Saturday, May 28, 2011

Iraq, Iran, Sunni, Shiite, Arab, Persian... What's the Difference?

Daniel Larison does a yeoman's job holding political candidates accountable for their foreign policy blunders, in the past commenting on notable gaffes by such notables as Mitt Romney, even as the mainstream media displays a lack of interest or pretends that the remarks are insightful. He recently commented on Tim Pawlenty's confusion of Iraq and Iran:
The reporter corrects him at this point, and Pawlenty gamely tries to recover. The most that can be said for Pawlenty in this episode is that he is giving better foreign policy answers than Herman Cain. It’s also fair to say that he’s already doing worse than then-Gov. Bush was doing at this point in 1999. It’s pretty clear that he was rehearsing a bad answer on the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, which had almost nothing to do with the question he was asked. He was asked a question about contradictions in U.S. regional policy related to the expansion of Iranian influence, and he wasn’t even attempting to answer that question. He went through his answer substituting the words Iran and Iranians without missing a beat, and that is probably because his grasp of these subjects remains very superficial. If it had just been the name of the country, everyone might be able to shrug it off as a slip of the tongue, but it was more than that.
I'm with Larison on this one - well, no, I'm not quite as sympathetic to the "slip of the tongue" argument. While, particularly in retrospect, the import of Bush's ignorance of South Asia, and the treatment of Gore's knowledge of the region and its leaders as a pedantic irrelevancy, seems wholly irresponsible on the part of the media, there is a huge difference between not knowing the name of the President of Pakistan and confusing Iran with Iraq (even if we overlook the fact that Pawlenty did not display even a glimmer of understanding of the question asked).

Pawlenty was born in 1960, meaning that if he followed international events at all he should have overcome any ability to confuse Iran and Iraq by the time he reached his early 20's. It's not a grave sin to not care about or follow international affairs, even to shrug off conflicts in the Middle East, in favor of domestic concerns - or even to switch off the world news to catch sports updates on ESPN. It's possible to govern a state without knowing or caring much about international affairs. There are also degrees of ignorance, some of which suggest a basic interest or knowleged that a charitable person might argue could be overcome - confusing Shiite and Sunni, for example, as McCain at times did. But if you were a young adult during the Iran-Iraq War, subsequently lived through the first Gulf War, and are claiming to be competent to be President during this period of massive military intervention in the Middle East, that level of ignorance and confusion demonstrates a lack of interest that suggests that your place is, at best, in state and local politics.

An adult who can't differentiate a scapula from a patella? Probably not the best candidate for medical school. An adult who confuses Mississippi with Massachusetts? Probably not the best candidate for governor. They may be very competent within the sphere of their jobs and informed within their ares of interest, and they may be capable of learning the facts if given enough time and tutoring, but their inherent lack of interest in the subject matter does translate into a high probability that the best we can expect from them is basic competence. We should expect a lot more from somebody who claims he's qualified to be the President.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Is it Safe for Republicans to Make Sense?

While Newt Gingrich scurries away from his accurate assessment of Paul Ryan's plan, apparently because Republicans aren't allowed to disagree with the plan, Paul Ryan himself seems to be scurrying away from his plan, or at least insisting that it isn't fair for the media to accurately describe its effects. I guess in an odd way that makes sense - the two men agree that it's completely unfair for the media to accurately report on their words, beliefs and actions.

But don't worry - David Brooks tells us that there are two or three reasonable people in the Republican Party, and they're talking to him.
Already many consultants are telling Republicans to drop austerity and go back on offense: Spend 2012 accusing the Democrats of sponsoring death panels. The Democrats will spend 2012 accusing Republicans of ending Medicare. Whichever party demagogues best wins.

But, over the past few days, I’ve spoken with a number of Republicans — in Congress and elsewhere — who don’t want to do that. They fervently believe the country is in peril. They want to find a way to reduce the debt without committing political suicide.
Great. And their names are... off the record? It is such a toxic environment within the Republican Party that you can't even make an on-the-record statement against demagoguery?

Brooks proposes that the Republicans should increase taxes on the middle class by eliminating employer's tax deduction for employee health insurance, and further "raise tax revenues on the rich". He does not claim that any of his anonymous Republicans support this idea. I suspect he's playing a rhetorical game - "Here's how the Democrats are being reasonable, while these are reasonable things the Republicans could do," rather than admitting that his ideas, whatever their merits (and if you read his columns you know that they mostly lack merit), have no traction in the Republican Party.

I sometimes wonder if Brooks should stick with his pop psychology and thinly disguised book reports, as it seems that when he starts presenting his own ideas he goes quickly and hopelessly wrong. His memory of recent history suggests he takes in more fumes from the beltway than he does facts:
Republicans won in 2010 because the working class fled from the Democrats’ top-down big government liberalism.
From the perspective of the reality-based community it had a lot to do with a crappy economy, anger over bailouts that were for the most part a continuation of the prior administration's policies, Republican demagoguery over Medicare ("death panels", "Medicare cuts to pay for other (undeserving) people's health insurance") and stimulus spending ("The stimulus bill was horrible. I'm proud to have delivered $50 billion in government spending to my district, and am happy to pretend it had nothing to do with the horrible stimulus bill). Oh - and let's not forget Republican demagoguery on immigration.

Brooks defines the issues that he believes motivate voters who, when not instructing the government to keep its hands off of their Medicare, supposedly want small government:
But these families have seen the pillars of their world dissolve — jobs, family structure, neighborhood cohesion.
Jobs? That would be "It's the economy, stupid," but what's this nonsense about "family structure?" Which faction of Republicans votes for Members of Congress based upon their concern that Aunt Sallie and Uncle Bob might get a divorce? Is Brooks in fact talking about demagoguery on gay marriage - a return to the culture wars, a successful topic for Republican demagoguery in past elections? "Neighborhood cohesion?" Yeah, I guess we are talking in silly code. What does that mean if not, "People of the wrong color are moving into our neighborhoods."
They need to lay out the facts showing that Medicare is unstable and on a path to collapse, as Representative Paul Ryan is doing. But they also need to enmesh Medicare reform within an agenda to build solid communities: more money for community colleges and technical schools, an infrastructure bank, a values agenda to shore up marriage and family cohesion, tax holidays to help the unemployed start businesses, tax reform to limit special interest power.
First, Paul Ryan is not laying out facts. His "budget" is a pile of nonsense, and he is being anything but honest about his plan to privatize Medicare. Second, as Brooks acknowledged up front, Republicans are running scared because when voters recognize the implications of Ryan's plans they hate them. And it's not even clear that voters yet fully understand that Ryan's plan to gut and privatize Medicare is not so much about preserving health insurance for seniors as it is about providing yet another round of massive tax cuts to the wealthy.

In terms of Brooks' concepts for Republican spending, yes, it's easy to spend more money on community colleges. But if you really want to get that done you would be talking about potentially peeling off enough Republicans to join in a Democratic effort to provide education funds - because the Republican Party is all about cutting and they've already promised more in cuts than they can deliver. "Build solid communities"? Could you be less specific and just maybe sound a bit more (to Republican ears) like a big government hippie? An "infrastructure bank" - a centralized agency charged with arranging finance for infrastructure projects - with an eye toward budgeting for and increasing spending on infrastructure? Even if you recognize the sorry state of our nation's infrastructure, do you seriously believe the Republican Party is going to get on board with that? A "values agenda", meaning... what other than culture war demagoguery? "Tax holidays" to help the unemployed start businesses? Pie, meet sky. "Tax reform to limit special interest power"? Not even John McCain seems inclined to support that type of reform.

