo should be about the worst defect in his column, right?
The ad is simple. A mother speaks as she holds her baby boy:
“Hi, John McCain. This is Alex. And he’s my first. So far his talents include trying any new food and chasing after our dog. That, and making my heart pound every time I look at him. And so, John McCain, when you say you would stay in Iraq for 100 years, were you counting on Alex? Because if you were, you can’t have him.”
Take that, warmonger!

Now it might be pedantic to point out that John McCain isn’t counting on Alex to serve in Iraq, because little Alex will only be 9 years old when President McCain leaves office after two terms.
"Pedantic"? Does Kristol know the meaning of the word? The ad uses hyperbole, sure, but is it necessary for Kristol to pretend to be stupid? The reference is to McCain's willingness to keep troops in Iraq indefinitely - long after the end of his presidency. It's explicitly stated. Although Kristol yammers for a while about what McCain supposedly meant with his 100 years in Iraq comment, the fact remains - the ad doesn't suggest that there will be a century of active warfare, and is entirely consistent with McCain's comments. And McCain has yet to explain the magic by which Iraq will be transformed from its current state of active warfare to a peaceful idyll where U.S. troops are posted to protect its borders from potentially hostile neighbors. (If the Maliki government holds, Iran seems more likely an ally to Iraq than a potential invader.)

Kristol carries on,
But it is surely relevant to point out that the United States has an all-volunteer Army. Alex won’t be drafted, and his mommy can’t enlist him. He can decide when he’s an adult whether he wants to serve. And, of course, McCain supports the volunteer army.
Sure, we have an all volunteer military. We also have Selective Service, "just in case" we change our minds. Kristol is seriously promising that the United States will never again have a draft, no matter what the circumstances, at any time in the future? My goodness, where can I get one of those rose-colored Kristol crystal balls?

And then Kristol devolves into self-parody:
Here’s what the mother of an actual soldier has to say about the remarks of the mother of the prospective non-soldier in the ad:
“Does that mean that she wants other people’s sons to keep the wolves at bay so that her son can live a life of complete narcissism? What is it she thinks happens in the world? ... Someone has to stand between our society and danger. If not my son, then who? If not little Alex then someone else will have to stand and deliver. Someone’s son, somewhere.”
This is the sober truth. Unless we enter a world without enemies and without war, we will need young men and women willing to risk their lives for our nation. And we’re not entering any such world.
It's too easy. Kristol came of age during the Vietnam war. When did he serve, again? How respectful is Kristol of actual war veterans?

Can you even imagine young Billy sitting at the dinner table with Irving (who, it is fair to note, did serve in the military) and saying, "Dad, I want to join the military to serve my nation against the communist menace." No, like Dick Cheney and so many of his right-wing, war cheerleading peers, Kristol had "other priorities". They didn't serve, their children don't serve, but they put forth a jingoistic pro-military face in public while privately regarding military service as beneath them. And it is thus in defense of self, not nation, that Kristol adds,
We do, however, live in a free country with a volunteer army. In the United States, individuals can choose to serve in the military or not. The choice not to serve should carry no taint, nor should it be viewed with the least prejudice. If Alex chooses to pursue other opportunities, he won’t be criticized by John McCain or anyone else.
I disagree. If you are going to champion wars, sending other people's kids off to fight in wars, and whinge that others view the sacrifice of soldiers as "unnecessary and deplorable relics of the past"1, I think you should be able to point to at least one tiny incident in your life where you demonstrated a modicum of physical courage. Otherwise, at least have the rhetorical courage to admit that your life choice involves having other people go off to fight and die in the wars you champion, with no consequence to yourself or your family, and you like it that way.
1. Kristol attacks the ad:
The ad boldly embraces a vision of a selfish and infantilized America, suggesting that military service and sacrifice are unnecessary and deplorable relics of the past.
Although the ad is critical of the Iraq War and McCain's Iraq policy, there's actually nothing in the ad that is even slightly critical of the military or of military service. That part's all Bill.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


According to Jeffrey Sedgwick, Director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics,
In 2006, the most recent year for which complete data are available, police received the fewest reports of violent crime and property crime since 1977. What was the cause? Research has shown that, with some exceptions, crime rates decline as the incarceration rate rises. In other words, while the number of people under correctional supervision has gone up, crime has gone down.
So there you go. Correlation = causation.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Campaign Finance Reform

Thanks to David Brooks, I know that unlike John "McCain-Feingold" McCain, Barack Obama's primary raison d'être is campaign finance reform.
But Thursday, at the first breath of political inconvenience, Fast Eddie Obama threw public financing under the truck. In so doing, he probably dealt a death-blow to the cause of campaign-finance reform. And the only thing that changed between Thursday and when he lauded the system is that Obama’s got more money now.
It's a good thing John McCain would never do anything like that, because he wouldn't want to end up on the wrong side of Brooks' poison pen. (What? You say Brooks would never write such a column? That he's a shameless partisan hack? How... cynical.)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

But Can You Use It To Make A "Pop Virus"?

Boilerplate contract language ends up in the darndest of places. Technology* observes that Apple's End User License Agreements (EULA) for iTunes provides,
"Licensee also agrees that Licensee will not use the Apple Software for any purposes prohibited by United States law, including, without limitation, the development, design, manufacture or production of nuclear, missiles, or chemical or biological weapons."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"I Would Love To Answer That...."

