Friday, November 30, 2007

I Can't Support Him Anyway, But...

Thanks to Michigan's legislative effort to hand the primary to Hillary Clinton on a silver platter, I can't vote for anybody but her, Kucinich (who tried to remove his name, but didn't follow procedure), or Dodd. Write-ins don't count. So why even bother with a primary?

Assuming Michigan undoes its "early primary" legislation and gives primary voters the opportunity to choose between all of the candidates.... Oh, it's not that I don't see value in the three frontrunners (and some who are trailing behind), but it's difficult to choose. We can talk about electability, personality, qualification, whatever - there are a number of decent candidates, but I can't say one truly excites me above the others.

I can say this, though.... If Obama maintains his present course, in a theoretical Michigan primary where he's on the ballot, at this point he's losing me. The Social Security "crisis", the diminishment of his wife as part of his attempt to diminish Hillary Clinton, and now his approach to health care? Add to that the fact that, by his measure, I am many times more qualified than he is to address foreign policy issues (during my childhood I lived in two other nations for a total of thirteen years - that's more than 3:1)?

His approach to these issues seems silly and divisive. His positions suggest that either he has a hard time recognizing and setting priorities (see, e.g., my prior comments on Social Security reform), or is spending too much time listening to pollsters who tell him to pitch his campaign to the center-right.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

False Advertising?

Richard "Dickie" Scruggs is in trouble....
Prominent Mississippi trial attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs, the brother-in-law of outgoing GOP Sen. Trent Lott, was indicted by a federal grand jury Wednesday on charges that he and four other men tried to bribe a Mississippi state court judge.

According to the 13-page indictment, Scruggs and three other attorneys -- including Lott's nephew Zach -- attempted to bribe Mississippi Third Circuit Court Judge Henry L. Lackey with at least $40,000 in cash.
I wonder if the defense will claim "false advertising" - after all, what sort of lackey doesn't accept bribes?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Timing Is Everything

This phenomenon isn't unique to politics, but....

Have you ever noticed the deadlines for matters that are not priorities, and for actions that are expected to fail, are always pushed off past important election dates, or the end of a President's term of office? With Bush's policy toward the Israel-Palestine conflict, that first happened with his so called "road map" (which he seemed to quickly forget), and now appears again with his suggestion that a peace deal of some sort will develop out of his new efforts by December, 2008. The estate tax repeal expires in 2010 (no doubt after the midterm elections) - putting the eventual expiration or compromise deal out of the "danger zone" for either Bush or his successor. Remember also the adjournment of the 9/11 Commission reports to avoid harm to Bush during his last election?

Aren't elections supposed to increase accountability?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Health Care Costs

The New York Times has a published long, unsigned editorial on health care costs, The High Cost of Health Care. I don't know whether to praise the Times for trying to tackle the issue, or criticize it for presenting such a superficial summary which, as it seems, nobody on their editorial staff wished to sign. Maybe both?

The editorial starts out by being simplistic:
Almost all economists would agree that the main driver of high medical spending here is our wealth. We are richer than other countries and so willing to spend more. But authoritative analyses have found that we spend well above what mere wealth would predict.
If you look at health care costs and their growth, the U.S. was pretty much in line with other developed nations until those nations developed national health care plans. It was at that point that our health care costs started to rise at a disproportionate rate. The fact that we are increasingly recognizing that reform to limit health care costs is necessary reflects that, if anything, our nation's wealth allowed us to delay addressing the issue. To the extent, though, that our wealth plays a role in our health care costs, it seems to be primarily in our tolerance for waste (about 20% of each health care dollar) and bureaucratic inefficiencies:
This is mostly because we pay hospitals and doctors more than most other countries do. We rely more on costly specialists, who overuse advanced technologies, like CT scans and M.R.I. machines, and who resort to costly surgical or medical procedures a lot more than doctors in other countries do. Perverse insurance incentives entice doctors and patients to use expensive medical services more than is warranted. And our fragmented array of insurers and providers eats up a lot of money in administrative costs, marketing expenses and profits that do not afflict government-run systems abroad.
People may neglect the fat and waste in their budgets when they have a lot of discretionary income, but it becomes harder to do so when that discretionary income is reduced due either to increased cost or other priorities. What we should not do is pretend that individual consumer choices can affect health care costs or waste, or that people are "choosing" to spend more on health care - individuals have next to no influence on the cost of health care, which is primarily determined by the amount insurance companies deem appropriate for particular medical services.
If citizens of an extremely wealthy nation like the United States want to spend more on health care and less on a third car, a new computer or a vacation home, what’s wrong with that? By some measures, Americans are getting good value. Studies by reputable economists have concluded that spending on such advanced treatments as cardiac drugs, devices and surgery; neonatal care for low-birth-weight infants; and mental health drugs have more than paid for themselves by extending lives and improving their quality.
And again, the canard that this is an individual choice - that people choose between an extravagance (such as a "third car") or an overpriced health care system, and choose the latter. The "reputable economists" thing... Not one is named. And I think any reputable economist would also concede that other industrialized nations get the same or better results while spending far less money per capita.

