Friday, August 28, 2009

What a difference two years makes

Updated to eliminate some minor incomprehensibility.

Mike Huckabee, August 2007:
"[Republicans] talk as if, in this election cycle, Republican candidates aren't going to be held to a standard of personal accountability and responsibility for their personal lives. If that's true, there are going to be a lot of Republicans who will owe Bill Clinton a great big public apology," Huckabee said. "We can't have a set of rules that we apply to Democrats that we don't apply to ourselves.
Mike Huckabee, August 2009:
"Senator Ted Kennedy’s death had barely hit the news before we start hearing calls that Congress must hurry and pass the health care reform bill, and do it in his memory. That not only defies good taste–it defies logic. [...] It was President Obama himself who suggested that seniors who don’t have as long to live might want to just consider taking a pain pill instead of getting an expensive operation to cure them."
And the pastor bears false witness to boot. Aside from John McCain's implosion since 2004, I can't think of too many more depressing stories in politics over the past few years than the fall of Mike Huckabee. Damn if the guy didn't use to make sense.

I'd like to send a little message to the conservative establishment right now:
Hi guys. It's me, Lev. Look, we just don't see eye to eye on most things. I doubt there's too much respect going in either direction. But I have to give it to you: you guys were right to do everything you could to oppose Mike Huckabee getting your nomination in 2008. At the time, I was naturally excited at the prospect of a Republican Party that actually gave a shit about the environment, poverty, sane immigration, etc. Huckabee appeared to do these things, and I personally relished the notion that Huckabee might be able to radically redefine the center of American politics. I can now see how wrong that wishful thinking was.

I doubt we'll see eye to eye on too much in the near future. Frankly, I think your policies, worldview, arrogance and relentless and nauseating identity politics account for most of what's wrong with American politics. But you won this one. So, please don't compound your other mistakes by picking the newly-wingnutty Huckabee as your candidate next time. I know it seems tempting, but your instincts were right the first time. The man's a snake. And he'll eat you alive if you let him.


More on gay marriage


DougJ finds an amusingly facile MSM mash note (MSMash note?) to an anti-marriage type. Evidently, the cause is all about history and tradition. None of that nasty bigotry. One might wonder why it is that the nonbigoted side believes that being gay is a sin and a hellworthy one at that, but this is evidently not a question that was asked.

As someone who has enormous respect for both history and tradition, I tend to find arguments saying that either one is sufficient reason to deny someone rights is going to be wrong. History and tradition are invaluable parts of peoples' individual and group identities, but if this is the crux of your argument, then you have no argument. Arguments on civil rights need to rest on balancing the rights of the minority with the rights of the majority--in the case of gay marriage, we seem to be talking about the right of people to enter into marriage against the right of people not to suffer the psychic stress of knowing people whose conduct they disapprove of are getting married. I don't think that's a sufficient reason to ban something in a free country, myself.

But I do think that, if a mainstream news outlet simply believes that challenges to history and tradition ought to be turned back on principle rather than on their merits, I will join them to be the first to bow to worship Queen Elizabeth when she rides through Washington, D.C., as our once and future monarch. At least we'll know the music to our new (old) national anthem. What rubbish our national dialogue has become.
I think this might be a big story in next year's elections:
A new Alabama Education Association survey shows Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL) leading the field of Republican candidates for governor by between 6 and 12 points in general election match-ups.

Former Judge Roy Moore (R) is the closest, down six, while State Treasurer Kay Ivey (R) is the furthest behind, down twelve.
Roy Moore, of course, is famous as being the "Ten Commandments Judge" that defied a court order to take them down. And also losing a Republican primary for governor three years ago. And being a total nutcase. (Do I really need to support that assertion?) And Artur Davis is, of course, a black Democrat. It would be kind of amazing if he won.

Advancing equality through the courts

This is a few days old at this point, but I was recently thinking about this post by Matt Yglesias:

The moral of the story, if there is one, is that there’s no real evidence here for any handwringing concerns about backlash. The opinion trend in favor of marriage equality is pretty strongly favorable, and courts should do the right thing.

Absolutely. But I think we can find stronger footing for this than a few charts. From the Warren Court onward, there have been numerous decisions that have infuriated conservatives. Miranda v. Arizona (which instituted the Miranda warnings) infuriated conservatives at the time. Baker v. Carr (which eliminated state senate "rotten boroughs") infuriated conservatives at the time. Of course, there was the whole of civil rights jurisprudence of the era as well. Long story short: there was lots of stuff that caused some short-term conservative backlash back in the day.

What happened? Well, conservatives dealt with most of it. Once the idea that abortion was roughly equivalent to murder took hold within the Republican Party, it makes sense that they wouldn't be able to live with Roe. But that is something of an exception--outside of Kelo v. New London I can't really think of an enduring case of judicial backlash in the past few years that might still have some potency--even the Supreme Court's decision to ban child execution several years back has largely become unremarkable, despite some howls of conservative protest (ditto Lawrence v. Texas, the Texas sodomy case). Ultimately, I think the point that needs to be made here is that, if you have the law and morality on your side, there is little to fear from these sorts of court cases. If the law and morality are murkier (and on abortion in particular, the law upon which Roe is based is rather murky), big decisions like this can cause enduring damage to the cause. I've long believed that abortion should have been resolved legislatively, though I agree with most of the actual logic of Roe--it more or less applied earlier precedent (Planned Parenthood v. Connecticut, about birth control) to a similar situation. But an awful lot of people felt left out of the process. And it would have been much harder for the Republicans to assume "ownership" of the judicial issue. It's not like defending disproportional state senates is going to help you own that issue.

Interestingly, I remember reading a book on Harry Blackmun some time ago in which he seemed to think anti-Roe backlash would blow over a few years after writing the decision, like it mostly did with cases like Miranda. Needless to say, he read that wrong.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mitt Romney isn't going to run for Massachussetts Senator

Duh. Seriously, why does the media waste its time talking about things like this? Earlier it was whether Mitt would become the administration's auto czar, or that Dubya should become the Israeli special envoy or something. Sometimes I wish that reporters would spend their time reporting about, I don't know, health care or education reform (which is also happening) or Afghanistan or really anything that will actually make a difference to peoples' lives, instead of endless, pointless hypotheticals.

Haha, silly me. I guess I should be thankful they aren't covering the LaRouchies and teabaggers, at least.

The Civil Service

I often agree with Matt Yglesias on matters of political procedure reform, but I'm not sure I'm on board with this one:
I think this also counts on a reason to prefer systems that rely more on career civil servants and less on political appointees. Bureaucrats have their own distinctive psychopathologies, but they’re different, and it’s helpful to have them in more tension and balance than exists in the United States.

Matt is interested in making government more effective, as am I, but I think that a sure-fire way to keep that from happening is to empower the civil service. I'm a fan of British TV, and one of the very best British shows is Yes, Minister, a show about a low-level cabinet minister in the British Government. The antagonist of the series is the minister's "permanent secretary", Sir Humphrey, who basically does everything he can to thwart his "boss"'s ideas, whether by deploying his encyclopaedic knowledge of the government, his connections with other civil servants, and bureaucratic inertia to stop anything from getting done. Why? Because he (and the other civil servants) worry that major change will somehow blow back to disempower them. There's a great speech early in the show where Sir Humphrey talks about how most people judge their worth based on how much they make, but civil servants can't do that because they don't make much and their salaries are proscribed by law. So they judge their worth based on how much money and power they can steer to their departments, and anything that doesn't go directly toward that is not exactly welcomed.

Actually, there's quite a bit of British pop culture that discusses the tyranny of the civil servants--The Kinks and A Very British Coup come to mind. Essentially, they run the government, they're there forever, and they're so powerful they can easily thwart the typical minister that's only there for a few years and hardly knows anything about running a department. And they're not exactly a benevolent, respected force in British culture (I largely hear the same from real Brits I know as well), so much as a status-quo wedded group that fights change from every direction.. I think I'd rather stick with political appointees instead, even with all their flaws, albeit with greatly diminished Senate confirmability (let them confirm the Cabinet and judges, I say).

In general, though, I agree with Matt and disagree with Will Wilkinson that rule by the power-hungry is pretty much inevitable. But it doesn't have to be a bad thing. Democracy is predicated upon two of the most powerful and opposing desires of humanity: self-interest and public interest. You elect people to represent your interests, but they need to work together to get anything done. I don't feel we've quite hit on the right mixture of these things, but the most power-hungry person out there might well decide that the best way to maintain that power is by ruling justly and enacting popular programs (Lyndon Johnson strikes me as a model of this, Vietnam notwithstanding). In fact, politicians' desire to win re-election is one of the best ways there is of keeping politicians honest. One argument against the two-term limit on the presidency is that presidents (like second term Bush) will be less inclined to do crazy unpopular things if they have the possibility of running again (though the track record of presidents seeking third terms before the 22nd Amendment is decidedly negative--basically, after eight years, the people get sick of you). Self-interest is a pretty key element of human nature, and shrinking government won't make it go away. I'd be interested in hearing more on a libertarian framework for managing this phenomenon, but let's just say that I don't find the explanation that eliminating government involvement will eliminate the consolidating tendencies of markets very convincing. Microsoft didn't need any help from the government to become a near-monopoly, after all. By the time the government got interested in doing anything about computers, Microsoft's victory was total.