"...But I don't have a brain."
Haynes knew he was in for some cruel and unusual treatment. He took a swig from his Diet Pepsi bottle, put on his reading glasses and announced: "I don't have a formal opening statement." He then read his formal opening statement, in which he defended all those things he couldn't remember doing by saying that "we all rightly fear another assault on our country, one perhaps even more horrific than the last."

He then rested his elbows on the witness table, revealing a big gold watch on his wrist, and allowed the amnesia to wash over him.
With the Bush Administration, unfortunately, who would expect anything else?

How Dare He Say Such A Thing...

Michael Gerson is appalled:
But the vulgarity of "The Jerry Springer Show" or misogynous rap music -- the cultural equivalents of Franken's political "satire" -- generally expresses contempt and cruelty. Franken is not content to disagree with Karl Rove; he calls him "human filth."
How could Franken say such a mean thing about Turd Blossom? It's time to raise the level of political discourse!

I liked this as well:
So what is Franken's "provocative, touching and funny" contribution to the genre? Consider his article in Playboy magazine titled "Porn-O-Rama!" in which he enthuses that it is an "exciting time for pornographers and for us, the consumers of pornography."
In Playboy? It's hard to imagine that they would publish adolescent sexually oriented humor pieces in Playboy.
"Porn-O-Rama!" is a modern campaign document every voter should read -- the Federalist Papers of lifestyle liberalism. It has the literary sensibilities and moral seriousness of an awkward adolescent nerd publishing an underground newspaper to shock his way into campus popularity
Again, this is Playboy we're talking about? Adolescent humor? I thought all they did was publish interviews with Jimmy Carter. (Let it never be said that Gerson isn't happy to regurgitate GOP talking points - but could he truly see an eight-year-old Playboy article as a "campaign document"?)
At an event hosted by the Feminist Majority Foundation in 1999, Franken offered this thigh-slapper: "Why don't we focus on what Afghan women can do? They can cook, bear children and pray. As I recall, that was fine for our grandmothers."
If only Gerson had gotten there on time, he could have explained to Franken that feminists don't have a sense of humor, and had no chance of figuring out that Franken was making fun of conservatives and not them. And, having read Gerson's column, we all now know that jokes about conservatives are not funny.

You know, as satire goes, at least to me Franken's not particularly compelling. He's far too obvious. I see him as much more a comedian who happens to address political subjects. But unlike Gerson, when I see somebody acting on a stage or performing on TV, I don't assume, "The person must be just like that in real life." Nor do I see the pulling of "shocking" punch lines from jokes told over a period of ten or twenty years, and presenting them as representative of a person, as particularly honest. (But if Gerson intends his own piece as satire of the "emptiness and viciousness of our political discourse", with his usual emphasis on "emptiness", maybe he's on the right track.)

On The Other Other Hand....

Apparently, at least according to Thomas Friedman, any policy we set in relation to Iraq is a mistake.
It would be a huge mistake for McCain to give up his goal of salvaging something in Iraq. But it would also be a big mistake to assume that the public would tolerate another president’s open-ended commitment there. Similarly, it would be a huge mistake for Obama to now give up his commitment to a phased withdrawal. That is very important leverage on the Iraqis. But it would also be a big mistake not to give Iraq a fresh look and ask: can something decent still be salvaged there at an acceptable cost — something that can still serve our interests, do right by Iraqis and maybe put in place the seeds of an open society that will pay long-term benefits?
Unfortunately, posing that final question is not the same thing as answering it and, as you might expect, Friedman has no answers.

Ah, remember the good old days? When the question was, "Should we enter a war of choice in Iraq?" And it seemed pretty obvious that the Bush Administration was exaggerating Iraq's threat to the rest of the world? And had no plan for the occupation? And had no exit strategy? How did Thomas "Suck On This" Friedman come down on that one, again - "big mistake" or "huge mistake"?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Almost Seven Years Late....

You know what would have been a suitable time for the New York Times to advocate a gas tax? The months following 9/11. Instead we seemed to get what amounted to a quiet endorsement of Dick Cheney's position, "Conservation may be a personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."

Gas Taxes

Following the lead of Charmas Friedhammer, the New York Times opines,
Expensive gasoline is not good news for most American families. In some rural areas where people must drive long distances, and a pickup is more of a necessity than a lifestyle choice, filling up the tank can eat up nearly 15 percent of a worker’s take-home income. Pricey gasoline is acting as a brake on the economy and pushing up the price of food and other goods.

Still, Americans’ response to rising gasoline prices makes an excellent case for a gas tax. It proves that drivers will change their behavior in response to high fuel prices. And even if Detroit doesn’t buy global warming, drivers can help persuade it to embrace fuel efficiency.
Right. Because there's no better time for new, regressive taxation than when working Americans are already struggling.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sexism In Politics

At The American Conservative, Leon Hadar is dismissive of sexism in politics:
The New York Times is continuing to focus our attention on the charges of sexism that Hillary [Clinton] and its supporters have leveled against the media, quoting a leader of one woman group making it clear to America’s misogynists that “We’re certainly not going to take this lying down”.

