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Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Real quick. Via Drum, an NYT article about a new compendium of current and historical statistics about the United States, in which it can be discovered that right now, in America:
Fewer than 1 in 10 black children under 5 live with both parents; workers with the highest hourly wages now work the longest hours; there are more religious workers (also bartenders, gardeners and authors) than ever recorded, and more shoemakers than at any other time since the Civil War; only half of Americans have access to fluoridated water; a growing share of poor people live in the suburbs; philanthropy compared with the gross domestic product has been declining since 1960; more Protestants and Jews say they attended religious services within the last week than at any time in the last 50 years; the nation is producing record amounts of broccoli; it took four days on average to travel between New York and Boston in 1800; attendance at horse-racing tracks peaked in 1976, but rodeo attendance is at an all-time high; and the proportion of people who have no opinion in presidential approval polls is the lowest in a half century.

Well, it is a statistical compendium, so "right now" probably actually means "a couple of years ago," but the importance of the collection is that it allows you not only to observe that, say, church attendance is at such-and-such a level, but compare that level over long stretches of time. Pretty neat. I'm not going to shell out the $825, however.

Also, from a couple of days ago, this from hilzoy at Obsidian Wings, which lays out something about the current defenses being offered for Bush's warrantless spying program that I think is critical, and that I'm surprised has not been more widely noted:
I was eating lunch, turned on CSPAN, and as luck would have it, a speech by President Bush was on. I usually find the President's speeches unwatchable, since they consist of sentences like "You know, what some people don't understand is, our enemies are really bad people." But on this occasion, for whatever reason, I watched it. And what struck me was that if I had no knowledge whatsoever of current events -- if, for instance, I had just beamed in from another galaxy -- he might sound persuasive. As it was, though, it was so completely detached from reality that it was downright surreal. And so I kept listening, in wonderment, as this speech appropriate to another world entirely moved from one bizarre claim to another, leaving me wondering whether it was me or the President who had gone through the looking glass. And what started me wondering was this statement:
"You know, a lot of us grew up thinking that oceans would protect us; that if there was a threat overseas, it really didn't concern us because we were safe. That's what history had basically told us -- yes, there was an attack on Pearl Harbor, obviously, but it was a kind of hit-and-run and then we pursued the enemy. A lot of folks -- at least, my age, when I was going to college, I never dreamed that the United States of America could be attacked. And in that we got attacked, I vowed then, like I'm vowing to you today, that I understand my most important priority. My most important job is to protect the security of the American people."

Just savor this bit: "when I was going to college, I never dreamed that the United States of America could be attacked."

That just can't be true.

George W. Bush graduated from Yale in 1968. For several decades before and after 1968, the Soviet Union had an enormous number of missiles trained on American cities. Whether or not Bush had to do "duck and cover" drills in school, he would have been the right age. Did he somehow overlook the Cold War? Did he fail to notice that an awful lot of people were extremely worried about the possibility that large chunks of our country might be turned into a pile of radioactive wreckage? I know he was apolitical, and that he drank his way through his 'young and irresponsible' years, but still, I can't imagine any state of apolitical intoxication so deep that the existence of the Cold War would have failed to penetrate it, especially since his father was involved in foreign policy.

Since I assume that he could no more have been unaware of the Cold War than he could have been unaware of the existence of the Solar System, I have to read this passage as reflecting exactly the sort of historical revisionism that Greenwald talks about, in which the fact that less than two decades ago that we faced threats far more serious than any al Qaeda presents us with has simply been made to vanish.

If we simply wave our magic wands and make the Cold War disappear, then the idea that we have to sacrifice our civil liberties and our system of government in the face of "a completely new kind of threat" might seem to be at least worth discussing. But in fact it's just laughable. Al Qaeda is new, all right. But it is not a worse threat than a nuclear-armed USSR. I do not in any way want to minimize 9/11, but: however bad you think 9/11 was, it would surely be worse for someone to destroy the twin towers along with the rest of New York, as well as a lot of other parts of our country.