Oh, and by the way, I urge you all to check out Yes, Minister. It's free on Netflix instant viewing, and it's great viewing, especially if you're of the libertarian bent. I'm generally not of that persuasion (even though I thought it was hilarious) but if you are, my guess is that you'll love it even more. It was the Eisenfrau's favorite show at the time, for what it's worth.

How to counteract 24, and a one-act that attempts to do it

Ryan Sager (via the Dish): "We’ve come to intuitively believe that virtually every torture situation is a ticking time bomb and that torture always works. Because that’s [what we see in the movies and that's] our most salient experience with the issue."

I've recently been reading some David Foster Wallace, and specifically an essay he wrote about the effects that television has had on our society. While I was reading this essay, I kept thinking about how most people derive their ideas of terrorism from shows like 24. Liberals wishing to combat this should work to counteract this perception within the media--my idea would be to mock 24 mercilessly. The good news is that it might be the most mockable show on television: it has hardly a trace of ironic self-awareness that might deflect the mockery, and is rather an overheated, earnest, and frequently unbelievable and ridiculous show that's borderline fascist. (And McArdle can bite me--there's only so many terms one can use to a show so authoritarian, militaristic, xenophobic, etc. I'm not using fascist here to invoke the holocaust--think in the Franco sense), and I get the sense that 24 will eventually wind up being a sort of punchline like Miami Vice, an embarrassing symbol of the excesses of its era. That is my dream.

So, I think having a scene like this in some popular show or movie satirizing 24 would go a long way:

INT. GITMO INTERROGATION ROOM. LT BAUER and MOHAMMED, a suspected terrorist, are talking.

LT. BAUER: You're gonna talk, Mohammed, God as my witness.

MOHAMMED: Allah will triumph over your God, infidel! And my name is Razib ibn Faisal, idiot!

LT. BAUER: Very well, Mohammed. Now I'm gonna torture you. (He makes a scary face.) Yup, that's right. According to John Yoo, it's legal!

MOHAMMED: I will never talk!

LT. BAUER: Okay. (Picks up a belt-sander.)

MOHAMMED: Okay, I'll talk! I'LL TALK! The bomb is in a yellow Ford Pinto parked under Chase Manhattan headquarters.

LT. BAUER: (incredulously) Why a Pinto?

MOHAMMED: Of course, because nobody would ever go close to such a thing, for fear of exploding themselves!

LT. BAUER: Ah ha! Well, that wraps things up. I just have one question.


LT. BAUER: Why did you give it up so easily? If you had held on for another 20 minutes, we'd both be dead, and you'd get your 73 virgins, and we'd be able to milk this storyline for another episode. Now, we're going to have to come up with some bullshit subplot about my daughter or something, and you're going to be lucky to get your wife for eternity.

MOHAMMED: Which one?

LT. BAUER: The oldest one.

MOHAMMED: (horrified) Oh, NO!

LT. BAUER: Hell yeah, son! Don't mess with the U.S. of A.!


CAPTAIN: Bauer, where is the prisoner?

LT. BAUER: In stockade. Why?

CAPTAIN: Because that Pinto he sent us to didn't have a bomb at all! Just a bunch of wires and Play-Doh!

LT. BAUER: I don't understand. I thought I asked very clearly for him to TELL ME WHERE THE BOMB IS! And I brought out the trusty beltsander! This shit always works!

CAPTAIN: Oh, you blew this one, Bauer. Do it again, and I'LL HAVE YOUR GUN AND BADGE! Luckily, we had good intelligence sources tracking the cell that located the bomb in a Sbarro's in Times Square. We defused it in time.

LT. BAUER: (After a beat) That is shocking.

CAPTAIN: Mmm, yes.

LT. BAUER: I mean, why would you get some sort of assembly line-manufactured industrial foodstuff chain restaurant when New York has the best pizza in the world? Terrorists, ha! More like Philistines!

CAPTAIN: Well, they are tourists!

LT. BAUER claps a hand over his boss's back, and both laugh heartily.


Now for something amusing (for nerds)

Bill Simmon is right...this truly is the best episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Yglesias again, tackling the inane contention that Obama doesn't get angry enough about terrorism:
Refusing to shake hands with Hugo Chavez doesn’t help anyone or improve anything. Talking with the UK government in advance about our objections to releasing a Lockerbie bomber might achieve something. But loudly denouncing them ex post facto isn’t going to help anyone or improve anything. By contrast, getting mad at Israel about settlements really might accomplish something—the US-Israeli relationship is completely different from the US-Iranian relationship and “this thing we’re doing is pissing off the president” could realistically be a factor in Israeli decision-making.

The Skip Gates episode is an interesting example. I think the way to think about this is that it pushed Obama’s personal buttons in a way that made him forget his sound approach to these things. On Gates, he acted the way Frum and other neocons want him to act all the time—embracing an ethic of ultimate ends in which the most important thing is to align his expression of his sentiments with transcendent moral values. The fact that wading into the controversy wouldn’t accomplish anything was set aside. But, in fact, the intervention only made things worse and Obama wisely moved to try to reverse himself and smooth things out.

In other words, it's a good thing that the President isn't a blogger. And it's a doubly good thing that the neocons have no power. Every time I hear a conservative blasting the "politics of meaning," I just think about the neocons and smile.

And the debate takes another bizarre twist...

Matt Yglesias gets in a good zinger:

But obviously once the government says it will pay for medical care the question arises of how much it should pay and for what. Currently that decision is in the hands of congress, which is not well-suited to making technical judgments about appropriate reimbursement rates for medical procedures. [...] The idea is to prevent lobbyist-driven overpayments, not to deny care to seniors. And it would save the government some money over the long run. Which, you would think, conservatives would be happy about. Especially when you consider that conservatives don’t think Medicare should exist in the first place! But instead of being happy, we’ve got this campaign of deception, fearmongering, and opportunism.

So congratulations to Fred Hiatt for landing such a buzzworthy piece of nonsense for his publication and I hope the right-wing enjoys the giant tax hikes we’ll be enacting down the road once they show the political world that any attempt to trim Medicare spending, no matter how modest, will be savaged by opportunists on the other side.

I must admit, it is fairly surprising for the Republicans to ditch decades of issue positions and to come out against any cut in Medicare. I'm fairly convinced they'll jump right back to their earlier position at the conclusion of this debate, when there will be no further political points to be scored by hitting Obama from the left. But I think this helps to illustrate that the GOP simply doesn't have any gas left in its primary electoral mode of identity politics. Despite the "This is America!" chants from tea partiers, plenty of people can envision an America absent private insurers, which isn't even what the healthcare bill does anyway. The backup tactic seems to be to accuse Democrats of trying to euthanize old people and generally spreading vile falsehoods about reform instead of picking at some of the iffier propositions of the package, while putting themselves forward as staunch defenders of entitlement spending. I think I can honestly say that this is a dynamic that few saw coming, and I suspect that it will annoy many of the more libertarian and authentically conservative people in the Republican orbit, but as with the outrageousness of La Palin's death panel claim I highly doubt that it will be beaten back. It's become something of a culture war touchstone at this point, and it's frighteningly clear that the Republican Party has nobody who has the stature and the courage to tell the base to take a breath and sit down for a moment. As with the whole notion of banking on Obama's failure, the Republican strategy of lying about reform is a high-risk proposition that will only work if they win the debate. Since Democrats know what's actually in the bills, they can pass them now and then later point to these times as evidence that the Republicans are off their rocker.

Nevertheless, idiots like Max Baucus seem intent to insist on making some sort of bipartisan deal. To this end, considering that Republicans seem to regard any act of the administration as a challenge to their identity politics, I humbly propose that the Democrats try to pass a law making universal healthcare illegal. My guess would be that Republicans would change their position overnight. Considering that they now support unrestricted universal healthcare for seniors, it's worth a shot, no?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Umm...but it worked?

Paul Krugman is still angry about Obama not nationalizing the banks. Obama's decisions, though, appear to have been correct so far. Nationalizing the banks would have been a political nightmare, one which would have expended enormous political capital in ways that Krugman can't imagine. Franklin Roosevelt was in a similar situation at the beginning of his term as president, and he was pressured by the left to nationalize large chunks of the banking system. He made roughly the same choice as Obama did, for practical and political reasons: nationalizing the banks would have meant that everyone who got turned down for a loan or whose house went into forclosure would angrily blame the government for it. It's hard to imagine something similar not happening had Tim Geithner decided to nationalize the banking system. Now, obviously, if that were the only way to stop America from entering a depression, expending that much political capital is better than going bankrupt altogether, both literally and (political capital-wise) metaphorically. Regardless of what you think of his policies, Roosevelt was one of the smartest politicians we've ever had, and Krugman would do well to recall the lessons of his stated hero more often. Then again, as has been stated many times before, Krugman isn't exactly politically savvy, even though he seems to write about politics an awful lot.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

They have to fight it over there so that it doesn't come over here

I'll say this for the right: they're ambitious. Evidently fighting socialized medicine at home isn't enough--now they're fighting it abroad as well. I'm sure the people of Canada will appreciate what they've done and greet them as liberators, with mounty hats and Kids In The Hall DVDs just strewn about the streets in celebration.