Now…can anyone imagine the husband of a leading American female political figure winning political office by running on the coattails of his wife? Or is it conceivable that this man could win the support of the public, and especially that of male voters, by exploiting the sympathy he could receive after it was discovered that his wife had cheated on him with a younger man? Mmm. . . I don’t think so. Such a man would probably be ridiculed by men and women alike as a “loser” and a “girlie” man.
I think there is no question but that there were some appalling displays of sexism during the primary campaign. I also don't think it affected the outcome of the Democratic primary. But that doesn't mean it's somehow unreasonable to take note of it, and to regret that it occurred.

But perhaps more to the point, in attacking Clinton's supporters for raising the issue of sexism, Hadar illustrates their point. He sees it as somehow within the rules of the game to make sexist attacks on women, because a man who complained of similar treatement would be seen as a "'girlie' man" - that is, they're compared, unfavorably, to women.
No one is really shocked when men who run for political office - especially for the job of the US president who is also the nation’s commander-in-chief - are judged by their leadership qualities that tend to be associated with male attributes: strength; toughness; potency; charisma; ability to play political hardball.
And that somehow makes it defensible to define the qualities associated with womanhood (or "girlie man-hood") as evidence of weakness, prissiness, or inability to lead? Should I even have to explain this? There is simply no comparison between a form of "sexism" that asserts certain gender traits as positive with bona fide sexism that asserts certain gender traits as negative. The tendency to paint men who fail to meet this measure of "strength; toughness; potency; charisma; ability to play political hardball" as "girlie men" itself is a manifestation of sexism.
It goes with the territory of dirty politics. Male and female candidates don’t win brownie points by playing the role of the victim. No one expects that a male politician losing an erlection would accuse his opponents and the media of sexism or “anti-manism”. That would sound as either pathetic or ridiculous, or both.
And we delve even deeper into the absurd. It may be unfair to hold up a caricature of manhood (Hadar points to "military figures or football players" as doing well in politics, but sneers at male models, apparently forgetting that behind the action figure facade Gov. Schwarzenegger has more in common with the latter than with the former) as an ideal, but it's not anti-male to depict masculinity as a positive. Of course it would sound absurd if somebody deemed this to be "sexist" against men - and Hadar already told us what the response would be: The complainer would be deemed "a 'loser' and a 'girlie' man."

This hints at one of the peculiarities of the election. Even though it is widely assumed that racism played a role in some primary outcomes (with polls in some states showing a substantial population of voters who aren't comfortable voting for Obama due to his race), under present societal mores public figures and media figures are on the whole cautious about saying anything that would be construed as racism. While many are similarly circumspect about making statements that could be construed as sexist, there have been some surprising candor in the expression of sexism toward Clinton. A candidate can make a reasonably substantiated accusation of racism without being falling into Hadar's "girlie-man" archetype.

Hadar suggests that complaints about Clinton such as "She only got where she is because she was married to Bill Clinton", or "She wouldn't have stood a chance if people didn't feel sorry for her because of Bill's cheating", aren't sexism, because we would view a man who attempted to obtain office on similar terms as being weak, feminine and unsuitable for office. But sexism is not a defense of sexism. The woman may not suffer the same stigmatization as a man, because she's a woman and the assertions against her fit within predefined gender roles. It's okay for a woman to be a woman - but it's not okay for a man to be like a woman. Hadar may be right that a man cannot publicly complain of that, but there can be no missing that attempts to depict political opponents as weak and effeminate are a big and continuing part of politics. And under this model, being "like a woman" is a huge negative. Even if the target is a man, that's a manifestation of sexism against women.

Which brings us back to the current election campaign.
Had Mrs. Clinton been the candidate, she would no doubt have faced more attacks for being too mannishly abrasive or, conversely, too emotional to play the manly role. But Mr. Obama should expect similar damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t gender assaults. He will be cast either as the epicene metrosexual who can’t protect the country or else as the modern heathen with a suspicious middle name.

The attacks are already under way, as is evident if one enters the words “Obama” and “effeminate” into a search engine. The effeminacy canard lurks in Mike Huckabee’s imaginings of Mr. Obama tripping off a chair and diving for the floor when confronted by a gunman, and in the words of Tucker Bounds, Mr. McCain’s campaign spokesman, who depicted Mr. Obama as “hysterical.”

News media blatherers and bloggers are taking up the theme. On MSNBC, Tucker Carlson called Mr. Obama “kind of a wuss”; Joe Scarborough, the morning TV talk show host, dubbed Mr. Obama’s bowling style “prissy” and declared, “Americans want their president, if it’s a man, to be a real man”; and Don Imus, the radio host, never one to be outdone in the sexual slur department, dubbed Mr. Obama a “sissy boy.”
And on it goes.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Social Security Taxes

Obama's latest proposal:
Democrat Barack Obama said Friday he would apply the Social Security payroll tax to annual incomes above $250,000, which would affect the wealthiest 3 percent of Americans.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: it's dangerous to the future of Social Security to transform it from a system where your benefits correlate to your contributions, to one in which the wealthy (and, let's be honest, many of the most influential) citizens are asked to pay in significant disproportion to the benefits they will receive. Obama may believe that a "donut hole" tax plan won't endanger Social Security, but I suspect otherwise.

When McCain Says Nothing....

