Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Attention Fans And Foes Of Fieger

Appellate Law and Practice has the latest on Geoff Fieger's continuing legal battle with the Michigan Supreme Court.

Christmas Tips for Parents of Two-Year-Olds

If you have gifts wrapped to take to a relative's house and leave them within reach, don't be surprised to hear the sound of ripping paper accompanied by the question, "What's this?"

If you label those gifts with a Sharpie, don't be surprised if.... [Your imagination is probably not as bad as the reality. ;-)]

Don't be surprised when the two-year-old finds the greatest joy in (a) unwrapping presents, and (b) the cheapest gift she receives.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Friday, December 15, 2006

Is G.W. Bush A Genius When He's Behind Closed Doors?

I heard some comments on NPR a few days ago which brought to mind my prior thoughts on why George Bush is reportedly much more articulate in public than in private.
Here's a slightly different spin on [perceptions of Bush as stupid] - Bush talks down to the American public, spinning carefully scripted and packaged positions which are designed to advance his agenda while satisfying the largest possible number of likely Republican voters. If you accept that he believes what he is saying, some of those positions can make him seem stupid. This can even help explain some of the "he's wonderfully articulate in private" contradictions. In a private, off-the-record moment he is freed from his script and can actually address the facts and issues as opposed to hiding behind insipid sound bites. (Surely he does have a better plan for Iraq than "adapt to win", even if that's all he seems to say when asked about the situation in public.)
The comments I heard inspired me to consider yet another possibility.... Specifically, the person commented that in a private meeting Bush is articulate, informed, and doesn't resort to talking points.

Early in Bush's Presidency I heard it argued that Bush is inarticulate about things he doesn't care about, and articulate about issues that really matter to him. My proposal above was that many of the positions he takes in public are stupid, leading to the impression that somebody who says a lot of stupid things is probably stupid himself. But here's another possibility which, in a sense, ties the two together: Bush is a really bad liar. He stumbles over his words when he doesn't believe what he is saying. It is interesting in this context to note that no matter how tepid his prior performance, when Bush loses his temper at a press conference there is nothing ambiguous in his language and he doesn't trip over his words - he says what he means, quite clearly.

This could also explain why nobody turns on a tape recorder or videotapes a private session of Bush being brilliant and articulate behind closed doors - he goes off-message, and it's better politically for him to be perceived as inarticulate than to have the public know what he really thinks and intends.

Somehow it seems to be more comforting to just think of him as a bit slow....

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Beginning Of The End in Iraq?

Back before the U.S. invaded Iraq, a number of worst case scenarios were advanced by anti-war activists, with the effects of the invasion depicted as rippling through the region, toppling friendly regimes and resulting in general chaos. These of course were largely dismissed or ridiculed by proponents of the war. But now David Brooks has apparently reconsidered. In After The Fall he envisions just that occurring through the course of a "thirty year war" which follows a U.S. withdrawal:
In fall 2007, the United States began to withdraw troops from Iraq, and so began the Second Thirty Years’ War. This war was a bewildering array of small and vast conflicts, which flared and receded and flared again across the entire Middle East, but which were joined by a common theme.

The essence of all this disorder was that the Arab nation-states lost control. Subnational groups — like Hezbollah and the Mahdi Army — and supranational groups — like loosely connected terror networks, the new Sunni and Shiite Leagues and the satellite television networks — went from strength to strength while central national governments toppled and fell. The collapse of national governments led to a power vacuum that the more authentic and deeply rooted social groups sought to fill.
Meanwhile, Spencer Ackerman reminds us that before the war we were often hearing quite the opposite from the pro-war side.

These scenarios have their value, of course, and at times they may even prove to be what occurs. But for the most part they have to be recognized for what they are - a doctrinaire trip down the slipperly slope. The proponents of all of these scenarios have one thing in common - they underestimate the ability of tyrants and dictators to control their populations and hold on to power.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Backscatter Machines and Privacy

Over at TalkLeft, there is some discussion of the TSA's planned installation of a body scanner with "backscatter" technology in the Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. The post addresses the technology from a privacy standpoint, but I have a common sense objection to the TSA's stated policy on the use of this machine.

It was interesting to read that the TSA has developed protocols relating to the storage of images from the machine - no images will be stored, and nothing can be printed. Reportedly they have also implemented a "privacy algorithm [which] would eliminate much of the detail shown in the images of the individual while still being effective from a security standpoint" - I guess they digitally put your underwear back on before displaying the image (or perhaps it's more like pasties and a G-string?) I had this discussion with somebody in the federal government quite some time ago, in the context of the use of this technology in federal buildings, and discussed at that time how it should be possible to find a way to process the image to reduce or eliminate the "nudity" without affecting its efficacy. That discussion had nothing to do with the TSA, and has nothing to do with the TSA's recognition of the technological tweaking I had thought obvious. I mention it only because it seems to have taken a long time for the proponents of this technology to implement even modest [no pun intended] changes to the image processing software which would remove a lot of the privacy concerns.

But do we need to be concerned about these machines as an invasion of privacy? Or are they primarily a waste of money.
The security agency's website indicates that the technology will be used initially as a secondary screening measure, meaning that only those passengers who first fail the standard screening process will be directed to the X-ray area.

Even then, passengers will have the option of choosing the backscatter or a traditional pat-down search.
Has any type of cost analysis or efficiency analysis been done to see whether the cost of purchasing and maintaining these machines, and staffing them with technicians, would exceed the cost of, say, adding another agent or two and a few additional curtained areas where pat-downs could be conducted? If a pat-down is a sufficient substitute for the machine, it seems like a huge investment in unnecessary technology. If not, then passengers who wish to smuggle contraband will request a pat-down.

If the plan is to march so many people through the machine that the TSA can't realistically pat them all down, the privacy concern becomes a bit different, as that would make it appear that the criteria for subjecting somebody to this more intensive screening are too lax. One would hope that the plan isn't to loosen screening standards such that a sufficient number of passengers can be marched through the machine so as to justify its cost.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

"Where's The Reset Button On This War [Game]"?

Although I don't claim to have originated the idea, I have shared the perspective that some of the biggest proponents of the Iraq war seem to be confused about what a war entails, and appear to believe that if things go wrong they can press a "reset" button and start over, as if they were playing a video game. And now comes Thomas Friedman,
On Feb. 12, 2003, before the war, I wrote a column offering what I called my “pottery store” rule for Iraq: “You break it, you own it.” It was not an argument against the war, but rather a cautionary note about the need to do it with allies, because transforming Iraq would be such a huge undertaking. (Colin Powell later picked up on this and used the phrase to try to get President Bush to act with more caution, but Mr. Bush did not heed Mr. Powell’s advice.)

