Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Missing Element

Josh Marshal ponders why people are willing to
ethnically profile, do all sorts extra-judicial surveillance, maintain massive databases of hundreds of thousands of people who have some vague relationship to extremism, torture captives, condemn people to hours unable to go the bathroom on planes, even launch various foreign military adventures
while we hesitate to implement backscatter body scans
that might show a vague outline of boobs or penises (almost certainly no more than is exposed in most bathing suits)
and concludes,
It just tells me that at some level we're not really serious about this.
Really, though, the difference is obvious. With stuff that happens behind the scenes, we're comfortable assuming that it only happens to other people. Proponents of torture don't anticipate that they will ever be tortured. Proponents of racial profiling anticipate that it will only happen to other races - consider the recent spate of calls for the profiling of any person with an Islamic-sounding name, even though most made no similar demand for people with names like "José Padilla" and none that I know of made any such demand for people with names like "Richard Reid". The rule forbidding going to the bathroom on an airplane during the last hour of a flight - an idea that is unworkable (or potentially really messy) for people with certain medical conditions or for small children? It's already out the door. Now the decision is up to the discretion of the airlines.

It's simply another form of the anti-civil liberties retort, "If you're not breaking the law, you've got nothing to worry about" - which roughly translates to "If it's not happening to me, I don't care."

It should also be noted that the privacy technology for backscatter has improved, and will continue to improve, to the point that "nudity" is becoming a non-issue. Several years back, when I first heard about the use of this technology by the federal government, and the privacy issues it was raising, I asked, "Why not adjust the software to erase as much of the human body as possible - after all, you don't care about the body - just what's on it"? It took some time for others to hop on the clue bus, but that's the way the technology is heading. Note that the technology is anything but perfect - it won't see through fat folds, nor will it look inside body cavities - it's just another tool in passenger screening.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Strange Form of Extortion

Governor Schwarzenegger is threatening the people of his state:
If Washington does not provide roughly $8 billion in new aid for the state, the governor threatens to severely cut back -- if not eliminate -- CalWORKS, the state's main welfare program; the In-Home Health Care Services program for the disabled and elderly poor, and two tax breaks for large corporations recently approved by the Legislature, the officials said.
I'll say it again:
If more federal aid is offered to the states, it should have clear strings attached: tax reforms likely to create and sustain a balanced budget starting in, let's say, 2011. The CBO can crunch the numbers.
Schwarzenegger could start by convincing his own party to cooperate with efforts to balance the budget, as well as working to overturn some of the insanity that has been made part of California's state constitution.

How Did This Get Published?

When you see a really silly editorial published in the New York Times you think... well, at least it's not the Post. But sometimes you really have to wonder about the agenda. By way of example, a guy who runs an insignificant company in England was given space to rant and rave about how his company is pretty much invisible to Google, speculate that it's because of a "penalty", and present absolute claptrap about how Google has no business advocating for network neutrality if his company can't outrank superior, vastly more popular websites.
Today, search engines like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft’s new Bing have become the Internet’s gatekeepers, and the crucial role they play in directing users to Web sites means they are now as essential a component of its infrastructure as the physical network itself. The F.C.C. needs to look beyond network neutrality and include “search neutrality”: the principle that search engines should have no editorial policies other than that their results be comprehensive, impartial and based solely on relevance.
The author's missive is directed at Google, not at Yahoo!, which seems odd given that Google is much more algorithm-driven than Yahoo!, is disinclined to "hand edit" even embarrassing search results (as compared to Yahoo!'s hand-editing, including to self-promote.

Moreover, in this quest for "neutrality", the author fails to specify what that concept means or how it could be measured. For example, one factor Google considers is whether people link to a site or its internal pages. If nobody's linking to the author's site, it's quite likely that the site isn't worthy of links - or that there are superior alternatives that get the links. Another big factor is unique content - sites like the author's, that rely almost exclusively on product feeds for their content, have virtually none. The author's site invites ratings, but I see no evidence that anybody has ever added a rating - theoretical unique content is not unique content. What do you get if you browse the site? Product listings, vendor information about the products, and affiliate links. Hardly a paradise for the consumer. And an overall site design and architecture that's not particularly search-engine friendly, relying heavily on iframes.

Reading the New York Times editorial you might be confused, and think that this is a big company that has invested in a serious innovation, yet cannot break through Google's iron wall. Hardly. This is a website founded by the author and his wife, with programming assistance from a family friend. It's the type of site a skilled programmer could knock off in an afternoon. It is no surprise to me that the site felt "punished" by Google, as a few years ago Google modified its algorithm to diminish the presence of sites just like the author's - sites that have essentially nothing to offer to the consumer beyond recycled information and affiliate links. Frankly, I personally think that too many site's like the author's still show up in Google's search results - and remain far too prevalent in Yahoo! Search and Bing. Unless and until it started to offer some real value, my ideal search engine wouldn't just relegate his site to the far reaches of the search results. My ideal search engine would exclude his site altogether.

Here's something I find odd. The author has been whining about problems with Google for years. The site was featured in a Guardian article several months ago. For all of the energy the author puts into complaining, it doesn't appear that he's expended any effort into improving his own website. Instead he whines in response to the suggestion that his site needs to present unique content that his site's replication of information easily found on other sources "is, in essence, all that Google itself does". Cute. Except Google tries to drive consumers to sites that match their search needs, rather than confining them to a set of affiliate merchants. And, unlike the author's company, Google does it well. And of course the author is begging the question - the issue is not that Google doesn't incorporate sites like his into the search results. The issue is that when there are tens, hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of sites with the same content, those that offer nothing more than replication of the third party content deserve to rank at the bottom.

Further, the author claims to be in the same business as Google - the search business - and then complains that Google favors its own shopping search engine results over his. With all due respect, isn't that what you would expect a business competitor to do? But really, his site isn't a competitor with Google. People go to Google looking for information on products, and he hopes that they will come to his site from Google, follow an affiliate link, and make him a commission. Few people come to his site first, and none of them are directed to Google. From a search engine standpoint, he's an unnecessary middle step between the person searching for a product and the desired product - cut him out of the middle and the search engine user experience improves.

But don't just take my word for it. After the Guardian ran its story, there was a significant upward spike in traffic to the author's website. Even coming into the Christmas buying season, that spike didn't translate into any subsequent increase in traffic. That is, for the most part people seem to have taken a look and asked themselves, "That's all they have to offer?", then forgotten about the site.

The author also blames Google for a loss of traffic to MapQuest. I used MapQuest, often through its partnership with Yahoo!, quite regularly before Google Maps came out with its innovative AJAX interface and blew MapQuest's socks off. Google maps was a vastly superior product. Yahoo! doesn't even partner with MapQuest any more - is that Google's fault as well? Now it may hurt to be running a company and have a competitor produce a far superior product and take away your market share, but that's the way the markets are supposed to work. The same goes for the author's complaint that the share price of TomTom has dropped now that Google is making available a free turn-by-turn navigation service - what duty does Google owe TomTom's shareholders? Should companies be forbidden from giving away a service if a (sort-of) competitor would prefer to charge for a similar service? Should TV Guide be allowed to forbid cable companies from providing their customers with on-screen channel guides?

The author also whines that Google acquires technology from other companies. So what? Mergers, acquisitions, and the purchase and licensing of intellectual property play a big role in how companies operate.

Beyond that, the author's back to complaining that Google's cutting out the middleman - promoting its own search products through Universal Search instead of directing people to a third party website that it does not control in the hope that the third party will responsibly direct the consumer to an appropriate destination. Don't get me wrong here - Google's ability to leverage its way into new markets is a subject for valid concern - but it's not surprising that they favor their own sites when they're striving to provide a consistent, quality user experience.