When David Frum looks at the Republican Party that drummed him out, he sees a need to transform that party into the type of party that might adopt some of Brooks' theoretical platform. He should be paying attention to Brooks: It's safer and much more lucrative to pretend that party already exists.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Medical Malpractice Tort Reform and Federalism

Following up on some Volokh Conspiracy posts about the relationship between tort reform and federalism, Jonathan Adler quotes Walter Olson on the subject. Olson suggests that there is
a very real difference between areas like product liability and nationwide class actions—in which suits ordinarily cross state lines, and the majority of runaway verdicts are against out-of-state defendants—and more conventional kinds of tort litigation arising from car crashes, slip-and-falls, and medical misadventure, where cases are mostly filed against locally present defendants. As a rough rule of thumb, it’s worth presuming that most of the local suits do not externalize heavy costs across state lines and should accordingly be left alone by Congress unless it is itself vindicating some constitutional right or coordinating the functioning of some constitutionally authorized federal government activity.
Adler extrapolates,
Olson is anything but an opponent of tort reform generally. Indeed, he’s been one of the litigation explosion’s most prominent critics. But he recognizes that support of a particular policy goal does not require abandoning a principled commitment to the broader federalist scheme.
I'll take Olson's comments at face value, but let's recognize that not all insurance companies or medical industry lobbies want federal "tort reform". This battle has already been mostly won at the local level. It's difficult to conceive of a federal "reform" that would so heavily favor industry as to preempt state laws and caps that are less restrictive than the federal standard while allowing states to set more stringent standards and lower caps. Which is to say that states like Texas, that have all-but-eliminated medical malpractice as a viable tort, would likely see a federal reform reduce the burdens and hurdles they have placed in front of plaintiffs.

Further, part of the reason for local success is that it has become relatively cheap and easy to influence state legislatures and appellate courts, with insurance companies pouring millions into state supreme court races with the intention of electing judges favorable to their positions on such issues as tort reform. Following them Ohio Supreme Court's rejection of damages caps in malpractice case, the insurance and medical industries worked hard to change the composition of the court - not to change the law or state constitution, but to change the judges who interpreted and applied the laws and constitution - with the result that a reconstituted state supreme court found damages caps to be permissible.

If you federalize restrictions on medical malpractice cases you change that context significantly. Suddenly a single example or case can be used to propel a national public relations campaign to make the system more fair - and if you're honest about the impact of tort reform you know that's the opposite of what the insurance companies want. Reforms that increase the cost of litigation for plaintiffs but do little to nothing to improve the integrity of the system, such as requiring "certificates of merit" in association with the filing of a malpractice suit, might be challenged. Low, one-size-fits-all caps on "pain and suffering" damages might be revealed as absurdly low for certain severely injured patients - as they are. Caps would likely also be indexed to inflation, rather than remaining subject to a rigid, unchanging cap for years or decades.

In implementing tort reform, it is conceivable that Congress would do a better job than most states in creating a fair and balanced system. That isn't going to be reassuring to the insurance industry, so we can't be particularly surprised if national tort reform advocates find sudden value in federalism - you don't bite the hand that feeds you. Why, despite an express willingness to include tort reform in the Health Care Reform Act, did the issue all-but-drop off the radar in the otherwise contentious debate over the bill? In my opinion, because federalizing the issue is no longer a priority, and for the reasons I just provided may in fact be viewed as a negative, by a healthy proportion of health and insurance industry lobbyists.

Slashing Taxes for the Idle Rich

Duly chastened, Newt Gingrich is amending his platform to include massive tax cuts for the idle rich. Your inheritance? Not only does Gingrich want to eliminate estate taxes, he wants to eliminate capital gains - tax free living in perpetuity for the Paris Hiltons of America.

For the rest of us?
"I think these kinds of steps would move us toward a very dramatic job growth, which is the best way to move towards a balanced budget—by getting people off of unemployment, off of Medicaid, off of food stamps, get them back into earning a living and paying taxes," he said.

* * *

On jobs, he said he would allow the unemployed to collect benefits for four weeks to look for a job, then would force recipients into a job training program.
That's right, you middle and working class slackers - get off your duffs and start paying taxes. After all, somebody has to, and if Newt gets his way it sure as heck isn't going to be the wealthy.

The Power to Create a Competing Narrative

Paul Waldman comments on the ideological conformity demanded by the modern Republican Party:
What the right has -- as Gingrich discovered last week to his chagrin -- is a ruthless identity border patrol, with agents spread throughout the political system. Step over any one of a number of lines, even lines that didn't exist just weeks ago, and those agents will inform you, with all the subtlety of a truncheon to the kneecaps, that you are no longer within the conservative nation. "For Republicans running for president in 2012, there's a new political reality: Support Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan -- or else," wrote the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza....

As much as liberals like to imagine the right as a hierarchically organized, smoothly humming machine, the truth is that their system is diffuse, much more like a school of fish than one giant shark. A variety of players influence the school's course: politicians, media figures, activists, and advocates. It isn't a conspiracy in which orders are delivered from above. If there really were a conspiracy, it would be headed by someone with enough sense to say, "This Medicare plan is really risky. Let's not make it a litmus test."
Except that there are powerful right-wing players who can easily create a counter-narrative that will reduce the impact or even reduce the momentum of ideological conformity. There are people who can issue orders from above. One such person is Roger Ailes.

No, Ailes is not an all-powerful media figure who heads a conspiracy, dictating right-wing opinion. But he is the head of one of the most influential news entertainment operations in the world. Had he issued a memo instructing his news entertainers to do so, they would have backed off the "Newt is over" messaging. They could even have pushed back with a, "Ryan's plan is right-wing social engineering" message, or "Even if you disagree, Newt is the most brilliant Republican on the planet so we have to at least hear him out." Instead he unleashed the hounds. Safe to say, Ailes doesn't want Newt to win the nomination or to heavily influence the debate leading up to the nomination.

Let's not forget the "Attack of the 50' Eyesores" effect - recently seen with Donald Trump's flash-in-the-pan flirt with running for the Republican nomination. When international events pushed him out of the headlines the public lost interest - and the President's gentle but public humiliation of Trump at the White House Correspondents' Dinner left the media with little incentive to again pick up his cause. Is it a coincidence that when Palin irked Ailes by ignoring his advice to keep her mouth shut over the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, his network stopped taking a "damn the facts, liberals hate her" philosophy toward her various gaffes and personality quirks?

As long as people like Ailes have disproportionate power over who can obtain and maintain sustained media attention, they will have disproportionate power as kingmakers and in defining the public debate. Whether you think that's a good thing or a bad thing, it's reality.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Looking the Part Probably Isn't Enough

Robert Reich's comments about Mitt Romney remind me of some of the "man crush" comments from four years ago...
Why is Mitt doing so well? Partly because Obama's positions are by now well known, while voters can project anything they want onto Mitt. It's also because much of the public continues to worry about the economy, jobs, and the price of gas at the pump, and they inevitably blame the president.

But I suspect something else is at work here, too. To many voters, President Obama sounds and acts presidential, but he doesn't look it. Mitt Romney is the perfect candidate for people uncomfortable that their president is black. Mitt is their great white hope.
The thing is, Romney looked and sounded considerably more presidential than John McCain, at least if you didn't listen to the substance of his comments. And that should scare you a bit, because McCain wasn't exactly strong on substance.

When you look at Romney's character, or lack thereof, you can see why he makes the modern Republican Party nervous - while he says the right things on most litmus test issues, he has previously spoken on most of those issues while taking the opposite position - and some of his past speeches seem considerably more earnest and sincere than his present repudiations. If you want a competent, hard-working President, dare I suggest that Romney isn't your man - I joked some time ago about candidates like Romney, Huckabee and Palin who attacked the President's résumé as too thin while having, themselves, given up anything resembling an actual job - that is, for years, the only thing they have been running are their mouths. With all due respect to the fact that Huckabee and Palin took jobs with Fox News, that's more of an affirmation of my point than a repudiation. Even as governor, Romney seemed principally concerned with positioning himself for higher office. (Little did he know that a conservative health reform plan that is by many measures quite successful could be his downfall.)

But, having taken full advantage of his father's name, wealth, connections to build his own fortune as a corporate raider, back during a stock market boom, Romney apparently makes the business community comfortable. Within that world he probably does come across as substantive and sincere - a man who will help fight unions, business taxes, and any other threat to corporate profits. As one of his biggest backers, David Frum, notes,
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has been plugging along, off-camera, raising money, building support among business leaders and county party chairs.
If only he can get Roger Ailes and the Fox News media machine on his side, Frum's story goes, he'll have the nomination locked up. What big issue could it be that would keep somebody like Ailes from embracing Romney as a true, pro-business culture warrior? Could it be... health care? That he doesn't believe that Romney will in fact work hard to overturn a national health plan that was created largely in the image of the one Romney implemented in Massachusetts?