The USSR was a genuine existential threat to this country. It had it in its power to destroy us. Al Qaeda, by contrast, does not. It can hijack planes and fly them into things, and in so doing it can cause spectacular and horrifying damage. Moreover, every life lost to terrorists is a tragedy. But al Qaeda does not have the power to destroy the country. There just aren't that many planes (or whatever), or that many people willing and able to fly them.
[. . .]
The existential threat posed by the USSR really was a new kind of threat. Until it arose, we had been protected by oceans, and for over a century no country had had the power to conquer or destroy us. Suddenly, we were faced with the very real prospect of nuclear annihilation. As a result, we were tempted to give up our liberties. We allowed McCarthy, a drunken bully, to intimidate our people, hijack the Senate, and ruin people's lives. But we regretted that, and we did so while the threat that led us into McCarthyism remained in place.

Moreover, we did not try to give Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower the power to ignore laws at will, or to do whatever they felt like without congressional oversight or judicial interference. Nixon tried to defy the law, but we reined him in, and we did so despite the fact that the USSR was still threatening us. At no point during this period, when we faced a threat much more formidable than al Qaeda will ever be, did people start muttering that "the Constitution is not a suicide pact", or wondering whether we could afford to preserve the Bill of Rights.

Hilzoy was riffing on this excellent post by Glenn Greenwald, rebutting the bogus right wing argument that FISA was only intended to govern surveillance during time of peace. In fact, as Greenwald points out, the law contains an entire section explicitly detailed to obtaining warrants during wartime, but goes on to observe:
But beyond these self-evident factual errors in Captain Ed’s argument is a more fundamental and pervasive falsehood which is being peddled with increasing frequency to justify the Administration’s law-breaking. It is the notion that restraints on the Executive Branch generally, such as those mandated by FISA or ones prohibiting the incarceration of Americans without due process, are now obsolete because they were the by-product of some sort of peaceful, enemy-less, utopian era which no longer exists.

This world-view is staggering in its revisionism. FISA was enacted in 1978. I did not think there were many people, if there were any at all, who actually believe that 1978 was a time of "peace." Most people -- and I would have thought this was true particularly for "conservatives" -- tend to see that period as the height of a war which we call the "Cold War," where we faced an "Evil Empire" trying to achieve world domination in order to impose its tyrannical ideology. In fact, we spent the entire decade after the enactment of FISA engaged in a massive build-up of our military forces, and we even tried to find a way to build a space-based shield around our country in order to repel incoming missiles. Accordingly, how can it possibly be argued that Americans banned our Government from eavesdropping on us in secret only during times of peace?

So, there. Amen. Gotta go.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006  

It's been 19 posts since I copped out by just clipping a Fafblog post, and that's 18 too many. Today, we are presented with multiple iterations of a single dialogue; a cycling, almost Ravellian modulation upon an eternal question:

Q. Why are we in Iraq?
A. Terror! By occupying Iraq we get Iraqis to fight us there so they won’t fight us at home.
Q. We’ve cleverly lured them to where they already were, only in terrorist form!
A. Now you’re catching on!
Q. What if we can’t kill all the terrorists in Iraq?
A. Then we’ll invade somewhere else and trick ‘em into attacking us there – only this time it’ll be someplace really far away where they’ll get stuck, like the ocean or the moon!
Q. I would totally watch Operation: Lunar Justice live on CNN!
A. Wolf Blitzer in a space helmet… it writes itself!
Q. There are more terrorists now than before the war. Is the occupation causing more terror?
A. Well, nobody can say for sure if that’s a man-made terror increase. It may just be a periodic shift in the natural terror cycle.
Q. Tell me more about this “not our fault” theory – I find it oddly compelling.
A. Like weather, terror is affected by seasonal fluctuations. The jet stream carries hijackers from continent to continent; El Niño causes suicide bombers to condense in the upper atmosphere. Is this affected by human activity or just part of a natural warming trend for terror? We just don’t know!
Q. Your ideas are boldly nonconformist, yet conveniently reaffirm my desire to do nothing. I like it!