So how did the story cross the pond, with no mention by the Times that the author is writing about a tiny, U.K.-based website? In my opinion, because the story was picked up by the industry groups that oppose network neutrality, and who hope that this type of idiocy can cloud the picture. We even get a silly parallel term, "search neutrality".
Google was quick to recognize the threat to openness and innovation posed by the market power of Internet service providers, and has long been a leading proponent of net neutrality. But it now faces a difficult choice. Will it embrace search neutrality as the logical extension to net neutrality that truly protects equal access to the Internet? Or will it try to argue that discriminatory market power is somehow dangerous in the hands of a cable or telecommunications company but harmless in the hands of an overwhelmingly dominant search engine?

There is absolutely no parallel between network neutrality and this nebulous concept of "search neutrality". None. You will not be able to get two people in a room to agree as to how a given set of websites should be comparatively ranked, let alone "all of them." Search engines have good cause to keep the details of their algorithms secret - it prevents people from gaming the system and spamming search results. For all the complaints about "how more transparency would be nice," this article from 2002 still does a pretty good job of what you need to do to make your site succeed. Sure, it's easier to take the author's approach and spin up a program that creates a website automatically from content created by others, but no secret here: it's rare at best for that approach to bring about long-term success.

More than that, in his zeal to attack Google, the author flips the idea of network neutrality on its head. Without network neutrality, the companies that offer Internet bandwidth can charge people at either end of a digital "transaction" for the privilege of sending their data over its wires - and without payment they could slow the transmission of the data down to a crawl or cut it off entirely. (Of course they could - and would - allow their own competing products across their networks, unimpeded.) You could pay more as a consumer for broader bandwidth, but perhaps still have your service provider narrow or cut off the bandwidth to sites or services you want to use. The service provider could also pay a fee for increased bandwidth.

Nobody's going to pay an extra penny to get access to the author's website, and he doesn't have the money to pay in their stead. Network neutrality will cost Google money, as it pays for the bandwidth - but they have the money with which to pay. And that will serve to cement their position (and that of companies like Microsoft) at the top of the heap, while a new, prospective competitor to Google - the tiny company that grows based on word of mouth, just as Google did as it quickly gained acclaim and displaced former search leader AltaVista, is unlikely to even have a chance.

So will the New York Times tell us, what lobbyist or telecom industry insider convinced them to run the editorial? (I'm not holding my breath.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Repealing Reform Before it Occurs?

Josh Marshall opines that "resurgent Republicans could get the chance to repeal [healthcare reform] before the public gets a chance to experience any of its benefits". Not so much. Unless and until they recapture the White House, their legislative initiatives are subject to veto.

Even granting that many provisions don't go into effect until 2014 (unless they're accelerated by future legislation), we've just seen how difficult it can be for a President with a sizable majority in both houses of Congress to get things past if the opposition party says "no". I doubt that even in their grandest dreams, which no doubt do include retaking the White House, the Republicans believe they can have 60 Senators by 2014.

Because He's Such a Serious Man....

John McCain isn't bothered by Sarah Palin's scribbling his name off of a visor she wore during her Hawaii vacation.
Sen. John McCain brushed off the semi-controversy over his former running mate's visor Sunday, attributing the blog and talk show chatter about Sarah Palin's vacation attire to "hysterical attacks" from the left.
Yeah, which is why you only get coverage of the "story"....
Finally former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential and presidential nominees Sarah Palin. Made a potential political fashion faux -- while vacationing with her family in Hawaii. Palin was photographed wearing a visor from John McCain's failed presidential bid with the words McCain for president blacked out apparently and magic marker.
from left-wing sources like Fox News.

McCain, though, isn't very good at deciding what is or is not a "hysterical attack". I mean, if you're going to make a hysterical attack over somebody's vacation in Hawaii, you couldn't do much better than McCain's own campaign team and party.1 McCain also doesn't seem to understand that his recent false, hypocritical attack on Senator Franken qualifies.
1. That is, unless you're Cokie Roberts.

Passing Sound, Popular Legislation Would Be a Handicap?

David Broder represents the mindset that got the Democratic Party into its present predicament:
I think Obama deserves more help than he is getting from his fellow Democrats in Congress, given the boost he provided them in the last election, the difficulty of the problems he inherited and the stiff-arm he has received from Republicans.

But the reality is that, the closer we get to the midterm elections, when they will be on the ballot and he will not, the more members of Congress -- and not just Pelosi -- will judge what is best for themselves and the less they'll be swayed by Obama.
But here's the thing: if the Democratic Party were to work together to pass some really good legislation, rather than taking the "every man for himself" approach most visible in the Senate, they could be seen as efficient, organized and capable, instead of clumsy, incompetent, undisciplined and self-defeating. Which face would better serve them in the midterm elections? If you're not sure, remind me again, what happened to the Democratic Party in Clinton's first midterm election?

Yes, other factors were involved, but it certainly didn't help that the Democrats had frittered away their control of Congress, fighting their President instead of working with him and defeating his legislative agenda.

People Unclear On The Concept

The concept of creative destruction is that innovation and entrepreneurship are what drive long-term economic growth, even though the value of established companies may be diminished or destroyed. George Will doesn't quite get it:
You must remember this: In 2006, the last full year before this downturn, when the economy grew 2.7 percent and the unemployment rate was just 4.6 percent, 3.3 million people lost their jobs to the normal churning of a dynamic economy. This "creative destruction" has human costs but no longer is optional.
George, when there's no innovation behind the crumbling edifices of established industry, they must be propped up with huge government subsidies and bail-outs to keep the situation from becoming significantly worse, and the economy is sputtering, that's not creative destruction. It's just destruction.

Update: Tom Burka's take on things: Democrats To Actually Vote For Own Bill.

Um... Dana?

Dana Milbank warns that imposing any consequence on Joe Lieberman for what Dana describes as a career-long pattern of backstabbing his former party would put the Democrats on the same path as the Republicans have taken:
Republicans, who recently floated a purity test for GOP candidates, know where this road leads: to a 40-member minority in the Senate. If Democrats wish to remain the majority party, they should avoid the loyalty trap. Lieberman may be a monster, but he's their monster.
Um... Dana? Lieberman's not a member of the Democratic Party. He deliberately chose not to change his party affiliation after his reelection. He is talking about running in the next election as a Republican.

And you're way too smart to be making this argument - Lieberman has already been shown exceptional largesse. In history, how many politicians have been allowed to actively campaign for the opposition in a national election, giving a full-throated endorsement of the opposition party's leader, then face no meaningful consequence when their preferred candidate lost?

Also, it's not an ideological litmus test to insist that members of your party, or those who caucus with you, actually support your party and not threaten to filibuster its most important legislative initiatives. That's basic "party discipline". Why do you think we have political parties if you think that everything that comes after election is legitimately an every man for himself free-for-all?

You know, Dana, I agree with you on this: Lieberman has always been a self-serving, narcissistic wretch. But I think it's well past the time where it makes sense for the Democratic Party to stick with the devil they know. He certainly hasn't stuck with them.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

I appreciate the push-back coming from the left on the gutting of the healthcare reform bill. It's a shame that the bill has been gradually stripped of elements that could constrain costs and increase competition due to the disgraceful conduct of certain members of both political parties. I don't have a great deal of sympathy for the idea that we should accept a bill full of table scraps as reform. But if the good outweighs the bad, passage of a seriously flawed bill is better than doing nothing. Howard Dean, the new public face of "the present bill is crap" movement, has made that point.