The first proposed "solution" involves noting that health care outcomes are often the same in rural hospitals as they are in far more costly urban hospitals. Most likely to some degree higher salaries, specialist referrals and infrastructure costs, but I would venture that the leading contributing factor is health care technology. Cutting edge diagnostic technology is expensive, and when hospitals have it they will seek to recover the cost of their investment, as well as the continuing costs of staff and maintenance. When a hospital doesn't have a huge number of expensive diagnostic imaging machines, it can't order a CT scan for a suspicious headache - in most cases that's going to turn out to be an unnecessary expense that significantly inflates an emergency room visit. If the Times is sincere in suggesting this as a leading point for "reform", it needs to confront the fact that our access to expensive health care technologies is one of the leading factors that proponents of the status quo use to argue the superiority of U.S. health care over that of other nations. ("Our outcomes may be no better, or even worse, but we have all the cool toys.")

The second proposed solution is to "stick to what works", with the Times observing quite reasonably that a lot of medical care is not science based - it flows from a doctor's impressions or experiences. The problem here is differentiating between what medical science can quantify and what it cannot - it is not necessarily going to be an improvement to require doctors to follow checklists and protocols in a primary care setting. Sometimes the doctor's patient questioning or intuition is what will bring about the proper diagnosis, while that may not be immediately apparent from the standard tests or questions. Where treatment is symptomatic, it may not matter whether the science is behind the treatment - if palliative care works, the patient feels better even if the diagnosis is incorrect. Also, as is noted here, the human body is not a machine and the same treatment may produce very different results in different patients. I am a huge proponent of science-based medicine, but it is not a panacea.

The editorial presents a nebulous comment about managed care - it might reduce costs, but it might also produce a backlash if it (again) resulted in the denial of care. This is a peculiar issue as insurance companies don't have to pay for treatment that is not medically necessary, so in theory people could already be required to pay for their discretionary care above and beyond that level. The bigger problem with managed care was its broad effort to categorize expensive, potentially life-saving techniques as "experimental" and to deny them on that basis. People dying of cancer did not enjoy hearing that bone marrow transplants were "experimental" and thus not covered. If the Times wants to go back to that form of "managed care", yes, there will be a backlash.

The fourth proposal is that the U.S. should catch up with the world in health care information technologies. This alone should evidence how our so-called health care "market" has failed - when these costs can be passed to the consumer, insurance companies are happy to do just that. When the sky is not the limit and costs must be contained, health care systems typically act to contain these costs. It is no surprise that the V.A. is a domestic leader in health care information technology, while "private insurers" trail far behind the rest of the world.

The Times makes a valid point about prevention - there is an enormous potential for cost savings in prevention, but there is also an enormous cost in implementing a broad system of preventive medicine. The Times notes that there is potential for improvement in disease management for the chronically ill, but that there is little evidence to date that this will result in any appreciable savings.

The Times endorses allowing Medicare to negotiate for discounts when purchasing pharmaceuticals and, while this may not produce windfall savings, it seems like a no-brainer. The various private insurers which the government subsidizes to compete with Medicare are permitted to negotiate discounts.

In terms of who would "pick up the tab", the Times proposes paying providers less. The Times notes that this will make them unhappy, but seems to take a "but what are they going to do about it" approach to the issue. If we act before things reach a total crisis, we shouldn't have to cut reimbursement rates (save perhaps as adjusted for inflation) - the long-term outcome would likely be the same, but doctor's don't have to take an actual pay cut in order for us to get back on track.

In terms of emphasizing primary care, which the Times endorses, perhaps an alternative would be to compensate all doctors at primary care rates if their services could have been performed by a primary care physician. Specialists could accept the reduced compensation, or could defer that type of treatment to lower-cost providers.

The Times endorses requiring a consumer contribution to health care costs. I agree with that - there should be a means-tested copayment for medical services and pharmaceuticals, perhaps capped on an annual basis, even for those on Medicaid. (The amount may have to be negligible or subject to waiver for some health care recipients, but even if it's 50 cents a copayment can inspire some level of thought as to whether a visit to the doctor is necessary. At low income levels a copayment might also be applied once per course of treatment, so that people are not discouraged from seeking follow-up care.)