The last answer is, I think, the greatest thing ever written by anyone anywhere, including the Bible and the Stand. And this is but one of five refrains in this brilliant song cycle, so go! Go! GO!!!!!


Tuesday, February 21, 2006  
Right-wing historian David Irving is jailed for three years in Austria under an Austrian law passed in 1945 making it a crime to deny the occurrence of the Holocaust.

A couple of interesting things about this incident:

1) Iran is using the conviction to pimp its own World Series of Holocaust Denial (or whatever they are calling it) planned for this spring. During the press conference, Iran's Foreign Minister said "we do not understand why the West so desperately insists on having committed this crime and killed exactly six million Jews.” As if the real problem is that western governments simply haven't yet realized the political advantages of Holocaust denial.

2) Irving's defense at the trial included an emphatic rejection of his documented Holocaust denial:
"Naturally I apologise," he said, addressing the court in fluent German. "I'm not a Holocaust denier. Obviously, I've changed my views. I spoke then about Auschwitz and gas chambers based on my knowledge at the time, but by 1991 when I came across the Eichmann papers, I wasn't saying that any more and I wouldn't say that now. The Nazis did murder millions of Jews."

The prosecutor rebutted this with examples of denial speeches Irving made after 1991, but it is interesting to note that the threat of jail works like a charm sometimes.

3) It may be worth considering that the law was passed in 1945, at a time when Holocaust denial was the blanket defense of the defeated German government, after an extensive program of covering up mass graves and destroying evidence in the waning days of the war. This blanket denial was only truly broken by the Nuremburg trials in the years after 1945, which included Austrian officials. So at the time the law was passed, it was arguably closer to a law against obstruction of justice, as the denial of the holocaust, especially by public figures, was in a sense abetting a conspiracy of silence and suborning perjury from the thousands of government functionaries that were being rounded up and questioned across the Anschluss.

So . . . is the law (and Irving's conviction under it) a good idea now? Probably not. Maybe the law was defensible in the short term, in the immediate aftermath of the war, but this battle is long since won. The historical record was preserved and rescued from the deniers and the defendants and anyone who seriously indulges in Holocaust denial today is simply ignoring vast libraries of documentary evidence, or explaining it all away as forgery, or whatever tortured arguments of necessity can be summoned in contravention of truth. As currently exercised, this law creates martyrs to one of the stupidest causes imaginable, and gives opponents of Western democracy an opportunity to label us hypocrites.


Friday, February 17, 2006  
Sometimes, only sarcasm will do. In his speech on health care yesterday, regarding his vision for healthcare savings accounts, Bush said, among other things:

The traditional insurance today will cover your health care costs -- most of your health care costs -- in exchange for a high premium payment up front. The costs are generally shared by you and your employer. You may also pay a small deductible and co-payment at the time of treatment. What's interesting about this system is that those payments cover only a fraction of the actual costs of health care, the rest of which are picked up by a third party, basically your insurance company.

It means most Americans have no idea what their actual cost of treatment is. You show up, you got a traditional plan, you got your down payment, you pay a little co-pay, but you have no idea what the cost is. Somebody else pays it for you. And so there's no reason at all to kind of worry about price. If somebody else is paying the bill, you just kind of -- hey, it seems like a pretty good deal. There's no pressure for an industry to lower price. And so what you're seeing is price going up. If you don't care what you're paying, and the provider doesn't have any incentive to lower, the natural inclination is for the cost to go up and the insurance companies, sure enough, pass on the costs -- the increase in cost to you and your employer. That's what's happening. (...)

