Monday, November 30, 2009


We can be thankful to a friend for a few acres, or a little money; and yet for the freedom and command of the whole earth, and for the great benefits of our being, our life, health, and reason, we look upon ourselves as under no obligation. 
-- Seneca
In this week's Sift:
  • Global Warming: What the Hacked Emails Show. Having been in an academic dispute myself once, this all looks pretty normal to me. To find evidence of "the biggest scientific scandal in modern history" here, you've got to rip stuff out of context and then squint at it funny. 
  • The Special Inspector General's TARP Report. The AIG bailout looked nothing like an industrial bailout, and the big investment banks benefited from that difference. Are you surprised?
  • The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ... page through Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. A young philosopher finds the blue-collar trades more intellectually stimulating -- and maybe more economically secure -- than cubicle work. That launches a fascinating meditation about what our jobs do to us. Plus a note relating a previous book review to the NFL's concussion problem.
  • Short Notes. Laid-off journalists compete with their former employers online. Rush wants a coup. Feminists defend Sarah. Dubai is broke. Why private charity is no substitute for universal health care. What religious persecution really looks like. And more.

Global Warming: What the Hacked Emails Show
By now you've probably heard about "climategate" -- the emails that supposedly show climate scientists conspiring to promote the global warming theory. Or maybe you haven't. How could you when (as I keep hearing) the mainstream media is refusing to cover the story? The Columbia Independent Examiner is outraged:
It is almost incomprehensible that major media outlets would refuse to cover what many people believe may very well be the biggest scientific scandal in modern history.
It's a wonder I heard about it myself, given that no one and no one else and certainly not 2641 hits on GoogleNews said anything about it. Clearly there's a media conspiracy to suppress the scientific conspiracy that spearheads the political conspiracy to institute a global Communist government through the UN. Nothing else explains it. 

Unless it happened like this: Some hackers stole 13 years worth of emails, leaked them to people who combed through them for more than a month looking for something they could take out of context, and then the right-wing media made a big deal out of nothing -- just in time to scoop a new report and damage the Copenhagen talks. Finally, the mainstream media did what they always do: covered the "controversy" created when the right-wing media makes a big deal out of nothing.

Hmmm. I think I'll go with Option B. My overall reaction is: You stole 13 years of emails and that's all you got?

Back when I was a mathematician, I was once in a much smaller academic controversy. (See page 8 of this article on the history of Kepler's Conjecture.) I "conspired" with three better-known mathematicians to publish a letter in the Mathematical Intelligencer saying that somebody else's paper was full of holes. We poured over each word of that letter to make sure we could defend it. But our private emails were not nearly so circumspect. We were rude, sarcastic, slanderous; we would have looked very unprofessional if those emails had been made public. Fortunately, nobody cared enough to hack into our accounts.

So am I shocked that in private climate scientists get catty about their critics, or that they discuss how to keep journals from publishing papers they believe to be nonsense? Not so much.

Ditto for the so-called smoking gun email, where of the scientists refers to something in his paper as a "trick." Among scientists, a trick is just something clever, not necessarily something deceitful. Nate Silver looked deeper into the content of this remark and concluded:
Jones is talking to his colleagues about making a prettier picture out of his data, and not about manipulating the data itself. ... I don't know how you get from some scientist having sexed up a graph in East Anglia ten years ago to The Final Nail In The Coffin of Anthropogenic Global Warming. Anyone who comes to that connection has more screws loose than the Space Shuttle Challenger.
Conspiracy theories typically founder on one point: Conspiring is hard, and the more people you need to organize, the harder it gets. Big conspiracies need a big motive that holds them together. (BTW, here's how to judge a conspiracy theory: Under scrutiny, bad conspiracy theories grow; they have to postulate more and more conspirators to account for all the details. But good conspiracy theories shrink; as you learn more about the systems involved, you realize how few people it would take to pull this off.)

That's why I don't believe that thousands of scientists are conspiring to promote a bogus theory of global warming. What holds them together? (Oil money glues together the smaller counter-conspiracy of global-warming deniers.) In order to make the global-warming-conspiracy theory work, you almost have to assume some larger political motive like a desire to impose a world government

But what holds that larger conspiracy together? If you pursue this stuff far enough, I think you wind up at the Devil -- some powerful force that is evil just for the sake of being evil. I don't see any other way to make it work.

Now, if you already have a Devil in your cosmology -- and especially if that Devil already sponsors a conspiracy of scientists pushing a bogus theory of evolution -- then a global-warming conspiracy makes perfect sense. Otherwise, not so much.

And you know who else is in on it? White House Science Czar John Holdren! He actually wrote email to some of the people involved, and discussed what the phrase "burden of proof" ought to mean. He must be, like, one of the secret overlords or something.

The Special Inspector General's TARP Report
Here's how a bailout is supposed to work: Some corporation owes more than it can pay, and its future prospects are dim enough that nobody is willing to make up the difference in exchange for stock. So everybody -- workers, management, suppliers, stockholders, creditors -- is facing some kind of loss. 

Then the government steps in with money, and that gives it leverage to deal out smaller losses to the stakeholders. It tells the workers, "You're going to accept some cuts, but that's better than if you didn't have jobs at all." It tells the creditors, "You're going to loosen the terms on your loans, but it's a better deal than you'd get if you forced the company into bankruptcy." And so on.

That's how the Chrysler bailout of 1979 and the current auto bailout worked. But that's not how the AIG bailout worked. The new SIGTARP report explains why.

The report does a good job of setting the stage: AIG went broke by selling credit default swaps, which was (and still is) an unregulated kind of investment insurance.
Although credit default swaps are sometimes referred to as insurance-like contracts, they are not technically considered insurance, and, unlike insurance contracts, credit default swaps are not regulated. As a result, AIGFP was not required to hold reserves to cover losses or other claims as it would if it was selling insurance policies.
In other words, the investment bankers were creating all kinds of complicated new investments loosely based on the housing market, and AIG was insuring them through credit default swaps. But the government had jiggered the definition of insurance so that AIG could back those CDSs with just its good name rather than by setting aside any assets. When the housing bubble popped, AIG was obligated to come up with a lot of money it didn't have.

Fearing that AIG was about to set off a cascading bankruptcy that would bring down the whole financial system, the government (in the person of Timothy Geithner, who in the late Bush years was president of the New York branch of the Fed) stepped in with money. Strangely, though, it didn't use the leverage its money should have given it.
AIG’s counterparties received $62.1 billion overall, effectively the par value of the credit default swaps. 
The counterparties are well-connected investment banks like Goldman Sachs, which received $14 billion from AIG.

Why? The answer that emerges from the report is one that readers of The Shock Doctrine will recognize: It all happened really fast.
when private financing fell through, [the Federal Reserve Bank of New York] was left with little time to decide whether to rescue AIG and, if so, on what terms. ... In other words, the decision to acquire a controlling interest in one of the world’s most complex and most troubled corporations was done with almost no independent consideration of the terms of the transaction or the impact that those terms might have on the future of AIG.
The initial intervention was inadequate, so the bailout of AIG happened in stages. As a result, the government dribbled away its leverage. By the time it was negotiating with Goldman, letting AIG go bankrupt was no longer a credible threat.

Also, the Fed tied itself up in "principles" that favored the investment banks. The Fed has a complicated relationship with Goldman; it could have said, "Play ball with us here or we'll make it hard on you somewhere else." But Geithner decided that would be unethical. Also, he and Bernanke respected "the sanctity of contract" -- a principle routinely violated when bailouts involve union contracts.