To support this, the Times references a study which occurred from 1974 to 1982, tracking health care expenditures by people who received varying subsidies of their medical care (with copayments capped at $1000):
A classic experiment by Rand researchers from 1974 to 1982 found that people who had to pay almost all of their own medical bills spent 30 percent less on health care than those whose insurance covered all their costs, with little or no difference in health outcomes.
The findings must be considered in association with health care costs - my guess is that the same study, conducted today, would find an even greater savings due not to need but due to health care inflation. But it also ties back to what the Times observed earlier - it is difficult to put a value on preventive care. Some of the savings comes from people not seeking care for a cold or flu that gets better by itself - as most illnesses will. Some of the savings is documented as coming from people not being treated for high blood pressure - something that may not result in much cost savings over eight years, but could result in significant long-term savings for treatment of heart attacks and strokes. The study's findings in a bit more detail,
At the end of the experiment, the researchers concluded that the “use of medical services responds unequivocally to changes in the amount paid out of pockets.” Per capita expenses on the free plan were 45 percent higher that those on the 95 percent coinsurance plan. For outpatient services, adults on the 25 percent coinsurance plans spent only 78 percent as much as those on the free plan. For children in that group the figure was 74 percent. On the 95 percent coinsurance plan adults spent 60 percent as much as those on the free plan and children 59 percent as much.
The goal in setting a copayment would be to provide people with an incentive to think before incurring medical costs, but not to create an impediment to their seeking necessary medical care. Short-term cost savings is not so important that people should not be discouraged from having high blood pressure or obstructive sleep apnea diagnosed or treated, or from having their infant examined for an ear infection or acute respiratory illness. Also, as the Times notes, we have to respect the fact that individuals lack the expertise to manage their own medical treatment - they need a doctor's guidance.

The times also correctly notes that individual choice will have little overall impact, because health care costs are not evenly distributed:
Most health care spending is racked up by a small percentage of individuals whose bills are so high they are no longer subject to cost sharing; they will hardly be deterred from expensive care they desperately need.
Right now we have the worst of all worlds - when these people are uninsured or underinsured, we force them to treat at emergency rooms - the most expensive source of medical care. When they are insured, but become disabled from work, we allow their insurance to lapse such that they become uninsured. (Wouldn't an easy short-term fix to this to be to mandate that health insurance policies include a disability provision which will cover a patient's premiums until the person either recovers from or succumbs to a disabling illness?) Then, when the patient is financially ruined, we finally step in with Medicare and Medicaid.

This is exceptionally simplistic:
Deep in their hearts, many liberals yearn for a single-payer system, sometimes called Medicare-for-all, that would have the federal government pay for all care and dictate prices. Such a system would let the government offset the price-setting strength of the medical and pharmaceutical industries, eliminate much of the waste due to a multiplicity of private insurance plans, and greatly cut administrative costs.

But a single-payer system is no panacea for the cost problem — witness Medicare’s own cost troubles — and the approach has limited political support. Private insurers could presumably eliminate some of the waste through uniform billing and payment procedures.
There are many flavors of "single payer" that we could implement, including versions which allow consumers to choose between private insurance plans (much like the present cafeteria of health care plans offered by many employers), and most plans (like Medicare) would also allow private supplemental insurance. To hope that private insurers will suddenly take it upon themselves to implement cost-savings methodology that would either benefit other insurers, or cause them to incur costs which might cause their premiums to briefly be higher than their competitors' before dropping to a lower level due to new efficiencies? A pipe dream.

As previously noted, government-paid health care systems, domestically and internationally, lead in this area. Market purists may wish to ignore the facts, but the same logic applies as with consumers - if the health care provider is forced to absorb the costs, it will seek greater efficiencies - with the primary difference being that providers actually have the power and control necessary to effect change. U.S. health insurers don't - they just increase insurance premiums and pass along the cost.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Always Hoping For A "Star Trek Ending"

One of the weaknesses of the Star Trek, The Next Generation series was its tendency for its writers to paint themselves into a corner, and then for the escape to be the fabrication of new technology - a new feature, gizmo or anomaly that allows a clean escape. The funny thing is, people think this way so most people probably didn't recognize the contrivance. For some Trekkies, this becomes a loop that feeds itself - I once heard somebody declare that food would never be in short supply because scientists would develop "replicators" (give a voice command and molecules are instantly assembled into pretty much whatever you demand), never mind the science involved.

Here's somebody who should know better.
A couple years ago I wrote a post asserting that technology and markets are more powerful than government and politics. I cited the government's case against microsoft and the emergence of the morning after pill and other remedies like it to give women the right to choose even if the government decides to take it away.

The whole stem cell debate is another example of this. For the past nine years, our country has been debating the morality of using embryonic stem cells to do research and develop new drugs and possibly save lives and dramatically improve quality of life for some. Our current administration has made it hard to do stem cell research on embryonic stem cells.

But this week comes the news that researchers have figured out how to make stem cells from human skin cells.
The initial argument is simplistic - the government has demonstrated that it is more than capable of keeping "the morning after pill" away from consumers, and some states were happy to let pharmacists decline to offer it to customers. Technology that is not available does not create choice. But the bigger problem lies in the substitution of wishful thinking for analysis - with stem cells, a scientist using government grant money opened up one can of worms, and after the government responded in a non-scientific fashion (which isn't even morally consistent), the same scientist received more government money to find a different way to develop stem cell lines.

If the current findings are confirmed, yes, it removes one of the most difficult moral impediments to stem cell research. But what we're really talking about here is a scientific advance necessitated by government policy, which would not have happened but for government funding. It may be a triumph of technology, but it is hardly a triumph of the markets.
But the great thing about technology is it always tries to solve the problems it creates. And has a track record of doing so.