But my Pottery Barn rule was wrong, because Iraq was already pretty broken before we got there — broken, it seems, by 1,000 years of Arab-Muslim authoritarianism, three brutal decades of Sunni Baathist rule, and a crippling decade of U.N. sanctions. It was held together only by Saddam’s iron fist. Had we properly occupied the country, and begun political therapy, it is possible an American iron fist could have held Iraq together long enough to put it on a new course. But instead we created a vacuum by not deploying enough troops.
Oh, right. Try that at Pottery Barn. "I bought this vase three years ago and I've been using it the whole time, but it's leaking and I think that's because it was broken when I bought it. Can I get a refund?" You know what? It makes sense to be a more careful consumer, making sure that you know that you are buying exactly what you intend to buy, particularly when there's a huge sign over the cash register that reads "All Sales Final! Absolutely No Returns!" What's really going on here? Friedman doesn't want to take responsibility for his role in cheerleading the botched adventure in Iraq, so he's scrambling to somehow make its failure somebody else's - anybody else's - fault.

Friedman describes us as having two choices - Ten Months or Ten Years - pull out, or press the reset button:
Given this, we need to face our real choices in Iraq, which are: 10 months or 10 years. Either we just get out of Iraq in a phased withdrawal over 10 months, and try to stabilize it some other way, or we accept the fact that the only way it will not be a failed state is if we start over and rebuild it from the ground up, which would take 10 years. This would require reinvading Iraq, with at least 150,000 more troops, crushing the Sunni and Shiite militias, controlling borders, and building Iraq’s institutions and political culture from scratch.
I don't actually believe that Friedman is seriously endorsing restarting the war. I think he's trying to put the alternatives in sufficiently stark terms (with his "plan for victory" sufficiently unrealistic) to force the choice of withdrawal. But whatever he thinks, he obviously anticipates that many of his readers will believe that we can still push the reset button.

Tort Reformers Focusing On The... Big Problems?

According to a letter from Sherman Joyce, President of the "American Tort Reform Association",
Our efforts to reform the tort system address the greatest abuses, such as allowing lawsuits that do not require proof of actual injury or loss, denying the right of defendants to appeal judgments against them, and permitting pseudo-experts to peddle "junk" science in courtrooms.
The "greatest abuses".... Okay, I'll bite.
  • In what percentage of cases do tort plaintiffs proceed and prevail in cases "that do not require proof of actual injury or loss"? Here they are referencing cases which involve, for example, toxic exposure, where the victim may require medical monitoring and have legitimate fear of developing an illness. Their problem with medical monitoring, in their own words, does not appear to be its present implementation, but a hypothetical future where "Widespread acceptance of medical monitoring would expose all businesses to unprecedented liability and costs." The good old dependable "slippery slope" fallacy.

  • In what percentage of cases are defendants denied "the right ... to appeal judgments against them"? The only reference I can find to this on ATRA's website is its suggestion that "billion-dollar verdicts are no longer uncommon" (er, they're not?) and that some defendants facing multi-billion dollar verdicts can't afford to post appeal bonds. This happened twenty or so years ago in Pennzoil v Texaco, and since in the high profile case of... of... of... Well, don't go looking for help on ATRA's site, because apparently they don't know of another example, either.

  • In what percentage of cases are tort plaintiffs and defendants free to present the testimony of "pseudo-experts" who "peddle 'junk' science in courtrooms"? (Does this actually mean something other than "It's horrible that tort plaintiffs are permitted to present expert witnesses who differ in opinion from those who serve the defense"?) Funny... this crucial issue doesn't seem to merit mention on ATRA's "issues" page.
This is how they put their best foot forward? Well, I suppose if the mainstream media is willing to print their nonsense, it works for them.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What's Wrong With These Pictures?

Compare and Contrast: See one woman who was deemed "too fat" by the industry "experts" in a modeling contest, and another who appears (at least) borderline anorexic who was deemed "sensational". (Viewers of the competition, to their credit, differed in their assessment.)

Monday, November 27, 2006

Saturday, November 25, 2006

"The Democrats Is Stupid"

Before I saw that it is being more or less shredded all over the blogosphere, that's the headline I thought might better fit The Struggle Within, Thomas Edsall's latest New York Times editorial. The most common criticisms of the piece seem to be that Edsall believes that the Democrats can only succeed while catering to a fickle group of swing voters who could as easily vote Republican in the next election, whereas the Democrats have tried to build a more stable foundation for a "progressive" platform. I think this is a bit of a mushy criticism, as the term "progressive" often seems to be no better defined than the term "libertarian" - I would challenge anybody to fill a room with a random selection of self-described progressives (or libertarians) and try to come to a consensus as to the meaning of the term.

It doesn't mean much to say that the nation has embraced a progressive agenda if there is no agreement as to what that means. In fact that seems as misguided as the position of Karl Rove's adherents, often derided alongside Edsall's editorial, that the nation had embraced moderate conservativism - if the last year has demonstrated anything, it is that this nation's factions of self-described conservatives have a lot less in common than they (and Karl Rove) had previously assumed - and perhaps that a good number of them are more thoughtful (and more progressive) than many self-described progressives had previously assumed.

But enough of that - on to my problems with Edsall's piece. I don't disagree with the thesis that sometimes it is necessary for a political party to make a break - perhaps a painful break - with some of its historical positions and historical groups of supporters in order to obtian or maintain a mandate to govern. But I disagree with pretty much every specific issue raised by Edsall as something the Democrats should abandon.
Many Democratic constituencies — organized labor, minority advocacy organizations, reproductive- and sexual-rights proponents — are reliving battles of a decade or more ago, not the more subtle disputes of today. Public sector unions, for example, at a time of wide distrust of government, are consistently pressing to enlarge the state. For these players, adapting to a re-emergent center will be costly.
As his first and last example is the labor union, perhaps that's a place to begin. The problems that can be created by unions are anything but secret, and to say that today's unions are not thriving would be an understatement. Edsall presumably focuses on public sector unions because of the current weakness of private sector unions. Edsall doesn't state what he wants the Democratic Party to do, but he seems to be suggesting that they can only maintain relevance by ensuring that private sector unions languish as they do their best to undermine public sector unions. I don't think that's either true or that it would be wise policy.

