December 17, 2009

more health care links

A pair of articles which make similar points:

1. David Leonhardt in the NYT:

Greg Woock is the chief executive of Pinger, a fast-growing Silicon Valley company that makes iPhone applications. So Mr. Woock spends a fair amount of time interviewing job applicants. In almost every interview, he told me recently, the applicant asks about Pinger's health insurance plan...

In the cradle of American innovation, workers are making career choices based on co-payments, pre-existing conditions and other minutiae of health insurance. They are not necessarily making decisions based on what would be best for their careers and, in turn, for the American economy -- that is, "where their skills match and where they can grow the most," as another Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Cyriac Roeding, says. Health insurance, Mr. Roeding adds, "is distorting the decision-making."

2. Matt Welch at Reason:

Since 1986 I've missed exactly three days of work due to illness. I don't smoke, I don't (usually) do drugs or drink to excess, and I eat a pretty healthy diet. I have some back pain now and then from a protruding disc, but nothing too serious. And from 1998 to 2001, when I was a freelancer in the world's capital of freelancers (Los Angeles), I couldn't get health insurance... One of the main attractions of moving from freelance status to a full-time job was the ability to affix a stable price on my health insurance.

This is the exact opposite of the direction in which we should be traveling in a global just-in-time economy, with its ideal of entrepreneurial workers breaking free of corporate command and zipping creatively from project to project. Don't even get me started on the Kafkaesque ordeal of switching jobs without taking any time off, yet going uncovered by anything except COBRA for nearly two months even though both employers used the same health insurance provider. That incident alone cost me thousands of dollars I wouldn't have paid if I had controlled my own insurance policy.

Since my wife is currently locked into her job because we can't afford to lose the insurance coverage it provides (which is considerably cheaper than that which we'd have if we had to go on the plan offered by my employer), I'm acutely aware of the distorting effects of our health care system on the actions of healthy Americans (which is to say nothing of the myriad of problems presented for the sick). Of course, whether the Senate and House health care bills would seriously contribute to solving this problem is an entirely separate matter, though Leonhardt seems relatively optimistic about it. I'm less convinced, for roughly these reasons.

November 29, 2009

exactly right, part two

You might think (quite reasonably) that a post entitled "How Glenn Beck Can Save the Right" would be horrendous and error-strewn, but you'd be wrong, at least in the case of this post by E.D. Kain:

As the Obama administration pushes its expensive healthcare reform agenda, tackles global warming head-on (sort of), and moves forward with its various stimulus projects and bailouts, the president also took the time to sign into law the most expensive defense budget since World War II...

All told, [the budget is] $855.8 billion dollars - approximately $8 billion more than the Senate healthcare bill would cost Americans in ten years. And this is the defense budget for fiscal year 2010 alone. If we only pay this much for the next ten years, Americans will have spent nearly $9 trillion on defense in a decade - or just over $8 trillion dollars more than we'll spend if we pass healthcare reform.

This is a symptom of empire-building. America is not imperial in the traditional sense, of course. We are not colonists. We have little interest in actually conquering territory. But we do have an overabundance of faith in the ability of our military to insure our security and our economic interests across the globe. Our military foots the bill for the defense of Europe and our Asian allies, allowing those countries to spend their own tax revenues on lavish safety nets and top-notch education programs. Meanwhile, Americans pay for Leviathan. Or at least the Leviathan with the guns.

I refer you back to this visualization.

exactly right, part one

Conor Friedersdorf on an inherent contradiction in Andy McCarthy's recent complaint about the ICC:

Though I can understand why [the ICC's claim to jurisdiction over American actions in Afghanistan] would trouble Mr. McCarthy, who presumably wants powerful international actors to be legitimate and accountable to the populations subject to its coercive power, it is difficult to square with his simultaneous belief that the United States has "jurisdiction" to snatch up anyone in any country on earth, fly them to Gitmo, present no evidence that they are guilty of anything, and hold them until the threat of international terrorism is gone, which is to say, forever.

[Apologies for quoting almost the entire post, but it's a short one]

October 19, 2009

the pitchforks would be out, con't

Along these lines, I hope you enjoy this weekend's New York Times article on a "new era of Wall Street wealth":

Even as the economy continues to struggle, much of Wall Street is minting money -- and looking forward again to hefty bonuses.

Many Americans wonder how this can possibly be. How can some banks be prospering so soon after a financial collapse, even as legions of people worry about losing their jobs and their homes?

It may come as a surprise that one of the most powerful forces driving the resurgence on Wall Street is not the banks but Washington. Many of the steps that policy makers took last year to stabilize the financial system -- reducing interest rates to near zero, bolstering big banks with taxpayer money, guaranteeing billions of dollars of financial institutions' debts -- helped set the stage for this new era of Wall Street wealth.

Titans like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase are making fortunes in hot areas like trading stocks and bonds, rather than in the ho-hum business of lending people money. They also are profiting by taking risks that weaker rivals are unable or unwilling to shoulder -- a benefit of less competition after the failure of some investment firms last year.

[via Glenn Greenwald]

October 2, 2009

mid-afternoon friday politics, snarkily

1. Ahem. This is your government at work:

"There is nothing against you. But there is no innocent person here. So, you should confess to something so you can be charged and sentenced and serve your sentence and then go back to your family and country, because you will not leave this place innocent." - Senior Interrogator at Guantanamo, to Fouad al-Rabiah, Kuwaiti businessman captured in Afghanistan after entering the country to engage in humanitarian work before the US invasion

2. The gerontocracy continues to claw its way forward. Don't worry, though! It's bipartisan. Ok, panic.

3. Juan Cole presents the top ten things which most Americans believe about Iran which are wrong, such as:

Belief: Isn't the Iranian regime irrational and crazed, so that a doctrine of mutally assured destruction just would not work with them?