The savaging of Newt Gingrich by the right-wing media should give you some sense of how uncomfortable certain people in power are with the idea of a 1990's-style Republican President - somebody who is by any reasonable measure a conservative Republican but who rose to prominence at the tail end of an era of occasional bipartisanship and fewer litmus tests. What if, when elected President, they go back to that form of governance, pull the Republican Party back toward the center, allow healthcare reform to become fully implemented, refuse to slash Medicare and Social Security.... No matter how broad his shoulders or presidential his hair style, and with due respect to why David Frum wishes for his nomination, I don't think Romney can cultivate a look powerful enough to overcome his shortcomings to the present Republican Party.

The Party of the Disney Dad

Atrios is a bit annoyed with the media:
It doesn't matter how responsible Republicans are for deficits or if their fake plans actually don't do anything except cut taxes for rich people, the press will always paint the GOP as "fiscally responsible" and "deficit hawks."
Right-wingers at times sneer that the Republican Party plays the role of "daddy" and the Democratic Party acts as "mommy", for example,
The mother is loving and caring and takes us back in and provides the safety net. The father is the disciplinarian - tough love. He makes us face up to hard realities, at least in many families. Well, the mommy party is the Democratic Party. The daddy party is the Republican Party. And I think if you look at the economy, you look at the housing, the mortgage crisis, a whole wide range of things, you will find that the parties fulfill these images.
And yes, many among the beltway media seem to (or explicitly) embrace that concept.

Perhaps it's less the idea of the "mommy" and "daddy" parties that's unfair, and more how the right wing attempts to spin that characterization. Perhaps you should view the Democrats as the caregiver party, attempting to keep the books balanced, everybody fed and clothed, and to clean up the messes dad leaves behind or to stretch the budget to cover his latest impulsive purchase or gambling spree, and should look at the Republican Party's pie-in-the-sky representations about budgets and spending, badmouthing mom for covering the household bills while promising lavish trips to Disney World, all the while knowing that if he ever did scrape together enough money to pay for such a trip he would instead be off playing liar's poker with his buddies from Wall Street.

No small part of the Republican Party's appeal to "middle America", the "working class", or whatever we're calling them this week arises from its representation that "You pay too much in taxes," its innuendo about how this amounts to a transfer of wealth to the undeserving poor, and the implicit promise that if elected they'll cut your taxes and raise your standard of living because you'll no longer have to pay 'welfare' for that leech down the street. Except that if you press for details you find out that the leech down the street is your grandmother, and that you're probably somebody else's "leech down the street" due to a government benefit, tax credit or tax deduction that your family receives. And the plan to boost the lot of the average worker by transferring wealth to the richest people in the country hasn't worked particularly well - modern Republican fiscal policy reduces to a dressed-up version of the bailout of the financial industry.

The Republican Party has also done a good job of avoiding any responsibility for its fiscal irresponsibility by characterizing its budget busting expenditures as "necessary" and vilifying the other party's spending priorities as spendthrift. Robert Samuelson seems to personify the beltway's acceptance of the Republican interpretation - if the Republicans want it, no matter the cost, we're talking "pocket change", but every other expenditure must be cut to the bone.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Newt Gingrich's Crash and Burn

It's been interesting to me watching Newt Gingrich crash and burn over statements that would have been deemed quite reasonable, even in Republican circles, during his last period of prominence. He has done himself no favors by flip-flopping on his statement, attempting to deny the meaning of his words, having his spokesperson issue a statement that reads more like bad parody, and announcing that anybody who quotes his actual statements in context is a liar.

The thing is, if the media focused on what Gingrich actually said - if they examined his actual remarks and their significance in the healthcare debate - his comments were perfectly reasonable and appropriate. But instead, the media coverage has been "all horse race", and has been more than happy to giggle as the Republican Party eats its own.... And yes, the front and foremost popcorn munchers have been the same right-wing media figures who, up to the point Gingrich said something true, were hyping Gingrich as one of the smartest men in the world and the intellectual leader of the Republican Party.

The Joke Will Be on Facebook Investors

Reid Hoffoman, one of the most sophisticated Internet investors in the nation, a major investor in Facebook and a principal in LinkedIn, took LinkedIn public. The outcome resembled some of the rip-offs of the first Internet boom, with the initial offering price of LinkedIn being far below its "market value" at the end of the day, and Joe Nocera is concered that LinkedIn may have been scammed.
The company had hired Morgan Stanley and Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch division to manage the I.P.O. process. After gauging market demand — which is what they’re paid to do — the investment bankers priced the shares at $45. The 7.84 million shares it sold raised $352 million for the company. For this, the bankers were paid 7 percent of the deal as their fee.... When LinkedIn’s shares started trading on the New York Stock Exchange, they opened not at $45, or anywhere near it. The opening price was $83 a share, some 84 percent higher than the I.P.O. price. By the time the clock had struck noon, the stock had vaulted to more than $120 a share, before settling down to $94.25 at the market’s close. The first-day gain was close to 110 percent....

The fact that the stock more than doubled on its first day of trading — something the investment bankers, with their fingers on the pulse of the market, absolutely must have known would happen — means that hundreds of millions of additional dollars that should have gone to LinkedIn wound up in the hands of investors that Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch wanted to do favors for. Most of those investors, I guarantee, sold the stock during the morning run-up. It’s the easiest money you can make on Wall Street.
Yes, it's a sweet way for insiders to make a quick buck. But the fact that LinkedIn could have raised more money doesn't mean that its insiders sold at $45 per share. And the low price will help major shareholders of Facebook reap huge profits if investors anticipate a similar run-up in price.

There's also a legitimate question of whether it's the job of the investment bank to value the company (even with a premium for investor hubris) at a value that has nothing to do with it's actual or potential fair market value, under the assumption that an appreciable number of investors are ready to repeat their experience investing in sites like A company that made $16 million in profits last year producing, as best as I can see, a torrent of email notices that most members delete unread, now has a market capitalization of $8.8 billion dollars - and that valuation is significantly lower than its peak. Let's say it experiences 100% growth in profits, each and every year, for the next... century? Seriously, how is that valuation even slightly realistic? Facebook is reported to have earned between $400 and $500 million in profits last year with what, by all appearances, is a considerably more viable model for growth - should we expect it to have a market capitalization of $220 to $250 billion?

Really, I think this was less about LinkedIn being cheated and more about setting up the next round of suckers in the "social network IPO" scheme. I recognize that some people say that the LinkedIn IPO won't affect the timing of a Facebook IPO, and (yes) among them are many who care far more than I about the markets and investment, but I suspect otherwise. When you see this much investor hubris, this much disregard of profitability, this much willingness to gamble, you would be pretty foolish to sit on your hands. Realistically speaking, LinkedIn is going to continue to decline in value, and you'll be wanting to get your own shares sold before investors start to association that deflation with the value of social networks in general.

Schwarzenegger Brings Too Much Reality to the Cartoons?

Recall what should have been a bad April Fool's Day joke, "The Governator" cartoon? Alas, it's not to be:
"In light of recent events," said the representative, "A Squared Entertainment, POW, Stan Lee Comics and Archie Comics have halted production."

The recent events also conflict with the main character of The Governator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who leads a double life as a family man by day and crime fighter by night.
Surely they knew that the part about Schwarzenegger playing a superhero at night was pure fantasy. If anything, recent events should lend credibility to his "secret identity" - it would appear that pretty much from the start of his marriage, by day he's been "living a double life as an ordinary family man". They have something against method acting?

The Rapture: Good News and Bad News

The good news is that the rapture will occur at precisely 6:00 PM this evening, and the righteous will be transported to heaven, leaving only a heap of abandoned clothing in the spot in which they formerly stood. This is a bit like the New Year - it will happen at 6:00 PM in accord with your time zone, so you don't have to worry about figuring out how many hours to add or subtract from the scheduled event.

Now the bad news: If you're still here at 6:01 PM it does not mean that the rapture didn't occur. It means that you're not righteous, and will remain here among the damned. So sorry.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Politics vs. Religion - Looking for Converts

One of the oddities of the G.W. Bush era, it seems to me, was the number of celebrity political conversions (or claimed political conversions) following 9/11. Many of the full or partial conversions seemed reactionary - Ed Koch and Ron Silver, and to some degree Dennis Miller, seemed to be excited at the idea of going to war with the Arab world, with Koch's embrace of Republicans as the only party willing to fight a war on Islam seeming to be consistent with his past statements on the Middle East.