In a sense, the Democratic Party may have an "Only Nixon could go to China" moment with unions - an opportunity to review labor laws in association with union leaders to determine how to make unions more relevant to today's business environment. In terms of public sector unions, Edsall is probably most concerned about the possibility of the expansion of union rights to the TSA, but that's really not where the largest problems lie - and I am skeptical that all the sound and fury of Fox News and right-wing radio would make a reform which let TSA agents unionize would be anything more than a political blip. The biggest problems with public unions lie at the state and local level, where the cost of union benefits (particularly health care) threatens the financial stability of many governmental units. There's also a peculiar aspect to public sector unions in that, as management almost always gives itself better benefits than are awarded to union members by contract, there can be a disincentive for governmental units to truly negotiate for the best labor deals. These problems will not be easy to address, but it nonetheless seems feasible that a Democratic agenda which includes modest labor law reform and steps toward national health care could be deemed acceptable by public sector unions, the leaders of which seem to recognize that the status quo cannot be sustained indefinitely (even if they do their jobs by stretching things out as long as they possibly can). Even if these issues are not tackled directly, health care reforms could provide significant indirect benefits to state and local governments by diminishing or even removing an increasingly contentious issue from labor negotiations.

Similarly, as we move past the era of traditional affirmative action programs, it will be necessary for the political parties to address issues of race relations and integration. It is silly to suggest that the Democrats should walk away from these issues, when they would be much better served by maintaining a dialog with minority organizations such as the NAACP, developing new strategies to advance racial equality. I don't hear Edsall complaining about the elements of "No Child Left Behind" which aim to diminish racial inequality, so it seems safe to assume that he knows it is possible to work toward a more equal society without the use of racial preferences.

In terms of "reproductive- and sexual-rights proponents", I assume he's speaking not of the right of access to contraception, but to abortion rights, gay marriage and civil unions. I don't believe that the Democratic Party would do itself any favors by abandoning its overall stance in favor of reproductive rights, and I suspect that the backlash against gay marriage and civil unions has peaked. I don't expect the Democratic Party to take any strident positions on either issues. If recent elections are any indication, Edsall's fears are misplaced - the Democrats tiptoe very carefully around these issues without any apparent fear that their refusal to endorse stronger abortion rights or gay marriage will hurt them at the ballot box.

And next comes "They is stupid":
An army of conservative media is determined to recreate the political climate so advantageous to the G.O.P. in 1994. At the same time, very liberal senior House Democrats now have vastly enhanced power to add inflammatory provisions to bills moving through their committees (think Rangel and the draft).

Nancy Pelosi and her closest advisers in the House are more likely to support such radioactive amendments than to serve as guard dogs protecting a slender Democratic majority.
Well, if they truly are stupid, and they truly demonstrate themselves unfit to govern, the Democratic Party deserves to lose the next election regardless of whether they're catering to the left, right or center. I just don't see this happening. On the whole, I'm left wondering if Edsall's critics are correct - that his biggest concern is not with the future of the country, but with trying to breathe life back into the thesis he outlined in his latest book, Building Red America. Perhaps rather than lecturing the Democrats about what should no longer be important to them, he should consider lecturing Republicans on those issues they had deemed unimportant but which cost them the election.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

If Only Iraq Were Like Vietnam....

Some interesting comments from Condoleezza Rice,
Rice's remarks came in response to an American questioner who drew a parallel between "our recent misadventures in Iraq and the tragedy of the Vietnam War some 30 years ago."

The Bush administration rejects any such comparison, but Rice said Iraq could learn something from Vietnam's example. The country has thrived since making tough choices about its internal divisions and economy and is now Southeast Asia's fastest-growing economy.

"The Iraqis, if they do make good decisions, like Vietnam has made good decisions, if they will take tough decisions," and the world supports them, "they can and will have a better chance," Rice said.
Oh, yes... those tough choices it made. After the Americans left (call it "Victory With Honor" or "defeat", as you prefer) the North Vietnamese took absolute control of the entire nation and set about rounding up and punishing anybody who had collaborated with the enemy. Those who were fortunate enough to survive their reeducation (which included such tasks as using rudimentary tools to clear mine fields) and their families were excluded from employment and educational opportunity. Many fled the nation, at great risk to themselves. After some ill-considered military incursions by Cambodia, Vietnam conquered and occupied that nation, not withdrawing until reductions in Soviet subsidies left continued occupation unaffordable.

I don't wish to understate the progress Vietnam has made in the past two decades, but it is still a communist, totalitarian nation, and its unity results in no small part from the fact that at the end of the war the North could impose its will through a large, war-hardened army. It is not at all clear that Rice is suggesting that the parallel would include the ethnic conflicts of Iraq, with the Vietnamese of the north and south somehow analogized to Sunni and Shiite factions in Iraq. But it would be a poor analogy.

Rice seems to imagine that the people on the streets in Iraq could look at Vietnam, understand its resentments toward colonial occupation, the two French Wars, and what it calls the American War, and understand that their nation can bypass the decades of recriminatio, retaliation, internal oppression, and warfare with and occupation of neighboring nations, if only they lay down their arms and embrace... er, an iron-fisted, totalitarian government that moderates its actions in order to attract foreign investment and tourism? When Rice praises Vietnam for meeting "international norms" and urges nations like Burma/Myanmar and North Korea to follow its lead, is she limiting her comments to economic norms?

I suspect this betrays the root of the neo-con dream, as intimated by Krauthammer a few days ago, that everything could be perfect (or close enough to perfect) in Iraq had only we imposed a corrupt, self-serving, but capitalist thug (Ahmed Chalabi) as leader, permitted him to demonstrate unbridled violence against any sign of dissent or disorder (e.g., "shooting looters"), and doing him the favor of crushing any coherent military force which might oppose him. Perhaps, like Krauthammer, she doesn't think that Iraqis (or Vietnamese) are sufficiently prepared for democracy, but as long as they are stable and can be profitably engaged in commerce, the rest is just talk.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A Michigan "What If"?

What if a school bus driver got tired of the kids in her bus, pulled over on the inside shoulder of I-94 without turning on her overhead red flashing lights or extending her stop sign, told the kids to "get off and cross the road", then sat on the shoulder blocking oncoming traffic from seeing the children. The kids, intimidated by the many lanes of high speed traffic, wait for a while before one finally tries to cross. Would the school district or bus driver have any potential liability if that child was struck by a car - the driver of which could not see the child prior to impact because his line of sight was blocked by the school bus? According to the Michigan Supreme Court... absolutely not.