Reality: Iranian politicians are rational actors. If they were madmen, why haven't they invaded any of their neighbors? Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded both Iran and Kuwait. Israel invaded its neighbors more than once. In contrast, Iran has not started any wars. Demonizing people by calling them unbalanced is an old propaganda trick. The U.S. elite was once unalterably opposed to China having nuclear science because they believed the Chinese are intrinsically irrational. This kind of talk is a form of racism.

america's next great pundit

Ezra Klein endorses Jim Henley for the Washington Post's (absurd) "America's Next Great Pundit" contest (the winner receives two hundred dollars per column! a princely sum!). From Henley's entry, which can be found here:

There's been much discussion lately about whether to pursue a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan, or a more limited counterterrorism strategy. It's important for the ordinary American to have an understanding of the difference, and to understand why it takes more troops and costs more money to pursue counterinsurgency.

In a counterinsurgency strategy, America hangs around a foreign country for years and years, occasionally killing people who live there, while pretending it's for their own good. This takes a lot of people because the military, and the civilian parts of the government that control the military, are very specialized. You need people to do the hanging around, people to do the occasional killing of people that live there, and even more people to do the pretending. As you might imagine, pretending to foreigners that killing them is for their own good is hard! Not just anyone can pull that off with a straight face, and you need a lot of people who can. Remember how upset people got at those town halls over the summer? That was for "death panels" that didn't even exist. Now imagine that you actually are occasionally killing people's neighbors! Basically, you have to hold an awful lot of town halls.

I think Henley's got a good shot at winning, and will no doubt receive a warm welcome from the Krauthammer, who's never met a war he didn't want to start or a policy decision that wasn't easily decided by reference to the Munich Agreement (I thought that might be too harsh, but then I made the mistake of visiting his recent archives and reading his latest column, which conveniently ignores the actual results).

September 25, 2009

job lock

Jon Gruber explains the phenomenon of "job lock", which I think is not discussed nearly enough in the health care debate, maybe because it doesn't fit neatly into existing narratives (i.e. a dichotomy between what is valued by the individual health care consumer and what is valued by the free market):

..."job lock" [is] a term coined during the last round of debate over universal health coverage in the early 1990s. Job lock refers to the fact that workers are often unwilling to leave a current job that provides health insurance for another position that might not, even if they would be more productive in that other position. This is because employer-provided insurance is traditionally the only reliable form of fairly priced private insurance coverage available in the U.S. The alternative is to purchase insurance in the nongroup market, where insurance prices and availability are typically not regulated, so insurance companies can drop individuals when they become ill or charge them exorbitant prices. As a result, individuals feel "locked" into less productive jobs...

Job lock is a serious problem for our society, because one of the bedrocks of our long-term economic success is our fluid labor markets compared to other nations, like France and Germany, that make it expensive and administratively burdensome to hire new employees or to fire unproductive ones. Job lock diminishes our international advantage in this area, since other nations with universal health insurance coverage do not have this problem. In addition, individuals will be less happy and less productive in positions that they would prefer to leave but for the loss of insurance. Employers will lose, because the workers they retain through job lock are those who value insurance the most, not necessarily those who are the best long-term fit for the company.

[via Ezra Klein]

September 24, 2009

poulos on beck

Prompted by Nate Silver's (inaccurate) characterization of Glenn Beck as a "post-modern conservative", based upon, I think, the belief that anyone who has a slippery and unstable set of convictions must be post-modern, and vice-versa, a belief which is one of the leading indicators that one is not even a hyper-modernist, but an unreconstructed modernist, James Poulos talks briefly about the difference between Beck and post-modern conservativism, which leads him to this excellent encapsulation of the problem with Glenn Beck:

A word about Glenn Beck. Glenn Beck is the worst. But why? Not so much because of who he distrusts or why. From where I'm standing, Beck is so awful because he theatrically combines and conflates performances of ultimate sincerity with performances of ultimate sarcasm. I think this is a telltale sign of a soul disordered by a confusion of love, power, and resentment. It becomes impossible, in such a person, to tell quite where their selfless solidarity, their egotism, and their hatred borne of weakness begin or end. And the titillating quality of this unstable charisma is precisely what they latch onto and exploit to become less a famous person than a famous happening. Their individual being becomes incidental to the phenomenon they represent. They actually corrode or dissolve their own identity in order to experience some hugeness that seems impossible to experience as a normal, integral human being.

September 23, 2009

h.r. 3571

If this analysis is right, prepare to see H.R. 3571 (the "Defund ACORN Act") disappear very quickly and very quietly. Which isn't particularly interesting for what it says about ACORN (the "few bad apples" argument is not particularly persuasive to me, as the point of having management is, among other things, to have someone be responsible for the whole, including the individual parts), but for what a quick and quiet disappearance would say (hint: its not particularly flattering to either party).