Michael Tomasky lists provisions that he believes will be in the final bill and asks why anybody on the left would oppose a bill that includes those provisions. If those provisions are all that are in the bill, he's right - the political left should embrace it as a starting point for reform. But add in poison pills, such as a mandate to buy overpriced, inferior insurance,1 or various elements that can be exploited by employers to increase the cost of insurance beyond what their "less fit" employees are able to pay, and the calculus shifts. It's unreasonable to attack people for not seeing the benefits of a bill that has not been finalized, and with each passing day is stripped of provisions that would benefit significant numbers of Americans.

A word for those on the left who supported Hillary Clinton in the presidential campaign and have stated or implied since that time that she would be a better President, and use healthcare reform as an example, remind me again... which of the remaining reforms were passed into law during President Clinton's push for reform? That's right - none of them. Really, get off the idea that the President has magic powers that can make Senators with secure seats (that is, virtually all of them) fall in line.

For those who howl, "You should have used reconciliation" every time something negative happens in the legislative process, think about it. There are provisions in the current proposed legislation that could not be passed through reconciliation, even assuming the Senate had been willing to pursue that path - and it wasn't. So again, if there's enough good in this bill that it's worth passing, stop whining about how reconciliation would have been better, and start pressing for a follow-up bill that fixes this legislation's most serious problems (to the extent possible) by reconciliation. It's not as if we pass a bill and then the Earth stands still.

I'm with Paul Krugman in relation to the attacks on those who would favor passage of a flawed but helpful bill as being "just like the 'liberal hawks' who supported the Iraq war". Even if we assume that there were no good reasons to support a war in Iraq (and I for one thought the probable downside outweighed the possible upside), there's no meaningful parallel. It's a dubious tactic - poisoning the well. If you want to argue that people are wrong, fine, but if you can't do better than that - if you can't logically substantiate your analogy - what do you think you're accomplishing?

On the other hand, I disagree with Krugman that just because the passage of any healthcare reform seemed like an impossible dream after Bush's reelection, we should just the current bill by comparison to nothing. It's a profound disappointment that the Democratic Party, particularly a handful of shameless self-aggrandizers and opportunists in the Senate, have not worked hard to make this the best possible bill instead of being so self-absorbed, so dim-witted, and/or so in the pockets of industry that serious concessions had to be made from the outset and we continue to shed helpful provisions from an what has gradually become at best a mediocre bill. Robert Reich has a more accurate assessment, that "We are slouching toward health-care reform that's better than nothing but far worse than we had imagined it would be".

Frankly, the behavior of the Republican Party, from top to bottom, has been disgraceful. The party of "no" - no ideas, no cooperation, no cost savings... A handful of Republican Senators could, right now, come across the aisle with a set of serious cost-savings measures and, as long as they were willing to accept the majority of the terms of the present bill, could squeeze the obstructionists like Lieberman and Nelson out of the picture. Instead they obstruct and obfuscate, and openly hope that the bill fails because they anticipate that its failure will bring them political advantage. Screw the people. "The uninsured don't vote for us anyway".

To get a sense of the significance of even what's left of the reform bill, take a look at some Republican commentary on the subject. First, after pretending to be thoughtful, David Brooks gives his inevitable "thumbs down" - like the liberal critics of the bill, he doesn't need to see a final version of the legislation to know that he opposes it.
If you pass a health care bill without systemic incentives reform, you set up a political vortex in which the few good parts of the bill will get stripped out and the expensive and wasteful parts will be entrenched.
So what do you think he and his party offer up as an alternative? One joke after another? The Republican Party presently offers little more than a head count: forty Senators, at least thirty-seven of whom (and arguably all of whom) are stuck in their "terrible twos".

But at least Brooks has enough self-respect not to pull this trick, Matthew Dowd begging us not to throw the Republican Party into the briar patch. Aw, shucks, it's always wonderful to have a Republican operative tell the Democratic Party, "Don't let your lying eyes or Michael Steele's lying words deceive you - if you pass healthcare reform, you'll only hurt yourselves." Wow. The only way that sort of caution might be more credible is if it were penned by Karl Rove or Bill Kristol. I mean, that would be convincing.
Come up with a health-care bill that draws real bipartisan support.
Remind me again, Dowd, what brilliant initiatives the Republican enfants terribles in the Senate have brought to negotiations for bipartisan reform? I mean, even if they didn't recognize the joke earlier, that zinger would push it over the top for pretty much everyone, no?
1. I recognize the importance of a mandate to reform, but the quality of insurance available to the public must be at least adequate for that to be a fair requirement - there's potential that people will be forced to choose between paying a penalty or overpaying for garbage.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Making Better Bricks

Yet another battle between parents who support their tot's freedom of expression and individual style, versus a school board that wants boys to have conventional haircuts. (Why is it that the adults involved in these disputes so often seem less mature than the kids?) But still....
On its Web site, the district says its code is in place because "students who dress and groom themselves neatly, and in an acceptable and appropriate manner, are more likely to become constructive members of the society in which we live."
Suspending a four-year-old from school because his hair is too long or, as seems more likely, because the style is not appropriately masculine? (Check the picture in the linked article.) I guess the principal decided, he don't need no education.

Speaking Truth When You Have Power

Recently, Senator Al Franken was given a rather blunt message that his actions in advocating for his anti-rape bill, he had crossed a line with Republican opponents of the bill.
In a chamber where relationship-building is seen as critical, some GOP senators question whether Franken’s handling of the amendment could damage his ability to work across the aisle.
You see, instead of smiling and saying, "They're representing their constituents," or at worst, "They're doing what they need to do to get reelected," Franken challenged the PR spin of opponents to the amendment on their merits. That simply isn't done.

Seriously, when a scandal breaks about a Senator or Member of Congress, how often do you think that the underlying material isn't common knowledge on Capitol Hill? When a Senator or Member of Congress goes on a TV or radio show and makes claims that are absurdly false or stupid, how often does one of his peers point that out rather than pretending that a serious point had been made? How often have you heard the "strange bedfellows"-type story - Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy were close friends. Bad behavior is kept under wraps because neither side would benefit from full disclosure of the personal foibles of their peers. And when somebody says something absurdly stupid or just plain false, that's supposed to be treated as a necessary act to represent the voters from their district and not as a particular act of venality.

Recall how mild rebukes from President Obama had Republicans seething in their seats, with Rep. Joe Wilson engaging in a childish breach of decorum (that make him the toast of the town with the childish wing of the Republican Party)? By the twisted logic of Wilson and, really, the Senate as a whole, the more serious offense appears to have been by President Obama. The truth? Irrelevant! How dare he come into Congress and suggest that, to oppose his agenda, any number of its elected members were flat-out lying? He should have respected that they were merely representing their constituents. Nancy Pelosi worked hard to prevent a censure. (Hardly atypical of how Congress enforces its ethics rules on its members.)

This type of "collegiality" doesn't just harm the public debate, it also blinds Senators to problems in their midst. Case in point, Joe Lieberman. Any number of his peers seem to be able to convince themselves that his public behavior is somehow divorced from what he will do when it's time to vote, that their past friendship means that he'll work with them. Many who know better refrain from speaking out, or speak only in the mildest of terms, apparently lest they damage their ability to work with their peers. There's no political price to pay within the institution in sitting quietly on your hands - or even for applauding - when a Trent Lott suggests that the nation would have been better off had Strom Thurmond's been elected President on his segregationist State’s Rights ticket in 1948. The damage comes when the public hears about the comment and creates an uproar - that's why the institutional demand on Senator Franken is "sit down and shut up".