The school district would enjoy governmental immunity. Although there is a motor vehicle exception to governmental immunity, the exception would not apply because there was no direct physical contact between the bus and the vehicle that hit the child, nor was there direct contact between the child and the bus.

The bus driver would be deemed grossly negligent for such an act - that's obvious - and normally an act of gross negligence would prevent a claim of governmental immunity. But it wouldn't be "the one most immediate, efficient, and direct cause preceding" the child's injury. The child's "decision to cross the street at the moment when she did" would be "the immediate, efficient, and direct cause of her injury." Thus the school bus driver would also be immune from liability.

Note, the school bus driver in the actual case did not stop on the highway - she stopped at an intersection and, with her overhead lights off, told a child to get off the bus and cross the road. The dissenting judge in the Court of Appeals, after expressly reciting the rule that the facts in a summary disposition case are to be taken in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, observed that there was "testimony indicat[ing] that [the child] failed to immediately heed this instruction". This appears to reference testimony from a witness who was not even at the scene, and was applied to somehow free the court to ignore witness testimony that the child immediately crossed. The I-94 scenario is not an exaggeration - this decision would grant immunity given those facts.

Just ask the folks at "Overlawyered" where you are unlikely to read about this case - as long as the atrocity favors the defendant, atrocious outcomes in tort cases are fine. Right? (Helfer v Center Line Public Schools - Court of Appeals Decision; Supreme Court Reversal)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

David Brooks Asks: What's The Matter With Kansas... And Iowa... and Texas?

A few movie reviews of Borat:
So, what does all of this have to do with David Brooks, you ask? Behind the firewall, after taking digs at American Idol, The Daily Show and "culture-war comedians [like Bill Maher] whose jokes heap scorn on the sorts of people who are guaranteed not to be in the audience", Mr. Brooks has this to say:
And so we enter the era of mass condescension. Thanks to the creativity of our cultural entrepreneurs, we enter a time when we can gather in large groups and look down at our mental, social and spiritual inferiors.

* * *

But, of course, the crowning glory of the current moment is the “Borat” movie, an explosively funny rube-baiting session orchestrated by a hilarious bully.

The genius of Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance is his sycophantic reverence for his audience, his refusal to challenge the sacred cows of the educated bourgeoisie. During the movie, Borat ridicules Pentecostals, gun owners, car dealers, hicks, humorless feminists, the Southern gentry, Southern frat boys, and rodeo cowboys. A safer list it is impossible to imagine.

* * *

The more tolerant the simpletons try to be toward Borat, the more he drags them into the realm of anti-Semitism and vileness. The more hospitable they try to be, the dumber they appear for not understanding the situation.
Brooks extrapolates,
Finally, there’s blue America snobbery, as people on the coasts try to fathom those who would vote for George W. Bush. The only logical explanation is that they are racist, anti-Semitic idiots who can be blamelessly ridiculed.
Perhaps I should admit that I didn't find the little bit of Cohen's "Da Ali G Show" that I saw to be funny, and I have no intention of seeing Borat. Even if I accept the critical position that the film is hilarious, the tactics used to obtain releases were at times reprehensible.

Yet from what I have read, if Brooks has in fact seen the movie, it's hard to know what to make of his column. First, he describes the movie as "hilarious" - is this entire column an exercise in self-flaggelation for his lauging - sneering, even - at Red State Americans? (Brooks has no problem with sneering - as the column shows, he happily sneers at Blue State Americans. He has a long history of sneering at intellectuals. And within that column he implicitly sneers at dumb jocks who grow up to vote Republican, whom he fancies himself as leading around by the nose - in his own words, his brand of former high school nerd has "learned to speak slowly so the jocks will understand them."

But among his examples from Borat - the frat boys. News accounts indicate that the frat boys demonstrated misogyny and lamented the end of slavery. What problem does Brooks have with ridiculing bigots who favor enslaving African Americans? What's elitist about outing that form of bigotry, and looking down on it? (Oh sure, they're pulling the Mel Gibson "I was drunk so what I said doesn't really count" defense - which is an excuse I categorically reject. Alcohol lowers your inhibitions so you are less guarded about saying what you actually believe.) The feminists... He's speaking of the group of educated women who appear in the film in a New York art gallery? (How dare liberal Blue Staters sneer at those... liberal Blue Staters....) The rodeo cowboy - this is the person who was wistful for the day when Americans could get away with killing gay people? Again, Brooks has a problem with making this brand of bigot look like an idiot?

Perhaps he believes that he's allowed to laugh at the victims of Cohen's "hilarious" bullying because he believes himself to have unique insight, such that he and he alone recognizes that the victims (other than, perhaps, those New York feminists) don't represent Red America. Ah yes, David... You are so much better than everybody else. And if anybody is positioned to tell us we're in "The Heyday of Snobbery", surely it's you.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Can Money Really Burn A Hole In Your Pocket?

If your pocket is full of 50 euro notes, maybe so....

Trade Deficits and Health Care

In an unsigned editorial the New York Times opines,
The Democrats need to take a more pragmatic view of the lopsided trade situation. The surest way to make American businesses more competitive — and workers more secure — is to resolve the nation’s health care mess. And the government needs to update and strengthen the safety net for workers who are hurt by global competition.
One of the joys of the unsigned editorial is that the author can express half-baked ideas with absolute certainty. But what do those suggestions mean? How do you "strengthen the safety net for workers who are hurt by global competition"? Train experienced workers to gain entry level jobs at a fraction of their former salary? Extend unemployment benefits?

As for national health care, the last time the Democratic Party made that a priority it was, to put it mildly, unsuccessful. The problems of establishing universal health care have been discussed and debated countless times. It may well be that "resolving the nation's health care mess" will help keep U.S. plants open, help keep existing jobs in the U.S., and help attract new jobs which might otherwise have been created in foreign nations. But what solution do you choose? And how do you implement it?

I suspect that if the author had any solid ideas, they would have been shared - perhaps under a byline. As it stands, as is quite typical of unsigned editorials, it attempts to define the way the world should be then leave it to others to figure out how to make it happen.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

"Call Me A Democrat"

Apparently the benefits of retaining seniority exceed the allure of claiming to be an independent. It's probably the best political decision for everyone involved... politically speaking.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Krauthammer on Lieberman

Charles Krauthammer attempts to understate the relevance of this week's election, perhaps unaware of the implication of his own claims:
The Republicans had control but by very small majorities. In 2000 the presidential election was settled by a ridiculously small margin. And the Senate ended up deadlocked 50-50. All the changes since then have been minor. Until now.