Next up - our reliance on carbon-based energy and the pollution, climate change, and wealth and power effects it creates.
This type of wishful thinking.... It's a bit like swallowing arsenic then expecting a miracle cure. Science can't always save you and, even if the magic cure might eventually come, there's a substantial chance that it will arrive too late to help. This type of faith comes close to elevating science and "the markets" to a religion - and, dare I point out, it is non-scientific.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Latent Anti-Americanism

The way things have always been....

France, 1885:
Jaques: I hate the Americans.

Frédéric: Me too.

Jaques: What should we do to express our disgust?

Frédéric: I'm going to build them a great big statue that they will put in a harbor and hold out as a symbol of their country, then I will laugh and say, "It's a great big lady, and she looks like my mother."

Jaques: Formidable!
When I read that the Iraq war invigorated the anti-Americanism that has always been latent pretty much everywhere , I can't help but wonder... who is the speaker actually describing. What a double standard. We can express absolute contempt for any nation we wish, or for its leadership, but we're not "anti"-that nation. We're doing something else, like standing up for truth, justice and the American way. But when other nations express consternation that our foreign policy is affecting their interests, ooh... there's that omnipresent "latent anti-Americanism" becoming patent again.

I've been to quite a few countries and guess what? I've found that people in other nations are fully capable of distinguishing between an individual American and the policies of our government. If Ms. Applebaum's experience has been different, which I would be surprised given that her travel likely involves floating by chartered jet and limo to five star hotels and restaurants, it's probably less a reflection on attitudes toward America and more a reflection of how she treats those around her. If she's arguing, "Oh yes, I am treated just fine, but then they criticize the policies of my government," well, boo hoo.

Social Security Reform

Ruth Marcus attempts to "call out" Paul Krugman for inconsistency on Social Security reform, complaining that he "mischaracterize[s] the arguments of those who advocate responsible action, accusing them of hyping the system's woes." Given that she writes for a newspaper that constantly shills in favor of private accounts (oh, that courageous Fred Thompson), I can't say I'm surprised by this characterization. Paul Krugman provides a brief response to Marcus here.

The Post's objections to the Thompson plan are weak. They object to his (far from original) proposal to base increases in benefits on cost of living rather than growth in wages because of its effect on low-earning workers. The Post's insistence that this change would be unfair to the poor betrays both its belief that Social Security should be a welfare program, and that the proposal is inadequate to maintain Social Security as a meaningful benefit. If the Post wants to transform Social Security into a welfare program, it should just say so. It has to know that if different indices are used for the poor, we will eventually reach a point where the poor will get the highest benefits in a system that is meant to pay out based on what you have paid in. Adding heavily subsidized "private accounts" as a "sweetener"? If we supposedly can't afford the current system, which involves using Social Security funds to purchase treasury notes, how will we afford this diversion of trillions into (presumably limited) private investments? Thompson's plan is written for a rich faction that wants to eliminate Social Security, and quite deliberately reduces the benefit such that, eventually, the payments will seem so nominal that voters will support the elimination of the program. The Post gives that "two cheers" because they are too obtuse to grasp that, or because the fig leaf isn't quite big enough?

People like Ruth Marcus sit at the bottom of an enormous well and, when asked to help find a way out, propose digging their way to China with a teaspoon. I'm all for long-term planning, and that includes planning for the future of Social Security. But this is not 2000-2001, when we were deciding what to do with the Clinton budget surpluses. We have three feet of water in the basement, Fred Thompson's plumbing service proposed that our priority should be switching to high efficiency shower heads, and the Post is pretty happy with that... but is concerned that a few people should enjoy higher flow. And if you dare suggest that they have their priorities messed up....

Calling for Social Security reform when the economy is strong and we are running budget surpluses might be courageous, at least as politicians define courage, as there doesn't appear to be a need. When we have massive budget deficits, in the absence of any plan to deal with immediate fiscal issues or even Medicare costs, calling for Social Security reform is cowardly. It represents pandering to a particular group of Social Security foes, and an attempt to "look serious" while sidestepping the financial issues that we face right now or which will go into crisis long before 2040, the date when by some projections the Social Security trust fund will become exhausted.

So let's have it - the Post's comprehensive plan to deal with our present budget issues, including but not limited to Social Security. Can we expect that sometime soon Mr. Hiatt? Ms. Marcus? (I didn't think so.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Politics as Usual

A suggested book title for the memoirs of pretty much every Bush Administration insider: If I Did It.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Oh, That's Right... He's Not A Journalist

Deborah Howell, responding to an "intemperate email" sent by a music critic,
Post journalists can get angry. They can have thoughts as bad as any other human being. But they can't say them in public or put them in writing and send them out into the world. That damages The Post's credibility.
Okay... so a reporter faces undisclosed discipline for sending this email to Marion Barry,
After receiving an unsolicited press release, Page snapped back: "Must we hear about it every time this crack addict attempts to rehabilitate himself with some new -- and typically half-witted -- political grandstanding? I'd be grateful if you would take me off your mailing list. I cannot think of anything the useless Marion Barry could do that would interest me in the slightest, up to and including overdose."
Compare and contrast.