When Senator Debbie Stabenow voted in favor of a constitutional amendment against "desecrating the flag", it would have been fair to comment, "She's doing what she needs to do to get elected." It wouldn't quite be the whole truth, mind you, as the Senior Senator from Michigan, Carl Levin, voted against it. The rest of the truth is that he's a lot more popular and effective than Stabenow, and is thus a lot more secure in his seat. But still, it would have been nice to see somebody display the courage of calling her out on the vote, as engaging in the worst form of pandering. I don't believe for a minute that she was "voting her conscience" on that one. In my opinion she knew the vote would fail, so she viewed it as an opportunity to try to build some credibility with those Michigan voters who support an anti-flag burning amendment. It would have been nice if somebody from among her Senate peers had called her out on that. No, it ain't gonna happen. And do I even need to mention the likes of Michelle freakin' Bachman?

The fact is, the brand of "collegiality" that is expected in Congress weakens it as an institution and as a legislative body. We don't need Senator Franken to "learn the rules, lest he be made an outcast" - we need a lot more senators like him, on both sides of the aisle.

"Fault" and the Death of the Public Option

There's no small amount of anger being directed at President Obama over the death of the public option, some form of national health insurance program to compete with private insurers. Take, for example, Glenn Greenwald,
Of all the posts I wrote this year, the one that produced the most vociferous email backlash -- easily -- was this one from August, which examined substantial evidence showing that, contrary to Obama's occasional public statements in support of a public option, the White House clearly intended from the start that the final health care reform bill would contain no such provision and was actively and privately participating in efforts to shape a final bill without it.
Greenwald then contends that Obama gave up the public option early, in order to buy off the insurance industry and perhaps to get it to financially support the Democratic Party.

I think Greenwald is correct in part - that President Obama has never viewed a public option as essential for healthcare reform. But what if he did? Obama could have twisted every arm in the Senate and he would not have come up with sixty votes, so why should he have wasted his energy on a doomed public option (and inevitably being accused of 'failing' by both the left-wing advocates of the public option and the entire Republican establishment when it didn't happen), when he could focus on things that could actually be achieved. Also, this appears to be misplaced anger - the public option died in the Senate some time ago. What Lieberman just killed off was part of a proposed compromise to advocates of a public option - the expansion of Medicare.

Greenwald alleges that the White House pressured freshmen Members of Congress on a war funding bill, linking to an article that notes that the White House denied the charge. But even accepting it as true, which of the Senators who were intent on killing the public option is a freshman? Which would shiver in his boots at the idea that "they won't get help with reelection and will be cut off from the White House" if they don't accede to the President? Sorry, but when you're scrambling for sixty votes every time an important issue comes up, and when you're dealing with Senators who don't need your help to get reelected, threats like that are apt to make you look silly and lose credibility.

Moreover, it does appear that President Obama has been doing his best to keep the party on track to pass a bill that he believes may work. He has also clearly embraced the principle of progress, not perfection. Think about it: A perfect healthcare reform bill would include provisions that have never even been on the table.

Joseph freakin' Lieberman - it's hard to think of a politician more deserving of being kicked to the curb by the White House, but reports are quite to the contrary - that up to now Obama has lobbied against any serious consequence to Lieberman because he supposedly can provide that sixtieth vote (that he somehow never seems to deliver when the need is critical). As much as I want to see Lieberman kicked to the curb, by all appearances he's such a petty, vindictive small-minded man that to do so now may well result in there never again being more than 59 Senate votes for healthcare reform - even the hobbled remnants Lieberman has deemed acceptable for debate (but still hasn't promised to support in a final vote).

Whose Victory Is It, Again?

While he's correct that passing a flawed healthcare reform bill is better than failing to act, Michael Tomasky opines,
No matter how frustrated or angry you are about what's not in this bill, is the proper response to that really to strike a posture that amounts to giving Republicans, who will never do anything to promote or even gesture toward universal healthcare when they have power, their biggest political win on Capitol Hill in at least six or seven and arguably in 15 years? That's just silly.
The Republican Party has been actively fighting universal healthcare for... what is it now... fifty years? Under the concept that if it passes it will prove popular, and will result in their becoming more like Britain's Conservative Party - able to attack Social Security and publicly funded healthcare at the margins, but largely stuck with a popular government-run system that they can neither destroy or defund. Hence we had David Frum fretting,
Instead of a healthcare reform to slow cost increases, Democrats in the Senate seem to be converging upon an expansion of Medicare to include age 55-64 year-olds and an expansion in Medicaid up to some higher multiple of the poverty limit. You might wonder why they didn’t do this before: expanding existing programs is always easier than creating new ones. So now instead of a new system that attempts to control costs, we’re just going to have a bigger and more expensive version of the old system, with a few tinkers around the edges. Republicans could have been architects of improvement, instead we made ourselves impotent spectators as things get radically worse. Plus – the bad new Democratic proposal will likely be less unpopular with voters than their more promising earlier proposal. Nice work everybody.
Medicaid is mentioned, but Frum's concern was about a popular, successful expansion of Medicare - something he apparently saw as worse than even a public plan. And while digging that up, what did I find? Frum's celebration of Joe Lieberman as the man who saved the Republican Party:
[The reform bill is] not good, but it’s not what we were threatened with two days ago. Thank you Joe Lieberman.
Whatever good comes to the Democratic Party from healthcare reform, the legislative victory was a Republican victory and, in a single flip-flop, it was delivered by Sen. Joseph Isadore Lieberman.

Another Round of "Stupid vs. Mendacious"

Way back in 2004, speaking of Lieberman's insipid attack on a video game, I commented,
... I've never cared for Lieberman. When he speaks about an issue, his comments usually betray a surprising lack of acumen - he doesn't seem to know the facts, nor does he seem to understand the issues. The alternative explanation is that he does know what he is talking about, but rather than advancing a sensible approach based on fact, logic, and law, he instead panders to the "family values" crowd, railing against immorality in a manner that, for somebody sworn to uphold the Constitution, is reckless and irresponsible.
Today we read,
In an interview with The Connecticut Post, he said he had been refining his views on health care for many years and was “very focused on a group post-50, or maybe more like post-55” whose members should be able to buy Medicare if they lacked insurance.

This week, when there actually seemed to be a compromise on health care that did not focus on Mr. Lieberman, he announced that he would block the package if the Democrats included a terrible idea — allowing people between 55 and 65 to buy Medicare.

He presented this as a principled effort to keep down federal debt, but when a Times reporter asked about his 180-degree turn, he said he had forgotten taking his earlier position until the Democratic leadership reminded him about it over the weekend.
Possible explanations:
  1. Lack of acumen: Lieberman isn't capable of understanding the facts or issues, and his flip-flopping betrays a very weak mind.

  2. Stupid: Despite truly believing he has spent years studying and learning about healthcare reform, with a particular focus on those who would most benefit from a Medicare buy-in, Lieberman can't keep track of the most basic of his own thoughts on the subject.

  3. Mendacious: Lieberman 'forgot' his earlier stance the moment a health industry lobbyist contacted him and said "oppose it".

I recognize that there's a fine line between the first two possible explanations. Sadly, none of the explanations disqualify him from service as a U.S. Senator, and the third would arguably be "business as usual".

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Evolution of Religion

Some essays that have recently caught my eye:
  • An Evangelical Christian frets about The Coming Evangelical Collapse, correctly noting some trends but overstating their likely consequences. One of the issues? Due to heavy church focus on things other than religion, "Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community."

  • A commentary describing how churches have been affected by their shift from focusing on theology to focusing on social change.