* * *

The result is that both parties have moved to the right. The Republicans have shed the last vestiges of their centrist past, the Rockefeller Republicans. And the Democrats have widened their tent to bring in a new crop of blue-dog conservatives.
Unless he presupposes that the center has shifted along with the Republican party, assuming Krauthammer correct, a nation that was formerly split about 50:50 will continue to vote with a belief set that is now better aligned with the Democratic Party. This inference is also manifest in Krauthammer's claims about Joe Lieberman:
To muddy even more the supposed ideological significance of this election, consider who is the biggest winner of the night: Joe Lieberman. Just a few months ago he was scorned by his party and left for dead. Now he returns to the Senate as the Democrats' 51st seat -- and holder of the balance of power.
The same, of course, can be said for any senator among the 51 who comprise the Democratic majority. Lieberman's not even the only independent who will caucus with the Democrats. Apparently, among the 51, Krauthammer believes Lieberman to have the least loyalty to the Democratic Party and the greatest desire to demand tribute for his fickle commitment - is that truly what he believes? Further,
Lieberman won with a platform that did not trim or hedge about seeking victory in Iraq. And he did it despite having a Republican in the race who siphoned off 10 percent of the pro-war vote. All this in Connecticut, a very blue state.
Sure. And in a "red" state the Republican might have even been backed by his own party, which skews the significance of the outcome. But let's play it Krauthammer's way.

In 2000, Lieberman won reelection 63 - 34 against his Republican opponent. If it is reasonable to infer that the overwhelming majority of the 24% of Connecticut residents who did not vote Republican in 2006 chose Lieberman over Lamont, then almost half of the voters who chose Lieberman were Republican. If in fact, as he suggests, Lieberman is the big winner, Krauthammer should perhaps be acknowledging that a Democratic Party that shifts slightly to the right could dominate a Republican Party that has shifted even further to the Right.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

And About Those New Democratic Senators

I've seen a lot of scorn heaped upon Rahm Emanuel for his suggestion that the House keep its left wing in check during the next two years, and govern as centrist. (I'm lazy today - I haven't taken the time to look at his actual words, but that's how they seem to be presented). But I happen to think that he's right.

Those who see the new additions to the Democratic ranks, particularly in the Senate, as a source of possible discord and turmoil in the party? I hope that turns out to be wishful thinking. Because I see a real opportunity here for the Democratic Party to emulate Tony Blair's reshaping of the British Labor Party - ideally without also making the same mistakes as Blair - and shaking off some of the cobwebs that have a lot of voters still thinking of the Dems as a party of big, intrusive government, high taxes, welfare, and of having an anti-military attitude and being "weak on defense". I would like to see some of the paleoconservative principles which have been so clearly rejected by the Bush Administration brought into the Democratic Party, such that it becomes seen as the party of smaller government, responsible spending, personal responsibility (of a meaningful sort - a more libertarian approach to most Americans and, for those who need assistance, what Bush described as a "hand up, not a handout" before he decided he no longer needed to preface the word "conservative" with "compassionate"), and jobs.

This, of course, assumes the introduction of genuineness into the system - that the new majority party has sufficient members who are truly interested in bettering America as opposed to amassing wealth and power. On that front, though, it's hard to imagine that the Dems could be worse than the Republicans. At least, not for a few years. (Yes, I'm feeling cynical.)

The "Myth" Of Karl Rove

I've read a number of comments where people suggest that the outcome of the midterm election reveals that Karl Rove's plans and abilities were overrated. It's possible to take another interpretation - that his tactics were (and remain) extremely effective, but that he pushed too hard. If history is a guide, we can expect even more Rovian tactics in future elections, and anybody who wishes to win (locally or nationally) would be wise not to underestimate their effectiveness. Had the Republican Party not become overconfident after 9/11, and taken a more cautious approach to pushing the country to the right, I believe that they would still control the Senate, and quite possibly the House.

I do suspect that people tended to give Karl Rove too much credit for past election victories, but I think it's unquestionable that many are attributing to him too much fault for this loss.

Taking A Moment To Be A Bit Unfair....

Professor Bernstein, who spent a year collecting a paycheck from the University of Michigan Law School, bleats about UM's reaction to the Michigan proposal banning affirmative action:
President Coleman, in the midst of lengthy remarks expressing her dedication to "diversity," added, "Of course the University of Michigan will comply with the laws of the state." Her devotion to a cause she believes just is admirable, but I think it would have been appropriate for her to recognize, even if briefly, that out of a student body of 40,000, and an alumni body of hundred thousands, there are many thousands of people of good will who disagree. The actual remarks, however, suggest that the only good member of the Michigan community is someone who supports "diversity" policies.
It does? Well, it's pretty clear that Prof. Bernstein isn't in favor of "diversity" policies, but he's not really part of the Michigan community.

I'm assuming that he didn't have access to UM Law's admissions records, but still I have to ask: Was his experience with UM Law's minority students really so bad? (And where can I read him lament that his children will have an advantage getting into Yale, as the children of an alumnus?)

Affirmative action, at least as presently defined, has to end sometime - that is, at some point you have to recognize that it has passed its point of effectiveness or, if it is effective, that it is no longer necessary. I personally believe that many (perhaps most) affirmative action programs are deeply flawed as administered. Funny, though, I can't recall the last time I saw an opponent of affirmative action make a cogent case against the need for affirmative action, or even the manner of its administration. I can't recall the last time I heard an opponent argue for reform and improvement as opposed to abolition. To the extent that a plausible case can be made that affirmative action is no longer helping to achieve progress for targeted groups, I don't recall hearing that argued, either.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


With all of the accusations of unethical conduct circulating around "robocalls" - automated phone calls which play recorded messages to prospective voters - perhaps a good first step would be a simple change in how the sponsorship information is announced. If the sponsorship is announced up-front, it seems less likely that the candidate (or organizations supporting the candidate) will try to engage in dirty tricks. I believe this would simply involve applying existing FCC regulations to political calls - you know, the same laws which apply to everybody else. (Or do they apply, in which case these shenanigans are even more shameful.)

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Vanity, Thy Name Is.... Frum?

Also from the Vanity Fair article comes this David Frum quote,
"I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel himself committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big shock to me has been that although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas. And that is the root of, maybe, everything."
Funny, wasn't it Mr. Frum who used to brag about coining the term "Axis of Hatred", which ultimately became "Axis of Evil"? How did Bush not internalize that one? But really, c'mon.