That Sounds Like A Legal Standard, Mr. Kerry

T. Boone Pickens makes a foolish challenge, offering "$1 million to anyone who can disprove even a single charge of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth", and John Kerry responds,
"While I am prepared to show they lied on allegation after allegation, you have generously offered to pay one million dollars for just one thing that can be proven false," Kerry wrote to Pickens. "I am prepared to prove the lie beyond any reasonable doubt."
If you don't wish to retract your statement, Mr. Pickens, you should probably get your checkbook out. If Mr. Kerry pursues this I expect that you will be cutting checks to Mr. Kerry, your legal team, or both.

Friday, November 16, 2007

If The Shoe Were On the Other Foot

In terms of prosecuting Blackwater 'contractors' for shooting civilians,
The legal path will not be easy, but there are options. The government could seek to prosecute the guards under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, or MEJA, which extends American criminal law to contractors overseas. Or it could try to court-martial the guards under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which was amended last year to cover contractors accompanying the armed forces in the field.

It could also offer a plea deal — including some prison time — to any guards found to have recklessly violated deadly force rules. The guards may be a lot more interested if Washington makes it clear that it is ready to waive the immunity from Iraqi prosecution, granted to contractors by the American occupation government three years ago.

None of these options is foolproof. MEJA applies to contractors that accompany American armed forces, while the Blackwater guards were working for the State Department. Using the military code would face the same problem and would have to contend with Supreme Court opinions from the 1950s and 1960s barring the courts-martial of civilians.
When you follow the law, especially if as the occupying power you made the law incredibly self-serving, things get so complicated. If the shoe were on the other foot, this would be easy - Bush would call them "illegal combatants", and argue that no further law or due process was required.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Gift Cards - Great Marketing....

...But a waste of money.
Along the way, we bought the story that giving someone a hundred dollar bill as a gift ("go buy what you want") is callous, insensitive, a crass shortcut. Buying them a $100 Best Buy card, on the other hand, is thoughtful. Even if they spend $92 and have to waste the rest.

Why Does Robert Novak Hate America?

First he publicly discloses the name of a covert CIA operative, and now this?
Americans are not good at nation-building.
Any real American knows - we're good at everything.

Seriously, though, the issue isn't that we're "not good at nation building". The issue, which Novak is attempting to conceal behind a clould of smoke, is that the Bush Administration has been top-to-bottom incompetent in relation to every aspect of its Iraq war strategy. Had it wished to do so, it could have listened to the scholars and State Department experts who were warning it of the difficulty of nation building, and could have heeded their advice as to how it might be achieved (and also to their warnings as to the consequences of failure). But that would have meant revising their war plans, developing a much larger occupation force, giving up the rapid privatization and flat taxation plan they wished to impose on "liberated Iraq", and admitting to the American public that the war and occupation would be extremely costly and would involve a very long commitment.

Thanks to an incompetent Administration, editorially backed by Novak and his ilk, we got the extremely costly war and long commitment, with little else to show for it.

I'm Getting Dumber By The Minute

Following up on my downward trend....
cash advance

Plus ça change....

Three quotes, the first two on why we should deficit spend instead of following fiscally conservative paygo rules.

John Boehner: "Tax relief pays for itself."

George Bush: "Preventing a tax increase in one area should not be an excuse for raising taxes in other areas.... Congress should eliminate the tax increases in the bill and send the AMT relief to my desk as soon as possible. That's what the American taxpayer expects."

Mark Twain: "Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it."

Everything I Know About Physics, I Learned in Kindergarten

It turns out that everything may be explained by.... a spirograph?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Silly Bureaucratic Rules

The Chair of the FCC proposes,
A company that owns a newspaper in one of the 20 largest cities in the country should be permitted to purchase a broadcast TV or radio station in the same market. But a newspaper should be prohibited from buying one of the top four TV stations in its community. In addition, each part of the combined entity would need to maintain its editorial independence.
Does that mean that a newspaper would also be required to sell its TV station if it rose in popularity to the point of being one of the top four stations in the market? If not, it seems like a silly rule that would primarily serve as a burden on competition by other newspapers in the same market.

The Republican Candidates Carpooling?

Oh, my mistake.

(The "equal offense to the other side" picture.)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Website Security

You have to keep your eyes open. Odds are your website security budget is not as high as Al Gore's, but look what has happened to him.

Sometimes the most damaging hacks - the ones which knock you out of your position in the search engines - are the ones you can't see. The obvious stuff gets corrected, usually before it has much impact.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Key To Democracy: Diversity?

Today, in yet another effort to distance himself from his record on Iraq, Thomas Friedman explains what you really need for democracy to take root:
The very essence of democracy is peaceful rotations of power, no matter whose party or tribe is in or out. But that ethic does not apply in most of the Arab-Muslim world today, where the political ethos remains “Rule or Die.” Either my group is in power or I’m dead, in prison, in exile or lying very low. But democracy is not about majority rule; it is about minority rights. If there is no culture of not simply tolerating minorities, but actually treating them with equal rights, real democracy can’t take root.