Having read the report, I have a much clearer notion of how the AIG bailout favored the investment banks, but not necessarily why. Or maybe the Why is obvious: They're the Big Boys in the economy; the government works for them, not for us.

The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ...
... page through Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford.

We all think we know stuff like this:
  • Automation replaces drudgery with more meaningful work.
  • The jobs of the future will require more training, education, and just plain intelligence than the jobs of the past. 
  • Careers that involve working with your hands and getting dirty are a dead-end, both economically and intellectually. If your kids have any brains, you should steer them in some other direction.
What if none of that is true? Is that possible?

Matthew Crawford is (like me) a University of Chicago Ph.D. His philosophy degree got him a good-paying job as the head of some science-for-hire "independent" group set up by the oil industry to deny global warming. After a year of that, he junked his whole career to open a motorcycle repair shop. He thinks that was a good move, not just morally but mentally: Fixing bikes is more intellectually stimulating and satisfying than pushing policy arguments toward a predetermined conclusion.

Crawford has written a thoughtful, interesting book that resembles two books from the 1970s: the popular Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the much less popular (but still important) Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the 20th Century by Harry Braverman. The Braverman influence gives Crawford's book a social/political heft that Zen lacked. The Zen influence gives it a personal resonance that Braverman's book lacked. 

Crawford takes this point from Braverman: Profit-making industry has a compulsion to turn skilled labor into unskilled labor. What was once the ingenuity of a craft gets captured (imperfectly) in algorithms, which are then either taught by rote to unskilled workers or built into machines. I'll make up some numbers to illustrate: Over time, a thousand village cobblers might get replaced by two shoe designers, six process engineers, thirty assembly-line workers making 25 cents an hour in Indonesia, and fifty minimum-wage retail clerks -- none of whom have a cobbler's knowledge of the feet in his particular village.

Cubicle-based knowledge workers are not immune to this process, and a great deal of office work has been similarly "stupidized." With consequences: Push your intelligence down for eight hours a day and you might lose it. Crawford believes our jobs are injuring our ability to think.

Crawford revolts against the idea that manipulating symbolic knowledge requires a higher intelligence than working with things. Mechanics, carpentry, plumbing, and other skilled blue-collar trades not only require ingenuity, they provide the kind of objective feedback -- the engine either runs or it doesn't -- that the mind needs. And he suspects they are also safer career paths than many more intellectual fields:
Since manual work has been subject to routinization for over a century, the non-routinized work that remains, outside the confines of the factory, would seem to be resistant to much further routinization.
Finally, he urges us to look at our jobs and ask how they are shaping us. Might we save our souls by accepting lower-paying work that is better suited to human beings -- who are both physical and mental -- than to machines or pure intellects? Unlike Braverman (a Marxist), Crawford offers no systemic solutions. But he does raise the question: Might we all be happier if we organized our economy around holistic, satisfying work rather than around high production at low cost? Is that possible?

A couple months ago I reviewed Doubt is Their Product. It explored the science-for-hire industry, which corporations routinely use to obfuscate evidence that they are killing their workers and to delay regulations that might stop them from killing more.

Well, here's a high-profile example: The National Football League has a concussion problem. Evidence is mounting that retired NFL players have high rates of dementia, memory loss, and other long-term brain problems. (An NYT photo caption says: "John Mackey, left, and Ralph Wenzel were both on the San Diego Chargers in 1972, but have no memory of playing together.") A number of star quarterbacks -- Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, Steve Young -- were forced into retirement by repeated concussions.

OK, but killing is an exaggeration, right? Not really.

So naturally the NFL hired its own committee of scientists to "study" the issue. That committee "has been the league’s primary voice discrediting all evidence linking football players with subsequent dementia or cognitive decline." Of course it has. Now that the public relations problem is getting out of hand, the head of that committee resigns as a scapegoat, and the league is "requesting credit for improving conditions without accepting its role in preserving the conditions that required improvement." Of course it is.

Short Notes

Some of the people being cut from the big-city newspapers are forming their own web-based local news ventures to do the things the big papers say they can't afford to do any more: real local coverage and investigative reporting.

Rush Limbaugh calls for a military coup. Unless he's joking or something. Who can tell?

Conservatives often wonder why feminists don't speak out against the media's treatment of Sarah Palin. Well, when the treatment is actually bad rather than just truthful, feminists do.
I guess I should have seen this coming: Dubai is out of money. It is one of the seven United Arab Emirates and sits across the Persian Gulf from Iran. Dubai itself has little oil (another emirate, Abu Dhabi, does), but has been on a debt-financed building binge as it attempts to be the business center and tourist destination of the region. (Picture.) Apparently Abu Dhabi is cutting off its spendthrift cousin.

Individuals in Dubai have been in debt-trouble ever since the worldwide recession started last year. Ex-pats from elsewhere in the Gulf have been fleeing the country rather than face the emirate's sharia-based punishments for default. By February, Dubai authorities had found thousands of abandoned luxury cars in the airport parking lot, some with maxxed-out credit cards inside. 

NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof tells the story of John Brodniak, a 20-something guy who had a job with health insurance until he got too sick to work. Now he is uninsured, in constant pain, and might die (leaving behind a wife and two step-children) even though an operation might fix what's wrong with him.

Eric Cantor has already told us the Republican answer to a situation like this: private charity. Now that Kristof has made us aware of Brodniak, we should all send his family a few bucks and soon they'll have enough to pay for his surgery. The problem (as Kristof points out) is that 45,000 Americans each year die from treatable conditions because they have no way to pay for care. So if each of the top 45 syndicated columnists called our attention to one such case each day, it would take almost 3 years to help them all. (You'd send money every day for three years, wouldn't you?) 

But wait, that wouldn't work either: The ones we didn't get to in the first year would be dead already, and the list would have gotten 45,000 names longer. If only there were some systematic way to provide the care Americans need, rather than depending on individuals like Kristof bringing individuals like Brodniak to our attention. But that's crazy talk. We'd have to be a totally different kind of society (a Communist or Nazi one like Canada or Denmark) before we could do something like that.

Tom Schaller takes on the strange idea that health-care reform is somehow unconstitutional. (And I know I linked to this Onion piece this week, but it's relevant again.)

I keep finding articles that make this point: There is a lot of room to give Americans better health care at lower cost, if people are motivated to do it. The secret is that quality doesn't cost, it pays. We spend vast amounts of money treating the problems caused by low-quality care.
Everybody wonders whether or not consumers will spend this Christmas. The early reports from retailers about Black Friday were mildly optimistic, but I wonder. Late Friday afternoon and again on Sunday I went to my local mall (Pheasant Lane on the NH/Mass border). It was busy, but in an ordinary way rather than a most-wonderful-time-of-the-year way. I easily found parking and walked wherever I wanted without being jostled.

Slate's Farhad Manjoo advises you on what not to buy this holiday season.

Every year around this time we hear about the War on Christmas and how American Christians are victims of persecution. But a story like this one reminds us what real religious persecution looks like: A Cincinnati atheist group put up a billboard not attacking or insulting anyone, but simply giving the URL of its web site and saying: "Don't believe in God? You are not alone." Within 48 hours the billboard had to be moved because of "multiple significant threats" to the owner of the property it stood on.
In Europe, religious persecution looks like this.
An article in Foreign Policy wonders why more American Muslims don't snap.