Perhaps the next time he applies for a job, Mr. Frum should pay a bit more attention to the job title and job description.

If They Agree With Me, They Must Be Competent

In the Vanity Fair article on the neo-cons, which today seems to be a leading topic for discussion on political blogs, the neo-con cheerleaders of the Iraq war are wringing their hands at what has happened in Iraq, and blaming everybody except themselves for the Bush Administrations failures. Ken "Cakewalk" Adelman is shocked that those he had thought were competent proved incompetent:
"I just presumed that what I considered to be the most competent national-security team since Truman was indeed going to be competent. They turned out to be among the most incompetent teams in the post-war era. Not only did each of them, individually, have enormous flaws, but together they were deadly, dysfunctional."
This was a state secret before the war? I thought it was pretty obvious that the "team" at issue was limited in its competence, and was eager to shut out anybody who dared to suggest that they were about to head down a disastrous road. I suspect that Adelman viewed the pro-war leaders of the Bush Administration as competent because they found both a warm reception for his ideas and, ultimately, agreement with those ideas. And now the fact that it was anything but a "cakewalk" has Adelman declaring the Bush Administration incompetent... for implicitly agreeing with him.

Similarly, Richard Perle declines to accept any flaw in his ideology, or any responsibility for the implementation of a war he doggedly advocated:
"Huge mistakes were made, and I want to be very clear on this: They were not made by neoconservatives, who had almost no voice in what happened, and certainly almost no voice in what happened after the downfall of the regime in Baghdad. I'm getting damn tired of being described as an architect of the war. I was in favor of bringing down Saddam. Nobody said, 'Go design the campaign to do that.' I had no responsibility for that."
Ah yes, how clearly I recall him denouncing the Bush Administration's post-war plans, immediately after the invasion, as a recipe for disaster. Why, here he is, speaking of how Iraq could not possibly be occupied and transformed with such low numbers of troops:
Forget the 250,000 figure, Perle said: "The Army guys don't know anything. They said we needed 500,000 troops in 1991 [for the Gulf War]. Did we need that many to win? No."

What's the Perle Plan? I asked.

"Forty thousand troops." he said.

To take Baghdad? Nah, he replied. To take control of the north and the south, particularly the north, where the oil fields are. Cut off Saddam's oil, make him a pauper, that should do the trick.

"We don't need anyone else," he said, in a distinctly imperial fashion.
Er... Oops? Can you even begin to imagine the scope of the catastrophe had Perle's war plan in fact been followed? That is, had the "Army guys" who "don't know anything" not worked so hard, even against their career interests, to ensure that Perle's plan was not followed?

Adelman's awakening is something else:
And if he, too, had his time over, Adelman says, "I would write an article that would be skeptical over whether there would be a performance that would be good enough to implement our policy. The policy can be absolutely right, and noble, beneficial, but if you can't execute it, it's useless, just useless. I guess that's what I would have said: that Bush's arguments are absolutely right, but you know what, you just have to put them in the drawer marked can't do. And that's very different from let's go."
The best analogy I have heard for these guys, which I first heard before the invasion even occurred, depicts them as having the mindset that wars are like video games, and when things go wrong you can just press the "reset" button and make your mistakes go away. Adelman seems to fall into that category, and Perle seems to have learned everything he knows about warfare from a "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers" episode. It took Adelman this many years to realize what many others saw as obvious at the outset, and the neo-cons were more than happy to pour scorn and derision on these skeptics. And now we are assured, their ideology remains perfect - they are but victims.

How fortunuate - even as I type this, my wife is making soup. When it is done, I shall shed some bitter tears into my bowl for those poor, misunderstood neo-cons.

Monday, October 30, 2006

So Close, But Yet...

"This sounds a lot like Cat Stevens. What's his name now? Yusuf... Israel."

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Understanding Trademark Law

So if I understand this correctly, it's okay to talk about the yahoos at Google, but not to mention the Googles at Yahoo!.

Thinking vs. Doing

Over at MedRants, rcentor has an interesting post,
We live in a society that has a love hate relationship with thinking. Geeks are chic, but usually at a distance. We rarely show intellectuals the respect they deserve.

We all want the benefits if great thinking, but I fear that most in our society do not really respect the thinkers. We clearly respect the doers.

Perhaps that is why fees for surgery and procedures exceed fees for thinking. Cognition makes one a nerd.
Needless to say, this emphasis on "doing" extends well beyond the world of medical reimbursement.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Bipartisanship as an Inevitability?

I keep hearing talking heads declare that even if the Democrats win majorities in both the House and Senate, they will have to seek "bipartisan compromise" in order to navigate past Republicah filibusters or save themselves from Bush's veto pen. Oh, really?

What if the Democratic Party passes legislation that is popular with the public, even if it goes against Bush's policies. Let's say, for example, that a significant majority of the public supports broad federal funding for stem cell research or an increased minimum wage. Or allocation of a greater portion of "homeland security" funds to states and cities which are at the greatest risk. They pass the legislation. Is this really the type of legislation which the Republicans in the Senate are going to filibuster? And although GW can't run again, does he want his legacy to be that of an (unpopular) President who vetoes (popular) legislation? Does the Republican Party want to run its 2008 Presidential campaign on that foundation?

In this era where "bipartisanship" has often been defined as "accepting scraps from the table of the majority party", there is room for some turnabout.

... But How Unfair Is It?

Listening to George Bush recently, it's interesting to hear how six years of experience have made him a much better public speaker. I'm still not buying the sales pitch, reminiscent of a famous SNL skit about Reagan, that he's somehow astonishingly brilliant and articulate in person but somehow loses his magic whenever he's in the presence of an electronic recording device. But there may be reasons why that might appear to be the case.

Over at Fragmenta Philosphica, Paul Craddick recently related an insult issued by Christopher Hitchens to Bill Maher's "Real Time" audience for laughing at jokes about Bush's intelligence. The insult, more or less, was "If you laugh at jokes about Bush being stupid, you're stupid." As I've noted in the past, and this hasn't changed, I'm still waiting to be impressed by Hitchens. Unless I'm supposed to find it sufficient that he comes up with witty insults and uses them to avoid substantive debate - he's good at that.
You know what I think? - this is now the joke that stupid people laugh at. It's the joke that any dumb person can laugh at because they think that they ... can prove they're smarter than the president (like the people that make booing and mooing noises in your audience ... none of whom are smarter than the president).
But how fair is his comment? I think jokes over Bush's intelligence are tired and overdone, but what about jokes about what Bush is saying? Jon Stewart's jokes on the Daily Show tend not to be "Bush is stupid" as such, but tend to be a reductio ad absurdem where he plays a Bush quote and adds a few extra lines to highlight the problems with a position Bush has taken. Sure, the jokes depict Bush as stupid, but primarily as a consequence of his making public pronouncements that are absurd and very much deserving of ridicule.