But respect for diversity is something that has to emerge from within a culture. We can hold a free and fair election in Iraq, but we can’t inject a culture of diversity. America and Europe had to go through the most awful civil wars to give birth to their cultures of diversity. The Arab-Muslim world will have to go through the same internal war of ideas.
Perhaps Mr. Friedman could use a refresher course on U.S. history. Early "diversity" effectively vested the vote with white, land-owning men, and the early republic embraced manifest destiny (which was anything but "tolerant" of the continent's indigenous population). It took almost a century and a civil war before African American men were trusted with the vote. It took another fifty years before women were enfranchised. South Africa's democracy during the Apartheid era was about as intolerant as democracy can be.

It seems to me that for democracy to take root, you need a transition of power with the nation's new rulers being unafraid of losing power at the ballot box. That may be because they are idealists who believe the country will benefit from a periodic change of leadership (or at least that possibility). It may be because the society (or the subset which is permitted to vote) is sufficienty homogeneous that there is little to fear in the change the voters may demand. Perhaps both. But I am hard pressed to think of an example of a democracy which, from the outset, risked dramatic shifts in the ruling class. One well-known democracy, for example, created an unelected Senate as a check on the democratically elected House of Representatives, and a system of Electors as a safeguard in case the electorate picked the wrong person for President.

This is not to argue that the U.S. Founding Fathers did not value or protect diversity. The Constitution and Bill of Rights do a lot to protect diversity, including diversity of opinion and diversity of religion. But the diversity that was protected was not perceived as a threat to democracy - it was in no small part deemed necessary to successful democracy. Despite this, it was a mere decade before the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Friedman's argument seems to simultaneously argue two things: Arabs are all the same (and they're all intolerant), and Arabs are different and they need to be tolerant of their differences. Or maybe he means to argue that Arabs need to accept oustiders, as opposed to each other. Although he speaks of the Arab world's "internal war of ideas", he also seems to believe it would somehow be transformative if Saudi Arabia permitted the Pope to visit Mecca. (If having holy sites which are off-limits to non-believers is a litmus test for tolerance, most major religions would fail. Which makes sense, because each religion views its own teachings as correct, with the contrary teachings of other religions being at best errors, and at worst blasphemies and heresies.) His larger point, that Saudi Arabia is intolerant of other religions, is valid. But it is safe to say that Saudi Arabia is not concerned that, if given the vote, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists would gain any appreciable power.

Friedman quotes with approval a "senior French official" who argues that instead of trying to advance democracy, the West "should be focusing on promoting diversity, which has historical roots in the area." He seems to have heard only the word "diversity". If we were to bring about a domestic tolerance in Iraq where the ethnic groups recognized their commonalities, accepted that a central government would respect those commonalities, and that their differences (while real) were not going to result in the imposition of unjust, oppressive, or otherwise unnaceptable governance, it should be much easier to convince the people of Iraq to trust the ballot box. A necessary prerequisit to that, in my opinion, would be providing basic security to the people of Iraq. Friedman makes no mention of that, perhaps because he believes that tolerance can develop within an orgy of violence. Or perhaps, once he heard the word "diversity", he thought he had all the answers.

This is interesting:
I just returned from India, which just celebrated 60 years of democracy. Pakistan, right next door, is melting down. Yet, they are basically the same people — they look alike, they eat the same food, they dress alike. But there is one overriding difference: India has a culture of diversity. India is now celebrating 60 years of democracy precisely because it is also celebrating millennia of diversity, including centuries of Muslim rule.
Sixty years of democracy... Sixty years ago was 1947... As I recall, that was not the best year for tolerance in India. A question for Mr. Friedman - how is it that India can claim to be "celebrating millennia of diversity, including centuries of Muslim rule" and Pakistan cannot?

Mr. Friedman is effusive about the tolerance of "The Muslim Emperor Akbar, who ruled India in the 16th century at the pinnacle of the Mughal Empire, had Christians, Hindus, Jain and Zoroastrians in his court.
Akbar wasn’t just tolerant. He was embracing of other faiths and ideas, which is why his empire was probably the most powerful in Indian history. Pakistan, which has as much human talent as India, could use an Akbar. Ditto the Arab world.
Yeah. Because Pakistan never had an Akbar. Dare I also point out that it was not Akbar's legacy which led to democracy in India? It was the curse of British colonialism that created the civil institutions which provided a foundation for India's successful democracy - something the British did not do out of a sense that diversity was valuable, or that Indians were their equals.

This leads to Friedman's missing a fact about democracy in the Arab world that is right under his nose. Israel chose to lift military rule over its Arab citizens in 1966. During subsequent decades, despite a record of tolerance that is rather spotty, Israels Arab citizens have demonstrated allegiance both to democracy and to their state. As with democracy in India versus Pakistan, it wasn't the preceding millennia which dictated which group of Palestinians would follow democracy and which would not. It was a question of which group was subject to a government which had stable institutions of democratic governance, and which was not. Although almost as patronizing (and factually careless) as Friedman in respect to the Arab world, Amitai Etzioni's argument that "basic security comes first" is far more compelling than Friedman's argument for tolerance.