I have no idea how well this plant-mimicking ocean-wave-power-generating system will work, but it looks cool.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Strength and Greatness

My biggest regret is all the people who see the symbol but miss the point -- that our greatness, our strength, comes from our principles and not our weapons.
Captain America and the Falcon, #14
In this week's Sift:
  • Trial By Jury is Controversial Now. Attorney General Holder made a brave principled decision to try the 9-11 plotters in federal court in New York. The heat he's taking is unprincipled and cowardly.
  • Republicans in 2012. I didn't get to the second page of Palin's new book, but the speculation it sparked about who Republicans will nominate is interesting. I say Huckabee.
  • The Public is Not Their Party. Conservative Christian leaders want to control who gets to be considered part of the Public. When they threaten to take their ball and go home, I think we should let them.
  • Short Notes. Lithuania schools us on the rule of law. The return of Ted Haggard. How not to pray for Obama. And a surprising source for good-but-unheralded new fiction.

Trial by Jury is Controversial Now
Conservatives and liberals each claim to love America's fundamental principles and institutions. But we love them in different ways. Liberals love American principles the way we love a reliable car or a comfortable pair of shoes. Conservatives love them like fine china or delicate crystal -- priceless objects to be displayed on special occasions, but not actually used.

Ten days ago, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his decision to try alleged 9-11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (and four accomplices) in federal court in New York City rather than in a military tribunal. This has brought down a hail of criticism from the Right.

Holder's logic is fairly clear, though opponents claim to find it mysterious: Crimes in the United States against civilians (like destroying the Twin Towers) should be tried in civilian court, while crimes against military targets overseas (like the bombing of the USS. Cole) should be tried in tribunals. Holder could have justified trying KSM in a tribunal because the Pentagon was also a target on 9-11, but he decided that the civilian crime is the more heinous.

Objections come in three flavors:
  • U.S. courts give defendants too many rights. I'll discuss this in more detail below
  • The trial itself will become a terrorist target. The assumption here seems to be that Al Qaeda has the power to attack New York City, but just hasn't been motivated enough since 9-11. The fear-mongering needs to be called out: It's an appeal to our cowardice.
  • KSM could escape from federal prison or build a terrorist network among inmates who will eventually get out. This is one of the many fantasies that spring from the notion that terrorists are demonic supermen. Merely evil human beings like Charles Manson and the Unabomber have been held safely in federal prison for many years.
The too-many-rights argument has to be taken on directly, because it points to something fundamental: In spite of all their rhetoric about freedom, conservatives don't really believe in human rights. The Founders never talked about "giving" rights. Human beings, says the Declaration of Independence are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." Our courts don't give rights, they recognize them.

Glenn Beck is fond of cherry-picking quotes from Thomas Paine. He should try this one from Paine's Dissertations on the First Principles of Government:
An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.
Denying the human rights of suspected terrorists isn't just bad political philosophy, it's bad war-fighting strategy. Because Captain America is right -- our strength comes from our principles. Why weaken ourselves by casting away those principles?

Johann Hari interviewed a number of British Muslims who have turned away from terrorism to find out what changed their minds. One former terrorist said that recruiting briefly got harder after 9-11 because
there was an inhibiting sympathy for the victims of 9/11 – until the Bush administration began to respond with Guantanamo Bay and bombs. "That made it much easier. After that, I could persuade people a lot faster."
Bush took Bin Laden's worst propaganda and made it true. Hari writes:
Every one of them said the Bush administration's response to 9/11 – from Guantanamo to Iraq – made jihadism seem more like an accurate description of the world. Hadiya Masieh, a tiny female former HT organiser, tells me: "You'd see Bush on the television building torture camps and bombing Muslims and you think – anything is justified to stop this."
By contrast, they found acts of kindness and decency towards Muslims hard to square with their jihadist worldview. 

Militarily, one of the best things we can do is demonstrate our commitment to human rights, particularly the rights of Muslims who think we're evil. Trial by jury in a legitimate court of law is not some priceless-but-fragile heirloom from the 1700s. It's the American way, and it works.

The most effective legal defense of Holder's decision is a WaPo op-ed by former leaders in the Bush administration Justice Department: Jim Comey and Jack Goldsmith. (I've mentioned them before. Comey was the acting attorney general during the famous John Ashcroft hospital-room scene, and Jack Goldsmith was the Office of Legal Counsel head who invalidated some of the more outrageous opinions written by John Yoo. In short, they are conservative lawyers who served in the Bush administration without becoming Bushies. I reviewed Goldsmith's book The Terror Presidency.) They write:
One reason [military] commissions have not worked well is that changes in constitutional, international and military laws since they were last used, during World War II, have produced great uncertainty about the commissions' validity. This uncertainty has led to many legal challenges that will continue indefinitely -- hardly an ideal situation for the trial of the century. ... Holder's critics do not help their case by understating the criminal justice system's capacities, overstating the military system's virtues and bumper-stickering a reasonable decision.

Republicans in 2012
Standing by the first display table in my local Barnes and Noble, I toyed with the idea of reviewing Sarah Palin's Going Rogue. Besides, I'm fascinated by opening lines and opening scenes, so I wondered what kind of call-me-Ishmael hook the ghost-writer had prepared for us.

If you tell Palin's story chronologically it takes forever to reach the interesting part, so I figured any good writer would jump into the middle of something exciting, then wander back into mundane biographical details later. A call-to-greatness scene -- where John McCain asks Palin to be vice president -- would be a cliche, but off the top of my head I couldn't come up with anything better.

It turns out I was right, but I didn't read far enough to realize it. Chapter 1 has the Palins at the Alaska State Fair, being the all-American family they are. In an attempt to capture Palin's voice, the ghost-writer has made the sentences just slightly too long -- not run-on exactly, but with one-too-many adjectives or clauses or prepositional phrases. I found the style irritating, and by the end of first page (still being adorable at the Fair) I was bored. I put the book down.

Wikipedia told me later that Palin got McCain's call at the state fair, so that must have been where that scene was going. If you really want to know, you can go look for yourself. I'm willing to make certain sacrifices for the Sift, but reading Going Rogue cover-to-cover is not going to be one of them. 

There are plenty of other reviews you can read or watch: Steven Colbert's is my favorite. Fox News has been 24/7 Sarah, including once again switching tapes to make an event look more popular than it really was. (They used 2008 campaign footage as if it were book-tour video.) Jon Stewart explains to right-wing pundits why liberals like him don't like Palin -- and no, it really has nothing to do with her family. AP  and Max Blumenthal fact-checked, which Frank Rich considers a pointless exercise because "Palin’s political appeal has never had anything to do with facts."

2012. I've been more interested in the speculation Palin's book sparked over the 2012 Republican nomination. In the 2008 cycle all my best predictions were about the Republicans: Already in October 2007 I predicted Huckabee's rise, but said in early December that McCain would be the last man standing. (On the Democratic side, I thought John Edwards would be our strongest candidate, and that New Hampshire would seal it for Obama. Let's not talk about that.)

My 2012 crystal ball says Palin will not be the Republican nominee. A lot of pundits make a Palin-Obama comparison: He didn't have presidential credentials either, but his personal charisma carried him through. That view overlooks two big factors. First, Obama didn't beat Clinton on charisma, he out-organized her. Obama and Clinton were neck-and-neck in primary votes, but his margin of victory in delegates came from caucuses, where organization is key. So I'll buy the Palin-Obama parallel only if you can establish that Palin is a master strategist and organizer, or that she is willing to stick to the script of somebody who is. Looking at an early glitch in her book tour, either seem unlikely to me.

Second, the "unqualified" charge never works by itself, because experience is only a stand-in for two qualities voters are really looking for: Does the candidate know his/her stuff? And will s/he lose his/her head in a crisis? Clinton couldn't make Obama's lack of experience stick because he stood next to her in 20-some debates and proved that he knew the issues as well as she did. And McCain couldn't make it stick because when the economy started falling apart, it was McCain who seemed to be losing his head.