September 16, 2009

except when it isn't

Glenn Greenwald (rightly) hammers the Washington Post for their hypocritical condemnation of Iranian human rights violations:

I wonder what we should specifically say about that? Should we demand prosecutions for the Iranian officials responsible for the abuses? What would we say if the Iranians replied that they are facing serious economic issues (as they are) and can't be distracted with such divisive fights, that they don't want to criminalize policy differences, that they want to heal their internal tensions rather than inflame them with divisive investigations, and that they want to look forward, not backward by re-litigating past conflicts? Or maybe we should demand that Iran allow the torture victims to sue in court to obtain compensation and compelled disclosure of what was done to them? What would we say if the Iranians replied that how they run their prison system and how they formulated responses to internal rebellions are state secrets which cannot be revealed by courts without jeopardizing their security and that, under Iranian law, government officials enjoy immunity for any official acts they ordered, even if those acts constitute severe human rights violations? Or maybe the Iranians can produce some internal memos from some of their lawyer-underlings which conclude that the threats posed to their security by these street protests -- as well as the threats of attack coming from more powerful, nuclear-armed countries -- justified the harsh techniques that were used on prisoners (they could even cite a Washington Post Editorial in support of that immunity theory). What would we say about that?

September 15, 2009

a few thoughts on capitalism

1. From Luigi Zingales' article in National Affairs, "Capitalism After the Crisis":

"Capitalism has long enjoyed exceptionally strong public support in the United States because America's form of capitalism has long been distinct from those found elsewhere in the world -- particularly because of its uniquely open and free market system. Capitalism calls not only for freedom of enterprise, but for rules and policies that allow for freedom of entry, that facilitate access to financial resources for newcomers, and that maintain a level playing field among competitors. The United States has generally come closest to this ideal combination -- which is no small feat, since economic pressures and incentives do not naturally point to such a balance of policies. While everyone benefits from a free and competitive market, no one in particular makes huge profits from keeping the system competitive and the playing field level. True capitalism lacks a strong lobby.

That assertion might appear strange in light of the billions of dollars firms spend lobbying Congress in America, but that is exactly the point. Most lobbying seeks to tilt the playing field in one direction or another, not to level it. Most lobbying is pro-business, in the sense that it promotes the interests of existing businesses, not pro-market in the sense of fostering truly free and open competition. Open competition forces established firms to prove their competence again and again; strong successful market players therefore often use their muscle to restrict such competition, and to strengthen their positions. As a result, serious tensions emerge between a pro-market agenda and a pro-business one, though American capitalism has always managed this tension far better than most."

I'd add that my perception is that the neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are, on the whole, particularly pro-market in this sense. The Republicans are certainly more strongly pro-business, but I'm not convinced that there is any strong difference in level of support for a pro-market agenda between mainstream Republicans and mainstream Democrats (neither, for example, would be interested in abolishing destructive agricultural subsidies or in exposing and confronting the absurd influence of our Wall Street oligarchy over the levers of power).

2. Jonathan Chait on the rise of Randian thought, which is disturbing to me, because Objectivism is basically the worst ethical philosophy ever seriously proposed:

In these disparate comments we can see the outlines of a coherent view of society. It expresses its opposition to redistribution not in practical terms--that taking from the rich harms the economy--but in moral absolutes, that taking from the rich is wrong. It likewise glorifies selfishness as a virtue. It denies any basis, other than raw force, for using government to reduce economic inequality. It holds people completely responsible for their own success or failure, and thus concludes that when government helps the disadvantaged, it consequently punishes virtue and rewards sloth. And it indulges the hopeful prospect that the rich will revolt against their ill treatment by going on strike, simultaneously punishing the inferiors who have exploited them while teaching them the folly of their ways."

Producers, leeches, et cetera. Way to dehumanize the Other. McSweeney's "Atlas Shrugged Updated for the Current Financial Crisis" remains the definitive deconstruction.

3. Simon Johnson's article in the Atlantic, which explains how the financial crisis stems from the capture of the policy-making apparatus in Washington by the financial industry (Johnson was the chief economist at the IMF from 2007 to 2008). No one, as I mentioned above, is doing anything about this:

"In its depth and suddenness, the U.S. economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets (and only in emerging markets): South Korea (1997), Malaysia (1998), Russia and Argentina (time and again). In each of those cases, global investors, afraid that the country or its financial sector wouldn't be able to pay off mountainous debt, suddenly stopped lending. And in each case, that fear became self-fulfilling, as banks that couldn't roll over their debt did, in fact, become unable to pay. This is precisely what drove Lehman Brothers into bankruptcy on September 15, causing all sources of funding to the U.S. financial sector to dry up overnight. Just as in emerging-market crises, the weakness in the banking system has quickly rippled out into the rest of the economy, causing a severe economic contraction and hardship for millions of people.

But there's a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests--financiers, in the case of the U.S.--played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

Top investment bankers and government officials like to lay the blame for the current crisis on the lowering of U.S. interest rates after the dotcom bust or, even better--in a "buck stops somewhere else" sort of way--on the flow of savings out of China. Some on the right like to complain about Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or even about longer-standing efforts to promote broader homeownership. And, of course, it is axiomatic to everyone that the regulators responsible for "safety and soundness" were fast asleep at the wheel.

But these various policies--lightweight regulation, cheap money, the unwritten Chinese-American economic alliance, the promotion of homeownership--had something in common. Even though some are traditionally associated with Democrats and some with Republicans, they all benefited the financial sector. Policy changes that might have forestalled the crisis but would have limited the financial sector's profits--such as Brooksley Born's now-famous attempts to regulate credit-default swaps at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, in 1998--were ignored or swept aside."