    Christianity insofar as it is identified with a social agenda, whether liberal or conservative, will lose. Liberal churches are dying. Non-realist theology has little popular appeal: most laypeople who don't believe in God see no reason to go to church. There are innumerable secular organisations devoted to promoting social improvement and no reason why they should work for social justice under religious auspices. Conservative churches are identified with a social agenda that an increasing number of people find unacceptable.
    The author suggests that churches might "re-engage with theology, arguments concerning the existence and nature of God, and even with mysticism, the quest for direct experience of God", although if the author's correct I doubt that would connect with the secularized audience they wish to attract back. Further, if churches encourage parishioners to engage in direct discourse with God, a substantial number will find that God isn't telling them the same thing as their priest.

  • An exposition on how a conception of "positive thinking", positing that the right mindset can make you rich, percolates itself through American thinking and some churches. Most often it's the proponents of that notion who get rich, not people who buy their products or donate to their churches.

  • How the Anglican Church seems to have had a much easier time deciding to decry tolerance of homosexuality by its priests in America than to criticize Uganda's proposed genocidal policies toward gays.

    Under [Archbishop Rowan] Williams, the church that marries two women who love each other is to be thrown out of the Anglican Communion. The church that would jail them both for life, and would revile and persecute their defenders, stays snugly in his bosom. Not even the Archbishop's remarkable gift for obfuscation can conceal these facts forever.
    (A couple of days ago Williams finally got around to criticizing the Ugandan bill.)

  • Charles Blow highlights the wide gulf between the religious beliefs of Americans and the religions they claim to follow. (He doesn't mention the interesting notion that many Christians have that angels are sweet, loving, benign beings who watch over us to protect us from harm.)

  • With due respect given to the "generational horizon" projected in the previously linked articles about Evangelicals, it could be worse. Spain's Catholic Church faces a very serious shortage of priests.

Just Don't Look... Just Don't Look....

I find the notion that the best response to Sarah Palin is to ignore her to be misplaced. Whether she's deliberately injecting false and inflammatory information into the mainstream, or if she's simply a willing tool, being as I don't edit the Washington Post's editorial page I see no benefit in letting her lies stand unrefuted. Will it irritate stupid people to be told that the person they're choosing to worship is a liar? Maybe so. But it seems that the damage will be greater if they're never even exposed to competing ideas. And frankly, if the criticism does "pour petrol on Palin's fire" to the point that she becomes the Republican Presidential nominee in 2012, the joke will be on her supporters.
Palin shirked her responsibility to serve the people of Alaska who elected her governor, opting to resign and promote her autobiography instead. During the presidential campaign, she struggled while fielding questions relevant to the vice presidency during her debate, not to mention her much-publicised interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric. This history does not constitute a personal attack on Palin's character: she may be a decent person, but her acumen and record with regard to policy and public service leaves much to be desired.

If this were the extent of the criticism, Palin might be treated like other politicians who entered the public sphere unprepared and demonstrated no command of the issues, which is to say, she would be irrelevant. But Palin's critics can't help themselves. Her biography, speaking gaffes, and family life continue to command people's attention, and serve as fodder for tabloids and comedic parody.
And this is the first time a politician's biography, speaking gaffes and family life were fodder for the tabloids, parodists and comedians? Or the first time the adherents of a weak-minded politician took offense at being told (politely or rudely) of those weaknesses? Fascinating. And it's like Attack of the 50' Eyesores - the best way to make Palin lose her importance is to simply not look?
But, if we are serious about combating the distortions that Palin thrives on, distortions that frame progressive politics as elitist fancy-talk, we need to think a bit harder about which jokes are both useful and in good taste.
So... the best way to respond to Palin is dry, scholarly and fact-based, lest her critics be accused of responding with "elitist fancy-talk"? Yeah... that should work.

The Washington Post has chosen to personify the problems in our public discourse that allow Palin's ideas to thrive. The problem isn't that she's treated with disrespect - the problem is that she is treated as if she deserves respect based upon her celebrity without any regard for her veracity. According to Op-Ed Editor Autumn Brewington,
She said the newspaper received an e-mail from Palin Tuesday asking to write about the issue and it decided it should run Wednesday, before President Barack Obama was to head to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

"If we were going to use it, we had to use it immediately," Brewington said. "It was a quicker turnaround than is often the case. But we made the decision based on news."
In other words, substance and merit weren't part of the equation - a celebrity said "Run it now, or somebody else gets it", and Brewington jumped.
Brewington did not regret giving Palin space, noting, "She is someone who stirs discussion and we are in the business of putting out opinion. She reached out to us."
And that's why there was a response piece published alongside... I mean, published the next day... I mean, published eventually... I mean, not published at all - because there's no better way to "stir discussion" than to present an error-riddled polemic and refuse the other side so much of a column inch in which to respond.

Brewington said the piece drew more reaction than most Op-Eds, adding that it ranked among the 10 most-read articles on the Post Web site Wednesday. "We are getting a lot of feedback. I have heard from a few more people today than I normally would have," she said. "Some people I think were glad that Palin had a voice in the Post, some were critical of her writing about climate change."

Among the critics was a university professor who has offered to write a rebuttal column, Brewington said, declining to name the person. "It is always interesting to see who reaches out to us," she said.
Yes, it's always interesting to see who offers scholarly, fact-based editorials that the Post isn't interested in running. The whole point is gathering eyeballs, and the Post can better do that by adding Page 3 girls running insipid columns by celebrities than by running thoughtful commentary from experts.

Media Matters asks,
So why won't the Post publish a column rebutting Sarah Palin's op-ed? Did the paper promise Palin it wouldn't run such a response?
I wouldn't be a bit surprised if they, at a minimum, promised not to run a counterpoint alongside Palin's prattle - even though that probably would have generated even more attention and traffic for the Op/Ed page and Palin's column.

A few years ago, "link baiting" was all the rage in the SEO community. Try to build traffic by posting something sensational or with a catchy headline, under the notion that "all traffic is good traffic". Except a lot the time the traffic generated had no value, other than increasing server load. Visitors weren't interested in the site's other content or its advertising, just in whatever it was that initially attracted them to the site. If you're a new site, link bait leading to that type of spike in traffic can potentially help you get noticed. If you're good at it, it might help you develop a following. But if you're an established site, posting low quality link bait to draw traffic could have the opposite effect. Your new visitors see your low editorial standards as, for that matter, do your established visitors.

Whether you want to take the "just don't look" approach to Sarah Palin or you want to take a calm, scholarly approach to refuting her arguments, you have zero chance as long as the giants of the mainstream media give her a prominent platform the moment she requests one, while giving no space to the other side of the issues.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Joseph Lieberman, Worth Less than Worthless

Again, Joe Lieberman goes out of his way to impede the Democratic Party.
“You’ve got to take out the Medicare buy-in,” Mr. Lieberman said. “You’ve got to forget about the public option. You probably have to take out the Class Act, which was a whole new entitlement program that will, in future years, put us further into deficit.”

Class Act refers to a federal insurance program for long-term care, known as the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act.

Mr. Lieberman said he would have “a hard time” voting for a bill with the Medicare buy-in.

“It has some of the same infirmities that the public option did,” he said. “It will add taxpayer costs. It will add to the deficit. It’s unnecessary. The basic bill, which has a lot of good things in it, provides a generous new system of subsidies for people between ages 55 and 65, and choice and competition.”
A vote that "gets you to sixty" is no good if he's always voting against you. Lieberman should be made to understand that it's a deciding moment - if he can't vote for healthcare reform he should be kicked to the curb - he wants to be a Republican, fine, he can caucus with them. Who needs the narcissistic psychodrama.

Update: This is about right.

Update II: Via TPM, Lieberman supported Medicare buy-ins before he opposed them, advocating the idea as long ago as 2000 and as recently as three months ago. Presumably, since that time, the insurance industry lobbyists for whom he carries water set him straight.