Palin is no Obama. She does not know her stuff, and does not stand up well under pressure. When the campaign starts, that will quickly become obvious. The "unqualified" charge will stick, and her fans will think it's terribly unfair. And she won't persevere through initial failure; she'll explode in a nova of maverickiness.

If not Palin, then who? Not Bobby Jindal, for a reason no Republican strategist can admit: The teabagger base will never trust someone as smart as Jindal. He's a Rhodes scholar, for God's sake. Like Bill Clinton was. The reason Jindal looked so terrible when he gave the Republican response to Obama's speech in February is that he tried to dumb himself down. He can't.

What about somebody coming from nowhere, like Jimmy Carter in 1976? Nope. Republicans haven't gone that way since Wendell Wilkie in 1940. You can't do the come-from-nowhere thing without picking up an image of cleverness as you out-manuever your more familiar rivals -- and the base distrusts cleverness.

Maybe somebody pushing a Bush restoration, like Dick Cheney or Jeb Bush? Too soon. The Bush administration was an across-the-board disaster.  They started wars they didn't know how to win. They doubled the national debt. They broke the economy. Republicans know that, even if they can't say so in public, and it's going to take more than four years for people to forget. If we suffer another 9-11-style attack, there might be space for someone not directly connected to Bush -- General Petraeus, say -- to claim the he-kept-us-safe part of the Bush record. But it's a long shot.

Somebody might be able to walk the same road Bush did in 2000: The 1998 election was a Democratic victory because the Republicans were identified with the unpopular Clinton impeachment. Meanwhile, Bush won in Texas as a "compassionate conservative" who could work with Democrats. He was a familiar name and a breath of fresh air at the same time. Gary Hart did something similar in 1980; he rose to national attention when he was re-elected to the Senate while all the other Democrats were going under.

That will be harder to do if the Republicans pick up seats in 2010, as expects. But somebody who is sort-of-familiar could become presidential timber by symbolizing what the party did right. If there's a true teabagger revolt, maybe Michelle Bachman gets a boost. (I think Palin would be confused if she had to debate another conservative woman. Bachman would shine through as the more authentic lunatic.)

Otherwise, you're left with the 2008 hold-overs: Romney and Huckabee. They represent two sides of the old Reagan coalition. Romney is the Club-for-Growth tax-cutter and Huckabee is the evangelical family-values guy. Romney's problem is that his economic plan sounds too much like Bush, and we know how that worked out. So Huckabee will have an easier time re-uniting the coalition. The evangelicals will gather around him after Palin flames out, and he'll be nominated. 

The Public Is Not Their Party
Have you ever had one of your friends announce: "If you're inviting her to your party, then I'm not coming"? Well, translated a little, that's what 145 conservative Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical leaders just said about gays and lesbians: If they're going to be part of "the public" then we can't be. 

More specifically, they signed the Manhattan Declaration, composed by Watergate-felon-turned-minister Charles Colson and two other guys. Here's the conclusion:
Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. 
That part after the semi-colon is all about "conscience clauses" which allow Christians (theoretically anybody, but in practice Christians) to offer their services to the public, but still deny them to people they think are immoral. NPR covers several widely-discussed cases, including the ones referenced in the Declaration. No case involves forcing someone to "bless immoral sexual partnerships" in a religious capacity. In each case, the religious group is claiming its right to exclude gays and lesbians from something that is otherwise available to the public, and threatening to withdraw its services from the public sphere if it can't continue to discriminate. FDL's Peterr, describing himself as "a Christian and a pastor" comments:
This isn’t about religious freedom — it’s about churches asking for special rights: the right to legally discriminate in workplace practices and the right to legally discriminate in the delivery of publicly funded social services.
The legal principle here was established during the Civil Rights era: If you're offering something to the public, you have to offer it to the whole public, not just to the people you like. That's what the Greensboro lunch counter thing was about. So the Manhattan Declaration's position boils down to this: They refuse to recognize that gays and lesbians are part of the public.

Dear Abby usually gave this advice to a host facing a don't-invite-her ultimatum from some friend: Invite both; tell each that the other is invited; and if either chooses to exclude herself from the party, that's her decision. That's the right course here. Charles Colson and Ellen Degeneres should both be invited to be full-fledged members of the public. If Chuck chooses to decline the invitation because Ellen might accept it, that's his decision.

To me, the most irritating part of the Manhattan Declaration is the way it invokes not just Martin Luther King, but also the anti-slavery and women's suffrage movements. Let me add this historical perspective: In every generation, conservative leaders attempt to coopt the liberal reforms of the past, claim the prestige of them, and use that prestige to thwart the liberal reforms of the present.

And so today, representatives of the most conservative wing of the Catholic church pose as the champions of religious liberty, and representatives of the most conservative Protestant sects pose as the inheritors of the women's suffrage and anti-slavery movements. Is there any doubt that if these 145 leaders could be transported back to the 1500s or 1850s or 1880s, they would side with their conservative brethren in that era against the reforms that they now claim credit for?

Short Notes
If liberals did this, it would be seen as treason.

Imagine: A new president is elected, takes seriously the accusations that the previous president's war-on-terror actions broke the law, and demands an investigation with possible criminal penalties. It's President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania. She believes that the people who OK'd Lithuania illegally hosting a CIA black prison should be held accountable.

"What kind of a backwards, primitive country," Glenn Greenwald asks, very tongue-in-cheek, "would do something like this?" 

A surprising source of good new fiction: the book departments of those big odd-lot stores like Building 19 or Ocean State Discount. Novels often get remaindered not because they're bad, but because somebody at a publishing house let his own good taste overwhelm his business judgment. Each year I find three or four excellent novels that I would never run into otherwise. 

My latest discovery: One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead by Clare Dudman. It's a novelization of the life of Alfred Wegener, the guy who postulated continental drift. That may sound dull, but the novel includes several Greenland expeditions, World War I, and a first-person prose style based on Wegener's expedition diaries. It's the style of a sharp observer who communicates his feelings through detail and metaphor rather than by using emotion-laden words. I was entranced by it.

Disgraced megachurch pastor Ted Haggard is back. He didn't complete the "spiritual restoration" process he undertook after being fired, but he has started holding prayer meetings at his Colorado Springs home -- just a few miles from his old church. Members of the board of overseers of that church recall Haggard promising them he would not start a new church in Colorado Springs. About 100 people, many from his former church, attended his first prayer meeting.

The Onion nails the whole teabagger defend-the-constitution thing.
A new bumpersticker-and-tshirt slogan says: "Pray for Obama: Psalm 109:8."

Psalm 109:8 says, "Let his days be few." Hilarious, isn't it?

Matt Yglesias explains the counter-intuitive nature of testing for rare conditions -- like profiling Muslims for terrorism. Even if the test is fairly accurate, the false positives will vastly outnumber the true positives. So the main result is to hassle a lot of innocent people.
I haven't read the recent report on how the AIG bailout was mismanaged. Next week.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
-- Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
In this week's Sift:
  • Fort Hood: What We Do and Don't Know. Should the Army have seen Major Hasan's massacre coming? I don't think I would have. If I forget what I know now and look at the supposed "red flags," I'm still not all that alarmed.
  • But What About Islam? I'm losing patience with the eternal argument about whether Islam is a "peaceful" or "violent" religion. Any religion that has ever been the basis of an empire is both peaceful and violent. And its scripture contradicts itself. Is that a problem?
  • Short Notes. Stewart catches Hannity red-handed. The political advantage of being a porn star. The danger of using acronyms. Bye-bye Lou Dobbs. How lobbyists are like ventriloquists. And more.