4. After reading Johnson's article, you won't be particularly surprised to read this article in the New York Times from last week, on how little has changed in the past year on Wall Street:

"Backstopped by huge federal guarantees, the biggest banks have restructured only around the edges. Employment in the industry has fallen just 8 percent since last September. Only a handful of big hedge funds have closed. Pay is already returning to precrash levels, topped by the 30,000 employees of Goldman Sachs, who are on track to earn an average of $700,000 this year. Nor are major pay cuts likely, according to a report last week from J.P. Morgan Securities. Executives at most big banks have kept their jobs. Financial stocks have soared since their winter lows."

If the populists in this country weren't also greedy complicit assholes (completely serious about that), the pitchforks would be out.

September 10, 2009

August 20, 2009

on health care

1. Read Glenn Greenwald on how the interaction between the White House and Congress reveals the capture of government by corporate interests.

2. Along similar lines, see also this piece by Jane Hamsher at firedoglake:

People make a mistake when they think the battle for health care reform is about ideology, because it's not. It's about who controls K Street and the cash that flows from it, which could fund a 2010 GOP resurgenece -- or not.

[Now that the cynicism is out of the way, on to the what-should-be-done-and-why portion.]

3. Reihan Salam on the Singapore model, which, oversimplified, is "a mix of mandatory savings and universal catastrophic coverage". This option is extremely attractive to me, provided that it includes health care (not just insurance) subsidies below a certain level (to encourage the use of primary care and preventative treatment, rather than reliance on intervention at points of catastrophe).

It is also worth noting the point Reihan makes in the same article and which Ross Douthat made in a recent Times column, which is that "defending the status quo is attractive [note: so long as attractive is defined as "politcally advantageous"] in the short term, but it will cause serious problems in the long term". This is correct, and why it is so disappointing to see Republicans (who at least notionally still cling to the idea that they are 'conservative' in some sense other than 'interested in conserving our base of political support') refusing to entertain the notion that health care spending must have limits and pretending that sensible cost-saving measures are a bad thing. Theoretically, it ought to be conservatives who do a better job of recognizing the inability of society to provide everything for everyone, but basic principle seems to have fallen victim to the "we-can-get-the-votes-of-the-gerotocracy-by-scaring-them-about-government-fingers-prying-around-in-medicare" principle. (A controversial opinion: we are teetering towards "government for the aged and by the aged", and this is not a good thing, because the aged, particularly the cynical aged, the utilitarian aged, and the cynically utilitarian aged, have little stake in the future. And I say this as someone who believes that one of the most fundamental pairs of problems in current American culture is (a) an obsession with youth and (b) a lack of respect for the value of age.)

4. There are already bureaucrats standing between me and my healthcare; they're not government bureaucrats and I don't get thrilled about a possibility of an NIH-style bureaucracy, but its not because I operate under the delusion that my insurance company isn't capable of going Kafka when provoked.

This is why "attractive in the short term" (see above) can only be construed as correct if attractive is defined as "politically advantageous" because the current situation is completely untenable. Props to Rod Dreher for recognizing this. From an interview with a former top insurance executive which Dreher quotes:

"Guernica: So in other words, corporate bureaucrats have a profit incentive to deny care to people who are enrolled in their plans.

Wendell Potter: Absolutely. It doesn't have to be stated directly to them that you will be paid a particular bonus if you deny X number of claims; it's known, and it's part of the culture."

Anyone debating health care reform who does not acknowledge this is either (a) being disingenuious or (b) shockingly ill-informed (though, to be fair, lots of people are shockingly ill-informed, so maybe its not really that shocking).

5. Also props to Barney Frank, which is not something I say often. Or ever.

6. Julian Sanchez wants his death panels:

"I don't have particularly strong views either way about health care reform, but it's depressing that the one part of the Obama plan that seemed like an obviously, unambiguously good idea has become a casualty of the requirement that all political disagreement be cast as a war between good and evil. There are not a whole lot of free lunches to be found in the attempt to control health care costs, but encouraging doctors to discuss end-of-life care with patients in advance is one of them. That's because studies indicate that having those conversations usually leads people to make better decisions than having to suddenly figure out what to do when the end inevitably approaches: The advance planners have outcomes just as good as those who don't--they live just as long, and usually are more comfortable at the end--but their costs are 36 percent lower because they don't end up opting for a lot of desperate and futile "heroic interventions" at the end. So: lower cost, same lifespan, patient still in the driver's seat? If Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin had proposed this, it would be hailed as a brilliant, choice-centered innovation. Oh, wait, they did both propose it."

While I think utilitarianism is an extremely problematic philosophy and responsible for a number of current societal ills (no, I do not care to defend this claim at the moment), but I think he's right about this, as alluded to in the second paragraph of 3 above.

7. A more intelligent health care debate (a more useful health care debate) would be about the sorts of things John Schwenkler and his commentator Grant talk about, discussing David Goldhill's article on health care reform in the most recent Atlantic. The distinction between health care reform and health insurance reform is vital, as is the succinct explanation Grant provides of the inverted priorities of a private health insurance provider:

"I'm in the business of selling health insurance. Who do I want as my customer? Someone who consumes LOTS of health insurance, or someone who never uses the stuff? You know the answer as well as I do. you want to sell policies to people who will walk away and never, EVER use them. that would be great for you. Barring that ideal situation, people who use them as little as possible are people you like to see writing you premium checks.

The profit motive is BACKWARDS in the insurance industry. Other businesses in the free market (like, food sellers) are motivated to direct significant effort towards serving the elements of society with the greatest need for their product because that's where the greatest profit is. so they make their profit, society gets it's needs met, and everything works relatively well.