Gay marriage objections

Kevin Drum finds a list of reasons why conservatives oppose same-sex marriage:
  1. In gay-marriage states, a large minority people committed to traditional notions of marriage will feel afraid to speak up for their views, lest they be punished in some way.
  2. Public schools will teach about gay marriage.
  3. Parents in public schools who object to gay marriage being taught to their children will be told with increasing public firmness that they don't belong in public schools and their views will not be accomodated in any way.
  4. Religous institutions will face new legal threats (especially soft litigation threats) that will cause some to close, or modify their missions, to avoid clashing with the government's official views of marriage (which will include the view that opponents are akin to racists for failing to see same-sex couples as married).
  5. Support for the idea "the ideal for a child is a married mother and father" will decline.
He identifies #4 as particularly wrong, and concludes, "Widespread acceptance of gay marriage, then, will result in widespread acceptance of gay marriage. Aside from that, though, Gallagher doesn't really predict any concrete harm to society. So what's the problem?"

I think this list doesn't even pass the smell test. I knew a lot of kids whose parents believed in creationism over evolution and, while the school board didn't exactly oblige their beliefs, I never heard any stories about them being told that they "don't belong" in public schools. And I think #5 is dubious as well. It's unclear what percentage of the population is gay, but it's almost certainly not higher than 10%, and probably not higher than 5%. That's 5% of people who are already in committed relationships, living in committed relationships, adopting children, etc. The cultural shift has already happened, and what the SSM battles are about is formalizing these changes. The heterocentric view of marriage will still (appropriately) be predominant, and SSM will be merely a caveat. That seems about right to me. And the notion that "the ideal for a child is a married mother and father" will decline because of SSM, as if it is in ascendance now rather than in an extended period of decline anyway, is silly as well.

But the problem here, as it is in much of the mainstream right, is that it personalizes the political to too great an extent, and also that it's highly solipsistic. Has any of this stuff happened in the six states that practice gay marriage? No? How about D.C. and New York, which recognize other states' same-sex marriages? I haven't read any news stories to this effect. And I haven't heard of it happening in the dozen or so countries that have legalized it full-scale. South Africa seems to still be heteronormative. What this is about, of course, is it's more about the right-wingers themselves, who evidently feel that the legitimacy of their social issue stances is predicated upon widespread acceptance of those stances. This boils down to a lack of faith in those stances in general, and that lack of faith is indeed warranted. You see this in that list of reasons above--indeed, as Kevin points out, all of the reasons boil down to "people won't like us anymore". Conservatives might pay lip service to the notion of the sanctity of marriage, but they have held power for most of the last generation and they didn't actually do anything to try to help it in terms of policy, or even to educate people on the issue, aside from frequent attacks upon liberals as "destroying the family". Seems to me that the highly-individualistic, materialistic elements of our society--which the right doesn't seem to condemn--are the real culprits here, but that's just a theory. In the end, conservatives' interest in durable marriage extends no further than extolling it because it's part of their identity. The right, at this point, is merely a bubbling cauldron of identity politics, nothing more.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Attention John McCormack

The LaRouchies are to the left what the John Birch Society is to the right. I was going to say "what the birthers are to the right", except that it wouldn't be accurate, because these days, the birthers are the right. Nice work, guys!

Read Conor Clarke on this as well.

Fool me twice...won't get fooled again

Chuck Grassley now wants to work together on health care reform. This coming after a few weeks of trashing everything in health care reform. I second Steve's reaction: "You've got to be kidding me."

My operative theory at this point is no longer that the senator suffers from mental illness, but rather that Grassley is undergoing the Jack/Tyler Durden condition of having multiple consciousnesses operate at different times, as seen in Fight Club. Sometimes, he's like Ed Norton, nice and conciliatory. And other times, he's like Brad Pitt, brutal and acerbic. You never know what you're going to get with old Chuck, but I think at this point Democrats should probably just not bother with the unpredictability.

GOP Progress on Health Care

Steve Benen argues no. The new NBC poll that Republicans are pointing today as a sign that Obama has slipped is, in fact, unchanged from where it was a month ago, despite all the rightist hysteria. Oh, for a sane opposition!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Palin is the new black

Check out this snippet of a scathing review of Quentin Tarantino's upcoming Inglourious Basterds:
It’s amazing to me that some fellow Jews who were so indignant about Sophie’s Choice (by which I mean the Styron novel — arguably his best — and not the hollow Pakula movie) can give Tarantino a free ride on this one, presumably under the theory that this boy should be allowed to enjoy every last drop of his all-American fun, even at the expense of real-life Holocaust victims. As far as I’m concerned, whatever Tarantino’s actual or imagined politics might be, he’s become the cinematic equivalent of Sarah Palin, death-panel fantasies and all.

I heartily encourage this trend of using Palin as a conversational placeholder for the paranoid, divisive style. As for the movie itself, it looks to be a lot of meh. Tarantino has his gifts as a filmmaker--he has a style that works for him, he can write dialogue--but I think he peaked with Jackie Brown. That was his most "felt" film, I think, and the first one he made that showed a more mature vision at work. His work since then has shown him mostly abandoning the human element that made his early work watchable, and delving ever-further into genre pastiche. Basically, his early movies were about people and his later movies were about style. That distinction might be too clear-cut, but I think it's essentially right. And it's made him a much less interesting artist in the Aughts.

Is Chuck Grassley mentally ill?

Considering his behavior over the last week or so, I think it must be seriously considered as a possibility. His schizophrenia over health reform, and now this Fairness Doctrine stuff, suggests someone who at the very least doesn't quite know what he's talking about.

Wow, that was dumb

NJ Republican candidate Chris Christie is in trouble:

It was revealed that Christie had failed to reveal in his state and federal financial disclosure forms that he'd made a $46,000 loan to an assistant in the U.S. attorney's office, Michele Brown, who still works in the U.S. Attorney's office and is still paying off the loan to him in regular installments. The loan was secured by a second mortgage on Brown's home.

Now the Times has discovered that Christie failed to report income from the loan on his tax returns. Christie aides told the Times that Christie will file an amended tax return.

I thought (and still think) that his having had a discussion about running for something with Karl Rove is not the sort of silver bullet that Corzine would need to win another term. I actually think it's a little hypocritical of Democrats to make that sort of attack. I mean, please, practically everyone who serves as a D.A. or a U.S. Attorney is in it to jump start a political or legal career. I think the politicization of the Justice Department (and everything else) during the Bush years was terrible, but I don't think this is that and I don't see this particular conversation as necessarily disqualifying for office.

But how much of an idiot do you have to be to do something like this? If you throw around huge clumps of money like this, people will find out and will start to ask questions. Was there an affair? Blackmail? Hush money? And not reporting it makes it look like a cover-up. Game, set, and match, as they say. This could all have been perfectly innocent, and there is always the presumption of innocence, but the whole thing positively reeks.

My hunch is that Christie has just thrown away his chances of getting elected governor, especially if there are a few more shoes to drop that could keep this story alive for another few months. Those Bushies sure thought they were invincible, didn't they?

Health care and public utilities

Read this Ramesh Ponnuru editorial on health care (via the Dish). Here's what he has to say about Wyden-Bennett:
This is another way of saying that universal coverage cannot be achieved using free-market methods — a point that many liberals correctly make. A bipartisan bill in the Senate introduced by Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, purports to use the market to provide universal coverage. It would keep insurance companies in business, but only by converting them into regulated and subsidized public utilities, eliminating most existing insurance plans and expanding the I.R.S. by a quarter.
I realize he's making a critique here, but I think that the idea of insurance companies as public utilities is actually about the correct frame in which to view them. Private insurance companies wield extraordinary power over peoples' lives and provide what is essentially a public good. They work in a highly-concentrated marketplace that has enormous barriers to entry, and there tends to be little choice about what company provides one's healthcare. Since most states have one or two insurance companies that have the market cornered, I think that viewing them like public utilities is basically correct, according to the facts. And the reason why public utilities are regulated is because they are in a unique position to exert leverage in influence pricing for the marketplace.

In my experience, conservatives tend to dislike utilities because they aren't competitive. But while competition can certainly improve product (e.g. the computer industry), there are times when competition just isn't possible. Having a free-market solution to electricity in, say, L.A. wouldn't work because the startup costs would be too high and there's a finite amount of physical space to lay electrical wire. Ponnuru talks about how Wyden-Bennett would turn health insurers into public utilities (this is overstating things a little, as they will still be competing), but the status quo is that we're dealing with unregulated public utilities that aren't really restricted in terms of the abuse they can dish out. It's like if PG&E could just double your rates one month with no explanation, and obviously with no recourse for the unlucky billpayer.

Is the furor over the public option good for reform efforts?