Fort Hood: What We Do and Don't Know
There's been a lot to learn from watching the national conversation about the Fort Hood shootings. The Right is winning the interpretative battle for a very good reason: They had a narrative ready and were pushing it long before there were any facts to back it up. The Left asked people to wait for the facts before making up their minds.

Here's how that has played out: As the facts come out, parts of the right-wing narrative have been verified, while parts of it have turned out to be way over the top. But because they were out there first, they have set the terms for the discussion.

[By the way, as usual the news media has been focusing on whatever new tidbit came out today and not keeping a scorecard of what is currently believed to be true. The best scorecard I've found is the Wikipedia article on the Fort Hood shooting. Doesn't that tell you something about the changing role of the encyclopedia in today's information environment?]

Major Hasan. To a large extent we still don't know why Major Nidal Hasan did what he did. He got off a ventilator a few days ago, but if he has said anything about the shooting, it hasn't been made public. (He's probably still doped up, and -- having recently listened to my father's post-surgery babbling -- I wouldn't take any of it too seriously yet.) When we talk about him and his motives, we're all still writing fiction -- creating a character rather than reporting it. 

Hasan grew up in Virginia, as the son of Palestinian immigrants who ran a restaurant (described as a "blue-collar beer hall") in Roanoke. (That quote and several to come is from an article in the Roanoke Times -- the best source I've found on Hasan's background and early life.) He enlisted in the Army straight out of high school in 1988. The Army put him through college; In typical Army-education style, he studied at several colleges before graduating with honors from Virginia Tech in 1995. A professor there remembers him as "not making a big splash, either positive or negative" and doesn't recall any signs of "disturbed behaviors."

He went to the Uniformed Services University medical school in Bethesda, Maryland and received his doctorate in psychiatry in 2003. He served at the Army's Walter Reed Medical Center from then until he was transferred to Fort Hood last July. 

His parents died young -- his father was 52 when he died in 1998 and his mother was 49 when she died in 2001. A cousin said that while Hasan had always been a Muslim, his mother's death made him much less secular and more devout.

Of course, 2001 is also when 9-11 happened and the War on Terror began. Nobody has found a Hasan diary that will pull it all together for us, so when we discuss  the various influences that led to his increasing identification with Islam, we're all writing fiction. It seems to be a journey he took alone. (He had no wife, and a statement from the Hasan family has deplored the shootings, expressed grief for the victims, and said "there is no justification.") 

What was the role of mentors like Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who Hasan met when both were at a Virginia mosque, and who he remained in email contact with after al-Awlaki moved to Yemen? According to the New York Times:
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Awlaki was quoted as disapproving of such violence and was portrayed as a moderate figure who might provide a bridge between Islam and Western democracies. But since leaving the United States in 2002 for London and later Yemen, Mr. Awlaki has become, through his Web site, a prominent proponent of militant Islam.
Al-Awlaki has since referred to Hasan as "a hero" and "a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people." (Al-Awlaki denies ordering or pressuring Hasan to kill American soldiers.) 

But another imam who knew Hasan described him as "a committed soldier" and "nothing like an extremist". So maybe al-Awlaki was incidental, and the real cause was Hasan's reaction to the soldiers he was treating for post-traumatic stress after they returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Family members say Hasan complained about his patients' anti-Muslim prejudice. (That wouldn't be surprising. Among soldiers, the popular derogatory term for Iraqis is haji, a reference to those who make the pilgrimage (haj) to Mecca.) 

Or was Hasan reacting to personal religious harassment? Another soldier living at Hasan's apartment complex was charged with criminal mischief after he apparently keyed Hasan's car and ripped an "Allah is Love" bumper sticker off it.

Or maybe he was scared. He was about to deploy to Afghanistan, where his army was fighting a war he didn't believe in. The Taliban would consider him an American soldier; the other soldiers might consider him primarily as a Muslim. Maybe he'd be a target from both sides. 

If I were writing Hasan as a fictional character, I'd have the violent fantasy sprout in his mind while he refuses to take it seriously. His email contact with al-Awlaki had a cover story that investigators found convincing:
The assessment concluded Hasan did not merit further investigation - in large part because his communications with the imam were centered on a research paper about the effects of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and the investigator determined that Hasan was in fact working on such a paper, the officials said. 
Maybe it is convincing to Hasan as well. He is just researching these jihadist ideas, toying with them, trying to get inside the heads of the jihadists -- not growing a little jihadist cell in his own head. By the time he consciously realizes what is going on, his plans have too much momentum to stop.

The Right-Wing Narrative. The narrative from the Right took shape almost immediately, and the typical consumer of right-wing media hears it repeated many times each day: Hasan is a jihadist. A reasonable observer would have known that he was a jihadist, but the Army ignored the signs because of "political correctness." There may be lots of Hasans around, and we should start a witch-hunt into the background and beliefs of all Muslims in the armed forces (while claiming that worries about  a "backlash against Muslims" are pure fantasy.) Or maybe we should eject them from the military completely. But of course we won't, because liberals aren't willing to do what's necessary to protect our country.

This interpretation fits into a larger clash-of-civilizations narrative in which the Judeo-Christian West is in a death struggle with Islam. In this story, Islam is (as Pat Robertson puts it) "a violent political system bent on the overthrow of the governments of the world and world domination." It can't be tamed or tolerated. You may know some nice Muslims, but that's because they don't take their religion seriously. If they did, they'd be jihadists too. (You know what's funny? If you replace the word jihadist with dominionist, radical atheists say the same thing about Christians.)

In addition to the facts I've already mentioned -- especially the contact with al-Awlaki -- a few other facts fit this narrative:
  • Some witnesses say Hasan yelled "Allahu akbar!" ("God is great!") before he started shooting.
  • Last May an internet post with Hasan's name on it (but not definitely verified as written by him) said positive things about suicide bombers.
  • Hasan gave a presentation at Walter Reed called "The Koranic World View as it Relates to Muslims in the U.S. Military." The slides are available online.
These are facts, but they have also been spun by right-wing pundits. For example, Hasan's internet post resembles something I wrote in 2006. His point is that suicide bombers who attack military targets (not 9/11-style killers of civilians) have the same virtues we admire in soldiers who sacrifice themselves in battle.

You can pull alarming quotes out of the context of his Walter Reed presentation, but on the whole I don't find the slides alarming. (Of course, we don't know what he said while presenting them.) He starts with a general introduction for non-Muslims, and presents the mixed bag of Koranic suras about violence, both against believers and against non-believers. He seems to be making the case that Muslim soldiers will have severe internal conflicts if they come to believe that they are fighting a war against Islam, or that they are likely to kill non-combatant Muslims. He suggests evocative questions to draw Muslim soldiers into discussing their internal conflicts, and his ultimate recommendation is that a special conscientious objector status be established for Muslim soldiers who are asked to fight a Muslim adversary.

"Political Correctness." One sign that the Right is winning the interpretive battle is that the mainstream media is using political correctness to describe the Army's treatment of Hasan. Political correctness is a right-wing pejorative phrase for the following legitimate posture: When you belong to the majority and you are dealing with someone from a minority, your instincts are likely to short-change them. So you need to consciously examine any instinctive negative reaction to see if it's really justified.

The Hasan case abounds with examples. For example, much has been read into a colleague's statement that Hasan was "very upfront about being a Muslim first and an American second." But it's hard to imagine similar alarm about an officer who claimed to be a Christian first and an American second. Instinctively, the Christian majority reacts negatively to a "Muslim first" comment, and doesn't recognize it as similar to a "Christian first" comment. They need to think again.