For many routine medical needs, HSAs mean you can shop around until you get the best treatment for the best price. In other words, it's your money; you're responsible for routine medical expenses; the insurance pays for the catastrophic care. You're responsible for paying for the portion of your health care costs up to your deductible. And so you -- you talk to your doctor, you say, can't we find this drug at a little cheaper cost? Or you go to a specialist, maybe we can do this a little better -- old Joe does it for X, I'm going -- why don't you try it for Y? It allows you to choose treatment or tests that meet your needs in a way that you're comfortable with when it comes to paying the bills. In other words, decisions about routine medical treatments are made by you and the doc, not by third-party people that you never know. And all of a sudden, when you inject this type of thinking in the system, price starts to matter. You're aware of price. You begin to say, "well, maybe there's a better way to do this, and more cost-effective way."

Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings, bubbling over with excitement, responds to Bush's call to greatness:
My sentiments exactly. Just the other day I was beset by a hollow, empty feeling, and I said to myself: Self, there's a void in my life -- a void that could only be filled by spending hours calling around, comparing prices for doctors' visits and pharmaceuticals, preferably while sick. Oh, if only I could say to my doctor: Maybe we can do this a little better -- old Joe does it for X, I'm going -- why don't you try it for Y?

You see, shopping for medical services isn't like ordinary shopping. When you go to the grocery store, for instance, they make it easy for you. There are the boxes of cereal all lined up, awaiting your inspection, and all you need to do is compare the price, the percentage of your daily vitamin needs provided by one carefully measured serving, and so on, and then make your selection. Where's the fun in that? Shopping for medical services is different: hours spent finding and tracking down the relevant physicians and getting through their daunting office staff; price discussions with hospital administrators who don't want to tell you exactly how much anaesthesia you'll need without an exam, and so forth. The thrill of the chase! The call of the wild! By comparison, ordinary shopping is a tame and pitiful facsimile, like shooting cage-raised quail when you could be hunting grizzlies.

You might be thinking: silly hilzoy! You can do this already! But that just shows how little you know about the thrills of shopping for medical services. It's just no fun without a little skin in the game: the sort of skin that you only have if
your medical insurance won't cover your bills. And that's what Bush is offering us: the chance to have the shopping experience of a lifetime, and to have it under the most deliciously grueling conditions: with our own dollars on the line, when we're desperately ill. It's a vision as bold and rugged as America herself; and that's why we love our President.

Mmmm. Now that's some gooooood sarcasm. Not irony, not dry wit, but good old battery-acid sarcasm. Yeah. Similarly satisfying is this from commenter cleek:
Now imagine doing all this while being pulled from your car with the Jaws Of Life ! "Hold on! Don't start the ambulance yet, I'm trying to find cheaper radiologist!"

Finally, as noted in this comment, it takes a certain kind of genius to make the current trainwreck of a boondoggle of a health care system sound pretty awesome, while purportedly ennumerating its flaws:

You show up, you got a traditional plan, you got your down payment, you pay a little co-pay, but you have no idea what the cost is. Somebody else pays it for you. And so there's no reason at all to kind of worry about price. If somebody else is paying the bill, you just kind of -- hey, it seems like a pretty good deal.

Huh! Not bad! But snark aside, this really is hideously bad policy at every level. As Josh Marshall explains:

Are you over-insured in health insurance terms? Do you feel like you should be spending more out of pocket? If you say yes to both questions, then you and President Bush agree about what's wrong with the nation's health care system.

"When you go buy a car you're able to shop and compare," says President Bush. "And yet in health care that's just not happening in America today."

Is figuring out which cancer test to take like buying a car? Figuring out whether to get that headache checked?

What planet does President Bush live on exactly?

Functioning markets are a wonderful thing. Our whole economic system is based on them. But any serious student of markets understands that to function they require at least a threshold level of informed and rational actors. Neither is really the case on the consumer end of the health care market.

That sets aside the question of the moral equities involved in placing more price pressures on individuals as they choose the quality of health care they get for their families. And it entirely ignores the really straightforward point that isolating health care purchasing to individuals pretty much guarantees that the cost to the individual is much higher.

This is bad policy and bad politics. The president's opposition would do well by their country to attack him on every point.