Update III: I hardly know what to say. Somebody's arguing with a straight face that Lieberman not only deserves the benefit of the doubt, but that it's a "venomous slam" to infer the obvious from his actions - something his defender concedes (with no other explanation offered) may be "a little pay back" against his former party or "shilling for his home state insurance interests"?

Update IV: Did you read the post on zombie arguments? Jonathan Chait argues that the problem is not so much that Lieberman is mendacious, as much as it is that he's not very smart.
If Senator Smith from Idaho was angering Democrats by spewing uninformed platitudes, most liberals would deride him as an idiot. With Lieberman, we all suspect it's part of a plan. I think he just has no idea what he's talking about and doesn't care to learn.
Perhaps, but a lot of the time politicians say stupid things it's because they see a benefit from doing so, not because they're (necessarily) stupid.

Update V: (Am I turning into Glenn Greenwald?) The New York Times shares the brilliant insight,
But Mr. Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, is not the least troubled by his status as Capitol Hill’s master infuriator.

In fact, he could not be happier. He is right where he wants to be — at the center of the political aisle, the center of the Democrats’ efforts to win 60 votes for their sweeping health care legislation. In short, he is at the center of everything and he loves it.
You think that might be because he's a narcissist, getting lots of attention for his childish pay-back against his former party from a credulous media that, even by Chait's measure, makes him look smart? Incidentally, I see very few comments indicating anger at Lieberman - I see anger at those who let him play Lucy, time and time again pulling the football away from Charlie Brown without consequence. People, including Dems, want the Dems to grow a backbone. (And please, no protest from his fellows, "I've known him for years. He's my friend!" When was the last time he showed any loyalty to anybody other than John McCain (was it GW?) or gave any indication of interest in the views or concerns of his old friends?)

Update VI: Joe Biden chimes in with a platitude that seemingly builds off of "never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity":
But Biden said "honest to god" he doesn't know what is up with Lieberman (I-CT), whose opposition to elements of the health care bill has put Democrats in a major jam. But he added he learned from his own senate service, "never question another man's motive, question his judgment."
Still, when you have somebody do things that appear malicious, time and time again, you do have to remember - some people truly are malicious.

I suspect that part of the problem is that Senators are remembering the Joe Lieberman they (thought they) knew before his narcissistic bubble was pierced - they can't believe he's changed. They're right - he hasn't changed a bit. Back then, Lieberman helped himself by helping them. Now he helps himself by hurting them.

Update VII:

Amazon Prime Rip-Off Prices

Something I've seen recently on Amazon Prime are flagrantly inflated prices from participating merchants. If you look carefully, you might see a warning from Amazon,
Note: There are lower-priced buying choices available from other sellers that are not eligible for Amazon Prime.
But from the prevalence of the practice it appears that few people notice (or that enough don't notice that the vendors still make huge profits from their inflated prices), and the size of the "note" suggests that Amazon is cool with that.

I would propose three simple remedies that would restore some honesty to Amazon Prime:
  1. If another vendor offers a lower price, that information be provided along with the price. "Price: $35.93 & eligible for free shipping with Amazon Prime; Available for other vendors for $14.99 plus $3 shipping."

  2. If a vendor's Amazon Prime price exceeds the MSRP, that information be provided right next to their price - Price: $35.93 (MSRP $14.99) & eligible for free shipping with Amazon Prime"

  3. If a vendor is found (algorithmically) to engage in excessive pricing as compared to either the MSRP or to other vendors offering the same product, they be excluded from the Amazon Prime program.

After all, the idea of Amazon Prime, at least as pitched to the consumer, is that you're prepaying for shipping - not that you're paying extra for the privilege of getting ripped off by Amazon's dishonest "partners".

Zombie Arguments

I was recently debating with a friend, whether politicians, pundits and the like who make irresponsible, inaccurate, false or fraudulent claims about various issues are mendacious or stupid. They say, "don't attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity", and that's the position my friend took - that no matter how absurd the argument, most of their advocates were either too stupid (or insufficiently intelligent while blinded by their own narcissism) to know that they were spouting nonsense. I don't disagree that it can happen, but I am skeptical that people who are clearly reading from the party memo, or where they offer a succession of discredited argument as each is refuted, aren't being deliberately dishonest.

I stumbled across a decent explanation of that phenomenon:
But the key to all of this is the recurring mischief of criticisms mounted against climate change. I am very happy to affirm that I am not a giant expert on climate change: I know a bit, and I know that there's not yet been a giant global conspiracy involving almost every scientist in the world (although I'd welcome examples).

More than all that, I can spot the same rhetorical themes re-emerging in climate change foolishness that you see in aids denialism, homeopathy, and anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists.

Among all these, reigning supreme, is the "zombie argument": arguments which survive to be raised again, for eternity, no matter how many times they are shot down. "Homeopathy worked for me," and the rest.

Zombie arguments survive, immortal and resistant to all refutation, because they do not live or die by the normal standards of mortal arguments. There's a huge list of them at, with refutations. There are huge lists of them everywhere. It makes no difference.

"CO2 isn't an important greenhouse gas", "Global warming is down to the sun", "what about the cooling in the 1940s?" says your party bore. "Well," you reply, "since the last time you raised this, I checked, and there were loads of sulphites in the air in the 1940s to block out the sun, made from the slightly different kind of industrial pollution we had then, and the odd volcano, so that's been answered already, ages ago."

And they knew that. And you know they knew you could find out, but they went ahead anyway and wasted your time, and worse than that, you both know they're going to do it again, to some other poor sap. And that is rude.
Think, for example, of the tobacco executives who for decades flat-out lied about the dangers of cigarettes.

Update: Thoughts along a similar line from Paul Krugman:
When I first began writing for The Times, I was naïve about many things. But my biggest misconception was this: I actually believed that influential people could be moved by evidence, that they would change their views if events completely refuted their beliefs.
As Krugman notes, it rarely happens. Krugman's a bit cynical about their motivation:
In part, the prevalence of this narrative reflects the principle enunciated by Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Don't Save The Dealerships

There's an old joke that, had Congress followed its present practices at the time, we would still have (heavily subsidized) local blacksmith shops.

Faced with a sharply reduced market for new automobiles, and creaky, oversized dealer networks that are protected by state franchise laws, one of the key benefits Chrysler and GM sought through their bankruptcies was to reduce the size of their dealer networks. In my opinion the deal was too protective of dealerships. Don't get me wrong - I like the dealership where I last purchased a vehicle (as much as one can like a car dealership), and I like the service I receive at the dealerships where we get our cars serviced. There's value to the brand, and (if they're doing their job) to having the manufacturer protect its brand by requiring certain levels of quality and consistency in the level of service provided by authorized dealers and service centers. But a huge part of the current customer-dealer encounter - most notably picking out (settling for) a vehicle from the lot, negotiating price (and wondering if you were given a reasonable deal) - are relics of an era gone by.

There's no reason why a customer should not be able to customize a vehicle online. In fact, before you get to the dealership and find out that the configuration and color you want aren't "on the lot", pretty much every manufacturer lets you "build your own car" online. Why, as a matter of course, can't you order that car through the manufacturer's website, or get competitive bids from dealers within a specified geographic range? We tolerate what amounts to bad customer service in the sale of new vehicles because we're used to it, but can you imagine a new business that tried to impose a similar model?