Noam Scheiber says it is:
In the national debate, Obama now looks like the centrist voice of reason instead of an over-ambitious lefty (I'm caricaturing, of course, in the spirit of the cable-news coverage). Inside Congress, Obama may not get a public option, but if he doesn't, he was never going to get it. And now he can extract a ton of concessions in return, because he can point to a left-wing of his party that's ready to eat him alive for failing to deliver on it (whereas that left-wing outrage was largely hypothetical before now). That kind of leverage is extremely helpful.
This might well be true (though it might well eat at Obama's approval further), but at least the media is focusing on a policy dispute instead of paranoid idiocy. I don't think that the Administration wanted this storm, but it seems like it could turn out like the New Coke marketing campaign, in that got people excited about original Coke again. It's been my experience that quite a few liberals incline either toward hopeless defeatism or overconfidence, and one hopes that the latter group will be more engaged on the issue now.

Still, I am concerned about the liberal fixation on the public option. As I've stated, I think it's based on liberals' desire to move us toward single payer, and thus the public plan is a strategy toward that goal. I'm not unsympathetic toward that goal. But I'm more concerned with actually providing some security and protection for people who wouldn't be covered by the public option, even if it were in the bill, as well as making sure that everyone gets some form of insurance. Those are the goals I'm interested in accomplishing. As for the rest of it, que sera, sera.

Update: Ezra Klein makes roughly the same point as I did, as well as why the public plan under consideration isn't even a good beachhead to achieve single-payer.

Monday, August 17, 2009

What I've been doing today

Mostly work, though I did cruise some liberal blogs, where the sentiment is strongly negative about the Obama Administration potentially signing a health bill without a public option.

I'm not so concerned about this. My sense is that most liberals, like myself, essentially prefer a single-payer system for health insurance. I realize that this is not popular at this time and is unlikely to happen soon. But I get the sense that a lot of liberals will consider health care reform a defeat if it doesn't move us toward single-payer, and I think this is very, very wrong. I guess it depends on how you see the public option. If you see it as a strategy toward achieving Medicare-for-All, then it's understandable to fight for it. But if you see it as a tactic toward lowering costs and ensuring universal coverage, it's not the only way of achieving those goals. A good one, most likely. But it's not the only way to do it, and it's not the whole ballgame. The rest is just symbolism, really.

I will admit that the way the legislative process has worked out bothers me, and the new 60 vote requirement on all legislation is annoying. It is, of course, unConstutional, since the Framers gave the VP a tie-breaking vote and therefore envisioned legislation enacted by majority vote, not by an arbitrary supermajority. But this is all another discussion. I have no problem with people not being happy about the way the process has turned out, but the legislation as is will improve the lives of many Americans, and that's the point. I just think we all could stand to think about what it is we're trying to accomplish here. Passing reform without a public option doesn't necessarily preclude a more robust approach in the future, and it could help out a lot of people right now. For the time being, I still support reform, and I hope that the final bill does what it needs to. Since we don't have a final bill, it's difficult to tell right now.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Governor Moonbeam again

None of this surprises me at this point:
In the Democratic primary, Jerry Brown (D) leads Gavin Newsom (D), 29% to 20%.
In the Republican primary, Meg Whitman (R) leads with 24%, followed by Tom
Campbell (R) at 19% and Steve Poinzner (R) at 9%. In general election match ups,
Brown beats Whitman, 42% to 36%, and tops Campbell, 43% to 35%. However, with
Newsom as the Democratic nominee, the match ups are statistical ties.

Despite his reputation as an eccentric, Jerry Brown had a good record as governor--he was widely popular in the state, appealing to the hippies and fiscal conservatives alike. He also did some interesting things as Mayor of Oakland, and people I know from the area generally speak well of the guy. I think he'd be effective, but the last few governors we have had became toxically unpopular because of budget decisions that were only partly of their making. Effectiveness, basically, is stymied by the system. Hopefully Brown runs on a good government platform and calls for a constitutional convention. The state cannot wait any longer.
Jon Cohn writes a dead-on and infuriating blog post on the Swift-Boating of health care:

It'd be one thing if the lunatics on the right had a coherent argument for why these initiatives might be ineffective or counterproductive. But they don't even bother to acknowledge them, preferring instead to throw out scare quotes like this one from Palin: "Who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course."

Of course, not all conservatives stoop to this level. You can have a rational, if still contentious, deate over health reform with the likes of Stuart Butler (who studies health policy at the Heritage Foundation) or Gail Wilensky (who ran Medicare for George H.W. Bush). But Butler, Wilensky, and others like them aren't driving the conversation right now. Palin, Bachmann, and their allies are.

We're stuck in what Josh Marshall has called a "nonsense feedback loop"--a conversation in which Zeke Emanuel wants to kill grandma, health care reform is bad for the people who can't get health care, and Stephen Hawking has been snuffed out by the British National Health System. Instead of arguments that are unrelated to reality, we're getting arguments that are the very opposite of reality.

Like I said, maybe those Democratic officials are right. Maybe this really is worse than what we've seen before.

Having a good debate with people who believe different things is important, an indispensable part of democracy and freedom. But I'm beginning to think that isn't possible anymore. The easy self-assurance of fundamentalist dogma has replaced the uneasy but rewarding Enlightenment quest for truth. We've watched the conservative movement aggressively work to destroy the credibility of science among the public, we've seen them cow the media establishment into submission as the likes of Walter Winchell and Walter Lippman gave way to Anderson Cooper and Joe Scarborough. And with Fox News they've administered the coup de grace, where the notion of the "fact" is passe, and nothing isn't up for debate, aside from rightist dogma, of course.

You know something, I really didn't think that it would be this bad either. But every time over the past few years where I've thought that "teh librulz" weren't being sufficiently charitable I've been burned. I just wonder how the people in the media who cover this "death panel" stupidity live with themselves. I'm guessing pretty well. It's all a game to them. To a lot of other people, though, we're talking about life-and-death stuff. They should ask themselves what value they're adding to society. If it is virtually none--and, at this point, I suspect it is--perhaps they should make way for people who are interested in doing their jobs. Haha, just kidding there.

So, yeah, I'm feeling pretty cynical about the country these days. But I still believe that things will get better in time.

Linguistic nitpicks

Ezra Klein makes an interesting point:

Mark Fraunfelder of Boing Boing asks: Let's say a meeting, originally scheduled for Wednesday, has been moved forward two days. What is the new day of the meeting?

Friday, of course. It took me a few minutes to even understand that another answer was possible. Alex Tabarrok was also confused by the idea that there was more than one possible reply. But he thought the answer was Monday.

I suppose I'm one of the Monday types. I think it does have to do with how you visualize time. But it is worth noting that a fair amount of the language we use to indicate time is ambiguous at best. For example, today is Thursday. If I tell you that I'm going to get you the report next Friday, that is generally taken to mean a week from tomorrow, even though tomorrow is the next Friday. This has always been a pet peeve of mine, considering that saying that a week from tomorrow is the "next" Friday implies that tomorrow is the "current" Friday, which makes no sense as it's not Friday! It would almost be like if I said I'd deliver the report on the next 14th of the month, and then delivered it in mid-September. I'd get my ass fired for that one, and rightly so. But it seems like the "next Friday" construction isn't going anywhere in American language, and this country's Orwellian neglect of language will continue.

Interestingly, the Spanish language doesn't have this particular problem. In Spanish, you basically say "this coming Friday," which eliminates the ambiguity nicely. Just another example of why English basically sucks.
Shorter Victor Davis Hanson: Europeans don't care too much about conspicuous consumption, and they don't live to work. USA! USA!

Seriously fatuous stuff. And it underscores the ethnocentrism of the America First crowd. There is no reason, none whatsoever, why owning a house is superior to owning or renting an apartment. Indeed, one can argue that it is worse, since homeowners are more bound to a specific region and won't be as easily able to move to greener pastures if the local economy takes a hit. Living in a home costs more energy and is a less efficient use of space. Now, admittedly, there are rewards to doing so, but this question isn't obviously correct, as Hanson believes.

One interesting wrinkle: I once talked to a professor in college who was from Canada about government and taxation there. She said that the taxes were higher in Canada, but that when she was living up there, she always had more money to spend. It makes sense--the price of auto insurance (mandated for drivers in California), the mostly invisible price of health insurance here, etc. are substantially mitigated if you're living in a place with tight restrictions on insurance practices and single-payer healthcare. Living in an apartment is cheaper than buying a house, generally speaking. I find this point surprising, all in all.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

This is interesting:
According to Rasmussen, "Among voters who favor the congressional health care
plan, Specter leads 55% to 26%. However, among those who oppose the plan, Sestak
leads 61% to 25%."

Presumably, both candidates support the plan. But Arlen Specter is an unctuous creature of Washington while Joe Sestak has only been there for three years--and he used to be an admiral before that. Seems to me that this is a pretty clear insider vs. outsider dynamic, and the public might well be in a "throw the bums out" mode unless Specter and the administration get some concrete wins under their belts.

Three percent of Hispanics like what?