Insurance providers however want to do the OPPOSITE. They don't want to sell insurance to the people in society who need it most, those people COST them money as customers. So they spend significant time and energy *avoiding* meeting the greatest needs of society in their business sector by throwing up every barrier they can think of to keep from having to give insurance to people they think will actually use it heavily. If they think you fall in that category they jack the prices up to prohibitive levels, cut the level of coverage you're able to secure as far as they can manage citing "pre-existing conditions" or other nebulous risk factors they identify, etc... and why wouldn't they? They're just doing what makes obvious business sense.

And that's the problem. Because what makes obvious business sense for the insurance industry is *bad news* for the society it operates in."

Between the two, you have a nice explanation of why I think we ought to get private companies out of the health insurance business and get health insurance out of the health care business. Theoretically, conservatives and liberals could agree on this. (If you're cynical, you think they won't because of the same reasons Greenwald and Hamsher do. I'm cynical.) How you draw the line between health insurance (a government program) and health care (care over and above both (a) a minimal standard of preventative care for the poor and (b) catastrophic care paid for by gov't insurance, paid for by consumers, likely out of tax-free health savings accounts) then decides whether one prefers a more right-wing or more left-wing solution.

8. More on the Singapore model from the AEI (which, you should note, is not exactly a non-partisan entity).

9. Finally, a fantastic post from Chris Dierkes at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, on how Baudrillard explains the health care debate (meta).

August 3, 2009

July 31, 2009

when you tolerate torture as official government policy

You get this (a slippery slope) and this:

Why was Mohammad Jawad tortured? Why did military officials choose a teenage boy who had attempted suicide in his cell less than 5 months earlier to be the subject of this sadistic sleep deprivation experiment? Not that anything would justify such treatment, of course, but at least in the case of the other detainees known to have been subjected to sleep deprivation, they were believed to possess critical intelligence that might save American lives.

Unfortunately, we may never know. I've asked to speak to the guards who actually carried out the program, and I've been denied. In the absence of information to the contrary, which the government would surely provide if it existed, we are left to conclude that it was simply gratuitous cruelty.

The government admits that Mohammad Jawad was treated "improperly," but offers no remedy. We won't use any evidence derived from this maltreatment, they say, but they know that there was no evidence derived from it because the government didn't even bother to interrogate him after they tortured him. Exclusion of non-existent evidence is not a remedy. Dismissal is a severe sanction, but it is the only sanction that might conceivably deter such conduct in the future.

February 7, 2002. America lost a little of its greatness that day. We lost our position as the world's leading defender of human rights, as the champion of justice and fairness and the rule of law. But it is a testament to the continuing greatness of this nation, that I, a lowly Air Force Reserve Major, can stand here before you today, with the world watching, without fear of retribution, retaliation or reprisal, and speak truth to power. I can call a spade a spade, and I can call torture, torture.

...Sadly, this military commission has no power to do anything to the enablers of torture such as John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Robert Delahunty, Alberto Gonzales, Douglas Feith, David Addington, William Haynes, Vice President Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, for the jurisdiction of military commissions is strictly and carefully limited to foreign war criminals, not the home-grown variety.

- Major David J. R. Frakt

Whether or not there is a utilitarian case for the utility of torturing (though (a) I don't believe that there is and (b) I don't subscribe to a utilitarian ethic in any case), I hope we can all agree that torturing twelve year old boys and then detaining them for seven years is a very, very bad thing. And if we're honest, we'll admit that these cases are the unavoidable result of a government policy that permits and endorses torture.

July 14, 2009

restricting antibiotic use

What Megan McArdle said:

Cheap meat is not worth having your kiddie of an antibiotic-resistant infection. Farmers use these things indiscriminately because it allows them to pack the animals into filthy conditions that would otherwise make the animals very, very sick.

Obviously, for someone like me who is basically opposed to factory farming, the tradeoff seems even less compelling than for someone who likes to pack in a Tyson's chicken every other day. But even if you're a big fan of treating animals like widgets, I don't see any way that somewhat cheaper meat is worth the risk of returning to an era when the president's son could die of an infected blister he picked up playing tennis. It is possible to have a perfectly rich and fulfilling life without eating most of a pound of meat every day. On the other hand, the world pre-antibiotics really was visibly much grimmer.

Incidentally, the representative who proposed the measure to restrict the use of antibiotics is Congresswoman Slaughter; no idea whether she's kin to Sergeant Slaughter or not.

metablog

This is going to be quite entertaining, in the same way that I occasionally enjoy a stop at Robert Stacy McCain's place or the Corner followed by a chat with Stephen on the found inanities, but much easier, because the commentary is already provided:

Ace of Spades HQ began in 2004. Its eponymous blogger, Ace, started the site for three reasons: he wanted to inject his views about American foreign policy into the media, he desired a vanity project, and he sought an outlet for his spite.

His blog is a success on all counts.

On an average weekday, it isn't unusual for it to attract 80,000 visits. Fans site his sarcasm and humor as draws. Introducing Ace as the 2008 Blogger of the Year at CPAC, an annual conference attended by movement conservatives, the presenter described him as a man of colorful language who isn't afraid to take note and take names, saying that Ace "describes himself as being hard right, with a left-leaning sense of decorum and taste, meaning he has none at all."

...

Atop the banner on Ace's site is the motto, "Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting floats." Shtick? It's hard to say. In the circles of the Blogosphere where Ace writes, there is this weird idea that battle analogies map onto public discourse. So there is little doubt, for example, that Ace thinks he is doing the rhetorical equivalent of slitting throats. The problem is that this makes no sense at all. In piratical battle if you slit someone's throat you kill him, and take one step closer to vanquishing the opposing ship. There is no parallel in the world of political conversation, where success is to persuade, not to vanquish.