Amen. Capitalism is very wonderful in many ways, but it is not, IS NOT, IS NOT an environment that caters to or grants advantages to individuals, no matter how rugged and Randian they may be. In fact, the individual is almost by definition the weakest player in a market system (patients are especially so, as each individual has unique health care needs). Market power is expressed and wielded by groups, the bigger the better. These groups may be led by, or created by, individuals, but it is market power that wins in a capitalist system.* This pretty little empowerment myth is just smoke to hide a lie.

The fact is, with no aggregated purchasing power on the patient's side -- whether that aggregate is an insurance company or a single-payer gov't health program -- to force lower prices, the capitalist equilibrium will be, can be, struck at only one point - the absolute maximum amount that the majority of Americans can pay for health care without collapsing into bankruptcy.

* it is impossible to imagine any individual creating an effective market grouping of patients that could bring anything approximating an effective counterweight (and I think we know what the right wing's reaction to a "patient's union" would be). Besides, how would such a union ever strike? "I'm going to let my cancer kill me to protest high oncologist prices!"


Wednesday, February 15, 2006  
So....Cheney shot a guy.

In the face.

With a shotgun.


What's to say? I'm not a hunter, so I can't comment on the White House strategy of immediately blaming the recipient of the birdshot. Maybe it was Whittington's fault. I don't know. Others are covering the media soft-pedaling, which is manifest. A pellet gun? Really? A pellet gun? I'm cribbing this from Atrios, but just for clarity, this is a pellet gun:

This, on the other hand, is a 28-gauge Perazzi game shotgun:

The best line I've heard about this was from this comment by Paul at Obsidian Wings: "The accident is the CIA's fault, actually. On the basis of bad intelligence, Cheney believed Whittington was a quail."

On a far more serious note, a new batch of Abu Ghraib photos has been released, and they are awful. I don't even know what to say - I just keep remembering that these photos were taken, and these acts were committed, during a period in which the International Red Cross found that 70%-90% of Iraqis detained by the US forces were "arrested by mistake."

Elmer Fudd cartoon cropped from this cartoon by Tony Auth of the Philadelphia Inquirer, found via Atrios.


Thursday, February 09, 2006  
Two quick things, then I gotta go.

Thing the First: I am hereby predicting the Most Annoying Republican Talking Point of 2008. Keep your ears peeled and vomit-bags handy:
"Now that President Bush and his crack legal team have discovered how much power the Constitution really grants the President, we have an obligation to make sure those pantywaist Democrats never get ahold of it again."

Remember you heard it here first. There's some good discussion of nascent dictatorshippery to be found here.

Thing the Second: According to Luke 23:34, after the Romans nailed Jesus to the cross and hauled him up, Jesus looked at them and said "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." Doesn't this mean that Jesus generally approved of political torture and brutal murder? Or, at least, did not believe it was a sin? I mean, the thing that the Romans "knew not" was that he was the son of god. Presumably they were aware that they were crucifying a human being (and political agitator). So Jesus was saying that they should not be blamed for what they did not know, and "forgiven." But they still were nailing people to crosses and leaving them to die horribly of exposure and dehydration. Pretty harsh, if you ask me. It's like christian anti-alcohol activists. If Jesus was such a tee-totaller, why did he bother to change the water into wine at Cana (John 2:7)? What was wrong with the water? Eh? EH???

UPDATE: spelling correction made above. "Ears pealed"? Yeesh.


Wednesday, February 08, 2006  

George Washington, Super-Genius. Hearken to the wisdom of Alberto Gonzales:

President Washington, President Lincoln, President Wilson, President Roosevelt have all authorized electronic surveillance on a far broader scale.

The Attorney General of the United States, ladies and gentlemen! I mean, seriously. How dumb are these people? How dumb are we?