DougJ brings this Kos poll to my attention. Can the GOP's favorability among Hispanics really be at 3%? I mean, it is a Kos poll, so there's probably some house effect at play, but the ratings for Obama (at 60%--this is favorability, not job performance), and Pelosi (about 35%), et al. seem to be mostly in line with what I see elsewhere. And, in yet another sign that this is not 1994, the congressional GOP gets 10% favorability, with the overall GOP hitting about 18%. The public isn't moving toward the GOP--many of them are concerned with Obama's proposals, but almost everyone is repulsed by the GOP these days.

I just wonder what it is these people think they're accomplishing. Don't they want public support and votes? Shouldn't poll results like this maybe, like, worry them at all? Maybe Obama won't even need to try to push through immigration reform next year to split the GOP and win Hispanic votes. Republicans are almost polling within the margin of having no Hispanic support at all. Kos thinks that this is due to Sotomayor, but I agree with Doug that birtherism has probably played an invaluable part as well. Well, the GOP have made their choice, and I for one am looking forward to Texas being a toss-up state in 2012, a solid Democratic Southwest starting shortly, and a structural 60% popular Democratic majority for the next few decades after the Hispanic population hits 20% of the public and the generational turnover replaces Fox News viewers with Kossacks. Guess it was worth it, eh, Republicans?

It's all about the kids

Steve Benen relates a tale about an 11-year old asking President Obama a question about healthcare, which has driven the wingularity batty. This is not particularly surprising. It happened before with Graeme Frost. Evidently Republicans really hate it when Democrats have kids ask questions about policy. Admittedly I find this kind of stuff kitschy, but also good that young kids are interested enough to ask questions. But the right apparently doesn't. So much for all that "The children are our future" crap, I suppose.

One wonders why this always makes them so apoplectic. My guess is that they've seen the same polls I do. They know that the Republican approach of bile, fear, proud bigotry and firm denial of modernity has made pretty much everyone under 30 come to despise them. Last time I checked, something like 2/3 of people under 30 are Democrats, and from the Republicans I talk to that are under 30, many of that group are also disgusted with what they see out of the GOP (though there are some that are totally on board, to be sure). Seeing young children engaged and making liberal points--kids that will presumably grow up into lifelong Democrats--merely underlines the right's looming irrelevance. Malkin, Murdoch, and the rest of them are playing the short game, ginning up their septuagenarian crowd on outrage and sending them out to yell at Arlen Specter, while losing the long game. Having kids around now and then makes the reality all the more inescapable.

So I have a proposal for the president and for all Democrats in Congress: bring some children to your town halls, and call on them for questions. The right has no conscience and will lash out at them, and it will illustrate what they're about in an unusually stark way.


This is a few days old, but this is a part of George Gilder (via Sullivan):
During this 20-year period under Israeli rule [starting in 1967], some 250,000 Israelis settled in the Territories. These were the supposedly predatory settlers. They supplied the infrastructure of power, water, education, and medical care that attracted nearly ten Arab settlers for every one Israeli. During this period, the economy in the territories grew some 25 percent per year, nearly the fastest in the world, and far faster than that of Israel itself, which was still bogged down in socialism. Arab life expectancy rose from 40 to around 70. Their incomes tripled while their population soared. Seven universities and 2,500 factories were established. It was the golden age for Palestinian Arabs.

There are an awful lot of problems with this argument, but I think that this is flawed on a conceptual level in a uniquely American way. It is true that Israel provides water and electricity to West Bankers. This is often trumped up by Likud-oriented hawks as evidence of how generous Israel is, and correspondingly how evil Palestine must be. But it doesn't illustrate this at all. By denying Palestine the ability to run these things themselves, Israel holds tremendous power over Palestinians, who are definitionally not self-sufficient. Knowing that you are being occupied by a foriegn power that can literally close the spigot or kill the lights at any time might make the Palestinians a little less than grateful at the benificence of their Israeli neighbors. Israel could truly show their generosity by turning over Palestinian operations to the elected authorities of the region.

The reason why this is a uniquely American mistake is because Americans, by and large, don't care about motives. At least, a lot of the pundits don't. This is why Americans refuse to give any credibility that oil was a big part of the push toward the Iraq War, even though a preliminary perusal of the data (the US using about 60% of the world's oil, for example) lends this credence, and it is in fact a popular notion everywhere else in the world. It is the American way to assume innocence with respect to our own actions. Of course, I don't know the extent to which Iraq's oil was a part of the war deliberations, but it's not an unreasonable question to ask, even though there's no evidence that oil was the key mover in this discussion. But we can't even ask the question here. And it is evidently similar when talking about Israel.

And, of course, there is a name for one country dominating another country and denying it autonomy: colonialism. Empire is another. Of course, most on the right would dispute the use of this term, but that is merely the evidence of a lack of imagination on the right. Rome wasn't the only type of empire. I'd say that living in a country where another country controls the infrastructure, has the authority to dispatch its military into my country at will, and continues to encroach on my territory with illegal and unwise settlements is pretty much a colony. Luckily, I'm not living in a country where that is happening. But it is happening in Palestine.

The Party of Responsibility

Is up to its usual tricks:
The Weekly Standard responded to the incident, not with condemnations, but with accusations. The Weekly Standard's John McCormack argued the swastika may have been painted by a liberal to generate sympathy for Scott. "[G]iven the fact that the Nazi imagery so neatly dovetails with the left's smearing of health-care protesters as fascists, isn't it more likely that this act of vandalism was committed by one of Scott's supporters?" McCormack asked.

No, it isn't. Given that lots of these protesters carry signs comparing Obama to Hitler (BTW, great way to endear yourself to the ~60% that view the guy favorably), and that the likes of Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are making the comparison routinely, I don't think it's unlikely that the teabaggers did this. To be fair, it's not impossible that this was some sort of agent provocateur, but like all conspiracy theorists McCormack disregards Occam's Razor, which tells us that the simplest theory that fits the facts is most likely the correct one. Not always, of course, since sometimes we don't have all the facts. But the facts, such as they are, point to a teabagger.

I must admit that I'm really tiring of this nonsense. We are in a dangerous situation here, with a cynical conservative establishment serving up misinformation that they have to know is wrong. Okay, Sarah Palin is a complete moron and might believe in "death panels" but most Republican congresspeople aren't that dumb. Most Republican pundits aren't that dumb. These are people whose jobs it is to stay informed on the issues, but they are spreading this nonsense deliberately because they think that they can benefit off it. Fox News wants more viewers, Hannity wants more people to buy his book, Boehner wants the base riled up so that they vote next year, etc. Of course, there are reasonable points to be made against healthcare reform, but these people aren't making them. They're making absurd, fabulist points against some mythical reform, and the Republican base, which is apparently unable to stop listening to the people who lied to them constantly during the Bush years (or that actually prefers it when their leaders just lie to them, which is a saddening thought but increasingly plausible) accepts it all uncritically.

What is clear is that the GOP not only thinks so little of its own base, but also that they view them less as their bosses and more like a prop to be used to drive home talking points. And evidently they think so little of their own supporters that they'd prefer to see them fall apart with paranoia and rage, rather than tamping down on the crazies and encouraging measured, reasoned skepticism. And the Republican base has been so worn down by election losses that the blind followers are, in fact, the only people left in the GOP, so their leaders' assumptions are largely correct. I often wonder where the real leadership is in the Republican Party, but at some point it begs the question of whether the party is capable of discovering effective leaders at this time--today's departure of Jon Huntsman from the political scene after being demagogued for supporting civil unions (!) being a case in point.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Reality Check

Looks like President Obama has had a little bit of a bounce recently--good economic news? Increased support for healthcare? Good foreign policy moves?

This. Is. Weak.

As a loyal Democrat I'd love to see Jon Corzine win re-election in New Jersey, though I'll hardly be sad if he doesn't, and it's not clear that he deserves to win. He's going to have to do much better than this, though:
"I talked to him twice in the last couple of years, perhaps one time while I was at the White House and once or twice since I left the White House," Rove said in 2007, "but -- not regarding his duties as U.S. Attorney, but regarding his interest in running for Governor, and he asked me questions about who -- who were good people that knew about running for Governor that he could talk to."
It's the, wait, so Rove didn't say he asked Christie to investigate more Democrats for corruption. And all Christie wanted know some people to talk to because he was a Republican who wanted to run for governor, and he was talking to one of the most powerful Republicans out there. This is...noncontroversial. If this is the worst that NJ Dems can come up with, I'll be the first to pay my congratulations to Governor Christie.

Sotomayor and race, parting edition?

Matt Yglesias makes good points pushing back on Sotomayor representing "the worst" of racial politics here. It's worth a read. One thing that I think is a problem is how narrow the requirements for picking a Supreme Court justice have become. There was a point where the Court included Earl Warren, the former Governor of California; Hugo Black, a former U.S. Senator and New Deal-era federal official; Felix Frankfurter, an official and former Harvard professor; and William O. Douglas, who similarly had not held legal or judicial office before being elevated to the Supreme Court. All of these guys are considered to have been top-notch justices (though the right generally won't give it up for Warren, still) but none of them were clerks for Supreme Court judges, and none of them were Circuit Court judges. These days, it seems like you need to be both to be considered a serious nominee.