This week, I'll be posting each day on Ace of Spades HQ, delving deeper into its mysteries.

(Astute readers, or at least the three of you who bother to click on the links I provide you with, will note that the quoted passage is from Friedersdorf's previous post, which introduces the target of metacommentary, rather than the linked post, which is the beginning of said commentary.)

June 23, 2009

on political analysis

Conor Friedersdorf continues his lonely battle against extreme political rhetoric at the temporary Atlantic Ideas blog; I summarize that post, which I endorse, as saying:

When you make an argument about hidden motivations that (a) lacks external evidence and (b) conveniently coincides with your existing biases, then it is more likely that the argument and your conclusions are attractive to you because they confirm your biases than that the argument is correct. This has less to do with the specifics of the cases quoted and more to do with a general rule about examining one's own motivations.

May 13, 2009

absolutely. would you like my poetry?

I'll admit that I thought it was a bit of a joke that Minnesota elected a professional wrestler as governor, but it does seem that he has the tendency to speak his mind plainly, which seems like a simple thing, yet eludes the vast majority of the political class:

"VENTURA: No, I live in Mexico now, Larry. So I do a lot of reading. I don't watch much TV. This year's reading, I covered Bush's life. I covered Guantanamo and a few other subjects. And I'm very disturbed about it.

I'm bothered over Guantanamo because it seems we have created our own Hanoi Hilton. We can live with that? I have a problem. I will criticize President Obama on this level; it's a good thing I'm not president because I would prosecute every person that was involved in that torture. I would prosecute the people that did it. I would prosecute the people that ordered it. Because torture is against the law.

KING: You were a Navy SEAL.

VENTURA: That's right. I was water boarded, so I know -- at SERE School, Survival Escape Resistance Evasion. It was a required school you had to go to prior to going into the combat zone, which in my era was Vietnam. All of us had to go there. We were all, in essence -- every one of us was water boarded. It is torture.

KING: What was it like?

VENTURA: It's drowning. It gives you the complete sensation that you are drowning. It is no good, because you -- I'll put it to you this way, you give me a water board, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders.

KING: Even though you know it's not going to happen -- even though before it, you know you're not going to drown.

VENTURA: You don't know it. If it's -- if it's done wrong, you certainly could drown. You could swallow your tongue. You could do a whole bunch of stuff. If it's it done wrong or -- it's torture, Larry. It's torture."

Later in the interview, King asks Ventura, "Is it true that once a SEAL, always a SEAL?". Ventura responds, "Absolutely. Would you like my poetry?" Which seems nonsensical, but makes sense if you finish the transcript.

May 8, 2009

March 26, 2009

on solitary confinement

Atul Gawande's piece in the New Yorker on solitary confinement (via Ross Douthat and Ta-Nehisi Coates) caused me to question something (the morality of that punishment) which I had never questioned before, and so I highly recommend reading it. Perhaps the single thing which stuck most with me, concerned as I am with the question of whether the human experience is essentially similar or dissimilar over the course of history, was the revelation that the widespread and long-term use of solitary confinement in America is a practice that is essentially contained to the past twenty or so years. The piece builds, though, to a very important argument, which is not so much about our policies as it about how our policies reveal us. I am extremely sympathetic to this argument, because it extends my concerns about the moral and pragmatic futility of torture:

This past year, both the Republican and the Democratic Presidential candidates came out firmly for banning torture and closing the facility in Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds of prisoners have been held in years-long isolation. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain, however, addressed the question of whether prolonged solitary confinement is torture. For a Presidential candidate, no less than for the prison commissioner, this would have been political suicide. The simple truth is that public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it. This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America's moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement--on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door.

March 20, 2009

when you eat factory-farmed pork, you ride with mrsa

Nicholas Kristof:

Unlike Europe and even South Korea, the United States still bows to agribusiness interests by permitting the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed. That's unconscionable.

The peer-reviewed Medical Clinics of North America concluded last year that antibiotics in livestock feed were "a major component" in the rise in antibiotic resistance. The article said that more antibiotics were fed to animals in North Carolina alone than were administered to the nation's entire human population.

"We don't give antibiotics to healthy humans," said Robert Martin, who led a Pew Commission on industrial farming that examined antibiotic use. "So why give them to healthy animals just so we can keep them in crowded and unsanitary conditions?"

The answer is simple: politics.

March 5, 2009

visual display of quantified incarceration

prison-blocks.jpg
[detail from "Prison Block" in The Atlantic Monthly]

Nationwide, an estimated two-thirds of the people who leave prison are rearrested within three years. A disproportionate number of them come from a few urban neighborhoods in big cities. Many states spend more than $1 million a year to incarcerate the residents of single blocks or small neighborhoods.

One such "million-dollar neighborhood" is shown above--a half-square-mile portion of Central City, an impoverished district southwest of the French Quarter. In 2007, 55 people from this neighborhood entered prison; the cost of their incarceration will likely reach about $2 million.

The perpetual migration between prison and a few predictable neighborhoods is not only costly--it also destabilizes community life. Some New Orleans officials and community groups are now using prison-admission maps like these to explore new investments--block by block--in the social infrastructure of these damaged neighborhoods. Plenty of money is already being spent on these neighborhoods, in the form of policing and prison costs; the hope is that by spending more money in them, in a highly targeted fashion, the release-and-return-to-prison cycle can eventually be broken.