Nothing in that posture says you have to ignore legitimate objections to anyone's attitudes and behaviors. But sometimes you need to think twice rather than react instinctively. Nothing in the Hasan case makes me back off that point of view.

Should the Army Have Known? Maybe more will turn up that will change my mind, but from what we've seen so far, I don't think so. If you assemble facts with hindsight and then spin them, it looks like the Army ignored red flags. But as we've seen in lots of secular workplace shootings, it's very hard to tell that somebody is about to blow. I can't think of any general rules that would catch future Hasans without also scooping up lots of people who harbor harmless resentments and grievances.

A Few Final Points. We need soldiers who speak Arabic, understand Islam, and are familiar with the cultures of Muslim countries. Most Americans who fit that description are Muslims themselves. Hounding such folks out of the military would be one of the stupidest things we could do.

If your religion makes you suspect, where does it stop? Are we going to investigate Jewish soldiers' ties to Israel? Catholic soldiers' allegiance to the Vatican? 

As Frank Rich points out, the Right has not put forward any coherent strategy for fighting their clash of civilizations. Certainly no strategy of either the Bush or Obama administrations qualifies. If we're fighting the world's billion-plus Muslims, we need a much bigger army, and probably ought to consider using nukes. Certainly our tiny Christian Crusader force in Afghanistan stands no chance of securing the country if the entire Muslim population is our enemy.

Commentators like the WSJ's Dan Henninger are using the Hasan case to push ideas that have no real connection. The first thing Obama should do in response, he says is "Call off the CIA investigation." 

But What About Islam?
The Fort Hood massacre re-ignited the whole argument about whether Islam is a violent or peaceful religion. I'll be blunt: This is a stupid argument. 

Any religion that has been the basis for an empire has to be both violent and peaceful. Unless and until God Himself comes down and fights the battles for his people, any religious empire is going to have to be able to make war. But any empire that doesn't know when to quit fighting and consolidate its gains is going to fall. (Check out Hitler or Napoleon.) Your religion is going to have to be able to sanctify the peace just as it sanctified the war.

So: Christianity is both violent and peaceful. Judaism is both violent and peaceful. Whatever strand of Buddhism the Emperor Asoka practiced had to be both violent and peaceful, because otherwise he wouldn't have been an emperor.

OK, what about the Koran, and all those quotes about killing the infidels that right-wing websites keep repeating? Or the apparently contradictory quotes about tolerance?

This deserves a longer essay (which, believe me, I outlined once and really intend to write someday) about what a scripture is. The most widespread mistake people make when they read some part of scripture -- and this applies both to fundamentalists and atheists -- is to interpret it according to the standards of some literary tradition that didn't exist at the time. Science textbooks did not exist at the time Genesis was written. Journalism did not exist at the time of the gospels. It's a mistake to read them that way.

The mistake both sides are making about the Koran now (and many people make about the Bible) is to read it like a philosophical treatise. They're looking for the one true and coherent point of view that animates the whole text.

No scripture has that. A scripture is the early writing of a culture that is still fundamentally oral. (That's why the words themselves have a sense of awe about them. Writing is still a little bit mysterious and magical.) Oral cultures don't run by definitions and principles. They run by stories and aphorisms. And your scripture is not complete until it has a story or a saying that applies to any conceivable situation.

That's why scriptures are full of contradictions. It's not a bug, it's a feature. You can see the same thing in our culture's secular folk wisdom: You should always look before you leap, but he who hesitates is lost. You've got to make hay while the sun shines, but you've also got to stop and smell the roses. Our culture needs both sides of those contradictory pairs of sayings -- otherwise we'd be unbalanced.

A finished scripture is balanced; the canon stays open until it has all the stories and sayings balance requires. And scriptures were not written to be read the way they often are now -- silently by individuals, who decide for themselves which of the contradictory pieces to apply to their lives. Scriptures were meant to be read out loud in community -- or better still, quoted from memory; the written text would just be a crutch for students or a reference for resolving divergences. 

In each situation the community process would decide which saying or story applied. Is this a time for telling the strict-purity story or the forgiveness story? Is it human to err, or does one bad apple spoil the barrel?

So: The Koran has verses telling Muslims to kill infidels, and it has verses telling them to live in peace with people of other faiths. Of course it does. What else would you expect?

Short Notes
Here's the sequence of events: Michelle Bachman had an anti-healthcare rally at the Capitol on November 5. She then appeared on Sean Hannity's show, where they shared a wildly inflated estimate of how many people attended, backed up by unlabeled footage of a different rally, the far larger one on 9/12.

Jon Stewart caught them, and re-played the dishonest report on the Daily Show, next to the two-month-old coverage it was stolen from.

Hannity apologized to Stewart (not to the viewers he conned) on the air, calling it "an inadvertent mistake". (How do these things happen exactly? Didn't it take more effort to dig up the two-month-old footage?) And Jon responded:
We thought [the original Hannity-Bachman piece] was funny. Because we finally had a literal manifestation of what we feel is the metaphorical methodology of the entire Fox network -- which, of course, is the subtle altering of reality to sell a preconceived narrative.

Porn star Stormy Daniels on why she is the perfect candidate to challenge Senator David Vitters of Louisiana: "I have nothing to hide. A sex tape of me isn't going to pop up and shame me; there are 150 of them at the video store."

As the Wisconsin Tourism Federation (WTF) found out, you've got to watch your acronyms in this text-messaging age. Before they changed it days later, a Christian Science Monitor headline from Thursday read: "Irish priest kidnapped in Philippines released by MILF". Obviously a MILF with a thing for Irish priests -- oh, sorry, I guess they meant the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The flagship newspaper of the far right, the Washington Times, is going through a shake-up. The executive editor has resigned. The president and publisher was fired. TPM's full coverage is here.

Apparently this has something to do with a feud within the family of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church ("the Moonies") which owns the Times. Moon is 89 and has been turning operations over to his sons. One son now heads New World Communications, which includes the Times. Another son has become the Church's religious leader. 

Theoretically, the religious leader has no direct control over the communications arm, but the Times has always lost money and been subsidized by the Church. (John Gorenfeld, author of Bad Moon Rising, estimates Moon has sunk $2-3 billion into the Times, largely to buy legitimacy for his church within the conservative movement. Wikipedia attributes the figure $2 billion-by-2002 to the Columbia Journalism Review.) So the religious leader could probably pull the plug on the whole operation.
AP's Calvin Woodward puts it like this:
Sarah Palin's new book reprises familiar claims from the 2008 presidential campaign that haven't become any truer over time.

Retailers are noticing a two-tier market. High-end stores like Nordstroms are starting to see traffic again, as rich shoppers look for bargains. But middle-income and low-income people are still buying as little as they can.
We won't have Lou Dobbs to kick around any more -- at least not on CNN. (SNL gives Lou a send-off.) In recent years Dobbs has become synonymous with illegal immigration issue. As Salon's Joe Conason put it:
Stoking nativist paranoia, he has blamed undocumented workers for problems both real and imaginary, from lost jobs and violent crime to increasing leprosy and conspiracies against U.S. sovereignty. saw him as an anti-Hispanic racist and started a campaign to get him off CNN. They have declared victory, even though his radio show continues.

Dobbs' farewell message on CNN referred to "new opportunities." Conason speculates Dobbs will run for president as an independent, a prospect Conason describes as "a political nightmare for conservatives" because he would be "drawing upon the same resentful remnant that Republicans hope to mobilize in 2012." 

The idea that we have to get atmospheric carbon down to 350 parts per million isn't very catchy, but this music video is.