Which is fine--having that sort of background is fine, and it will probably be good preparation for working on the Court. But there's no particular reason why, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger wouldn't eventually make a decent Supreme Court justice. I'm sure he'd be rocky at first, but there's no mystery to what the Supreme Court does--they look at federal laws to see if they're in line with the Constitution and past precedent. I'm pretty sure that the vast majority of adults in America could handle the job within a few years. Now, I believe we should set a higher bar than adequacy, but this sort of talk really gets me thinking: how much of this is about class interest? Journalists and jurists are going to come from similar cohorts--mostly male, mostly white, mostly upper-middle class--so when Mark Halperin puts up a cheeky banner on his site about how "no white men need apply" for being a SCOTUS nominee, or how picking a woman that the Bar Association found well qualified represents the "worst" of racial politics, seems to be coming from that place. Indeed, if Sotomayor isn't qualified because she didn't write enough major decisions (presumably it's not because of the breadth of her experience), then how can John Roberts be a justified choice, since he had three years of judicial experience and wrote few major opinions, outside of Hamdan, which was overturned by the Supremes? Alito's major decisions were also pretty muted. This is just how it goes--people who rule on major issues tend not to be Supreme Court nominees because they're easier to demagogue. Hell, that Obama picked a woman who made a reasonable but unpopular decision on affirmative action is laudable, in my mind. He could have taken the easier path, but he didn't. This was the exception that proves the rule, as she was the subject of a rather despicable whisper campaign by the likes of Jeff Rosen.

As I said, it's unclear to me why Sotomayor is a travesty while Roberts is a great pick. Well, aside from the obvious ones for conservatives.

Tony and Gordon

One reason I like the British is that, at the same time, dispense with all the "nice" crap but still somehow manage to be more civil. This takedown of Gordon Brown is pretty brutal--I can't imagine any American reporter doing a profile like this of any American politician, even a reviled one like George Bush.
Lacking populist instincts ought not to be considered a failing in a prime minister, even in the age of television, but trying for the common touch when you don't have it is an unpardonable folly. Brown's recent charm offensive, culminating in an attempt to smile himself into the people's affections via YouTube--grinning like a village idiot in love while discussing MPs' second-home allowances--has made even his most loyal supporters cringe. You cannot buy the love of an electorate. [...]

In fairness to Brown, New Labour was looking pretty dog-eared when he took it over from Tony Blair. Iraq was Blair's and God's baby, though Brown had backed it. Ditto long-standing controversial legislation regarding the detention of terrorism suspects. And, for years, there had been questions about who was covertly donating how much to New Labour. Blair was seen to have cozied up to Big Business, and one Big Businessman after another had popped up at the wrong time ever since New Labour was elected. When Blair stepped down, New Labour was an unweeded garden that had grown to seed. This Brown inherited. It remained to be seen how much of a gardener he was.

The answer: No sort of gardener at all. He did not know what to tear up and what to plant. He had no instinct for the seasons, talking of calling an early election and then running scared. Away from the dusty ledgers of the economy, he lacked authority and decision. Instead of the compassionate society he had promised, he raised the lowest rate at which the poor paid tax; instead of cleaning up the murky anti-terrorism legislation cobbled together after September 11, as was expected, he backed extending the period for which suspects could be detained; his decision to draw attention from the Tory Party conference by dropping in on British troops in Iraq was electioneering in the worst of taste. [...]

Mr. Bean's best-known misadventure has him with his head stuck up the unsavory end of a Christmas turkey. It is hard now to see Gordon Brown any other way. He has recently survived desperately bad local and European election results, a number of murmuring challenges to his premiership, and the scandal of MPs' expenses. But few expect him to win a general election. In a last bid to court popularity, he has packed himself around with celebrities from the world of reality television, inviting the judges of "Britain's Got Talent" and the host of "Strictly Come Dancing" to dinner. He is, as was Blair before him, a deeply uncultured man. It is regrettable that he should see salvation in making a virtue of that. At least when he was dismal, he seemed serious. His dismalness, he appears to think, is his only flaw. In this, he is tragically mistaken. His dismalness is his greatest virtue. His flaw is to suppose he can, and should, pass himself off as something lighter, someone more like Tony. Thus, Tony goes on exacting his terrible revenge.
I suppose I should recommend the film The Deal as well as The Unfulfilled Prime Minister to anyone who is interested in Blair, Brown, and the relationship between the two. I rather liked the second, written in 2006, which predicted that Brown would have a difficult time selling himself and his proposals to the country when he took over. It's turned out to be quite an understatement.
One of my favorite ironies is that Fox (i.e. News Corp) is considered to be a conservative brand, when it's far more responsible for the spread of trash culture than any other of the major media conglomerates. More evidence here:
Not that it should surprise anyone--disgust, yes; surprise, no--but the Fox network has bought footage of Nadya Sulman and her brood and scheduled a two-hour primetime special on the happy family to air August 19: "Octomom: The Incredible Unseen Footage."

Monday, August 10, 2009

Let's abolish the History Channel


If all of these [apocalyptic] predictions are bogus (which they most certainly are), how do they manage to have 2012 in common? The History Channel, that's how. In late 2007, the History Channel ran a special about Nostradamus' lost book, stretching interpretations so thin you could make a doomsday crepe out of it. As with all of the above "prophecies," 2012 sites around the Internet took the ball and ran with it.

The History Channel hasn't actually bothered to present academically valid history for years. They're just as sensationalistic and exploitative as any reality show, only they have more credibility. I was a huge History Channel nut for years, but in between Ice Road Truckers and The History of Sex I've come to realize the damage they're doing. Enough!

Apatow and social conservatism

Like some other liberals, I found Ross Douthat's column today to be pretty good, though I think that it's entirely wrong to say that Knocked Up made the pro-life case. The film, quite reasonably, sidestepped the issue altogether. It didn't make the case that abortion is morally wrong--about the only thing that could be argued about that particular decision was that it was opaque because Katherine Heigl's character wasn't developed enough. Conservatives also said the same thing about Juno, and again, the claim was overwrought. Neither film is a pro-life film, both are the creation of presumably pro-choice writers, and while both involve not getting an abortion, in both films the matter is considered without prejudice. That the choice is made to go through with having a kid isn't a pro-life message, it's a pro-choice message because it concedes that a choice is to be made. Had Juno never even considered having an abortion because it was immoral, that would be a pro-life argument. But that wasn't the argument the film made.

This said, I agree with this sentiment:

More than most Westerners, Americans believe — deeply, madly, truly — in the sanctity of marriage. But we also have some of the most liberal divorce laws in the developed world, and one of the highest divorce rates. We sentimentalize the family, but boast one of the highest rates of unwed births. We’re more pro-life than Europeans, but we tolerate a much more permissive abortion regime than countries like Germany or France. We wring our hands over stem cell research, but our fertility clinics are among the least regulated in the world.

In other words, we’re conservative right up until the moment that it costs us.

Of course, being more conservative than Europeans doesn't mean conservative in the Douthatian sense, but one thing I think needs to be stated here is that, at this point, there is more or less an across-the-aisle consensus on the social side of the political equation, on the big issues at least. Liberals might well be more inclined to accept divorces in difficult marriages than conservatives, but both sides fundamentally believe in the traditional nuclear family as the prevailing societal unit. I'm not sure if it was ever any different--perhaps among the long-dead anarchist left--but one of the big liberal issues at this point is expanding marital privileges for gays and lesbians. And I've never read a liberal pundit enthuse over the high divorce rate. All in all, the liberal and conservative visions of society really aren't too different, when you get down to it. It's the getting there that's difficult to envision.

Of course birtherism is connected to racism

Dave Weigel accumulates more proof that birtherism isn't a Republican thing, so much as a Southern Republican thing: only 9% of Utah residents doubt Obama's citizenship. Daniel Larison's theory that birtherism's Southern preeminence is merely the function of increased GOP partisanship in the region continues to sound shaky to me. I tend more often than not to roll my eyes when liberal bloggers try to reduce conservatism's appeal to a purely revanchist take on race (smarter lefties realize that it wasn't just race), but in this case, it's a theory which fits all the facts in a way that more charitable theories don't.

At this point, though, I think it's too late for Republicans to unpop this particular Jack-in-the-box.

Homophobia is the easy way out

Matt Yglesias pretty much nails my thoughts on the Christianists' gay fixation:
Most of what “traditional values” asks of people is pretty hard. All the infidelity and divorce and premarital sex and bad parenting and whatnot take place because people actually want to do the things traditional values is telling them not to do. And the same goes for most of the rest of the Christian recipe. Acting in a charitable and forgiving manner all the time is hard. Loving your enemies is hard. Turning the other cheek is hard. Homosexuality is totally different. For a small minority of the population, of course, the injunction “don’t have sex with other men!” (or, as the case may be, other women) is painfully difficult to live up to. But for the vast majority of people this is really, really easy to do. Campaigns against gay rights, gay people, and gay sex thus have a lot of the structural elements of other forms of crusading against sexual excess or immorality, but they’re not really asking most people to do anything other than become self-righteous about their pre-existing preferences.