Is anybody else tired of the idiotic prattle that, if only some (inferior) group had some (superior) leader, everything would be coming up roses? Pakistan had Akbar. Here's another example of tolerance:
Despite his fierce struggle against the Christian incursion, Saladin achieved a great reputation in Europe as a chivalrous knight, so much so that there existed by the fourteenth century an epic poem about his exploits, and Dante included him among the virtuous pagan souls in Limbo. Saladin appears in a sympathetic light in Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman (1825). Despite the Crusaders' slaughter when they originally conquered Jerusalem in 1099, Saladin granted amnesty and free passage to all common Catholics and even to the defeated Christian army, as long as they were able to pay the aforementioned ransom (the Greek Orthodox Christians were treated even better, because they often opposed the western Crusaders).

Notwithstanding the differences in beliefs, the Muslim Saladin was respected by Christian lords, Richard especially. Richard once praised Saladin as a great prince, saying that he was without doubt the greatest and most powerful leader in the Islamic world. Saladin in turn stated that there was not a more honorable Christian lord than Richard. After the treaty, Saladin and Richard sent each other many gifts as tokens of respect, but never met face to face.
Perhaps Friedman's next column can lament, "If only the Arab world had a Saladin."

The "if only some (inferior) group had some (superior) leader" position is hardly new to Friedman's analysis of the Arab world. He has long used the same form of argument - "If only the Palestinians had a Gandhi". I find it fascinating how people like Tom "Suck On This" Friedman can patronize somebody else for not being pacifistic,
We needed to go over there, basically, um, and um, uh, take out a very big state right in the heart of that world and burst that bubble, and there was only one way to do it....

That Charlie was what this war was about. We could've hit Saudi Arabia, it was part of that bubble. We coulda hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could.
It's beyond absurd. And as you might expect it's entirely situational. He did not write after 9/11, "The U.S. could use a Gandhi right now." He did not complain to Israel when it invaded Lebanon, "Where's the Israeli Gandhi"? He supported those actions, safe from his armchair. He has not embraced Gandhi's pre-WWII advice to the British that they employ passivity in response to a possible German invasion, or Gandhi's post-war comment that although the Holocaust was "the greatest crime of our time", Jews should nonetheless have passively resisted. He would no doubt find both suggestions absurd. For those who adopt this line of argument, passive resistance and compliance are something to be demanded from others, not something those others can expect from you.

If you're a powerful nations acting against the comparatively powerless, hitting them "because we can" to send a message of "suck on this"? He's got your back. If you're on the receiving end of that force, though, you had better take it lying down. (You don't have to like it but, at least if you like democracy, you have to tolerate it.)

For all the geniuses who read this weblog....

Yesterday, according to this, The Stopped Clock was written at the "Genius" level. (I could interpret that as, "You write really bad, confusing posts.")

Today I'm demoted to "Postgraduate", probably because my most recent post uses words like "Wow" and incorporates Traffic lyrics. (Or maybe it's the comment by that "CWD" guy - always dragging me down. ;-) )

Concurring Opinions shares the readability scores for an assortment of law blogs and media sites. While including media sites may be amusing, the nature of the text on a media site is quantitatively different than that on a weblog, but their inclusion provides some amusement value. And let's face it, even when applied to weblogs, these scores are primarily for amusement value.

Among the other surprises it turns out that, at least as of yesterday, the Becker-Posner blog i written as badly as mine. I mean, as well as mine. Yeah.

(I wonder how many grade levels I'll drop after this post?)

Update: Another instant demotion:

Update #2: A true test of the genius level of the author of a weblog? Perhaps whether the author edits out the spam link embedded into the "readability test" HTML.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

"The Percentage You're Paying is Too High Priced"

According to Bob Herbert,
“We have an economy that is based on increased debt,” said Mr. Hinchey. “The national debt is now slightly above $9 trillion, and ordinary working people are finding that they have to borrow more and more to maintain their standard of living."

“The average now is that people are spending close to 10 percent more than they earn every month. Obviously, that can’t be sustained.”
Wow... Personally, I prefer to live below my means. If that's the average then "unsustainable" may be an understatement.

I assume that this pattern has its roots in home equity lending. Spending your home equity to keep your head above water isn't particularly wise, but when home values are flat or falling, is it possible to continue to spend at that level and avoid disaster? And if we're talking credit card debt....

And Your Opinion Is....

President Bush on torture:
"A simple question," said one White House reporter during a Bush news conference last week.

"Yes?" said Bush.

"What's your definition of the word 'torture'?"

"Oh," said Bush. "That's defined in U.S. law, and we don't torture."

Asked for his personal definition, Bush replied: "Whatever the law says."
Attention law students: even when you're unprepared for a professor's question you no longer need to try to bluff or "pass" - you can simply answer, "Whatever the law says." And just think how much shorter your exam answers can be.