February 19, 2009

interlude

I try to avoid commenting too much on politics, as I consider it a peculiarly unproductive endeavour (though not unimportant, if its possible to hold both those things at once), but I think this post from Ryan Avent slips right between politics and economics (a subject which I am even more ignorant of) to land on top of something I am very much concerned with, infrastructure. And so I will quote, approvingly, most of the post:

"These rescues are manifestly not about saving jobs with long-term viability. They're about protecting a certain institutional arrangement, and it's not clear why that should be a priority.

Even if we accept that the Rust Belt should be singled out for special assistance, it absolutely doesn't follow that that assistance should come in the form of massive government loans to the Big Three (or two, as the case may be). It would be far, far better to invest money in Rust Belt infrastructure, in early retirement assistance for older workers, and in re-training for younger workers. Just give them a salary and send them to school; that would be better than paying them to sit around and not make cars, and much better (given existing inventories) than paying them to sit around and make cars.

If, at the end of the day, there's still room for a thriving domestic auto industry, then it's difficult to see how better educated workers with better infrastructure, and reorganized firms free, thanks to bankruptcy, from their current burdensome obligations, would do anything but help relaunch the sector on a stronger footing.

But seriously, if we're going to throw money down this hole, we simply must add the condition that the Big Three immediately cease their lobbying against stronger environmental rules. It's bad enough to have one's money going toward production of the Chevy Cobalt; it's worse still to have it used to fight climate legislation.

I would also question the wisdom of dropping (another) double-digit-billions-sum on a subsidy for the car manufacturers least able/willing to adapt to the future while touting a smaller sum as an unprecedented commitment to high speed rail (which, sadly, it is).

January 22, 2009

it is hard for me to describe how much i am pleased by this

This more than makes up for the gutting of rail and other infrastructure from the stimulus bill (though that is still a major disappointment):

Saying that "our ideals give us the strength and moral high ground" to combat terrorism, President Obama signed executive orders Thursday effectively ending the Central Intelligence Agency's secret interrogation program, directing the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp within a year and setting up a sweeping, high-level review of the best way to hold and question terrorist suspects in the future.

...

One of Mr. Obama's orders requires the C.I.A. to use only the 19 interrogation methods outlined in the Army Field Manual, ending President Bush's policy of permitting the agency to use some secret methods that went beyond those allowed to the military.

"We believe we can abide by a rule that says we don't torture, but we can effectively obtain the intelligence we need," Mr. Obama said.

January 16, 2009

poulos perfectly encapsulates my reading of michael gerson

As it says in the title:

Here's Michael Gerson in his own nutshell, a nutshell neither I nor any other American should ever want a part of:

a union of idealism and of shared suffering

That's it, folks. Heaven forfend we share in our strengths and our skills as we hammer out coalitions of practical interests! The creepy and oppressive desire of Gerson and his ilk to ensure that we're all sharing one another's suffering is a grotesque and theatrical crucifixion of politics. How are we to determine, I ask you, whether a citizen is adequately sharing in the general suffering? How precisely are we to measure patriotism in units of helpy heroism? Taxes paid? Lip service paid? In histrionics? In doomed crusades? In pity by the gallon? How troubling it is that Gerson's celebration of our overcoming of slavery can only be conducted under the psychologically socialistic command that we must feel, really feel the suffering of others, of all the suffering others!

[at the Confabulam]

December 2, 2008

foreign policy in a box

I've been convinced for a while that the foreign policy debate in the US is unhealthly accepting of the obvious rightness of interventionism. That is, the debate is dominated in the Republican party by conservative interventionists, interested in and convinced of the effectiveness of using military power to spread American values across the globe (which is how both GWB and John McCain presented themselves), and in the Democratic party by liberal interventionists, perhaps a bit less likely to support military endeavours aimed at securing resources and more inclined to support those aimed at advancing humanitarian goals, but nonetheless interventionists (see both Clintons in particular; Obama presented himself as less interested in military endeavours, but, I think, still falls into the liberal interventionist camp). The labels that I've used, though, to understand how to name these camps (liberal interventionist and conservative interventionist) are inadequate, because they name the tendencies of the camps but not the underlying principles that push the camps in those directions.

millmanchart.jpg
The Millman Chart

So I was pleased to discover (via Douthat) the (Noah) Millman (of The American Scene) Chart, which labels these camps in a much more productive fashion, by using Walter Russell Mead's analysis of foreign policy schools. Roughly, liberal interventionists are Hamiltonians and conservative interventionists are Wilsonians. Jacksonians are probably the third best represented corner of the chart -- think foreign policy West-Virginia-style (this is no slam on West Virginia, though I do not endorse Jacksonianism). The Jeffersonians, alas, are massively underrepresented; I suppose Ron Paul would be the closest thing to a national Jeffersonian figure, though Paul was a massively flawed candidate for a number of other reasons. Millman explains this more clearly than I do:

"The horizontal axis runs from introverted to extroverted. By this I mean: is foreign policy driven primarily by domestic or foreign factors? (Or, more plainly, how much does the outside world "matter" very little, or a great deal?) The vertical axis runs from realist to idealist. By "realist" I mean that interests are the dominant factor in determining foreign policy; by "idealist" I mean that values are predominant. And the corners represent the four schools of foreign policy as articulated by Walter Russell Mead.

The Jeffersonian school is introverted idealist: it is primarily concerned to insulate the United States from being sullied by foreign entanglement. It is idealist because it is our republican virtue that we are trying to preserve. If the central neoconservative insight was that a nation's political systems affects its foreign policy (totalitarian systems derive their legitimacy from war, and hence must be aggressive), the central, and much older, Jeffersonian insight is that a nation's foreign policy affects its political system (a republic will lose its republican character if it shoulders the burdens of an empire). Daniel Larison is our resident Jeffersonian, I believe.