If you've ever wondered who your representative in Congress is really speaking for, here's a hint: During the House debate on health care reform
[s]tatements by more than a dozen lawmakers were ghostwritten, in whole or in part, by Washington lobbyists working for Genentech, one of the world’s largest biotechnology companies. ... Genentech, a subsidiary of the Swiss drug giant Roche, estimates that 42 House members picked up some of its talking points — 22 Republicans and 20 Democrats, an unusual bipartisan coup for lobbyists.
Or maybe it's not so unusual. How would we know?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Good News and Bad News

Certainly it constitutes bad news if the people who agree with you are buggier than batshit. -- Philip Dick, Valis.

In this week's Sift:
  • Interpreting the Off-Year Elections. The temptation is to read too much into spotty results. But they must mean something.
  • Where Are We on Health Care? The House has passed a bill. That's not like winning the Super Bowl, but it is like getting to the next round of the playoffs.
  • Short Notes. Jon Stewart does a great Glenn Beck impression. Italy convicts the CIA of kidnapping. Bad coverage at Fort Hood. Jobs decline more slowly. Wind power. What you can't learn from porn. And more.

Interpreting the Off-Year Elections
Tuesday was election day in a few places. For weeks, pundits have been trying to read some national trend into this handful of state and local races. But as far as I can see, each one is a unique story. (Matt Yglesias points out that we don't need to read tea leaves in other races to see whether Obama is popular. There are polls for that.)

Republicans won the two governor's races, in Virginia and New Jersey. Democrats won the two House seats, in California and upstate New York. Maine voted down its same-sex marriage law. Here's the meaning I'm reading into those races.

Virginia governor. The Republican candidate, Bob McDonell trounced the Democrat Creigh Deeds. As the Institute for Southern Studies blogger Chris Kromm notes, this race was all about turnout. Obama carried Virginia last year by bringing out a lot of young, black, and Latino voters. This year, without Obama in the race, they stayed home. Tuesday's turnout was only 53% of last year's. Older, whiter voters came out in force and carried the day for the Republicans.

Polls indicate that Obama's support among the young and non-white is still strong. The question is whether they will identify with the Democratic Party rather than just with Obama.

New Jersey governor. It's hard to read any larger significance into Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine's loss, because he tried to tie himself to Obama and failed. Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics:
The Garden State results simply prove that New Jerseyans hated Jon Corzine more than they loved Barack Obama. Obama's high ratings weren't enough to save Corzine, who was deeply unpopular because of high property taxes, among other reasons.
New York's 23rd District. This race was great melodrama. The district voted for Obama in 2008, but no Democrat had won its seat in Congress since the 1870s. Its most recent congressman was Republican John McHugh, who is now Obama's Secretary of the Army.

Republicans tried to play it safe by nominating a moderate woman, Dierdre Scozzafava, but the teabaggers were having none of it and defected to Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. National conservatives like Sarah Palin endorsed Hoffman, and when a late poll showed Scozzafava running third with no money to turn things around, she withdrew and endorsed the Democrat, Bill Owens.

Owens won. So the Democratic majority in Congress is one seat bigger than it was last week. Thank you Dierdre. But also, thank you Sarah.

In retrospect, the most amusing thing about this race was the way Fox News covered it. They were all set to proclaim this race as a victory for the right-wing revolution and a warning to any Republican who might compromise with Obama. They cheered Hoffman. When Scozzfava withdrew, they all but endorsed Hoffman on her behalf. On election night they refused to believe what they were seeing, and when they had to admit that the voters disagreed with them, they did their best to downplay the district whose importance they had been pimping for weeks. DailyKosTV collects the full Fox story arc.

California's 10th District. The national media forgot about this election. The Washington Post reported that NY-23 was "the only congressional election in an off-year cycle". But the Nation points out that CA-10 is really the mirror-image of NY-23: Obama appointed its representative Ellen Tauscher to be an Under Secretary of State. Tauscher was a moderate Democrat, and she wanted another moderate to succeed her. But Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi won the Democratic primary by running to the left.

Unlike in NY-23, though, moving to the left did not create an opportunity for Republicans to steal the seat, and Garamendi was elected 53-43. The upshot is that although this seat was already Democratic, it is more reliably liberal now.

Maine Marriage Equality. This was my biggest disappointment of the night. Maine's legislature had passed a same-sex marriage law, which the voters have now repealed by a 53-47 vote. This is a state that sits 15 miles up the coast from Massachusetts, where same-sex marriages have been happening since 2003 without any subsequent sky-falling.

What's up with that? AP has a pretty good analysis: The latest anti-gay-marriage tactic is to claim (falsely) that it will force public schools to teach kids about gay sex. So far, marriage-equality advocates have come up with no better response than to say: "Hey, that's not true." How often does that work?

Doc on First Draft also has a very reasonable post. He points out that it's not the flagrant gay-haters who are the problem, it's the more-or-less ordinary folks.

Laura Clawson explains why New Hampshire's constitution makes it much less likely that it will repeal its marriage equality law like Maine did.

And this is a great graphic. It illustrates support for same-sex marriage by state and by age, and demonstrates what a generational issue this is. The South and Utah are the only places where a majority of the 18-29-year-olds don't support same-sex marriage. The same graphic, plus an amusing conversation with his 7-year-old, appears in Steve Singiser's The Kids Are Alright. Young voters in Mississippi, he points out, are more likely to support same-sex marriage than are elderly voters in Massachusetts.

Where Are We on Health Care?
The House passed a health-care bill Saturday -- which is a lot further than the Clinton administration ever got when it tried to reform health care. The Senate is unlikely to pass the same bill for a variety of reasons, both liberal and conservative. So the big question now is whether the Senate will pass something. If they do, that gets the bill into a conference committee where the Senate and House work out their differences.

Getting provisions into the House bill at this point is like getting into your team into the next round of the playoffs. Anything in either the House bill or an eventual Senate bill is at least going to be talked about by the conference committee. Any provision that doesn't make it into either bill is pretty much dead.

In the Senate, different health-care bills were passed by the five relevant committees, and it's up to majority leader Harry Reid to decide which provisions make it into the bill that will be presented to the whole Senate. That's important, because amendments to that bill will take 60 votes. If, say, the public option is in the bill, then it will take 60 votes to take it out. If it's not in the bill, it will take 60 votes to put it in. Neither amendment would be likely to pass.

TPM has a good summary of the House bill in general terms.

But because the public option is, well, public, it won't want to do the unpopular things that insurers do to save money, like manage care or aggressively review treatments. It also, presumably, won't try to drive out the sick or the unhealthy. ... The nightmare scenario, then, is that private insurers cotton onto this and accelerate the process, implicitly or explicitly guiding bad risks to the public option. In theory, the exchanges are risk-adjusted, and the public option will be given more money if it ends up with bad risks, but it's hard to say how that will function in practice. ... The most important factor here will be the strength of the risk adjustment in the exchanges, so keep an eye on that.
The biggest liberal objection to the House bill is its anti-abortion provision, in which no insurance plan paid for (even partially) with a government subsidy can cover abortions. In practice, this will make it very hard for poor women to get abortions. What the Senate or the eventual conference committee will do with that is unknowable at this point.

Nicholas Kristof destroys the "self-aggrandizing delusion" that we have the best health-care system in the world. But he has stopped saying that our system is worse than the Slovenians', because it annoys the Slovenians.
They resent having their fine universal health coverage compared with the notoriously dysfunctional American system. As far as I can tell, every Slovenian has written to me. Twice. So, to all you Slovenians, I apologize profusely for the invidious comparison of our health systems. Yet I still don’t see anything wrong with us Americans aspiring for health care every bit as good as yours.
Kristof goes on to make a really interesting point I hadn't heard before:
there is one American health statistic that is strikingly above average: life expectancy for Americans who have already reached the age of 65. At that point, they can expect to live longer than the average in industrialized countries. That’s because Americans above age 65 actually have universal health care coverage: Medicare.

