Monday, June 28, 2010

The Road Sifter

NO SIFT NEXT WEEK. Next edition: July 12

Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.
-- Benjamin Disraeli
In this week's Sift:
  • Minneapolis. This week's Sift comes to you from the best thought-out downtown in America.
  • Road Gadget: Three weeks with my iPad. I can't give you a nice simple justification for buying one, but I like it.
  • Short Notes. The wisest thing Robert Byrd ever said. A local Fox station has an open-mic incident after a Palin speech. Republicans vs. demography. McChrystal is almost famous. Fantasies of Hezbollah in Mexico. A simple depolarization scheme. Glenn Beck claims Thomas Jefferson. And if money is speech, then speech isn't free.

This week's Sift comes to you from Minneapolis, where I've been attending the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalists. In general the conference is not very relevant from a weekly-sift point of view, but Minneapolis itself is.

Any city that is trying to figure out what to do with its downtown should come study Minneapolis, where the planners have managed to steal all the useful features of a big suburban shopping mall without bulldozing their history or losing the flavor of a traditional downtown. Downtown Minneapolis is bustling, accessible by public transit, pleasant to wander in, and environmentally conscious. It's the city's hub for business as well as entertainment.

Downtown (see map) is really two shopping districts overlaid. The heart of ground-level downtown is the Nicollet Mall, an 11-block long stretch of Nicollet Avenue that has wide sidewalks and two traffic lanes reserved for buses -- many of which are free for rides up and down the Mall. It's anchored at one end by the beautiful Hennipin County LIbrary and the light rail station (which will take you to the Mall of America, if you really think that's necessary), and at the other by the Convention Center. In between are a very un-mall-like variety of retailers, from unique local shops and restaurants to big chain stores like Macy's and Barnes & Noble.

But of course this is Minneapolis, the coldest major city in America. So at a second-floor level is the Skyway -- an eight-mile system of enclosed corridors that zig-zag across the downtown area. The Skyway connects the Convention Center, lobbies of the major hotels, atria of the big corporate and government office buildings, upper levels of the department stores, and another collection of restaurants and coffee shops. You can get almost anywhere without braving an uncontrolled climate, and the hotels and office buildings give you lots of fountains and other public art to look at. (Ground-level downtown has even more wonderful sculpture.)

Just outside the core of downtown -- either on the Skyway or an easy walk from it -- are the three major sports arenas for baseball, football, and basketball.

Many of the buses are electric hybrids that don't spew out dark clouds of diesel fumes. And Nice Ride automatic bike rental kiosks are all over the city. You just drop off your bike at a kiosk near your destination and forget about it -- another bike will be there when you want to come back.

And the most amazing thing is that it all works. America is full of failed downtown renovation plans that looked great on paper, but didn't attract either people or businesses. This downtown has plenty of both -- but isn't gridlocked with cars -- well into the evening, even on weekdays.

I can't say how packed downtown is on a normal weekend, because this was the Pride Festival. While walking from a conference event to my hotel Saturday evening, I suddenly found myself in the staging area for Dyke March. A peppy young woman explained that I didn't have to be a dyke to march with them, but I had somewhere else to be.

On the other side of the street (in more ways than one) I spoke briefly to a young man protesting by distributing free Bibles. (No thanks, got one already.) He clearly believed he was doing a brave thing, though as far as I could see no one had any interest in bothering him.

The most interesting thing I noticed while wandering through Loring Park was the number of vendor booths that had nothing to do with sexuality, be it gay or straight, for or against. One guy was publicizing the Automoto 3-wheel scooter (83 mpg and so cool-looking). It's a crowd, he's got a product to sell, so why wouldn't he want to be there? To me, that said more than anything else about the normalization of same-sex relationships during my lifetime.

Road Gadget: Three Weeks With My iPad
Just before I got an iPad, an even-earlier-adopter told me: "You'll love it, but it won't change your life."

That pretty well sums it up. Just about anything you can do with an iPad, you could have gotten done somehow with some other gadget -- a smart phone, Kindle, GPS, laptop, music player, game machine, or voice recorder. According to an e-book I downloaded, travelers in ancient times even used non-electronic tools like printed books, atlases, or watches powered by some ingenious spring device.

But although I have found no unique capability that makes an iPad indispensable, it hits a sweet spot of utility and convenience that has me carrying it almost everywhere I go and using it many times a day. I've been browsing the web, reading books, making notes, listening to music, checking maps, playing games, and sending email on it. No single reason justifies the expense -- "Now I can do X!" -- but I'm glad I have it.