The Jacksonian school is introverted realist, by contrast (although this school is not associated with Kissingerian "realism" in foreign policy), because it is primarily concerned with interests (counting honor as a kind of interest, something you keep in an account that can be depleted or replenished), and not especially concerned with having relations with foreigners.

The Hamiltonian school is similarly realist, but extroverted; it is also focused on interests, but understands these interests (being predominantly commercial) to be intertwined with those of other players in the international system.

And the Wilsonian school is similarly extroverted, but idealist; like the Hamiltonian, it is also intensely interested in what happens in far-off lands, but not because of a perception of how our interests are bound up with such doings, rather because, for a Wilsonian, America is betraying its values if it does not act to defend and promote those values abroad."

If I were forced to categorize myself, I think I would be some sort of blend of Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian impulses (apparently contradictorary, I know), though that is not a particularly important exercise since I have little to no influence on foreign policy.

More:
::I ran into the chart through a series of posts by Douthat, Poulos, and Larison. They are worth reading if you find the chart a bit simplistic (which it is, though, I think, being simplistic has virtues as well as deficiencies) and want to argue with it.
::Not unrelated to the unhealthy acceptance of interventionism is our bipartisan consensus on exceptionalism.

November 13, 2008

election shock: rhetoric and action [potentially] not identical [if rumors are correct and entrails read properly]

Some of us in the anti-corn-subsidy-voting-bloc (yeah, we're a small constituency) have hoped that Obama's references to having read and assimilated some of Michael Pollan's writing on food would lead to a shift in the department of agriculture from prioritizing the needs of (very large corporate) producers of food to prioritizing the needs of eaters of food (that would be "everyone not employed by Con Agra et al").

Obviously, we do not know what policies the Obama administration will actually implement (because, at this moment, there is no Obama administration), but the initial signs, as Ezra Klein explains, are not exactly promising:

Yesterday, I wrote about the troubling possibility that Tom Vilsack could be appointed Secretary of Agriculture. Vilsack, of course, is the former governor of Iowa, which means the sum total of his agricultural experience has been building loving relationships with large corn producers in a state where they have a hammerlock on the political structure. And building those relationships has meant being a ceaseless and effective advocate for corn subsidies...

...At the end of the day, Secretary Vilsack will implement President Obama's agenda, whatever that might be. Which is why I see commentary on the Vilsack pick as commentary about Obama's priorities, not Vilsack's skills. And there's only one real signal from this sort of a pick: Your subsidies are safe.

If the Vilsack pick is actually the pick (as far as I know, it is actually a rumor of a pick) and it means what it seems to mean, then that is a real disappointment. Because I was looking forward to a president who would say things like this:

I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollan about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it's creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs. That's just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board.

And then do something about it. [1] Regardless of the accuracy of this rumor and one's interpretation of its significance, this provides an excellent place to point out that Pollan's recent Times Magazine article on food and the presidency is well worth reading, though it covers perhaps more ground than it could encompass completely coherently and is probably not Pollan's tightest piece of writing (but since Pollan is actually a really, really good writer, that means its just "above average" not "fantastic"):

Before setting out an agenda for reforming the food system, it's important to understand how that system came to be -- and also to appreciate what, for all its many problems, it has accomplished. What our food system does well is precisely what it was designed to do, which is to produce cheap calories in great abundance. It is no small thing for an American to be able to go into a fast-food restaurant and to buy a double cheeseburger, fries and a large Coke for a price equal to less than an hour of labor at the minimum wage -- indeed, in the long sweep of history, this represents a remarkable achievement.

It must be recognized that the current food system -- characterized by monocultures of corn and soy in the field and cheap calories of fat, sugar and feedlot meat on the table -- is not simply the product of the free market. Rather, it is the product of a specific set of government policies that sponsored a shift from solar (and human) energy on the farm to fossil-fuel energy.

...

Subsidized monocultures of grain also led directly to monocultures of animals: since factory farms could buy grain for less than it cost farmers to grow it, they could now fatten animals more cheaply than farmers could. So America's meat and dairy animals migrated from farm to feedlot, driving down the price of animal protein to the point where an American can enjoy eating, on average, 190 pounds of meat a year -- a half pound every day.

But if taking the animals off farms made a certain kind of economic sense, it made no ecological sense whatever: their waste, formerly regarded as a precious source of fertility on the farm, became a pollutant -- factory farms are now one of America's biggest sources of pollution. As Wendell Berry has tartly observed, to take animals off farms and put them on feedlots is to take an elegant solution -- animals replenishing the fertility that crops deplete -- and neatly divide it into two problems: a fertility problem on the farm and a pollution problem on the feedlot. The former problem is remedied with fossil-fuel fertilizer; the latter is remedied not at all.

[1] I added a bunch of qualifiers up in the previous paragraph because I think getting too upset over how we think policy might play out based on rumors about who might be appointed before the administration in question begins is rather silly.

More:
::Slightly older Ezra Klein on food policy, one of those random areas (like zoning policy) where left-leaning folk are more likely to hew to the naturally right-wing position (in this case, doing away with subsidies that distort the food market) than right-wingers are.
::Also it would be fantastic if Obama required his various Secretaries and Chiefs and advisors to come to all the White House meetings wearing animal costumes. Yes, that is an actual picture of Tom Vilsack.