Congress, in the manner of the aforementioned joke, wants to take us backwards:
The bankruptcy cleared the way for GM and Chrysler to eliminate more than 2,000 dealerships, with GM estimating that it would save $2 million per shuttered outlet. But on Thursday, the House passed a measure, attached to a must-pass spending bill, that largely undoes this vital reform. Headed for likely passage in the Senate and unavoidable signing by the president, the bill lets dealers threatened with closure take GM and Chrysler to arbitration on terms considerably more favorable to dealers than the companies had previously been willing to accept. The result will be hundreds of time-consuming cases - or demands by dealers that the companies pay them to go away. Either way, the taxpayers, who own most of GM and much of Chrysler, will bear the cost.
I have a great deal of sympathy for dealers who were running profitable enterprises (even if more from the sale of used cars and service than the sale of new cars) who are losing their franchises. Just as I have sympathy for the guy who profitably sold buggies before horseless carriages put him(and the village blacksmith) out of business.

Keep in mind also what this same Congress would do if this were workers asking for job protections - "Don't let GM close our plant. Don't let GM cut our hours." That would be quickly dismissed as interfering with the business strategies and profitability of a corporation. With due respect for Congress's greater sympathy for corporate subsidies (or perhaps it's the greater efficacy... or deeper pockets of corporate lobbyists), this is another side of the same coin.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Depersonalizing "The Enemy"

A few years ago, Richard Cohen personified the mindset that Bob Herbert finds so troubling. After explaining how he supported the Vietnam war until he was drafted, "no longer felt it was winnable" and he "did not want to lose my life so that somehow defeat could be managed more elegantly", Cohen drew a parallel to Iraq:
[O]riginally had no moral qualms about the war. Saddam Hussein was a beast who had twice invaded his neighbors, had killed his own people with abandon and posed a threat - and not just a theoretical one - to Israel. If anything, I was encouraged in my belief by the offensive opposition to the war - silly arguments about oil or empire or, at bottom, the ineradicable and perpetual rottenness of America.

On the contrary, I thought. We are a good country, attempting to do a good thing. In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic. The United States had the power to change things for the better, and those who would do the changing- the fighting - were, after all, volunteers. This mattered to me.
"Therapeutic" presumably meaning, "I thought it would make me feel better."

It was only when Cohen decided that the Iraq war could be lost that the numbers of U.S. soldiers dying for that cause started to concern him. The number of Iraqis (or Vietnamese) dying, before or after Cohen's change of heart on the war - either war? Apparently not a consideration. Continuing his theme from the earlier column, Cohen writes:
There are so few [war dead] - so few that in total for Iraq and Afghanistan we cannot even approach some individual battles of the Civil War or World War II, during which more than 19,000 Americans died at the Battle of the Bulge alone. In eight years, about 5,300 American service members have died in the two wars we now are fighting, the vast majority of them in Iraq. In that period, more than 250,000 Americans died in traffic accidents.
Cohen contrasts the changes in our society, the ability to see each war fatality as an individual and movement away from religious faith, to the experiences of "our enemies":
The ability to individualize -- no more Unknowns -- has undoubtedly changed America. We remain a religious nation but not as we were in the Civil War, when the dying tried to take comfort from the certainty -- it's true, isn't it? -- that a better life awaited them. Religion has lost that sort of mystery. Ministers have less authority. Dying has become harder.

In contrast, our enemies take religious solace in their own deaths. It is not that they don't value life; it's just that they don't value this life.
Here, Cohen is speaking of people valuing their own lives. Cohen only values the lives of our soldiers when he has given up on the cause for which they are dying, and there's no sign that he cares at all about the lives of casualties on the other side - soldier, civilian, man, woman, child. Despite that, I expect he's at least as confused as Thomas Friedman on why the people of Afghanistan and Iraq (and, historically, Vietnam) aren't sufficiently grateful for our efforts.
In Iraq, no one knows the number of suicide bombings - thousands of them, certainly.
If we're going for the "us and them" theme, it's fair to ask, how many suicide bombings occurred in Iraq before the U.S. invasion? In the nation's entire pre-invasion history, the number is zero.

Cohen is either ignorant of, or willfully ignoring, the history of modern asymmetric war in which suicide bombing is not exclusively an Islamic or Arab phenomenon. (For all I know, Cohen thinks the Tamil Tigers were Arabic.) The Vietnamese used suicide attacks against French tanks. The Japanese used suicide attacks against our ships during WWII. But as I'm sure some part of Cohen knowns, it's so much easier to ignore facts and history, and to instead demonize and depersonalize "the enemy":
There is really no such thing as an American suicide bomber. We don't extol the bomber and parade his or her children before the TV cameras so that other children will envy them for the death of a parent. This is odd to us. This is chilling to us. This is downright repugnant.
See how awful "they" are? All of "them"? How different "they" are from "us"? The entire Arabic and Persian world reduced to a uniform, ugly stereotype that conveniently coincides both with the regions Cohen wishes to militarily attack and with his his complete disdain for their casualties?

By Design, Not By Accident

When it comes to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Bob Herbert is upset that there's so little shared sacrifice, and many vocal proponents of the war have no interest in putting themselves on the line.
The idea that fewer than 1 percent of Americans are being called on to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq and that we’re sending them into combat again and again and again — for three tours, four tours, five tours, six tours — is obscene. All decent people should object.

* * *

The air is filled with obsessive self-satisfied rhetoric about supporting the troops, giving them everything they need and not letting them down. But that rhetoric is as hollow as a jazzman’s drum because the overwhelming majority of Americans have no desire at all to share in the sacrifices that the service members and their families are making. Most Americans do not want to serve in the wars, do not want to give up their precious time to do volunteer work that would aid the nation’s warriors and their families, do not even want to fork over the taxes that are needed to pay for the wars.
I recognize that Herbert's intimate experience with war was in an era during which we had a draft, while now we have a volunteer military. Sure, you can question how voluntary the military becomes once "stop-loss" policies kick in, or that some people choose the military out of economic need rather than out of a desire to become soldiers, but those arguments are peripheral to the issue of shared sacrifice. Even during the days of the draft, the children of the wealthy and connected could find ways out of service, or ways to avoid putting their lives on the line, so the sharing of the sacrifice was still not particularly egalitarian.

But more to the point, the military has switched to "all volunteer" both because it makes for a better military and because our nation's political leaders recognize that it's easier to fight wars without calling on the general public to share the sacrifice. In that earlier era, the student Herbert found who called for a "full-blown counterinsurgency effort, which would likely take many years and cost many lives" could easily have been a kid named Dick Cheney. In fairness to the Dick Cheneys of the world, and call it selfishness if you will, if not wanting "to serve in the wars" means "not wanting to get shot at on a battlefield" it's arguably evidence of sanity. The "shared sacrifice" imposed in the era of the draft was coercive.

I believe, actually, that a lot more Americans would volunteer to help support the families of deployed troops if they had a sense of how they might do that. I also believe that our government should spend more attention (and money) on reintegrating troops back into society post-combat. Without making excuses for anybody who "goes off the deep end" after their return to the U.S., there's an enormous transition to be made from being in combat to being back with your family - and even bigger if your family isn't there to support you. I spoke with a veteran of the Afghanistan War who described how he was greeted by his mother upon his return home, and knew the moment he saw her that his wife had left him - with an empty house and an empty bank account. He commented that it took about two years to transition out of the combat mindset, and to get back into a state of enjoying a "normal life" that initially seemed boring. By way of support, the military should have offered him more than a pat on the back on his way out the door.

But I digress. Herbert nails it here:
The reason it is so easy for the U.S. to declare wars, and to continue fighting year after year after year, is because so few Americans feel the actual pain of those wars. We’ve been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan longer than we fought in World Wars I and II combined. If voters had to choose right now between instituting a draft or exiting Afghanistan and Iraq, the troops would be out of those two countries in a heartbeat.
The political leaders who started this war, and the political leaders who want to continue the wars, don't want that type of pressure. So they continued a system carefully constructed by their like-minded predecessors - no pressure on us means no pressure on them.