Yes, I know, that's not what he meant. But even if we dig past his surface idiocy to his underlying point, we still strike a gusher of pure bullshit. The relevant allegation is that the NSA spying program violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). FISA was passed in 1978, and imposed the warrant requirement ignored by the Bush administration. Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt were President prior to 1978. Therefore, what they did is completely fucking irrelevant to whether the NSA program was illegal under FISA. OK? Got it?


Tuesday, February 07, 2006  
Three things:
1) The search for meaning in the world beyond "mere being" can be viewed as an attribute or aspect of certain human experiences. Humans can sense, I think, the degree to which an activity, an experience, or even a train of thought partakes in that search, and those activities and experiences can be placed together in a set based upon the presence of this unique and unmistakeable attribute. Most people who make this kind of experience the center of their lives do so through religion. Some make a religion of their politics. For myself, I cobble together an ad-hoc agnosticism, unable to ignore the depth of emotional experience, so far beyond what I can rationally ascribe to surging chemical reaction, but unable to surrender an essentially cynical, analytical view of the world.

It's tough to surrender such a perspective, as it works in the world, and comes up with the right answer again and again and again. The dam bursts, and the man prays that his house standing directly in the path will escape the rushing water. Will it be spared? Ask me, and I'll tell you - of course not. That man's going to lose his house. And I'm right. And when the waters crush his house but spare his life, he'll thank god. Is he wrong to do so? I want to say yes . . . but look at him, sitting in a dirty, crowded gymnasium, hungry, with a broken arm, weeping tears of joy and thanking god. What is it like in there, in that suffering head? I know what it is like in here, in my own mind, sometimes firmly rooted, sometimes displaced by emotion. Does he feel alone, or does he feel god in there with him? Is his religious experience a visceral or intellectual one? Is faith an emotion or a knowledge? Do you feel it like love or know it like the alphabet?

The above rambling is all by way of suggesting that you take a few minutes to look through, a collection of interviews by Robin Wright with a dozen or so public intellectuals (Freeman Dyson, Edward O. Wilson, Francis Fukuyama, John Maynard Smith, and many others) on such topics as being good without god, the nature of free will, the mystery of the universe's friendliness to life, why god lets bad things happen, and my personal favorite, the nature of subjective consciousness. The linked excerpts are but a small sampling; the whole site is really, really interesting, and worth an hour of your time, as people who have thought about these issues in intensely technical ways paraphrase their fundamental beliefs in layman's terms, and seek to place them in context with the history of such ideas, in the course of short (2-10 minute) segments in informal settings. It seems that Wright simply walked into their offices some Tuesday, engaged them in conversation, and filmed it. The project is hosted (and possibly funded) by Slate.

2. Someone needs to explain to me how the leak of the NSA warrantless spying program was a breach of national security. I just don't get it. The administration is pushing for investigation of how the report got to the NY Times, and presumably, the GOP will act on it and hold these hearings. But I seriously haven't heard a single rational rebuttal to the following point: If FISA permitted the wiretapping of national security targets with a warrant, then any putative targets already knew that they were potential targets of surveillance. The FISA court where these warrants were to be obtained was itself confidential and no public record existed of its proceedings. Whether or not a warrant was sought is simply not information helpful to (or even of any concern to) the enemies of this country. To the degree the NYT's coverage (and the leaker's action) is criticized because the resulting outcry over the illegality of the program publicized a little-known, but unclassified law, that is just stupid, and not a standard the press should be expected to self-enforce.

3. I was tweaking a bit after re-reading my too-confident comments about Roe v. Wade a couple of posts ago, based as my comments were upon a reading of those cases 8 years ago in my 1L year. While I stand by my comments about the danger of the "trimester" model set forth in Roe, and I do think the "undue burden" standard a somewhat better one than a straight calculation of "non-viable=woman's interest is stronger/viable=state's interest is stronger," Casey did represent a retreat from Roe's defense of a constitutional right to privacy to be inferred from the explicit terms of the Bill of Rights. That's a dangerous issue, and in ignoring it, my characterization of Casey as "much stronger" was flawed (and kind of dumb).

So, there.


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