It's an opportunity to pounce? I can picture David Brooks trying to come up with a theme for today's column. "I need to compare Obama's platform to McCain's, in a way that makes Obama look bad. But every time McCain opens his mouth he undermines my thesis, so... Aha! Education!" Never mind the (conservative) school of thought that education is properly a state issue - McCain has said nothing so it's an opportunity.
Education is a good area to probe because Obama knows a lot about it, and because there are two education camps within the Democratic Party: a status quo camp and a reform camp. The two camps issued dueling strategy statements this week.
A typical Brooks stance. "There are two types of people, and everybody must be one or the other." Of those two camps, Brooks tells us,
The status quo camp issued a statement organized by the Economic Policy Institute. This report argues that poverty and broad social factors drive high dropout rates and other bad outcomes. Schools alone can’t combat that, so more money should go to health care programs, anti-poverty initiatives and after-school and pre-K programs. When it comes to improving schools, the essential message is that we need to spend more on what we’re already doing: smaller class sizes, better instruction, better teacher training.
On the other hand,
The reformists also support after-school and pre-K initiatives.
I somehow suspect that they also don't object to fighting poverty or health care programs. So I guess the distinguishing feature of the "status quo" camp is that it focuses on "smaller class sizes, better instruction, better teacher training". Is it just me, or do actions such as reducing class sizes, improving teacher training, and providing better classroom discussion in fact not involve maintaining the status quo? Brooks' label must be premised on the idea that the "status quo camp" does not see a need for broad institutional reforms of the school system - they believe that the existing institutions can be significantly improved without reinventing public education.
Today’s school systems aren’t broken, the reformers argue. They were designed to meet the needs of teachers and adults first, and that’s exactly what they are doing. It’s time, though, to put the interests of students first.

The reformers want to change the structure of the system, not just spend more on the same old things.
I'm not sure what it means for a school to be "designed to meet the needs of teachers and adults first", beyond characterizing public schools as a large, free babysitting service. I'm also not sure what would be involved in creating a system that puts the needs of students first, although I'm sure Brooks will tell us that it has nothing to do with better teacher training, smaller classes, or better instruction, and everything to do with privatization, vouchers, and breaking teacher's unions. I'm sure that, to Brooks, it has nothing to do with restoring funding for the fine arts or music classes.
Tough decisions have to be made about who belongs in the classroom and who doesn’t.
What does this mean? We're going to have public education, but only for students we deem worthy?
Parents have to be given more control over education through public charter schools.
Ah, there it begins - privatization. How do charter schools give parents more control? Where's the evidence that charter schools provide any overall improvement in the caliber of education received by their students, or improve student performance? Shouldn't those considerations be part of the "reform" equation, when deciding how taxpayer money should be directed?
Teacher contracts and state policies that keep ineffective teachers in the classroom need to be revised.
And, right on cue, union busting. A question I frequently ask in the face of this type of assertion: where are we going to get the "highly qualified" teachers we need to replace the "ineffective teachers"? Paging David Copperfield?

I don't want to rain on Brooks' parade, but whether or not a teacher is "effective" can be significantly affected by the composition of the student body. Years ago when I was subbing, there were some schools where I was far more effective than others, due to factors including student age, student background, student attitude toward education, and student interest in the subject matter, none of which were within my control. Sometimes I was able to teach, and other times I was in a constant battle just to maintain classroom order. What's the objective measure of a teacher's "effectiveness"?
Most importantly, accountability has to be rigorous and relentless. No Child Left Behind has its problems, but it has ushered in a data revolution, and hard data is the prerequisite for change.
That's easy to say, but if your data isn't good this all reduces to "garbage in, garbage out". Where's the showing that the "data revolution" has actually improved schools or student learning? I've proposed how student performance might be measured more accurately even with existing tests - but it seems that nobody is interested in getting data that relevant to the supposed question.

Brooks then asks,
The question of the week is: Which camp is Barack Obama in?
Because you have to be one of the "two kinds of people". You can't suggest that both sides have good ideas, even if there's substantial overlap. (An honest pundit might even even say that the two camps are largely in agreement.) And we're framing the debate such that if you want to improve teachers and the quality of instruction, you're merely supporting the status quo - real "reform" involves privatization and union busting. Brooks comes to a conclusion that probably has some truth, first because in truth the world doesn't divide neatly into "two types of people," and second because it's not particularly wise for a Democratic candidate to endorse busting teachers unions as a major plank in his education platform, even if you assume (without evidence, of course, as Brooks doesn't believe in supporting his opinions with evidence) that doing so will somehow improve schools.
Obama endorses many good ideas and is more specific than the McCain campaign, which hasn’t even reported for duty on education.
Wow - you mean it's more "specific" to provide a relatively detailed position on education policy that has "many good ideas' than it is to say absolutely nothing? Well, I don't know about you, but I probably would have had a really hard time figuring that out by myself. {eyeroll}
But his education remarks give the impression of a candidate who wants to be for big change without actually incurring the political costs inherent in that enterprise.
So in Brooks' uncharitable view, Obama's acting like he's running for office. But a more positive spin would be that he's taking the best ideas from two camps and trying to build a consensus. Whatever the case, it's certainly to Obama's advantage that the only issue where Brooks was comfortable directly comparing his platform to McCain's is one where McCain has chosen to remain silent.

A Statutory Special Needs Trust?