I've never really understood why you would want to trumpet conversions such as these. To the extend that you're talking about a person who understands the issues, a more intense examination is likely to reveal that the conversion is largely limited to a single issue or is nominal. In the former case the conversion is likely to reflect a knee-jerk reaction, not a thoughtful response to changed circumstances. Otherwise you should see a shift in political thinking across the person's spectrum of beliefs, not just an announcement to the effect of, "I'm still liberal on everything else, but I'm a Republican because only they'll pursue this war to its bitter end." If it's the latter, the relabeling doesn't carry much significance. "I'm switching from Team A to Team B, but my opinions haven't actually changed."

Dennis Miller seems to fall, to some degree, into both categories. He's generally regarded as a bright guy, and he historically has included any number of obscure references into his humor in order to both convey that impression and to appeal to a more educated audience. He also had a caustic element to his humor that held no sympathy for the far left, and often seemed to take positions that were fundamentally conservative - did you ever get the impression that he favored a progressive tax code? But if you saw his monologues during his final year on HBO, it was hard to miss the fact that he had spent very little energy learning about, and even less thinking about, the Middle East. He also qualified his political conversion by insisting that he remained liberal on a wide range of social issues, such as reproductive freedoms and gay marriage. So the actual conversion was pretty narrow, and on a subject for which he had a new and shallow understanding, and that shallowness was evidenced by the new, shallow, Manichaen position he took on that narrow issue.

Not that I want to be cynical... (want doesn't actually enter into it - I am cynical)... but you sometimes also have to "follow the money". The counterpart to Dennis Miller would seem to be Arianna Huffington, although her claimed political conversion was much more broad-based. Both Miller and Huffington capitalized on their political conversions, Huffington more successfully than Miller. And with Huffington's recent sale of the Huffington Post to AOL, and her associated announced plan to try to harness as much free labor as possible to fill AOL's coffers with cash, some who previously accepted her conversion are taking another look and asking, "Was it sincere?" You could start by asking if her conservatism was sincere. Frankly, in politics, being able to fake sincerity is a valuable commodity. I suspect that if she possessed that talent, Ann Coulter would presently be a self-professed liberal - her ranting doesn't get her much face time on television and, no matter how absurdly titled, her books don't sell like they used to. Coulter does indignant, self-righteous anger quite well, and certainly there's a crowd that finds such displays to be appealing, but at best that's preaching to the choir. But it is interesting to see how these conversions have boosted (most often temporarily) the public profile of celebrities whose careers are on the wane.

The thing is, even though I see lots of evidence that high profile converts think highly of themselves and their insights, and by virtue of their celebrity they manage to get face time on the television to advance their brands, there's not a one of them whom I would point to and say, "That person gave a really good explanation for their political conversion and why their former positions were incorrect," or even for the single issue conversions, that such an explanation was offered for the one issue that supposedly pushed them over the edge.

Celebrities can be strong advocates for specific issues. Some celebrities are smart, informed people in their own right, and can be respected on that basis. But I'm not seeing the appeal of trumpeting the supposed conversion of a celebrity from one political column to another, and even less so when the celebrity's explanation for the conversion reflects that they remain weak, uninformed (even if self-impressed) political thinkers.

At The American Conservative, Clark Stooksbury recently questioned the political conversion of David Mamet,
Now he has a book coming called The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture— in which according to the the publicity material provided to—Mamet will “take on all the key political issues of our times, from religion to political correctness to global warming.” That sounds distressingly like the sort of right-wing tract published several times a year by conservative talk radio hosts, politicians and teenagers.
Stooksbury accepts that, as described by him, Mamet's liberalism could fairly be characterized as "brain dead" but that "His conservatism doesn’t sound particularly compelling either". Initially, Mamet claimed that his conversion to conservatism was driven by exposure to Thomas Sowell (who at least used to make interesting and thoughtful observations); now he claims that he "doesn't read political blogs or magazines. 'I drive around and listen to the talk show guys,' he said. 'Beck, Prager, Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved.'" Ouch? But far from a surprise if you remember the column in which he explained his conversion.

From the publisher's description of Mamet's new book,
In 2008 Mamet wrote a hugely controversial op-ed for the Village Voice, "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal'", in which he methodically attacked liberal beliefs, eviscerating them as efficiently as he did Method acting in his bestselling book True and False.
I can't speak for his arguments about method acting, but the only thing left excoriated by Mamet's village voice essay was the idea that he should be taken seriously as a political thinker. If the publisher's strongest endorsement of Mamet's credentials remains that editorial, it's reasonable to infer that this is a "follow the money" situation - that Mamet, perhaps a few years too late, is trying to cash in on his political conversion. I wouldn't be surprised if his M.O. remains the same, "I was brain-dead in my political beliefs, but the wisdom and insight of Thomas Sowell Glenn Beck has set me straight." Authors pitching to a common audience frequently exchange endorsements; I suspect that Mamet his hoping to get his favorite right-wing radio hosts to endorse his book.

Is the problem that there aren't enough strong political thinkers available, such that people see it as necessary to pretend that a little league player is qualified for the All-Star team? Are we so far into a culture of celebrity that, on the whole, we can no longer tell the difference? Or is the problem that, as compared with the most brilliant stars with which they compete, celebrities with half-baked, high school level understandings of politics actually are thinking at the same level as the professionals? ("Hi, I used to write speeches for a President but other than that have no apparent qualification to write on political issues." "Congratulations, welcome to the op-ed page of the New York Times.")

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Contest is Back On?

Recall the Frum / Gerson / Thiessen contest? Gerson's making a decent effort, but at this point Thiessen has an incredible lead.

Newt Gingrich, Pitch Man

There's a joke about Newt Gingrich to the effect that he has 100 ideas each day, 99 of which are obviously bad and the other of which is also bad but fools a handful of prominent pundits for a while. Or something like that. The real punch line is that Gingrich doesn't actually have ideas - he seems to operate more like a political incarnation of the late Ed McMahon - push some money into his hand and he'll happily advance an 'idea' on your behalf.

Gingrich is getting some attention right now for being for health insurance mandates - just not, as he later attempt to explain, a federal mandate. Or a mandate that the health insurance you purchase actually be what normal people would recognize as health insurance. What's his game? He's been pushing low-coverage, high deductible health insurance plans for years, to be coupled with health savings accounts (never mind that most people couldn't afford to fund their accounts, let alone at the level necessary to cover their routine health care). Those plans are very lucrative for their purveyors.

Gingrich is smart enough to know that if you create a federal plan, or federal coordination of health insurance reform, you create a context in which few people will qualify for that type of (lack of) coverage - the Health Care Reform Act puts significant restrictions on the population eligible to purchase the plans he (and his corporate sponsors) must wish to foist upon the public. So he advocates mandates ("you have to buy these plans") and subsidies ("with your own, or government money,") but wants to keep the mandate at the state level where it will be easier to push people into the low-coverage plans he views as ideal for everybody... but himself and his family. (Seriously - were he enrolled in such a plan, wouldn't he be shouting it from the rooftops?)

He didn't announce a run for the presidency with the idea that he could win. The people who think he's brilliant should have figured that much out by now - his IQ would have to be somewhere below room temperature to regard himself as a likely winner of the nomination, and even at that he would have to expect to lose the general election. But what a wonderful opportunity to act as a prominent spokesperson for his corporate clients. Sure, he can't fly for free on their private jets for a while, but I'm confident that he'll somehow get enough 'donations' to support private jet service until his campaign officially ends. (Thank goodness for Citizens United.)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Newt Gingrich's Self-Description

According to the New York Times,
[Newt Gingrich] refers to himself as a historian, but apparently his personal study of history has primarily taught him about the effectiveness of demagogy.
How embarrassing. For years, I thought he was calling himself a hysterian. But in fairness to myself, when you can summarize somebody's recent beliefs without parody as, "Watch out for the Kenyan socialist President who is going to allow Sharia law, or maybe even atheists, to take over the country," it seems to me that the person is driven more by hysteria than by history.

[Edited to correct some data corruption from the Blogger outage.]

Newt Gingrich's Poll-Driven, Nonsensical Platform

Many years ago in Canada, the former Progressive Conservative Party, led by Brian Mulroney, entered a national election with an array of promises that were... dare I say, a bit pie in the sky. This led to a parody song, "Brian Mulroney is Wonderful" ("He'll fix what's the matter, and walk on the water, he's wonderful"), including the passage,
He'll cut taxes on farmers and fishers and loggers, and lower the interest and increase the dollar, give loans to build ships and more jobs for the kids, and get bigger grain sales and restore VIA Rail, and expend more on health and the fighting of crime...