I think this holds true for men and abortion as well. Men never have to contemplate having an abortion, so it's easy to just take an absolute position. Women often face a much less clear-cut and agonizing decision, as anyone who read Sullivan after the Tiller killing knows.

The one caveat to all this is that the Bible can be read as being anti-gay. There are some verses that denounce certain sex acts. However, it can also be read as not being anti-gay. Considering that the conception of homosexuality has changed radically over the past century or so--now the big battles are over whether gay people should be able to seek stability within existing social institutions, and it's not a matter of families being broken apart but rather of new families being formed. I think it's entirely reasonable to say that the current incarnation of homosexuality isn't really what the Bible was inveighing against 2000 years ago, and that the sexual system that Paul proposed in his letters wasn't ever really workable to begin with. But it will persist, in the short term anyway.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Question of Right-Wing Anger, A Theory

I must say, I found this email from one of Andrew Sullivan's readers chilling. I know people like this, and they're all on the right. I don't know what that's worth--probably nothing, as it's just an anecdote--but the fact remains. I guess the natural comparison is with left-wing anger at Bush, but as many bloggers have noted, that didn't develop until after the Iraq War, as opposed to occurring within mere months (and largely uneventful months) of the beginning of his presidency. So, one cannot help but empathize with Steve when he wonders why the right got so angry.

One thing that I think needs to be stated at the outset of the conversation is that the right-wing worldview has a couple of things going for it. It's simple, it's comprehensive, and if you're in a certain frame of mind, certain aspects are intuitive. For example, if you're angry at trash culture, the GOP has a story to sell you about Hollywood Elites and nasty liberals. You might even have seen an episode or two of Rosie O'Donnell's show, and that makes the point go down easier. Never mind that Fox has long been the prime purveyor of exploitative and trashy television shows and movies, never mind that Fox News dedicates days of coverage to dead strippers and interviews with MTV veejays famous for appearing in sex tapes. Similarly, if you're angry at your job prospects, the wingnuts can spin stories of illegal immigrants stealing your job. Never mind that immigration is generally quite beneficial to the country--more people = more potential consumers = more growth. I've never heard an economist of any stripe argue against immigration, and I doubt that I'm likely to.

What we see when we look further is a movement that has long been adept at redeploying free-floating anger. This is basically all that the right wing does. Of course, there are plenty of smart and secure people on the right, but the reason that the base is so rancid and paranoid is because anger, ignorance and fear are the ties that bind on the right. Once they've got you on one thing, they can lay out the whole system as they see it, feed off each other, and therefore intensify the general wingnuttiness. The left, for better or worse, generally refuses to do this and prefers to present itself as sane, laid-back, sober, and policy-minded. This has in the past produced some bloodless candidates (um, John Kerry) but some good ones as well. But the strategy does have its deficiencies. Anger can be a great motivating tactic in getting people to support your policies. Unfortunately, the right has been operating for so long on little more than fear that it has become limiting and pathetic. The right-wing mindset, such as it is, is never going to feel as though things are "done" because there is no endpoint for the philosophy. It's an angry, nihilistic, self-satisfied and ignorant brew that America has had to suffer for too long. One can only hope that America sees them now for what they are. Honestly, I don't know how this doesn't ascend to violence from here--it's week one of the congressional recess and they're already calling Obama Hitler, more or less. Where do you go from there, rhetorically? Hopefully I'm wrong and all this will fizzle out.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Remember when I said this shit would get out of hand?

Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC) gets a death threat if he votes for healthcare. And the American Right now becomes the New Left of the 1970s. What's Abbie Hoffman up to these days?
Sullivan gives Michael Gerson an Yglesias Award Nomination for favoring needle exchange: "The availability of clean needles no more caused their addiction than the provision of clean shot glasses would cause alcoholism."

I completely agree, and this reminds me of the weakness of the conservative model of human behavior. Needle exchange is just the tip of the iceberg: for example, conservatives regularly oppose making the HPV vaccine mandatory because that would somehow encourage promiscuity, and they oppose easy access to condoms and birth control for that very reason. There are many other examples, of course. They oppose diplomacy with difficult nations because that somehow encourages them to act out to get our attention (among other things). It seems to me that a lot of this is based on an irrational escalation of market theory. Incentivizing things in this way cuts against how humans actually think and behave, which is complicated, driven by many things both known and unknown, and generally resists the deliberate (though sometimes useful) abstraction of the rational economic actor. It's a model that has its uses--I mean, you have to use something to model human behavior in economic terms--but humans aren't purely economic beings, and acting as though they are will--surprise!--lead to some crappy policy. This is my usual gripe about libertarianism, but I think that conservatives--and particularly movement conservatives--do this in such an asinine and ideological way that there isn't even a point to argue, most of the time. There is no real reason to oppose HPV vaccination, aside from a general dislike of sexuality and female sexuality in particular. And, even so, the disease can be acquired by nonsexual means, like sharing towels or underwear. But I guess some people have to believe it, right? Or is this one of those secrets known to all but agreed upon by some?

I sometimes think that I'd respect right-wingers more if they just said, "We don't want to negotiate with hostile countries solely because we don't like their policies," and the equivalent for the social issues. That would, at least, be honest, if terribly misguided. But instead, we have to get this two-bit, braindead distortion of market theory as The Explanation Of People. Considering how badly its most fervent devotees (like George W. Bush) judge character and qualifications, I think it's time to retire it.

Men are from Mars, Neocons are from Neptune

Yglesias lampoons Steven Hayes for saying that the prisoner release gives the DPRK a "lifeline":
Think about that metaphor. Does Hayes really think that Clinton going to Pyongyang or not is the difference between the DPRK collapsing or not? Why would that be? I suppose this is consistent with the general neocon belief that symbolic, expressive activity on the part of Americans is the key factor in determining events abroad but it seems like a mighty extreme version of it.

My observations have led me to believe that the neocons only have an operative vocabulary of about 200 words, and a successful diplomatic mission by a less-hawkish president makes them sputter all of them. One of Matt's commenters nails it:
Obviously a much better idea would have been to let two American citizens
rot in North Korean labor camps just to teach the government a lesson.

The mobs, ctd.

Ask any general or high-ranking military officer, and they'll tell you that the best morale builder is victory, and the biggest morale destroyer is failure. It doesn't seem open to question that the right is, at the moment, more energized than the left on the healthcare issue. Morale is high, they feel that they're making an impact, changing peoples' minds, driving the debate, etc. They feel as though they're heading toward victory on this issue.

Only they're not. Sure, they've made CNN's poll show a drop in support of the President's proposal--of one percent. That's right, over the past month, with all the histronics, this is all they've accomplished. But Democrats are feeling queasy and remembering failed legislative battles past, two Democratic governorships up this year are in trouble, and the right seems to be marching forward.

I really think this strategy of dispatching mobs to break up town halls is going to backfire in a big way. Despite the Republican spin of how these are just typical, middle-class voters, it has historically been difficult to present shrieking mobs as the sensible center. I think that Steve Benen's account of two of these town halls is worth reading for some more perspective on the topic. If it makes people more hostile toward anti-reform forces, and convinces congresspeople that the main opponents of reform are literally nuts, I don't see how this helps Republicans at all. There are, of course, plenty of constructive ways the right could contribute to the debate--I think the employer mandate is misguided, for example--but it sets up the sort of reform vs. status quo conflict that the Administration has always wanted for this issue, and it gives Democrats lots of good opportunities to remind people of the nutter wing of the GOP. It is, in short, the best present the right could ever have given the left.

Right now the right is energized and the left is less so. But if healthcare passes, the tables will be turned because of the nature of victory as a morale-builder. And I do think it will pass. Making this into a partisan battle was perhaps inevitable, but since the Democrats hold most seats in both chambers, failing to pass a bill will be a much bigger disaster for the Democrats, no less so because it would embolden the Republicans agitating against it. My guess is that these protest tactics will not only harden Democrats' resolve to pass some significant reform, but they will also harden public opinion in favor of it. And my guess is that those two gubernatorial races won't be quite the blowouts that the GOP hopes they will be, with a newly-demoralized base to motivate.

Which group sounds more like the Nazis?

The ones who want to have a public debate, or the ones who want to shout it down:
On Tuesday, Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) held a press conference on the “cash for clunkers” program and was met by “dozens” of conservative protesters trying to drown him out. The protest was organized by the St. Louis Tea Party, whose Bill Hennessy told protesters the location, the time, and what to bring (”Sign ideas: Cash for Clunkers destroys old cars; ObamaCare destroys old people”).

Aside from the fact that I really don't think that this sort of stuff should be going on in a democracy, I think that this will wind up being a huge miscalculation on the right's part. By letting outside extremist groups handle these protests, they will get out of hand. The GOP has just given up control of their message to ruffians. They don't get that doing that is a boon to the other side. When caught between angry mobs and a more reasonable president, which side will the American people come down on? Just ask the McGovernites if you want an historical perspective on this.