The Washington post describes proposals for tax-free savings accounts for the disabled:
Several pieces of legislation have been introduced in Congress to create tax-free savings accounts for people with disabilities....

Although they differ in some details, these measures would allow parents, other family members or those with disabilities themselves to put money into special accounts; the savings would grow tax free and would not be taxed when withdrawn to pay for qualified expenses.
The Post sees a potential danger:
The account proposals provide that money deposited in the accounts not count against eligibility. The trick is to permit parents to provide some extra help for children with disabilities without encouraging wealthy people who could easily pay for health care and other needs to sock away large sums in these accounts while moving family members onto government benefits.
Of course, the wealthy can already take full advantage of "special needs trusts". There is no reason these accounts would need to be more generous than existing special needs trusts, either in terms of how much they can hold or the circumstances under which money may be paid out, save perhaps for a cap on tax-exempt contributions. With a decent law, people who lack the resources or sophistication to engage in special needs planning will simply be able to open a statutorily defined disabilities savings account, and get a similar set of benefits to those already enjoyed by the wealthy.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Habeas Corpus - A Victory For Judicial Conservatism

Like mythago, I can hardly wait to hear how the political right reinvents the proposed judicial activism of the dissenting justices into conservatism, and the majority's respect for the Constitution as judicial activism. It all seems to boil down into a giant, "How dare judges question the unlimited power the Constitution grants the king unitary executive!"

You know what? When you intentionally disregard the text of the Constitution, two centuries of historic practice, and two centuries of jurisprudence in order to try to create an entirely new system by which you can detain and try "enemy combatants", you shouldn't be too surprised when the courts occasionally take issue. Giving all due respect to Scalia's desire for deference to the Bush Administration's interpretation of Johnson v. Eisentrager, who but a judicial activist would argue that the Executive's interpretation of a judicial interpretation of the Constitution should take precedence over the Constitution itself, let alone that it should preclude the Court from clarifying its own prior opinion?

I take issue with the Chicken Little hysteria of Scalia's dissent. The sky isn't falling. The nation will survive. And if the best framework he can provide for his dissent is a dramatic pounding of the table, it's reasonable to infer that not even he thinks much of his legal argument.

I Know It's Michelle Malkin, But....

After somebody at Fox News decided to run text in front of a news segment featuring Michelle Malkin, describing Michelle Obama as Barack Obama's "baby mama", Malkin came out in defense of the network....
But I do know that it was Michelle Obama herself who referred to Barack as her “baby’s daddy” and has used the phrase “baby daddy” to describe Barack while on the stump this year.
Her sources? A clear reference by Michelle to her husband as her "baby's daddy", and an unsubstantiated comment attacking her in the Topix John McCain forum. I guess she felt compelled to add the latter, given that even she knows how idiotic she would look if her sole argument was that referring to your spouse as your "baby's daddy" and referring to a black woman as a "baby mama" (or a black man as a "baby daddy") are comparable.

But even assuming a "baby daddy" reference exists, applying Malkin-think, is it now fair game to ask in relation to Cindy McCain if the nation is ready to have a First Lady who is a trollop? Would she argue that calling Cindy McCain a trollop or the C-word cannot be considered sexist, because McCain used those words first? Oh, I'm sure she would were McCain a Democrat, but as he's a Republican even Malkin could seek through that sort of specious, brainless Malkin-think, couldn't she?

Malkin's kind of like an intellectually flyweight version of Ann Coulter (a flyweight version of a welterweight). I'd suggest that she keep her mouth shut and simply be thought a fool, but every day she proves that you can make a small fortune playing court jester to the Republican establishment.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Why Do Bad Things Happen....

To put it mildly, I'm no theologian. But I do find some theological debates interesting, such as the centuries-old debate over theodicy - "Why does God let bad things happen." This is really only a struggle if you believe three things: God is all-knowing, God is all-powerful, and God is all-loving. Take away any one of the three and you have an answer. But for those who insist that God is all-three, the debate cannot end as there can never be a satisfactory explanation.

Ross Douthat questions why people seem more willing to question God's benevolence in good times than in bad,
It's my impression - and it's only an impression, which is why I'd like to see someone do the necessary intellectual spadework to refute it or back it up - that this argument [that the existence of evil disproves God] has gained increasing currency even as our material conditions have dramatically improved; which is to say, the less suffering a particular population experiences, the more likely the suffering it does experience will be cited as evidence against the existence of a benevolent deity.
Douthat proposes as possible explanations increased levels of atheism associated with growth of scientific knowledge, "mass media and instantaneous communication" increasing people's exposure to tragedy, "the scale of inhumanity that modern technology makes possible", or something in human psychology that "makes suffering seem like more of an absolute injustice the less we actually experience it".

I think his best points are the first and last, although I can't endorse them as stated. If you speak of secularism as opposed to atheism, and relate it to the diminished authority and control of the church, it makes sense that scientific knowledge would lead to a secular understanding of tragedy, and make certain religious explanations of specific tragedies seem cartoonish. If you are a powerful church, capable of suppressing science and speaking to a medieval audience, "God brought this plague upon us to punish us for our sins" may resonate. Not so much when you're speaking to a scientifically literate audience - instead, you make God, or perhaps more accurately yourself, seem petty.