Web access. I got the costlier 3G-enabled version, mostly because I hope to remain connected when I enter the Internet-free zone where my parents live. But it has also saved me the $65 that the hotel wanted to charge me for a week of WiFi access. I do my basic web browsing and easy email on the iPad, and then cart my laptop to Panera when I want to do something more complicated, like write and distribute the Sift.

And that's a good example. In theory, I could do the Sift on the iPad and travel without a laptop. At home I have synced an external keyboard to it, so the typing is no problem. The Pages app is reputed to be a decent word processor, and no doubt I could find some way to upload the text to my blog. But I haven't been able to make the iPad's version of Safari interface with Google Docs, so I can't just swap the iPad into the process I already use.

I think that's typical. There's a way to do almost anything if you're willing to be flexible and creative. But if you don't want to re-design your habits around the iPad, there will be times when you want a laptop.

That said, the iPad provides a near-ideal coffee-shop browsing experience. A laptop takes over your table and forces you to plan where you're going to put everything. An iPad picks up a WiFi network effortlessly and is as convenient as reading a book. The screen is large enough to be a good read, and the iPhone system of sizing and scrolling through a page is more convenient than anything on a laptop. Also, when I take a laptop to a coffee shop for an afternoon I have to search for a table near a power outlet. But the iPad's battery lasts longer than I want to sit in one place.

People who already have smart phones won't be amazed by the convenience of search for and booking a hotel room from the passenger seat of your car while whizzing down the Ohio Toll Road, but I hadn't done it before, so I thought it was pretty cool.

Also, the month-by-month 3G plan is very convenient. My 3G access will lapse at the end of this trip -- I'll go back to using the WiFi at home -- but I could activate it again any time I really needed it, and meanwhile I'm not paying for it. The speed is iffy -- better in some places than others -- and in general you're better off with a WiFi network if there's one around.

Email. The email reader is great when you need to go through a bunch of messages that don't call for long responses. The touch-screen keyboard is adequate -- much better than the tiny buttons on smart phones -- but two paragraphs is about the max I want to type on it. I mainly use the iPad email as a filter, leaving any lengthy replies until I'm at a computer.

Apple's MobileMe works just the way you'd want. When I go back to my main computer, the messages I downloaded into the iPad are still in my Inbox (but marked as read) and replies I send from the iPad are in the Sent folder.

Book-reader. I don't think the iPad kills the Kindle, for the reason I anticipated before I owned one: It's too heavy. The second day I after I bought the iPad, I was wondering why my wrist hurt. (Still, Amazon feels threatened enough to slash the Kindle price.)

A Kindle is like reading a light paperback, and an iPad is more like reading a heavy hardback; you need to think about how you're going to hold it if you're planning to read for a long time. The iPad is also a little larger, which doesn't seem like much, but makes a difference if the Kindle fits into your jacket pocket and the iPad doesn't.

Ignoring the weight, the iPad provides a great reading experience. As with the Kindle, I very quickly lose the "I'm reading on my iPad" awareness and sink into the book.

I wasn't sold on the iBook app when I first tried it, but it grew on me -- mostly because it downloads Project Gutenberg's free books more easily than the Kindle. (I've often paid $1 or $2 to get a Kindle book that is free on the Web.) All my Kindle books are available to me through the Kindle app and I'm continuing to buy new books through Amazon, but I'm accumulating a library of free classics in iBook.

The iPad has greater resolution than the Kindle, but it uses projected rather than reflected light, so which is easier on the eyes is an individual decision. (The iPad has an advantage over the Kindle if you want to read after your significant other has turned the lights out.) Both are hard to read in direct sunlight, and polarized sunglasses make the iPad almost invisible. So paperbacks are still the best beach reading, especially given the sand-and-water thing.

Games. I'm old-fashioned in the games I play: Free Cell, Sudoku, crossword puzzles. I put a Sudoku program on my Kindle, but the interface was harder than the puzzles. I don't play anything on the iPad that I couldn't play on a laptop, but given the choice I'll play them on the iPad, which for some ineffable reason promotes a more playful mood.

Deficiencies and disappointments. The main thing you need to understand about the iPad is that it's been optimized for consuming information, not producing it. Reading War and Peace on the iPad would be great; writing it would be difficult.

The lack of a Flash player means that a lot of embedded video on the web doesn't work. YouTube works, and I've heard good things about the NetFlicks app. But mainly you're supposed to buy your video from ITunes. The lack of Flash keeps out free competition like Hulu. And if I have the internet and a microphone, why can't I use Skype to make phone calls? It looks like the option has been designed out for Apple's reasons, not ours.