And he'll lower the deficit at the same time!
Needless to say, with such unrealistic overpromising, the P.C.'s were, um, victorious at the polls. There's no arguing with victory, so I can't say that it's a surprise when I hear supposedly serious candidates claiming, in effect, that if elected they will draw from a horn of plenty and magically cure everything that ails the nation. But it's one thing, I think, to make ridiculous promises that you would like to keep, and making a host of promises and representations that simply are not consistent with your actual preferred policy choices and political views. Case in point, Newt Gingrich:

You would almost think he had previously served as President, rather than self-immolating as Speaker of the House.
"I'm Newt Gingrich, and I'm announcing my candidacy for President of the United States because I believe we can return America to hope and opportunity, to full employment, to real security, to an American energy program, to a balanced budget."
"... And we'll lower the deficit at the same time."
There's some people who don't mind if America becomes a wreck as long as they dominate the wreckage, but you and I know better.
Was that intentionally phrased in an ambiguous manner? From what I can see, Gingrich has made a career out of representing the people who want to dominate the wreckage of this country. Grover Norquist types wouldn't give me the time of day; Gingrich, on the other hand....
We owe it to our children, our grandchildren, our country, and, frankly, to ourselves. Let's get together, look reality in the face, tell the truth, make the tough choices, get the job done.
That's right, if there's one thing this country need, one thing that will get the country back on track, it's platitudes.
There's a much better American future ahead, with more jobs, more prosperity, a better health system, longer lives, greater independent living, in a country that is decentralized under the Tenth Amendment, with power once again back with the American people and away from Washington bureaucracy.
And did he mention that he'll lower the deficit at the same time? He did? And he exaggerated his role in the balancing of the budget under President Clinton? Well, then, so far so good!

Did he mention that by "better health system" he means "One with far fewer patient rights and protections, that you probably can't afford to use"? It's all relative, you know - whatever the impact on you, his comment is honest if you recognize that the "reforms" he proposes may well make things better for him. And he wants us to live longer... so, what about Social Security? (We, apparently, need to "rethink" it - which is a euphemism for "privatization". But if you go to the pages on that previously contained that information... gone! He's running for President - time to scrub the record.) And it's always refreshing to hear a career Washington politician and bureaucrat promise to move us away from Washington bureaucracy.

[Edited to correct some data corruption from the Blogger outage.]

David Frum on the Fourth Estate

Since I'm dredging up memories of Canada, perhaps a bit unfairly, I sometimes wonder if David Frum benefits from the fact that next to nobody in this country knows who his mother was. In fairness, among U.S. conservative political commentators, nepotism reigns supreme. By moving to the U.S. Frum gave up the direct advantage of having a famous mother, although I expect that his family's political and media connections provided him with a significant boost even after he crossed the border.

Perhaps I need to take a couple of steps backward. Who is David Frum? He's a conservative commentator, originally from Canada, and son of the late and highly respected Canadian journalist Barbara Frum. I remember Barbara Frum most clearly from her role as host of "The Journal", a news magazine that came on after "The National", the evening news programming on CBC television. Despite watching The Journal for a period of years, I didn't get a sense of Frum's politics. Based upon David's politics I suspect that she, her husband, or both were relatively conservative by Canadian standards, but while on the air she didn't push an ideology.

Once he stopped personally attempting to impose ideological litmus tests on conservatives, and once he was cast out of the inner circle of conservative commentators, apparently for his suggestion that the Republicans erred by attempting to stonewall healthcare reform, Frum adopted the public position that conservative litmus tests can be counter-productive and started to speak out against the dominant Republican media personalities, and their influence on the Republican Party.

On a recent episode of Real Time, Frum made a comment to the effect that we don't want media figures influencing political decision-making. His statement was not specific to the Republican Party, but was offered as a general statement about the way things should be. It did not appear to occur to Frum that he is essentially a media personality who would very much like to influence the political debate. But I think it's important to point out that there are no media figures on the left who compare to Limbaugh, and even with his declining influence there are none that compare to Beck. The last comparable media figure who comes to mind would be Walter Cronkite, a man credited with helping to extract this country from the Vietnam War.

Now you can make an argument that politics don't belong in the media, or that news figures should be careful not to influence policy debates, and... well, growing up in Canada Frum perhaps didn't have much exposure to the First Amendment, its origins and purpose, but he should be sufficiently familiar with journalism to recognize that you cannot keep opinion out, that opinion can actually contribute positively to a debate, and that responsible journalists can reasonably assert that one side in a debate has a better argument, or that the other side has its facts wrong. (For all of The Journal's objectivity, the joke song about Brian Mulroney that I mentioned here was aired on that show, aired as part of a brief recurring segment devoted to political humor.) Frum must be familiar with the Canadian news magazine show, "The Fifth Estate," something of a Canadian "60 Minutes", and even if only out of that exposure it's difficult to believe that he's unaware of the concept of the media as the "fourth estate", an unofficial societal or political force.

If you accept that the media can responsibly take issues on controversial subjects of the day (as news magazines routinely do, by choosing which subjects to cover and what position to advance), you can draw a distinction between the media figures that Frum is willing to name as having a corrosive impact on political culture and those that might act responsibly, but whose work might advance a political agenda inconsistent with Frum's preferred policies. Or, for that matter, to admit that he's a media figure and to reconcile his own work to advance a specific political agenda through the media with his implication that doing so is a bad thing.

[Edited to correct some data corruption from the Blogger outage.]

'...But a Rich Person Told Me..."

Some years ago a friend expressed her frustration with the Ann Arbor political left, which she perceived as talking a good game but ultimately deferring to people with wealth or power. As a matter of human nature, or even as a matter of U.S. culture, that's not particularly surprising. But she had higher hopes for well-educated, politically informed people who arguably should be able to distinguish wealth and merit, and to recognize that even when wealth comes from merit the politics it spawns can come from self-interest.

When I hear Andrew Ross Sorkin speak, I am reminded of that observation. For example, the other night on Real Time, Sorkin was describing that a business executive told him that he was creating many new jobs for educated people, but was creating them overseas. "Why?", Sorkin asked. "Because they're smarter," the executive replied, apparently under an express or implied agreement that he would not be named. Sorkin appeared to accept that argument at face value. In reality, though, the U.S. is dripping with talent. The real answer is that U.S. talent costs more. Yes, as international universities have improved, they produce graduates with a much higher skill set than in the past, and thus much more attractive to people like Sorkin's executive. But we're still talking money.

I'm of course also reminded of his credulity when presented with the arguments about the AIG bail-out and the "sanctity of contracts". I previously suggested that Sorkin didn't believe the nonsense he was producing on that argument, but perhaps the issue is that an anonymous insurance executive was whispering in his ear and... instant credulity.

Sorkin's recent column on tax rates reflects the same sort of credulity. Does Sorkin understand marginal tax rates? He probably does, argues Atrios, but "but it's also the case that people who writes about this stuff frequently fail to explain it to readers in a way which seems to be designed to deliberately mislead." Or maybe he's repeating what an anonymous wealthy person told him, and perceives no need to think it through because wealthy people are better than the rest of us. Sorkin categorized himself on Real Time as a "New York Times liberal". And I know he's more than sufficiently informed and educated that, if asked, he would recognize the absurdity of deferring to somebody's opinion merely because that person happened to be wealthy or earning huge bucks as an executive. But here there's not much difference between the author and the reader - like the Ann Arborites my friend criticized, many of whom are Times readers, Sorkin appears to be accepting the positions of his wealthy, powerful sources without reflection.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Facepalm, College Edition

Relating to a recent topic,
FS: I miss your class, man. This [next one in the writing sequence] sucks ass. I got a f***ing [non-passing grade] on the first paper.

SEK: Did you [do everything SEK taught him to do, e.g. revise, revise, revise]?

FS: This prof doesn’t make us revise.

SEK: But what led to you earning an “A” in my class?

FS: All the revising.

SEK: So what do you need to earn an “A” in this next class?

FS: I told you, though, this prof doesn’t make us revise.
Read the whole thing....