I suspect that the characteristic of the human psyche that comes into play emerges from the difference between a shared tragedy and an individual tragedy. When one out of three households loses a child below the age of five to injury or disease, that can be seen as the way of the world. When it's one in a thousand, it seems arbitrary and personal. The reaction of others to the tragedy changes as well, from recognizing the tragedy as something that could happen to anyone, to trying to rationalize the tragedy often by finding ways that the family brought it on themselves.

Daniel Larison seems to view God's benevolence as part of a quid pro quo:
If you are relying heavily on agriculture that depends on favourable weather and freedom from blights, as people for most of history did, and you are exposed to the ravages of famine or plague without the protections of extensive food surpluses or medical treatment, the irrationality of blasphemy and doubting God’s benevolence becomes much clearer.
That, of course, brings us back to the medieval audience - one that lacks the scientific knowledge to understand weather patterns, blight, food shortages, or to provide effective medical treatments to the ill. He seems to see faith as granting some form of herd immunity - God's benevolence ends when the level of "blasphemy and doubting" of His benevolence exceeds a certain threshold. But on the other side of the coin,
At the same time, enjoying plenitude and wealth allows those with the most advantages the luxury of worrying not so much about the suffering that they experience, since they tend to experience relatively little, and worrying a lot more about suffering elsewhere.
So if you're a dirt farmer with insufficient faith in God, you get hit with blight or famine. But if you're enjoying plenitude and wealth, your doubts - or even your taking it a giant step further and cursing God, don't affect your plenitude and wealth? This is an argument in favor of belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God?
With the exception of natural disasters, which are the things that you might think would cause more doubt than human cruelty, complaints against God for things that we do to each other are really quite bizarre. First of all, if you believe that God did not create man with a sinful nature, but that man turned away from God, it is difficult to believe that God can be blamed for what we do to one another.
As I previously indicated, if you don't view God as all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving, this isn't a problem. Within a theology that demands belief that God is all of the above, the argument that man turned away from God is not compelling, as God knew that would happen when He created man. Also, it's inherently unsatisfactory, for example, to argue that God would let a horrific tragedy befall on babies because mankind as a whole has turned away from God. It's similarly unsatisfactory to be suggesting that somebody enjoying plenitude and wealth, unvisited by personal tragedy, shares responsible for horrific tragedy half-way around the world by having "turned away from God" - one might ask, "Why is God's aim so bad?"

Larison continues,
“But why does God permit it?” someone always asks. The standard (and true) answer is that God permits it because He respects human freedom, up to and including the freedom to disobey, because neither obedience nor love would be of any value if it were not ultimately voluntary.
To me, this is satisfactory if you subtract love from the equation, and presume that in creating man God could not foresee the future - God becomes the master of an ant colony, and we're the ants he watches and judges. Forget to feed the ants, such that they fight and eat each other? "Bad ants." It also raises the question, when according to the Bible and Catholic teaching God has at times been highly interventionist in human affairs, God chooses at other times to sit back and watch.
Yet what these people seem to be terrified of most is the possibility that God really has allowed man such an extensive freedom, and that God is nothing like the caricatured martinet dictator that the sad New Atheists portray Him to be. Indeed, one gets the impression from many complaints against God for permitting suffering that they would very much welcome a deity who regimented and ordered their lives in order to provide maximal security and prosperity.
I have yet to meet an atheist who is terrified of God, let alone the notion that God has given man freedom. But perhaps more to the point, isn't it institutionalized religion that depicts God as a being who will regiment and order your life, providing maximal security and prosperity, if only you believe, defer, and follow the rules of the Church? What church teaches, "Your reward for belief in and worship of God is that you are free to do what you want and, whatever you do, what happens will happen"? (Calvanism?)
Even though God does intervene in history in dramatic, powerful and world-changing ways (see the Incarnation), what troubles the doubters is that God does not intervene more often.
There are other ways you can look at God's intervention, ranging from viewing the stories of interventions as fables created by man, to demonstration of God's will and authority over all of dominion. But if you take the latter approach, you are forced to ask yourself, "What are God's priorities"? It's neat that God intervened in the the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem to help accommodate a lack of consecrated olive oil, such that a mere day's supply lasted for eight days. But if interventions are to be limited in number, whether to choose between that or stopping the Holocaust.... Tough choices for a deity.
It’s as if they want to say, “Stop respecting my free will and just do something for me!” That this sounds exactly like the statement of a spoiled child is appropriate, because that is what it is.
Now we're coming full circle, back to the medieval farming village told that their crops have failed because they had too much doubt in God. They're told, "Pray to God, give to the Church, and God will smile upon you and bring you bounty. If you're wealthy, God wants you to be wealthy. If you're poor, God wants you to be poor. If you're king, God made you king. Accept your lot in life." But everything bad is attributed to "free will"? How convenient.
Then, in those moments of chastening and real trial that God permits or wills, the spoiled children whine even more when they are confronted with some small modicum of loving discipline.
"Loving discipline", like the Holocaust? Genocide in Rwanda? Conveniently, those horrors are placed exclusively in the hands of man as acts of "free will". I'm not sure what Larison sees as a manifestation of the actual hand of God, but his dividing line seems to be, "If it might otherwise make me question my faith, it's the work of man."