Here's a slightly different spin on it - Bush talks down to the American public, spinning carefully scripted and packaged positions which are designed to advance his agenda while satisfying the largest possible number of likely Republican voters. If you accept that he believes what he is saying, some of those positions can make him seem stupid. This can even help explain some of the "he's wonderfully articulate in private" contradictions. In a private, off-the-record moment he is freed from his script and can actually address the facts and issues as opposed to hiding behind insipid sound bites. (Surely he does have a better plan for Iraq than "adapt to win", even if that's all he seems to say when asked about the situation in public.)

When you choose a "man of the people, blue collar, weekend cowboy, guy you want to have a beer with after work" image, you're fashioning a persona that will come across as less erudite than that of, well, the sort of guy who might make a documentary about global warming. And if you choose to take public positions on issues which are at significant odds with the facts and with science, even if you're smart enough to know better than to believe yourself, you bear significant responsibility for how that makes you look in the eyes of others. As politically brilliant as it may have been for him to adopt a public persona that can appear credible to a majority of Americans even as he openly rejects logic, fact and science, those positions make him an appropriate target for criticism - and for jokes.

If it's just play-acting then yes, it's not proof of itself that the people who think they are smarter than Bush are in fact smarter, and I would venture that Hitchens is correct that many are not (although "all" is an overstatement). It's a bit like thinking you're smarter than Michael Richards because your knowledge of him is limited to his Seinfeld character, Kramer. Perhaps Hitchens should try a different tack - rather than once again insulting people who disagree with him, perhaps he should instead attempt to convince Bush to break from from character. (The problem with that? Once the public knows you're intelligent, you can't go back.)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

I've Been Traveling, So I Must Have Missed It....

What's the official explanation for the frequent announcement at Detroit Metro Airport that the terrorism alert has been raised to orange? You would think there would be useful information here, but... no.
The United States government threat level remains at Code Orange, or High for all domestic and international flights. The ban on liquids and gels in carry on baggage remains in full effect. Nationally, in other sectors, the threat level remains at Code Yellow, or Elevated.
I will give TSA credit for this - they are diligent about rounding up those rogue tubes of toothpaste and cosmetics.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Non-Proliferation Silliness

Charles Krauthammer today suggests how we can keep North Korea from proliferating nuclear weapons:
This is how you keep Kim Jong Il from proliferating. Make him understand that his survival would be hostage to the actions of whatever terrorist group he sold his weapons to. Any terrorist detonation would be assumed to have his address on it. The United States would then return postage. Automaticity of this kind concentrates the mind.

This policy has a hitch, however. It works only in a world where there is but a single rogue nuclear state. Once that club expands to two, the policy evaporates, because a nuclear terror attack would no longer have a single automatic return address.
Given Pakistan's proliferation of nuclear technology, including the sale of technology to North Korea, doesn't that caveat make this proposal a non-starter? (Would he have us assume that such technology sales will never happen again?)

Further, why should we automatically assume North Korean involvement when our technology allows us to pinpoint the source of plutonium used even after a nuclear blast? Attacking North Korea for a different nation's carelessness with or sale of its nuclear technology offers no deterrent value whatsoever.

Also, what are we going to do to North Korea? There are perfectly valid reasons why, as Krauthammer previously acknowledged, the U.S. doesn't want to launch "a second Korean War", let alone one which would "presumably [involve] in-kind nuclear retaliation". I'm sure South Korea and China would be thrilled with that proposal.

Am I the only one who scratches his head a bit when people who tell us how horrible it would be if a "rogue nation" obtained nuclear weapons don't even take a breath before arguing that it would be an appropriate military response to "nuke the desert to glass" or "nuke their country into a parking lot" if they cross certain lines? I didn't hear that particular argument from Krauthammer in response to "what if Iraq uses biological weapons or poison gas against U.S. troops" - apparently for him somebody must actually use nuclear weapons before a nuclear response should be "presumed". But I still have this vision of him sitting on the bomb as it falls from the sky, waving his cowboy hat in the air.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Even a Flat Earth Has Speedbumps

Today, safely behind the firewall, Thomas Friedman laments that the "post-cold war" seemingly ended two days ago, with North Korea's test of a nuclear bomb. Dare I ask, where has he been for the last five years?
This post-post-cold-war era will be defined by three new features — if things continue as they are. First is a nuclear Asia, triggered by North Korea’s flaunting of its nuclear weapons. How long will Japan, Taiwan and South Korea remain nonnuclear with Kim Jong-il brandishing his bomb? Second is a nuclear Middle East. Iran is almost certain to follow North Korea’s lead, and once the Shiite Persians in Iran have the bomb, how long will it be before the Sunni Arabs in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, even Syria have one too? Third is a disintegrating Iraq in the heart of the Arab world, with its destabilizing impact on oil prices and terrorism.
Okay... for that "first" thing, giving all due consideration to the fact that I may have been looking at a globe as opposed to a flat map, to this point I had been under the impression that India and Pakistan were in Asia. That India went nuclear first, inspiring Pakistan to follow its lead. And in terms of nuclear proliferation, I had been under the impression that Pakistan has had a thing or two to do with the spread of nuclear weapons technology, including to North Korea. So in the post-cold war area in which Friedman sees India as a leader in peaceful economic development, he should also consider its role in expanding the "nuclear club" and in undermining non-proliferation. It's not a question of whether we trust India with the bomb, are suspicious of Pakistan, and are aghast at the notion of of a nuclear-armed North Korea. It's a matter of whether or not we truly stand for nuclear non-proliferation.

That's where point two comes in. If Iran develops nuclear arms, Friedman argues, it's only a matter of time before the other Arab states get them as well. As if it's that easy, particularly now that Pakistan's leading nuclear scientist no longer selling its arms technology. Friedman neglects to mention the elephant in the living room - the one nation in the Middle East with nuclear weapons technology - or the complicity of the U.S. in helping it become a nuclear power with some of the most advanced nuclear weapons in the world. But no... it couldn't be that Iran, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia would want nuclear weapons because Israel has them. I'm sure that doesn't even occur to them - it's all about keeping up with Iran.