I am reminded of an exchange from law school in which a student kept insisting upon additional information and details before he would answer the professors's question. After about five minutes of back-and-forth, when it was obvious that no answer would ever be forthcoming, the professor gave up and expressed to the class, "Should you ever hire Mr. Jones as a lawyer you had best take a hammer to your appointment, so you can beat an opinion out of him."

Looking at answers given in response to simple questions by Bush, Mukasey and Perrino, among others, it occurs to me that the professor's comment might now be taken as a compliment - "You're highly qualified to work for the President."

Thursday, November 08, 2007

As One Commander In Chief To Another....

President Bush lectures General Musharref,
The US president said: "My message was that we believe strongly in elections and that you ought to have elections soon and you need to take off your uniform.

"You can't be the president and the head of the military at the same time, so I had a very frank discussion with him."
Please tell me that some context was omitted.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A Lesson in History from Alan Dershowitz

As always, Alan Dershowitz "opposes" torture by arguing in favor of it.

This time around, Dershowitz writes,
There are some who claim that torture is a nonissue because it never works - it only produces false information. This is simply not true, as evidenced by the many decent members of the French Resistance who, under Nazi torture, disclosed the locations of their closest friends and relatives.
Well, there you go. It was good enough for the Nazis, so it’s good enough for Alan. (And we all know how important it was to the Nazis that they received accurate information such that they wouldn’t accidentally pick up and torture a confession out of an innocent Frenchman, thereby generating a list of other innocents to pick up and torture....)

But we can thank Dershowitz for this: Finally we know why the Nazis won WWII, and why we must embrace their winning tactics.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Got Overseas Relatives You Don't Like?

Christmas dinner will probably be... tense.
A man in Sweden who was angry with his daughter's husband has been charged with libel for telling the FBI that the son-in-law had links to al-Qaeda, Swedish media reported on Friday.

The man, who admitted sending the email, said he did not think the US authorities would stupid enough to believe him.

* * *

The son-in-law was arrested upon landing in Florida. He was placed in handcuffs, interrogated and placed in a cell for 11 hours before being put on a flight back to Europe, the paper said.

Mukasey and Petards

If being hoist on your own petard is an illustration of your bad acts coming back to haunt you, is being hoist on somebody else's petard a form of torture? You can mull on that if you wish, but don't ask Michael Mukasey - he hasn't been briefed.

Robert Farley (somewhat crudely) explores the question of whether it is necessary to be briefed before you can identify something as torture, but I saw something else in Bush's remarks:
I believe that the questions he's been asked are unfair; he's not been read into a program - he has been asked to give opinions of a program or techniques of a program on which he has not been briefed.
This comment to me says one of two things: Bush is stupid, or Bush thinks that a majority of the American people are stupid. Do you need to be briefed to know that being given a hot meal and a pillow to sit on is not torture? Do you need to be briefed to know that having your joints smashed with a sledgehammer is torture?

If Bush is trying to make the case that waterboarding falls into a nebulous middle ground, such that there are legitimate questions as to whether or not it is torture, he should make that case. Apparently even Bush's best speechwriters can't find a way to make a purse of that pig's ear. As he can't make an honest case, (like usual) he treats the American people like a herd of mindless sheep, willing to (continue to) lap up his deceptions and evasions. And many seem happy to do so.

The Washington Post, which has been squarely in the Mukasey camp since day one, argues,
It is extraordinary that a man who rightly would have been confirmed with overwhelming support had he been President Bush's first nominee for attorney general may now be denied that post in the waning months of the administration
Well, here's something to consider - does anybody think that Mukasey would have evaded the question of whether waterboarding was torture back in early 2001? If he was asked a question as to whether under his leadership the Justice Department would investigate credible allegations that a federal law enforcement agency had waterboarded suspects, would he truly have said "no", or "I have to check to see if that's an acceptable form of interrogation"? And if he had, would his nomination not have gone down in flames?

The difference, of course, is that the Bush Administration has waterboarded suspects, and thus the necessity of evasion - if Mukasey answers in a manner consistent with past American policies, legal and military precedent, and common sense, he could be categorizing those past actions as crimes. If he answers "no", even John "Let him answer that question after he's confirmed" McCain might have to break down and vote against him.

Bush's implied threat that he won't send another potential nominee to Congress if Mukasey isn't approved? That to me sounds like reason to reject Mukasey. If Bush is that confident that Mukasey, fully briefed and informed on waterboarding, will either come down on the "no, it's not torture" side of the debate, or will otherwise sweep the issue under the carpet, suggests that Mukasey is being dishonest with Congress. It also reveals a Bush litmus test for candidates - "You can't say that waterboarding is torture", as otherwise he wouldn't have much difficulty coming up with an alternate nominee. Sending a succession of people as evasive on the subject as Mukasey would simply serve to highlight the Bush Administration's mendacity on this subject. (Which, as Glenn Greenwald points out, is not to say that Congress is much better.)

If Bush were an honest man, a courageous man, or a man of integrity, he would stand behind his actions and either declare that waterboarding is not torture, or that during its period of use he believed it was necessary to use torture as part of his "War on Terror". Don't hold your breath.