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Debt Spiral

An organization called the "Institute for American Values" has produced a report, For A New Thrift: Confronting The Debt Culture that, in its own modest words, "powerfully addresses the linked problems of overindebtedness, lack of savings, and growing inequality in the United States."
The focus is on institutions. When a society creates democratic institutions to encourage thrift, more people are likely to engage in the positive activities of saving, conservation, and asset building. When a society fails to nurture such institutions, limits access to them, or supports institutions opposed thrift, more people are likely to over-spend, fall into consumerism as a philosophy of life, and go into debt.
I don't know whether to congratulate them for being sufficiently thrifty to make the report available by mail for a mere $7, or point out that they could save money and trees by offering it for download. But my biggest regret in their selling the report is that it leaves me unable to see the source for David Brooks' latest column, The Great Seduction.

I think Brooks is being sincere in his column - he's a rich man, earning probably at least a mid-six-figure income, has no meaningful contact with anybody who works a low-end job, and doesn't understand why the average American can no longer save 10-20% of their wages. After speaking of the nation's "Puritan legacy", Brooks declares,
The United States has been an affluent nation since its founding. But the country was, by and large, not corrupted by wealth. For centuries, it remained industrious, ambitious and frugal.
Right.... The nineteenth century, for example, has no glaring examples of corruption by wealth. That's why terms like "robber baron" don't exist in the English language.
Over the past 30 years, much of that has been shredded. The social norms and institutions that encouraged frugality and spending what you earn have been undermined. The institutions that encourage debt and living for the moment have been strengthened. The country’s moral guardians are forever looking for decadence out of Hollywood and reality TV. But the most rampant decadence today is financial decadence, the trampling of decent norms about how to use and harness money.
Is Brooks trying to be elitist and condescending, or did it just come out that way? He truly believes that the growth of debt, and the associated decline in savings, within the middle class is a form of decadence? Here's a dose of ugly economic reality - the economic changes that have led to a negative savings rate arise primarily from the costs of maintaining a two-income family, not from overspending.

Now let me take a step back here, because there's a fair response to what I just said - which is that if you're spending more than you make, you're overspending. Period, end of story. That's the way I lived most of my life, and at times I lived well below my means so I could bank funds and pay off my student loans. I've been self-employed for most of my adult life, and the best way to avoid cash flow problems is to have a decent sum of money in the bank. From the time I got my very first credit card, I've paid off my balance in full each month. I'm the type of consumer that I suspect lending institutions secretly hate - I may have a good credit score, and be a fantastically low risk borrower, but they have a hard time making money off of me. Seth Godin's advice here, on getting out of debt and staying out of debt, is tough - but I would still recommend it. My natural income is to tell people who "can't" save money, "You're not trying hard enough."

But I'm not going to condescend to a family with two wage earners, who have purchased a home in a neighborhood with decent schools and who need two cars to commute to their jobs, and who aren't being financially irresponsible in any traditional sense of the word but still can't manage to save money, or have to run up a credit card bill to cover the increased cost of their commute. I'm certainly not going to condescend to a family that has to run up some debt due to the sudden loss of income due to an illness or layoff. There's very little cushion for the modern middle class, wages are pretty stagnant, and as Brooks has profited during the Bush II "invisible recovery" he has managed to miss how his gain has come at the expense of others. Changes in the savings rate are not, as Brooks sees it, a "deterioration of financial mores" - they're a manifestation of the deterioration of the economic ground beneath the middle class.

I also don't care for his "there are two types of people" caricature of the problem:
Second, the transformation has led to a stark financial polarization. On the one hand, there is what the report calls the investor class. It has tax-deferred savings plans, as well as an army of financial advisers. On the other hand, there is the lottery class, people with little access to 401(k)’s or financial planning but plenty of access to payday lenders, credit cards and lottery agents.
If he were referencing the financial trends of the past thirty years, and the increased concentration of wealth in the hands of "the investor class", he might have a point. But a lot of the middle class people who are sqeezed and who aren't saving money have tax-deferred savings plans. Some of them have had to cash out those plans or borrow against them. It's also terribly condescending to those people suggest that, as they're not saving, they're part of a "lottery class" - they're borrowing to make the mortgage payment and car payments, put groceries in the fridge, and fill the gas tank, not to play the lotto. It seems that in Brooks' world the middle class isn't just disappearing - it has completely disappeared. (Or is it actually that the middle class is beneath his notice.)

Describing what he sees as a loss of social consciousness about money and debt, Brooks writes,
The agents of destruction are many. State governments have played a role. They aggressively hawk their lottery products, which some people call a tax on stupidity. Twenty percent of Americans are frequent players, spending about $60 billion a year. The spending is starkly regressive. A household with income under $13,000 spends, on average, $645 a year on lottery tickets, about 9 percent of all income. Aside from the financial toll, the moral toll is comprehensive. Here is the government, the guardian of order, telling people that they don’t have to work to build for the future. They can strike it rich for nothing.
My guess is that David Brooks is among the "some" who would call the lottery a "tax on stupidity". I personally find better uses for my money. But you know what? There are people who play the lottery for fun. And contrary to what Brooks suggests a lot of the tickets aren't sold on the premise that you'll win $millions. They're sold on the basis that you'll win a few dollars, or maybe a free ticket, with a chance at a five to six figure windfall if you "hit it big".