The point again isn't whether or not we trust Israel with nuclear weapons more than we would trust any other Middle Eastern nation with them. We obviously, and quite reasonably, do. But if we are going to pretend that a non-nuclear Middle East is necessary to maintain peace for that region and for the world, and if we're going to acknowledge that nations will attempt to develop nuclear arms if a regional adversary already possesses nuclear arms, we can't ignore Israel. Just as you can't be "a little bit pregnant", you can't be "a little bit for non-proliferation". We either have proliferation or we don't. Friedman's implicit defense to why it's okay for Israel, Pakistan and India to possess nukes, but not North Korea or Iran, seems to be "that's different". And you know what? There are very real facts which make it different, and make their possession of nuclear arms less of a present or probable future threat, but it's still proliferation.

Friedman also proposes a solution... for Iran and North Korea.
Unless China and Russia get their act together and understand that the post-post-cold-war world is a much bigger threat to their prosperity than a post-cold-war world in which U.S. power is pre-eminent. You read me right — the post-cold-war world can be preserved only if Russia and China get over their ambivalence about U.S. power and if the Bush team gets over its ambivalence about Iran and North Korea.

How so? The U.S. is sanctioned out when it comes to Iran and North Korea. We don’t have any more unilateral sanctions with which to pressure either regime to halt its nuclear adventure. The only countries that could have an impact on North Korea and Iran are China and Russia.
Unfortunately, Mr. Friedman is not able to articulate a plan to save Iraq.

In Mr. Friedman's "flat" world, it would appear that he believes national interests are also "flat" - that is, he seems to believe that all nations fear equally the prospect of a nuclear armed North Korea, and that all nations have an equal interest in preventing North Korea and Iran from gaining nuclear weapons technology. He may be pretty close to correct with regard to North Korea, but I'm not so sure about Iran. Also, while Mr. Friedman depicts Europe as spineless for not already joining the U.S. in its sanctions against Iran, exactly what is he proposing? At one moment he's lamenting that disruptions in the world's oil supply are bringing an end to the post-cold war era. In the next he seems to be proposing an embargo against Iranian oil. Or perhaps he has a clever (yet secret) plan to have the world continue to buy Iranian oil, yet somehow preventing Iran from spending its cash.

Let's give Friedman his wish - we'll pretend that diplomacy and national interests are now flat, and that Russia and China see nuclear-armed Iran and North Korea in the same light as does the United States. Mr. Friedman uses the term "sanctions" as if it represents a magic bullet - but how often do they actually work? And what sanctions could conceivably work against a nation like North Korea?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Difficult Parents

An editorial in the Washington Post about overmedicating children reminds me of a documentary I saw a decade or so ago.
But setting aside the children with legitimate mental illnesses who must have psychiatric medications to function normally, much of the increase in prescribing such medications to kids is due to the widespread use of psychiatric diagnoses to explain away the results of poor parenting practices. According to psychiatrist Jennifer Harris, quoted in the January/February issue of Psychotherapy Networker, "Many clinicians find it easier to tell parents their child has a brain-based disorder than to suggest parenting changes."
The documentary was about a "difficult child" whose parents had agreed to have hidden cameras placed in their house such that their interaction with their child could be monitored. I believe that the parents were also being given some coaching on how to be better parents, but in the scene I recall none of those lessons had held - a rather atrocious two-on-one verbal bullying of the child resulted in an outburst of bad behavior by the child. The voiceover then explained, rather than how bad parenting can trigger bad behavior, that it's "hard to be a parent for a difficult child". (I think it's probably harder to be the child of difficult parents.)
Parents need to be more careful with whom they entrust their child's mental health care. Doctors need to take the time to understand their pediatric patients better and have the courage to deliver the bad news that sometimes a child's disruptive, aggressive and defiant behavior is due to poor parenting, not to a chemical imbalance such as bipolar disorder or ADHD.
Sure, but as the author previously indicated, many parents will respond to such news by getting the "help they want" somewhere else - that is, a doctor or counselor who will blame the kid and, increasingly, recommend medication.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

New Policy?

According to Reuters,
Summoning reporters as U.S. lawmakers were beginning another investigation of the case that has sparked a political firestorm four weeks before critical U.S. elections, House Speaker Dennis Hastert planned to outline proposed reforms, the aides said.
I can only imagine..... "Our new policy is that, when presented with information upon which it is obvious that we should take immediate action, next time we promise to stand up to the staffers who to this date have blocked us at every turn. We're calling them 'staffers' because it would be gay-basing to call them gay. But they are. Staffers."

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Who's Responsible For That Exit Strategy?

From The American Conservative:
It is idle to discuss the administration’s refusal to recognize failure in Iraq and its insistence on the goal of victory as if this represented a serious military strategy or foreign-policy plan. “Victory” is not really defined and cannot be. Virtually all the concrete goals of the original Bright Promise of Victory in Iraq propaganda have already been tacitly abandoned and are no longer mentioned. * * * Against this lurid background Bush & Co. challenge the Democrats: if you are serious, show us your plan for meeting these dangers, solving these problems, and avoiding these disasters while getting us out of Iraq.

It is easy to show how absurd in logic and fact this demand is. It is like insisting that a man who shows you that your $100 bill is counterfeit owes you a real one, or—to use Molly Ivins’s illustration—to argue that those who warned against hitting a hornet’s nest with a stick must now, after the administration has done so and caused the hornets to swarm and attack everywhere, either propose a concrete plan for getting the hornets back into the nest or else join in efforts to kill them with the stick. Worst of all, the demand calls on others to solve the problem the Bush administration created while rejecting the fundamental condition for any solution, a recognition that wrong policy and failed leadership created the problem and that both must first be changed.
HT: Eunomia

Sunday, October 01, 2006

No Child Left Behind, eh?

Let's see.... If you combine the following elements:
  • A big government solution which uses conditions on federal funding to restrict local options;
  • The imposition of a set of options which are not scientifically validated; and
  • The exclusion of options and existing programs which are scientifically validated
while simultaneously lining the pockets of government insiders.... Well, you have "business as usual" for the Bush Administration. But if you actually care about childhood education and literacy, the Bush Administration's application of "business as usual" to elementary school reading programs should give you pause.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Is Torture Really That Hard To Understand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Straying From Your Sphere Of Expertise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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