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Did You Check the Toilet Tank

David Brooks, apparently, is looking for his "missing fifth," and the toilet tank is a common hiding place for those who find themselves in occasional desperate need for a fifth. No, seriously, Brooks is talking about the rate of unemployment among men,
One of those signs [that the country is becoming less vital and industrious] comes to us from the labor market. As my colleague David Leonhardt pointed out recently, in 1954, about 96 percent of American men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today that number is around 80 percent. One-fifth of all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work.
It's fair to ask a question that perhaps did not occur to Brooks: How many of of the jobs that disappeared between 1954 and 2011 are the sort that represent the best of American opportunity? And how many of them were mundane jobs that have been replaced by robotics and automation, or have been shifted to overseas manufacturing facilities?

Brooks also notes that the number of people on disability is rising.
Ten years ago, 5 million Americans collected a federal disability benefit. Now 8.2 million do. That costs taxpayers $115 billion a year, or about $1,500 per household.
The rise in disability claims is a genuine problem - but it's hardly a surprise that disability claims go up when the job market tanks and millions of workers find themselves unable to find a job even after a year or more of searching.

Brooks really offers nothing in the way of ideas to resolve the problem. His suggestions:
  1. "[E]xpanding community colleges and online learning" - Where's the evidence that retraining older workers through community colleges and "online learning" results in significant numbers of marginalized workers returning to the work force - and when it does work, is it not fair to note that the typical retrained worker takes a significant pay cut and perhaps never recovers his former level of income?

  2. "[C]hanging the corporate tax code and labor market rules to stimulate investment" - What changes does Brooks propose (other than, of course, the implicit "cut corporate taxes and kill unions") that would increase job prospects for marginalized workers? Where's the evidence that corporate tax cuts will increase jobs? (Having successfully reduced its tax rate to 0%, is GE producing exponential numbers of jobs?) If Brooks is suggesting going after unions... you know, so that older, higher paid, "unproductive" workers can be the first to be laid off in an economic downturn... wouldn't that in fact worsen the problem, pushing more marginal workers into chronic unemployment and depressing wages? (You can argue that marginal and bad workers shouldn't be protected from being laid off by virtue of seniority, but that's a question apart from what Brooks is suggesting>)

  3. [A]dopting German-style labor market practices like apprenticeship programs, wage subsidies and programs that extend benefits to the unemployed for six months as they start small businesses." - With the money for these programs coming from where? And who would be charged with designing and implementing these programs, or trying to prognosticate the areas in which new workers should be trained or subsidized?

Even if we were to regard Brooks' tepid ideas as likely to succeed, given that Brooks is a Republican, he should take responsibility for the fact that his party of choice would reject most of his ideas, and would enact tax and anti-union policies in a manner that would most likely worsen the job situation.
Health care spending, which mostly provides comfort to those beyond working years, is expanding. Attempts to take money from health care to open it up for other uses are being crushed.
I think it is fair to note that health care dollars don't simply go up in smoke - if you pull billions of dollars out of the health care system you will cause clinics and hospitals to close and will see medical workers laid off. But for goodness sake, Brooks is complaining that there are too many disabled workers while simultaneously suggesting that part of the solution is to reduce the amount of health care available to those workers, as well as to those who might become disabled?

Brooks is, lamentably, dishonest in his characterization of the health care debate:
There are basically two ways to cut back on the government health care spending. From the top, a body of experts can be empowered to make rationing decisions. This is the approach favored by President Obama and in use in many countries around the world. Alternatively, at the bottom, costs can be shifted to beneficiaries with premium supports to help them handle the burden. Different versions of this approach are embodied in the Dutch system, the prescription drug benefit and Representative Paul Ryan’s budget.

We’ll probably need a mixture of these approaches to figure out what works. Instead, Republicans decry the technocratic rationing model as “death panels.” Democrats have gone into demagogic overdrive calling premium support ideas “privatization” or “the end of Medicare.”
It's not demagoguery to observe that Ryan's plan eliminates Medicare and replaces it with a voucher program that, even if offered under the same name, bears no resemblance to the current system. By way of example, Brooks might consider what would happen if Paul Krugman started ghost writing his columns - but that they continued to be published under the byline of "David Brooks". Sure, the quality would increase, but they would not actually be David Brooks columns. Or consider the cry, "The King is dead, long live the King" - the new king is not the old king. This isn't complicated stuff.
Let’s be clear about the effect of this mendacity: We’re locking in the nation’s wealth into the Medicare program and closing off any possibility that we might do something significant to reinvigorate the missing fifth.
Pots and kettles. Yes, David, let's be honest. Right now, we could take a look at the models of health care offered throughout the developed world, pick one that produces similar or better outcomes in most cases, and implement that system in this nation - and we would see immediate, massive cost savings. We have the greatest market participation of any developed nation, and we have by far the most expensive health care system in the world - but we're not seeing a good return on that additional investment. Where can I find a David Brooks column acknowledging that fact, that undeniable truth, rather than the suggestion that the only choices we have are rationing and imposing significantly higher costs on consumers?

Brooks also seems to be confusing the cart with the horse. Demagoguery about the unaffordability of providing the general public with quality health care doesn't have quite the same salience when the economy is booming, and at least from where I'm sitting it seems that health insurance coverage has already moved significantly in the direction Brooks desires - significantly higher consumer costs, deductibles and copays - as compared to what was available during the various economic booms between the 1950's and the present. And seriously, Brooks is holding up the deficit-financed "Medicare Part D" prescription benefit as good Republican policy in action? How about that....

Poker vs. Online Poker as a Game of Skill

At Economix, Patricia Cohen presents the latest paper on the question of whether poker is a game of luck or game of skill. It seems self-evident that playing poke in person involves both luck and skill. Thus, when you look at skilled players competing in a tournament, you may see that the most skilled players "won an average of more than $1,200 each per event, or received a 30 percent return on their initial investment", because they have developed strategies, have perhaps studied or memorized the odds of victory with various card combinations, and are skilled at reading the other players.

But online poker is something else entirely. If you're playing against a computer, or even if you're at a virtual table with other "real" players, you can't look for the other players' tells. And for all you know, the other live players at the table are running computer programs to analyze the game and calculate their odds of winning. Also, let's not pretend that the typical online poker player is sufficiently skilled to compete in a tournament or, were they to do so, that they would be among the most skilled.

Games worth playing include an element of skill. The rest, really, are children's games with results dictated by the roll of the dice or the turn of a card. Kids can have fun playing, let's say, Candyland, but if it can be said to teach a lesson it is one of determinism. But introducing an element of skill, even a significant element of skill, into a game of chance does not eliminate the element of chance.

I'm also skeptical enough to wonder, how often do online casino sites cheat - tell you that you're up against other "real people" or that you're in an honest game with a computer opponent, but have the computer programmed to periodically load up the computer players with "winning hands" built from cards not yet in play.

Monday, May 09, 2011

"But College Graduates Earn More"

One of the arguments made by proponents of near-universal college attendance is that college graduates earn more over their lifetimes than do people who did not attend college. That's true based upon historical earning figures and averages, but even during peak years of income for college graduates you will find examples of college graduates who, thanks to their choice of degree or academic performance, have limited opportunity for income, as well as plenty of examples of people who did not attend or who dropped out of college and ended up making a great deal of money. A similar analysis could also be made of specific college programs, and would no doubt demonstrate that graduates within certain fields of study (e.g., engineering, architecture, math, computer science) on average earn significantly more money than those from other fields (e.g., social work, communications, political science, philosophy, art).

It's also important to recall that the opportunistic proponents of "college for all" are pushing for-profit colleges, paid for by student loan, that often produce both high debt and a certification that has little to no "real world" value. With an abundance of college graduates to choose from, a college degree is also becoming a de facto requirement for a broad array of jobs that were formerly open to high school graduates. The issue isn't whether a degree is necessary to perform the job - it's that the requirement of a college degree is a quick and easy way to shorten the stack of applicants, and suggests also that college graduates are no more expensive to hire than their peers who lack degrees.

If you want to argue that "College is a voyage of discovery, and everybody who wants the opportunity for that voyage should be able to take it," fair enough - but you should be honest that the subject has shifted away from maximizing income, and also that there is a price to be paid - tuition costs, student loan debts, opportunity costs, etc. - in taking four or more years to pursue that voyage of self-discovery. Not everybody can afford the luxury of a college education. If you push universal college on this basis, you also need to consider how it affects other students - having significant numbers of unqualified or disinterested students in their classes can detract significantly from the college experience. Like it or not, college subsidies are going to continue to trend downward.