Kristof references a report funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and published on the web by the Urban Institute. The report compares U.S. health care to that of other countries, and notes one possible cause of the American system's underperformance:
As compared with the residents of other countries, many more Americans and chronically ill Americans say they skip medicines or medical appointments due to cost.
Keep that fact in mind when conservatives talk about their favorite health-care idea: health savings accounts. As one HSA advocate puts it:
If Americans were given incentives toward health savings accounts, we would see health-care costs plummet. For example, if a person who is employed full time received a voucher for health insurance from their employer and placed that money into a health savings account, then that money could gather toward paying for health services. This also encourages individuals to only use health services if needed, also causing a decrease in health-care costs.
In practice "use only if needed" is another way of saying "skip medicines or medical appointments due to cost". Because it's usually only in retrospect that you know whether you needed care. Hardly anyone goes to the emergency room just because they're bored. But a lot of people seek medical help when they don't know whether they need it or not. If cost keeps them from finding out, some will develop more serious conditions and some will die.

DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas destroyed Tom Tancredo while debating healthcare on MSNBC Friday. The moderator had just brought up the Veterans' Administration as an example of single-payer healthcare in the U.S., and Tancredo claimed that veterans would rather have vouchers to buy private insurance. Markos laughed at this, and when Tancredo told him to talk to the veterans, he said: "Tom, I'm a veteran. OK? I did not get a deferment because I was too depressed to fight in a war that I supported in Vietnam."

Tancredo -- who did precisely that -- huffed and puffed and then stalked off the set. Watch.

Short Notes
Jon Stewart's parody of Glenn Beck is one of his best pieces ever. He has Beck's gestures, props, weird leaps of logic, and inappropriate emotional affect down pat. His take on the "war" between the Obama administration and Fox News is pretty good too.

Italy is schooling the United States on the rule of law, but we're not listening. As part of its rendition program, the CIA kidnapped Muslim cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr off the streets of Milan in 2003, then flew him to Egypt where he was tortured.

Wednesday an Italian court concluded that kidnapping is kidnapping, even if you're the CIA. It convicted 23 Americans of their role in the felony. The convictions were in absentia, because we refused to extradite the defendants. But the 23 had better stay in the U.S., because police in other countries might not be so understanding when an Italian kidnapping conviction pops up on their computer screens.

I don't have any insight yet on the Fort Hood shootings, but Glenn Greenwald wrote a very interesting post on the media's early coverage, most of which turned out to be false. (Among other mistakes, they reported multiple shooters.) He sympathizes with the impossibility of reliably separating truth from rumor in the early moments of a big story, and says that he routinely ignores all the details he hears during the first day of such a story's coverage.
The problem, though, is that huge numbers of people aren't ignoring it. They're paying close attention -- and they're paying the closest attention, and forming their long-term views, in the initial stages of the reporting. Many people will lose their interest once the drama dissolves -- i.e., once the actual facts emerge. Put another way, a large segment of conventional wisdom solidifies based on misleading and patently false claims coming from major media outlets.

Athenae at First Draft has the solution, if any media outlet wants to implement it:

The first day, the first hours: Cut out all the analysis, all the nonsense, and just tell us what you see. What you can prove. What you know is real. That's what we need. That's the best thing that can be done in this scenario. That's the only useful thing. That's what people need the most. That's the job.

The networks' impulse to get-it-fast rather than get-it-right is what the Yes Men exploited in their fake chamber-of-commerce news conference.

The economy is starting to lose jobs at a slower rate. But this late in a typical recession it wouldn't still be losing jobs at all.
Paul Krugman discusses the anti-health-care rally that Michelle Bachman led outside the Capitol Thursday, and the overall seizure of the Republican Party by paranoid elements of the Right. For years Republican leaders have given such people only "empty symbolism" like votes in Congress on doomed prayer-in-school or anti-abortion Constitutional amendments.
Once elections were won, the issues that fired up the base almost always took a back seat to the economic concerns of the elite. Thus in 2004 George W. Bush ran on antiterrorism and “values,” only to announce, as soon as the election was behind him, that his first priority was changing Social Security. But something snapped last year.

Krugman worries that the country might soon face a larger version of what is happening in California:

In California, the G.O.P. has essentially shrunk down to a rump party with no interest in actually governing — but that rump remains big enough to prevent anyone else from dealing with the state’s fiscal crisis. If this happens to America as a whole, as it all too easily could, the country could become effectively ungovernable in the midst of an ongoing economic disaster.

Speaking of California, Governor Schwarzenegger's veto of Assembly Bill 1176 contained some interesting subtext. If you read down the first column of the seven lines that make up the body of his message to the legislature, it says "fuck you". The Governator characterizes this as "a total coincidence".

When an Obama official called Fox News "the research arm or communications arm of the Republican Party", maybe she had it backwards. The tail wags the dog now.
Another interesting Krugman point: Obama has no political motivation to reduce the deficit, because if he did no one would notice. Krugman quotes a study from the Clinton era:
Yep: after one of the biggest moves toward budget balance in history, a majority of Republicans, and a plurality of all voters, believed that deficits had increased.

Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams gives men this sage advice:
thinking that you can learn to make to love to a woman from watching porn is like thinking you can learn to drive from watching "The Fast and the Furious."

AP's science writer Seth Borenstein debunks the "global cooling" myth.

Before Fox-News-owner Rupert Murdoch bought it, the Wall Street Journal was a schizophrenic newspaper: Its editorial pages were wild-eyed wingnut crazy, while its news pages were generally factual and about as objective as newspapers get. That may be changing, and not in a good way. In this article, the WSJ starts using the term death tax on its news pages.

Death tax is an iconic example of focus-group-tested spin. In the 1990s, Republicans started denouncing "the death tax" because the correct term, federal estate tax, sounded too reasonable. Estates are something rich people own, so the federal estate tax sounds like a tax on the rich -- which it is. (In 2009 an estate has to be over $3.5 million before any federal estate tax is owed.) But since everybody dies eventually, a "death tax" sounds universal. As a result, lots of poor and middle class people think they will pay a "death tax" when they really won't.

The success of the death-tax label has led to even more aggressive spin, like the Republicans' attempt to label the Democratic Party as the "Democrat Party" -- which just sounds worse for some reason. Maybe we'll soon be seeing that in the WSJ news columns too.

Glenn Greenwald points out that the Washington Post is filling the WSJ's old role: Its news reporting is still generally good, but it's editorial page has become "a leading outlet for right-wing advocacy".

SNL lays it on Goldman Sachs for getting H1N1 vaccine sooner than many schools and hospitals.

A few weeks ago I told you about a survey of Oklahoma high school students that Strategic Vision claimed to have done, and why Nate Silver thought they made their numbers up. Well, an Oklahoma state representative had all the seniors in all the public schools in his district answer the same questions, and guess what? Their answers were much better than what Strategic Vision reported.

For example, in the SV survey, only 23% of students could name George Washington as our first president. But 98% of the actual students could. Nate is standing by his charge that SV made their results up.
Wind power became more real to me last week, when I took my familiar drive from Chicago to my hometown in Quincy, IL and passed a new wind farm off Highway 136. Later in the trip I also passed this wind farm in Mendota. People complain about the big windmills' looks, but I kind of like them. Their slow, easy motion suits the rural landscape.