The Real Scandal

When you find out that one of the sensational claims that were used to justify the Iraq war came from a taxi driver,
An Iraqi taxi driver who overheard two military commanders talking about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was allegedly the “intelligence sub-source” quoted in the Government’s dossier to prove that chemical missiles could be fired in 45 minutes, according to a report by a Tory MP.
Isn't the real scandal that Thomas Friedman wasn't the first to break the story?

Monday, December 07, 2009

Ever Strike Out in Little League?

What's the message here if you were really bad at sports, or if your team always lost?

The Problem With Forensic Science

I should say "problems". I think they're two-fold:
  1. There's no such thing as "forensic science" - there's just science. The term "forensic" refers to how the science is used, not to the underlying scientific concepts or procedures. Instead, the term is treated as a brand - as something that sets the science apart from routine, day-to-day science (and, it seems, often exempts "forensic science" from the scientific method).

  2. Forensic science is driven by police and prosecutors. Crime scene investigation is performed by police officers, who have attended a weeks-long police training course and perhaps some additional seminars. The evidence they collect is submitted to government funded "crime laboratories" that are sometimes deplorable. The credentialed professionals who may form the backbone of a prosecutor's case may turn out to be well-spoken incompetents.

Criminal defendants typically have no money to hire experts of their own. On those rare occasions when the court grants an indigent defendant money to hire an expert, the funds are typically not just inadequate but grossly inadequate to hire a quality expert. The not-so-quality experts? Very often retired from the police side, without either the self-awareness or the capacity to question the "science" they learned on the job. Judges are often former prosecutors, and many have little to no background in math or science. Prosecutors? Well, let's just say it's a rare prosecutor who is wiling to admit losing a case because of weak scientific evidence or their poor presentation of the case, rather than spinning about the "OJ Simpson Effect" or its successor, the "CSI Effect".

Occasionally I read about hopes to shake up the system, bring in real science, and there have been modest improvements in some areas, such as fire science as applied by arson investigators. Absent a scandal there's little to no movement for reform from within the system. Yet we have these scandals on a cyclical basis, and promises of reform (or potential for reform) never seem to take root. What is probably the best solution, adequately and independently funding defense experts, isn't going to happen.

Saturday, December 05, 2009


No, not the tempest in a teapot over questionable use of stock images, but...
The stock photos in question were added to the firm's web site in April by FindLaw, which Lindeman, Alvarado had hired to revamp and expand the firm's site, Lindeman says. Lindeman, Alvarado partner Charles B. "Brad" Frye says the project cost the firm about $30,000.
Thirty grand for this? Am I missing the place where you can insert keys, start the ignition, and drive somewhere? Seriously, even if you think West and FindLaw are great brands, and even if the companies that actively solicit your web design business and claim legal expertise want to charge similar amounts, it pays to shop around.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Isn't This Called... Blackmail?

Celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred has insinuated her way into the Tiger Woods saga:
High-profile attorney Gloria Allred, who was to make a statement about Uchitel's relationship with golf's No. 1 player, said it was called off because of “unforeseen circumstances.” Allred said she would have no further comment.

However, Allred's daughter, Lisa Bloom, said the only conclusion is that her mother struck a deal with the Woods camp. Bloom, an attorney who worked with her mother for nine years and now is as a legal analyst for CBS, said Friday on The Early Show that she has never known Allred to cancel a news conference.

Bloom said that can only mean a confidential settlement was struck, which she estimated at being worth “at least a million dollars.”

“I know exactly how she operates,” Bloom said.
I don't say "celebrity lawyer" as a compliment. Most "celebrity lawyers" are interested principally in their own fame and fortune, shying away from anything that would resemble actual legal practice (let alone legal ethics). About the best thing a client of a typical "celebrity lawyer" can do for herself is to change lawyers.

Call it negotiations leading to a "confidential settlement", if you will. But what's described sounds to me like a classic shakedown.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Graceless but Accurate?

George Will whines,
But after 11 months of graceless disparagements of the 43rd president, the 44th acts as though he is the first president whose predecessor bequeathed a problematic world.
Apparently in Will's book it's only acceptable to gracelessly attack the current President? Because boy, especially when the President is a Dem, he's a master at that.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Too Easy

I recently speculated,
I suspect that Obama will order an approach that he believes will improve the situation in Afghanistan, but with the idea of wrapping up major military operations by mid-2011. At that time he can begin withdrawing troops without fear of a Najibullah-type collapse of the Karzai government before the election. His Republican opponent will have to decide if he wants to run on a platform of re-escalating and perpetuating the war, or effectively endorsing Obama's policies - and I suspect that in a national election there's a lot more danger to a politician who does the former.
Early excerpts from President Obama's speech confirm,
Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011.
I wouldn't go so far as calling it the "easier option", let alone a "tragic mistake". The tragedy will be if, even with another two years, we're still looking at "Taliban lite" as an "acceptable" outcome. Further, few people (and fewer Obama supporters) are going to be happy with the policy. But just as it wasn't difficult to anticipate a policy that is timed around the election cycle, even if the decision proves to be correct, it's not unfair to view it as something of a cop-out, or at least as being politically safe.

How Do You "Create Jobs"

That is, without creating a new bubble.

Paul Krugman has been advocating for a "jobs bill", allocating funds to "create jobs", but the best argument for that seems to be that there's not really anything else that the government can do. You hope to create or sustain enough jobs to contain unemployment levels until the economy "naturally grows" to the point where it's no longer necessary. The measures for the success or failure of a job bill are crude - if unemployment is above projected levels it has "failed". But even assuming projections of the future unemployment rate have any validity (and they're really, at best, educated guesses), many factors can confound the jobs picture.

A great many of the jobs that have disappeared with the bubble were in the housing industry, and related industries. It's possible to improve the market for the construction trades through government contracts, but as Krugman notes today, that effect only lasts as long as there are approved, funded projects to build:
Two stories this morning highlight the risks. The WSJ has a report on highway construction titled Job Cuts Loom as Stimulus Fades:
Highway-construction companies around the country, having completed the mostly small projects paid for by the federal economic-stimulus package, are starting to see their business run aground, an ominous sign for the nation’s weak employment picture.
I suspect that a second, third, fourth round of funding will have a similar effect - sure, it keeps some people employed, but that the construction industry is so far off its peak that it cannot reasonably "naturally grow" enough to absorb laid off workers or to sustain itself without those contracts. By all means fund infrastructure, and perhaps fund it at a level above where you would in a conventional economic environment, but for the sake of improving the nation's infrastructure. But unless there's some reason to believe that you're doing more than cycling workers through short-term employment before another long-term layoff, there must be better ways to create jobs.

As we emerge from the current recession, I expect that a lot of employers will review their historic employment practices and implement some changes, none of which will be good for a traditional "job" market. I expect there to be more part-time workers (particularly if we get an ineffective healthcare reform bill from the Senate), more independent contractors, more outsourcing, more attempts to replace manpower with automation. Perhaps Krugman's proposal for a "tax credit for employers who increase their payrolls" would help, but I suspect that would for the most part mean giving companies money to do what they were going to do anyway.

As for literally creating jobs through a "small-scale version of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration"? Even if you could identify appropriate tasks for the workers to perform, I'm not sure that it's the best way to spend money. Would this be a WPA for the information era? Because if it's about manual labor, I would expect that most gradates of the program would find the job market as lacking as any other construction workers whose employer's contracts were completed.

I still think that it's time for a real investment in helping workers figure out how to help themselves. I suspect that would be a lot cheaper than most "job bill" proposals, with the added benefit that people who can employ themselves are less likely to again find themselves included in the nation's unemployment statistics.