Also, even at the alarming $645, 9% of income rate Brooks observes, this unusual household (one supported by a single minimum wage earner?) is only spending $12.40 per week on the lottery. As vices go, that's about as cheap as you're going to find. I would bet that many of those people do recover a percentage of their expenditure in $2, $5, and $10 wins - with few exceptions, well below what they spend, but perhaps reducing the actual weekly loss to $10 or so. Brooks imagines that these people dream of striking it rich for nothing? Possibly in an abstract, "Imagine what we could do if..." sense, but in my experience most people who play the lottery understand the long-shot odds.

Brooks also criticizes payday lenders,
They seductively offer fast cash - at absurd interest rates - to 15 million people every month.
True, but now we've moving away from the earlier discussion of credit card debt, and into the world of people who have maxed out their cards or who can't qualify for conventional credit. Is there a person on the planet who would turn to a payday lender as their first choice? Although I admit to having little sympathy for payday lenders, there is some truth to their argument that if they could not charge their ridiculous interest rates and fees they could not serve their community of borrowers. There's enormous risk in serving the bottom end of the financial market - the people with the shakiest job histories and the worst credit scores.
Credit card companies have played a role. Instead of targeting the financially astute, who pay off their debts, they’ve found that they can make money off the young and vulnerable. Fifty-six percent of students in their final year of college carry four or more credit cards.
Speaking as somebody who could reasonably be described as a financially astute person who pays off his debt, I can tell you this: I get targeted by credit cards. I can't recall the last time a week went past without my getting a "You're preapproved!" credit card offer in the mail, along with proposals for me to transfer balances between cards at "attractive" rates, "convenience checks" to use to pay bills with a credit card... it's huge a stack of junk mail. But as I mentioned earlier, I'm not where the money is. I have no fee cards, effectively use them to float an interest-free loan for one to two months, then pay off the cards in full. The only way a credit card company makes money off of me is through the commissions they charge to merchants.

Credit card companies haven't suddenly realized that there's more profit to make off of people who don't pay off their bills - they've known that from day one. But I got my first credit cards in college, probably had four by the time I graduated, and still managed to be a responsible (and probably unprofitable) credit card borrower.
Congress and the White House have played a role. The nation’s leaders have always had an incentive to shove costs for current promises onto the backs of future generations. It’s only now become respectable to do so.
Respectable? In what sense? In the sense that hack pundits who would have been jumping down the throat of a President Gore or President Clinton, had they demonstrated the same type of fiscal irresponsibility that has been a hallmark of the G.W. Bush presidency? As perpetuated by John McCain in his effective call for larger deficits and his attacks on Obama's call for modest tax increases on the wealthy? When can we expect David Brooks to "call out" McCain on that one?
Wall Street has played a role. Bill Gates built a socially useful product to make his fortune. But what message do the compensation packages that hedge fund managers get send across the country?
Funny, I don't think that hedge fund managers' compensation makes much of an impression on the country. If it did, Congress would make short work of passing the reform bill that would tax their earnings as income, rather than turning a blind eye to the pretense that their earnings are capital gains.

The ideas Brooks describes as coming from the report, for the most part, seem reasonable.
Foundations and churches could issue short-term loans to cut into the payday lenders’ business. Public and private programs could give the poor and middle class access to financial planners. Usury laws could be enforced and strengthened. Colleges could reduce credit card advertising on campus. KidSave accounts would encourage savings from a young age. The tax code should tax consumption, not income, and in the meantime, it should do more to encourage savings up and down the income ladder.
The exception, of course, is the passing reference to taxing "consumption, not income". That sounds like a call for the most regressive of tax "reforms", removing the tax burden from the wealthy (who can afford to save their money), while increasing the tax burden on those who are already living paycheck-to-paycheck, or who are falling deeper into debt each month.

I also take issue with the suggestion that we need to enforce and strengthen usury laws, as I see a broader need for reform. It's insane, for example, that it's usury for me to lend my neighbor $500 at an 8% interest rate, but it's perfectly legal for a bank, credit card company, or "payday lender" to charge effective interest rates at many times that rate. It's even more absurd that I would be committing a crime if I were to lend somebody money "at a rate exceeding 25% at simple interest per annum", but that's par for the course (and sometimes would be a favorable rate) among lenders who serve the poor. Michigan's usury laws aren't about protecting the poor - they're about protecting commercial lenders from competition.

Brooks concludes,
There are dozens of things that could be done. But the most important is to shift values. Franklin made it prestigious to embrace certain bourgeois virtues. Now it’s socially acceptable to undermine those virtues. It’s considered normal to play the debt game and imagine that decisions made today will have no consequences for the future.
I understand why Brooks has drawn this conclusion. I just happen to see it, at least from a "real world" perspective, as elitist crap. The people I've met who are in a spiral of debt, fighting collection agencies or struggling to pay off a payday loan that instead grows with each new paycheck, are not imagining that there are no consequences to their debt spiral. The middle class family that sees its credit card debts grow each month, and can't quite stretch their paychecks to make ends meet, is not enjoying its high debt lifestyle. Real people are worrying themselves sick over debt.

The people who enjoy debt, and play with it as if it has no consequences? The lenders, financial managers, CEO's and others who... you know, fall within Brooks' present peer group.