Yes, Christmas has come early for the Democrats this year. Obama may have some deficiencies as a tactician, but one thing he does know how to do is to present himself as the reasonable alternative to wacko nutcases. And it's in motion now.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The teabaggers never prevail

John Boehner has the wrong idea:
"Back home for the August recess, rank-and-file Democratic Members of the House are facing a backlash from their constituents, who are already fed up with Washington's job-killing agenda and don't support Democrats' government takeover of health care," says a press release posted on Boehner's official blog.
The problem is that, in con game parlance, they cracked out of turn by letting the memo asking the teabaggers to do this stuff surface. Now Democrats are going to be able to dismiss them with ease. If anything, it will harden Democrats' resolve to pass something closer to what's being debated, as this sort of chicanery will only discredit more reasonable critics of the Democrats' plan by associating them in members' and the media's mind with teabag mobs. Then again, we've never seen anything to suggest that Boehner's venality encompassed any sort of tactical brilliance--unlike Tom DeLay, for example--so this is what you get.

In fact, just when I was thinking up this blog post, I noticed that this reaction is already happening. I realize that Republicans are desperate to stop Obama's health care policy from becoming law, but there are smarter ways of doing it.

Curing Douthat's blues

Ross Douthat has written his most fatuous op-ed yet. In fact, this particular op-ed almost sounds like Bill Kristol, his not-so-illustrious predecessor. Here's how he opens his argument:
"Meanwhile, California, long a paradise for regulators and public-sector unions, has become a fiscal disaster area."
Really? Regulation is too much of a problem? Conservative hackery run amok. Our current fiscal crisis in the country is the result on the one hand of insufficient regulation, and on the other of not enforcing what's on the books properly. Heck, even Alan Greenspan and Chris Cox, hard-core conservatives both, have admitted as much. I don't know what conservatism will look like going forward, but this particular brand of market triumphalism doesn't seem to have much of a future to me. We tried it their way, and the results cost a trillion bucks with nothing much to show for it. I know we're talking about different types of regulation here, but if he's going to argue in the abstract, then so am I.

And Ross doesn't know much about California politics either. I live here--lived in the State capital, no less--so I know what I'm talking about. I'm not going to defend California's public-sector unions, which are something of a problem even for progressives--but the reason why blue states are running bigger deficits would seem to me to be that they offer more services in general than red states--services that are being used more in a downturn than otherwise would be the case. The reason why only blue states are raising taxes is because decades of extreme anti-tax rhetoric from conservatives makes it impossible to raise them anywhere else, even to balance the budget. And the reason why Texas in particular is doing better economically than most states is because, like Wyoming, it relies heavily on energy production, which hasn't been very hard-hit by the recession. California, on the other hand, is a cherry-picked example because it is one of a handful of states that were ground zero of the real-estate bust, like Arizona (which Douthat mentions) and Florida (which he doesn't). Acting as though outliers illustrate a trend does not impress me.

A better explanation of the geographic effects of the recession (this Nate Silver post is helpful in outlining them) would be that a lot of Republican states in the South and Interior West tend to be involved in industries like agriculture (a la the Dakotas) and resource extraction (Wyoming, Texas, the Deep South) that haven't taken a pounding from the recession, while blue states tend to have more financial businesses and larger public sector employment because they, as previously mentioned, offer more services at a time when funds are tight. It all seems reasonable to me, looking at the data (though, admittedly, Nate's post is old). But if you're trying to make a point about how liberalism is somehow responsible for the current economic straits in which we find ourselves, you're going to need a stronger case than this.

I think this paragraph is incredibly oblivious to California's problems in particular:
But in state capital after state capital, the downturn has highlighted the weaknesses of liberal governance — the zeal for unsustainable social spending, the preference for regulation over job creation, the heavy reliance for tax revenue on the volatile incomes of the upper upper class.
California's unsustainable spending is largely due to the ease at putting pricey (and unpaid) ballot propositions to the people, as well as the customary downturn in revenue during a recession. But California's taxes are hardly progressive--the state income tax is flat at 10%, and we have a 7.75% sales tax that exempts food, plus large taxes on cigarettes and other assorted smaller taxes. The California tax system (if not the regulatory system) seems like the sort of system that conservatives would like. I'm not disputing that we liberals prefer a progressive taxation system, but that isn't what California's got. Our problems are of a completely different origin--mostly, people buying homes at exorbitant prices that they couldn't afford, aided by banks that weren't evaluating risk properly, ratings agencies that could be bought, financial frauds that found all the loopholes, etc. In other words, the housing bubble bursting was the major reason why we're so screwed up right now.

Much of the rest of the article is boilerplate Republican partisan attacks. And it's a shame. All in all, I miss the old Ross Douthat--you know, the one who talked openly about disliking Grover Norquist and that would put forward workable conservative proposals for policy reform instead of simpering, exaggerated NYT op-eds. What is it about that NYT slot?

Update: Benen is also worth reading on this:
We're in the midst of a major debate over health care policy, and Texas is anything but a "model citizen." It is easily the worst state in the nation for the uninsured, and stands to benefit greatly from the White House's "blue-state agenda." For that matter, its poverty rate is second only to Mississippi nationwide. If Texas is a "model citizen" for taxes and fiscal balance, it's also a disaster for those families who are struggling with less.

California is generally a reliable "blue" state, at least electorally, but to characterize it as "liberalism's favorite laboratory" strikes me as more than a little disingenuous. A variety of factors led to the state's condition as a "fiscal disaster area," but near the top of the list are the measures, pushed by the right and approved by voters, that severely restricted California's ability to raise more revenue.

Just reminds me that judging economic prosperity solely on deficits and taxes ignores a lot of other dimensions to the debate.

On profits and the healthcare system

One of my conservative friends brought this article to my attention. I find myself disagreeing with it from personal experience in the software business, and I decided to construct a thought experiment.

Let's say that I were to do some market research and figure out that the product that wasn't being provided that a lot of people wanted was a journal to write down all their experiences with their pets, and to share them with other peoples' experiences. So, I could register, put together a team of developers, write the software, and put it online. Let's say that it became a huge hit. People signed up in droves, profits soared, even to the point where we could take the company public and get a strong IPO. The company would be profitable because we would have offered a new service that wasn't available before.

This is all well and good, but in all likelihood the success wouldn't last long. Why? Because of the laws of supply and demand, of course! With a high demand for pet journals, others would naturally enter the market to try to steal some market share. Microsoft would step in with their product, Google would have a free pet journal, and countless lesser players would make their offerings. Even if I still had the best pet journal on the web, these other companies would inevitably grab some market share. And they would offer some new innovations based on their own research that improved the experience of pet journaling.

There's nothing wrong with this--in fact, it's a good thing, and one of capitalism's biggest selling points. Despite my skepticism of capitalism I'm sold on it being more responsive than other systems like full-on Marxism, with better outcomes in general and particular. But the computer industry is a good example of capitalism's virtues, as it's highly competitive, with relatively small barriers to entry. Companies operate on fairly small margins of profit. Dell, for example, runs on a 4.7% profit margin. I think it's safe to say that the conservative case that competition breeds advancement is correct in the case of the computer industry--just check out computer games from ten years ago and compare them to ones now to see my point.

But the insurance industry isn't like that. There aren't dozens of insurance companies in every state, coming up with great new ways of cutting costs while providing more care. As this old post from Political Animal tells us, it's usually one or two insurers that control the market in a state:
The report, released by Health Care for America Now (HCAN), uses data compiled by the American Medical Association to show that 94 percent of the country's insurance markets are defined as "highly concentrated," according to Justice Department guidelines. [snip]

Specifically, the Justice Department considers a marketplace "highly concentrated" if a company's market share tops 42%. HCAN found 10 states in which one or two companies control 80% or more of the market. In Alabama, home to Sen. Richard Shelby (R), one of the strongest opponents of reform, Blue Cross Blue Shield controls 83% of the statewide market.
Now, to be fair, this doesn't necessarily demand a public insurance plan, or any particular model of reform. Presumably, the Sherman Antitrust Act could be used to break up some of these mammoth insurance companies. But this is why the notion that America's current healthcare system is better because there's "competition" is spurious. There isn't much competition. It's a patchwork of regional private single-payer systems, a.k.a. the worst of all possible worlds, and these companies use their clout and money to distort the marketplace and keep their profits high. A company starting up and getting high profits is great. A company sustaining high profits year after year is usually an indicator that something is wrong, in my experience, Microsoft being an example of this trend as well. If your theory is that competition improves the quality of everything (and insurance in particular), then the current system is probably the worst kind of system there is. And if you're like me, and you think that private insurance is essentially inferior and that getting rid of it altogether is preferable to the status quo (while not going whole-hog like Britain and putting hospitals and doctors under governmetn control), then the system is nearly as bad. I am, of course, open to something like Wyden-Bennett that would combine a lot of the benefits of both approaches, but I don't think it would work politically and I think that the Republican support for that option is illusory. A lot of Republicans support the bill because it's a comprehensive health care solution that isn't the President's plan--if it became the President's plan, they'd find something else.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.