If you want to make the purely economic argument then you should be looking at more than "college vs. no college". You should break your argument down so that people making the choice based upon your promise of heightened future income will have the information necessary to select a course of studies that is likely to lead to higher income. If that seems to mercenary, then you're really making a "voyage of discovery" argument. If not, then college should be presented among a full range of career options so that the prospective student can make an informed choice.

Law Enforcement and Dead Suspects

Glenn Greenwald makes a valid point here, but I believe he nonetheless draws the wrong conclusion:
Beyond that, the formal position of the Democratic Party for years -- since John Kerry enunciated it when running against Bush -- has been that Terrorism should be primarily dealt with within a law enforcement rather than war paradigm, and that Terrorists should be viewed as criminals, not warriors; and yet many of the same people who once rejected the war paradigm now turn around and cite war theories to justify bin Laden's killing as a "proper military target" (that isn't necessarily contradictory -- it's possible to argue against a war paradigm while still recognizing that that's the paradigm created by our law -- but the comfort in citing war theories among those who long argued against them is quite striking). Obviously, in a law enforcement setting, one is barred from shooting an unarmed, non-resisting suspect; that can be justified only by resort to war and military theories.
I'm reminded of a law enforcement officer's statement about a fugitive, who had killed several police officers, to the effect of, "If he wants to survive his arrest, he had best be naked and unarmed when the police arrive." There are two sides to that comment: First, the police take it very seriously when somebody has killed their fellow officers. But second, and very importantly, once you cross the line and kill a police officer, that's a line you can be expected to cross again. The implication may well be that, absent something close to a guarantee that the suspect is harmless, the suspect will be shot - but it's also stated that despite his past actions the police would take him into custody if they could be certain that he posed no harm. You can argue that, at least as stated by that officer, their threshold of certainty was too high, but you can also understand why they would err on the side of self-protection.

If the police were to raid the compound of a suspect, perhaps John Yoo's wet dream would come true and they would use a very large number of officers to... I'm not sure what... intimidate him into surrendering without the necessity of close quarters combat, we might have ended up with a long stand-off. (Why am I thinking, though, that long-standoffs with people like bin Laden, holed up in armed, fortified compounds, tend not to end well.) But it seems very likely that had a similar raid occurred inside the U.S. against a known, violent terrorist who had years to prepare his compound against intruders, had armed bodyguards posted in his home, and who was known to be armed as a matter of habit, even if he turned out after-the-fact to have been unarmed, the suspect would have been shot. We would have been told about the guns in the room, and that he appeared to be reaching for one of them, the officers in the incident would have been cleared of wrongdoing, and the amount of controversy would be minimal.

If it turned out that the suspect was successfully captured and later killed, sure, that would change the complexion of the case in the minds of many, but the case for that is presently speculative. (I find this type of parsing of the word "after" to be a bit silly.) I see no reason to be upset because some people, when asked of such a theoretical possibility, respond that they wouldn't care - first because opinions presented in isolation cannot be automatically extrapolated to the public at large, and second because even if the public does hold that position it's human nature. If you were to ask a random person, "Do you support the death penalty," a coin toss would be a reasonable predictor of his answer. If you were to make the question specific, "Do you support the death penalty for people like [John Gacy / Jeff Dahmer / Ted Bundy / Osama bin Laden]", you would have an 80-90% chance of getting a "yes". For erstwhile death penalty opponents I'm not going to argue that it's unreasonable to point out, "But you just said..." or to try to encourage them to think about and reconcile the inconsistency in their opinions, but an off-the-cuff reaction of, "This guy is different," should not come as a surprise.

Greenwald acknowledges this side of human nature, and goes so far as to state that he "understand[s] and respect[s] it", particularly when it is expressed with honesty. He proposes a slippery slope, to the effect of "If this guy is different, why won't the next guy also be different such that we can once again ignore our professed values." I would respond that acting on the exception makes it easier to make the same rationalization in future cases, but that is something you simply have to accept. We're human - even for the most logical of persons, emotions will at times overwhelm reason. Compare and contrast the reactions to a "gotcha" question to the effect of, "What would you do if your wife were raped and murdered" from Michael Dukakis and Mario Cuomo. The acceptable answer was, "I would want the offender dead, but I would want other people to stop me from killing him," not an explanation of how you would rationally stick with your principled opposition to the death penalty.

When Your Actions Are Defensible, You Don't Have to Lie

I'm sure that there are any number of online reactions to John Yoo's recent prevarications in the Washington Post but, even if so, I'll add one more. One of the most incredible aspects of the successful raid on Osama bin Laden's compound is how various incompetents from the Bush Administration have attempted to use the raid to justify torture. Long gone are the days when those same incompetents argued that we didn't actually torture people, and long gone is the "ticking time bomb" excuse for torture. Now the case appears to be that if you obtain through torture any information that with the application of hindsight might somehow connect to a law enforcement success at some point in the future, no matter how many years pass, torture is wonderful, necessary and successful.

The argument belies itself. If the fruits of torture are so accurate and useful, and if the mite of information allegedly gleaned from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in fact led inexorably to the raid on bin Laden, that raid should have occurred six or so years ago - when the information was fresh. Instead what did we see? Yoo's former lord and master, G.W. Bush, declaring that bin Laden was no longer among his priorities - even as far back as 2002:

"The idea of focusing on one person, is, um, really indicates to me that people really don't understand the scope of the mission. Terror is bigger than one person. And, uh, he's just, he's a person who'se now been marginalized.... So, I don't know where he is, nor, you know, I just don't spend that much time on it, Kelly, to be honest with you."
So when G.W. announced that bin Laden was irrelevant, failing to capture or kill him was no big deal, and that he had other things to worry about it, his lap dogs had not one word of criticism. Now, almost a decade later, they're yipping at President Obama because he succeeded where Bush failed, and suddenly bin Laden is the most important fugitive in the world.

If we step back in time, the story of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's torture seems to be something along the lines of this: He was captured and detained for interrogation, and was proving to be a source of valuable intelligence. Then somebody with a Dick Cheney mindset apparently said, "Hey - we'll get even more information if we torture him," and John Yoo happily signed on to write a memo to immunize the torturers from prosecution. Torture proceeded, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed shared countless plots, many of which were never more than pipe dreams, and some of which appear to have been made up on the spot (because, as you know, that's how you stop torture - by telling the torturer what he wants to hear.) And despite the continued protestation of people like Yoo and Marc Thiessen, the torture program was declared a failure and was cancelled.

If, in fact, the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed produced a valuable bit of information that led so easily to bin Laden, as Yoo suggests - facts be damned - why wasn't that lead followed in a timely manner?
The United States located al Qaeda's leader by learning the identity of a trusted courier from the tough interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, and his successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi.

Armed with the courier's nom de guerre, American intelligence agencies later found him thanks to his phone call to a contact already under electronic surveillance. Last August, the courier traveled to bin Laden's compound, but it took another eight months before the CIA became certain that the al Qaeda leader was hiding inside.
Surely Yoo isn't going to try to argue to us that the courier did not visit bin Laden so much as once between the torture of KSM and last August. If Yoo is correct about the value of that information, then he should be honest about how torture impacted the ability of U.S. intelligence to winnow useful information out of the avalanche of garbage KSM produced under torture.

Yoo offers a childish caricature of how the U.S. might have treated captured war criminals had President Obama been in charge after 9/11:
Imagine what would have happened if the Obama administration had been running things immediately following 9/11. After their "arrest," we would have read KSM and al-Libi their Miranda rights, provided them legal counsel, sent them to the U.S. for detention, and granted them all the rights provided a U.S. citizen in criminal proceedings.
Because, you know, it's either that or rendition, black sites and torture - no possible middle ground. Not only is Yoo offering a false dichotomy, it's not even consistent with his argument - he's suggesting that Bush would have tried to gently capture bin Laden, take him into custody and interrogate him, while President Obama was too much of a cowboy. A little consistency, please?

And let's also remember that the Bush Administration did arrest suspected terrorists after 9/11 and, while it did play fast and loose with the Constitution with no small amount of help from people like Yoo, some notable terrorists were Mirandized and were tried in federal court. I don't recall that, at the time, people like Yoo were decrying how the Bush Administration's successful prosecution of terrorists was undermining the war on terror. You didn't hear Yoo scold President Bush for announcing that he wanted to capture bin Laden "dead or alive." You didn't hear so much of a whimper of criticism when Bush ordered a raid that resulted in the deaths of Saddam Hussein's sons, both of whom could have provided valuable intelligence had they been captured alive.

Yoo also acts as if President Obama was in the room when bin Laden was killed, rather than being the person who signed off on a carefully constructed military operation:
As Sunday's operation put so vividly on display, Mr. Obama would rather kill al Qaeda leaders—whether by drones or special ops teams—than wade through the difficult questions raised by their detention. This may have dissuaded Mr. Obama from sending a more robust force to attempt a capture.
Were Yoo an honest man he would admit that, had President Obama turned the mission into a larger operation intended to capture bin Laden, he and his ilk would be the first to point their fingers and screech about his "meddling in a military operation" had the mission failed, or had any soldiers died or been taken prisoner. Had President Obama instructed military leaders to change their plan to prioritize capture, and had that resulted in a similar failure, Yoo would similarly be screeching about the President's incompetence. Bin Laden is reported to have always had a weapon within reach, and he could easily have had his compound rigged with explosives - Yoo's fantasies of, "Maybe if we had sent more helicopters and more soldiers" really aren't reflective of the reality of what happens when soldiers enter a small room to engage in close quarters combat. (In fairness, perhaps Yoo learned military strategy by playing Doom.)

As it stands, the mission was a success, but success isn't good enough for Yoo. Perhaps it's too good, because people like Yoo sometimes seem to be programmed to root for the President to fail. But it's abundantly clear that, even if he thought otherwise, Yoo would have either lavished praise upon G.W. for a similar raid or, at most, kept his mouth shut. Just as he wouldn't be praising the current President for successfully capturing bin Laden, had the man been taken alive.

Yoo insists that capturing bin Laden "alive would have required the administration to hold and interrogate bin Laden at Guantanamo Bay". Why? Does Yoo believe that the U.S. never held an international criminal, terrorist, or war criminal before we built that prison in Cuba? Has he failed to review the Supreme Court rulings that have resulted from the Bush Administration's treatment of prisoners that have dramatically reduced what were intended as the benefits of the Guantanamo prison - the notion of people like Yoo that the U.S. could sequester prisoners in its custody from any constitutional protections? Perhaps he's imagining that it would become politically necessary, thanks to the hypocritical squawkings of prominent Republicans who, up to Obama's election, favored closing the Guantanamo prison.

As for Yoo's quaint notion that the President should "restart the interrogation program that helped lead us to bin Laden", I again remind him that it was not the Obama administration that abandoned the Bush era torture program as a failure. That was President Bush.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Hard Work Can Come at the End of Long Work

Seth Godin illustrates his theory of hard work vs. long work by alluding to the legal profession:
Long work is what the lawyer who bills 14 hours a day filling in forms does.

Hard work is what the insightful litigator does when she synthesizes four disparate ideas and comes up with an argument that wins the case--in less than five minutes.
Which lawyer do you think is billing by the hour and which is working on a fixed or contingency fee?

Seriously, though, I suspect Godin hasn't spent much time looking at what lawyers actually do for a living. Yes, you may find what you think to be the seminal case or come up with what should be a winning argument inside of five magic minutes, but that doesn't mean that opposing counsel will read the case the way you do. Or the judge. I recall a trial in which a judge, responding to an objection that a witness's own out-of-court statements were hearsay, "That's not what they taught at my law school." If it's on the finer points of the rules of evidence, fat lot of good the "winning argument" is going to do in that court. And then, of course, you have appellate courts in which your perfect precedent may be revised, narrowed or reversed.

The lay notion that there's always a statute or case exactly on point is one that doesn't often hold true in legal practice. There's almost always a way to distinguish a case based even upon slight differences in fact or in the legal issues presented. The five minutes it takes to find the best, most relevant case may be followed by several hours preparing a motion and brief to present the argument to opposing counsel and the court.

Frankly, in most cases the issues aren't that complex. When you're looking at a car accident in which both drivers claim that they had right-of-way, the brilliant, winning idea would presumably be, "The other driver is lying or mistaken." But pulling together all of the relevant evidence, photographs, and witness statements necessary to prove that to a court will be a time-consuming process. Yes, on rare occasion you might find the damning memo buried in boxes of documents delivered by the opposing party and know, within minutes, that you're going to settle or win the case, but odds are those documents were delivered by truck - that is, you're only going to find the memo by plodding through dozens to hundreds of boxes filled with similar documents.

It may, in fact, be the attorney in the forms-driven practice who is better able to follow Godin's suggestion - for example, he can hire a paralegal or two to complete the paperwork, such that he can serve more clients while performing less work himself. Or he can create an automated system in which the client fills out an initial online questionnaire and 95% of the spaces on the forms are automatically populated with the client's information, significantly reducing the amount of work necessary to revise and refine the document to the client's specific need.

Back when I was in law school, a graduate student who was studying math and computer science suggested that it might, ultimately, be possible to create a computer program to analyze case law, then fork through the cases to automatically find appropriate outcomes to legal disputes. Godin's comment reminds me of that proposal - it would be nice if it were true, but in the world of legal disputes the human factor is simply too great for that to ever become a reality.

Not Everybody Belongs in College

In "Why Do I Have an F?", Eliana Osborn asks,
I got one of those e-mails I dread, the ones that come a few times a semester. “I thought I was doing great,” a student wrote, “but I see that I have an F. Can you explain?”

Sure I can explain, but students don’t seem to listen. Grades in my course, according to the nonnegotiable syllabus from the college, are made up of tests and essays. That’s it. All of the other things a student may be doing right will help them to get good grades on their tests and essays, but not always. A diligent student who reads the texts but refuses to turn in a full essay is out of luck.
That, of course, is not the end of things:
After midterm grades I hear from another batch of students. Those who feel like giving up. “Is there any way I can get my grade higher?” comes the plaintive e-mailed complaint. Yes, I reply. Come to class every week and do every assignment.

That is not the answer many of them want to hear. They want extra credit, chances to make up tests, magic points that appear out of nowhere just because they asked.
This from an instructor who gives lots of extra chances to students who simply make an effort:
I generally let students correct and improve their essays. I teach mainly low-level developmental English courses and the point is to get students’ skills to a place where they are able to complete regular college coursework. Students who don’t take advantage of the opportunity I offer to improve their essays, and thus their grade, have a hard time gaining my sympathy. I just gave a grade to a paper after the fourth set of revisions. I am sick to death of reading it. But the student was willing to keep trying so I figured I could only do the same.
I will grant, sure, there are some students who need that level of support due to extenuating circumstances - a limited understanding of the English language, or perhaps an atrocious high school experience that masks their potential - but in most cases I suspect we're trying to prepare kids for college who would be better served by either getting a different form of training or entering the workforce. A student who makes a sincere effort to revise and improve an essay, whatever it takes to pass the class, likely has a work ethic that will carry over more profitably to other areas.

But those students who lack the basic work ethic, whether or not they would be able to adequately complete their course work if they tried, simply don't belong in college. They contribute to a creeping "culture of dumb", the high school insecurity that keeps kids from correctly answering questions or participating in class lest they bee deemed "nerds", "eggheads", "brown nosers", etc., into college classrooms. And they waste everybody's time, including their own. Odds are they're not going to graduate, anyway, so (aside from the cynical view that the college is happy to take their tuition checks for as long as they're enrolled, and thus wants to stretch out the process, or that the student is happy to live a taxpayer subsidized life of partying as long as the student loan checks keep coming in) do everybody a favor and guide them toward options to which they're more suited - or simply kick 'em out.

One response might be to harken back to the era of the "gentleman's C", the college era in which a suitably pedigreed and connected student could coast through a college program and end up with a degree, albeit with an unimpressive GPA. But historically colleges were a lot cheaper, that sort of person was probably funding his college years principally or exclusively through a parental subsidy, and pretty much anybody with a college degree would find employment. Perhaps times haven't changed that much for the wealthy - the lowest performing children of the wealthy, after all, tend to earn more money than the highest performing children from poor families - but I don't think that anybody needs to be reminded that in the present world a college degree is anything but a guaranty of employment.