Other deficiencies (like the Google Docs thing) look accidental and may get fixed over time. But every now and then I run into a web site that expects some Java-enabled something-or-other than either doesn't exist for the iPad or I haven't figured out how to turn on.

The Marvel Comics app was a huge disappointment, because it's a totally new comic store (with a poor selection, at least for now) and doesn't interface with Marvel's digital subscription package. If they fix that, the iPad would be an ideal comic-book reader. (Reading comic books on a computer at a desk feels stupid; reading them in bed with an iPad is just right.)

Finally, the iPad comes with almost zero documentation, and the individual apps usually have less. It's all supposed to be self-explanatory, except when it isn't. For most of a day I thought my iPad was broken because the display wouldn't rotate when I re-oriented the screen. Then I discovered there was a screen lock switch that I had flipped by accident.

Friday's NYT looked into the future of e-readers. Nicholas Negroponte is planning
a slate computer set to be released in 2012 that will cost less than $100. Plastic and, he said, unbreakable, the computer will resemble the iPad and will “use so little power you should be able to shake it or wind it up to give it power.”

Short Notes
To honor Robert Byrd on the morning of his death announcement, Daily Kos recalls the most prescient thing he ever said:
If the United States leads the charge to war in the Persian Gulf, we may get lucky and achieve a rapid victory. But then we face a second war: a war to win the peace in Iraq. This war will last many years and will surely cost hundreds of billions of dollars. In light of this enormous task, it would be a great mistake to expect that this will be a replay of the 1991 war. The stakes are much higher in this conflict.

A Sarah Palin endorsement may help you win a Republican primary, but you'll have to hope everybody forgets about it by November.

Meanwhile, a local Fox station had an open mic incident after a Sarah Palin speech in Turlock, California Friday. As the crew packs up, they can be heard to say things like "Now I know the dumbness doesn't just come from soundbites."
Lots of bloggers are discussing the "Demographic Change and the Future of Parties" report put out this week by demographer Ruy Teixeira. The gist is that by riding white-working-class anger and white-Christian social issues, Republicans are pursuing a very short-term strategy. The white, Christian, and working-class shares of the electorate are all shrinking, and younger voters lack the anti-gay animus so many candidates are relying on.
The growth action on the religious front is among unaffiliated or secular voters, who are the fastest-growing "religious" group in the United States. From 1944 to 2004 the percentage of adults reporting no religious affiliation almost tripled, rising from 5 percent to 14 percent. Projections indicate that by 2024 somewhere between 20-25 percent of adults will be unaffiliated.

This trend, combined with growth among non-Christian faiths and race-ethnic trends, will ensure that in very short order we will no longer be a white Christian nation. Even today, only about 55 percent of adults are white Christians. By 2024 that figure will be down to 45 percent.
By coincidence, Teixeira's points were illustrated this week by polls showing neck-and-neck races in places you wouldn't expect -- Texas governor and North Carolina senator -- and for a very interesting reason: Hispanics have turned against Republicans after the Arizona papers-please law. And they seem motivated to get out and vote. (A more recent poll gives the Republican a 10-point lead in NC, though.)
In the big story of the week, a group of guys forgets a Rolling Stone reporter is around and makes fools of themselves. Didn't I see this already in Almost Famous?

Time magazine points out what ought to be obvious: People don't backstab each other when everything is going fine. Counter-insurgency strategy is all about protecting the people and so giving them confidence in their local government. And that's a great strategy -- if you have a local government that deserves the people's confidence. The government in Kabul doesn't.

The North Carolina congresswoman who bravely exposed Muslims working as congressional interns and warned of the dangers posed by Arab-owned convenience stores is protecting the public from a new imaginary threat: the connection between Hezbollah and Mexican drug cartels.

Matt Yglesias notes that mainstream pundits love to complain about polarization, but you never hear them support any solutions. He proposes an obvious one: Elect representatives over larger districts and have proportional representation.
In any given election, Democrats and Republicans alike would have plausible pickup opportunities all across the country—even in New York City—meaning that it would make sense for the GOP to always at least think about trying to answer the concerns of American cities.

Then on the flipside, if Nebraska elected its three-member congressional delegation in a proportional manner you wouldn’t have the scenario where 41 percent of Nebraskans vote for Barack Obama but 100 percent of them are represented in the House by conservative Republicans.

Glenn Beck has devoted a bunch of time lately to "proving" that the Founders were all conservative Christians who never intended to separate church and state. These segments are typically nonsense -- there's a whole industry of fundamentalist "scholars" trying to make history more to their liking -- but Beck outdid himself recently when he tried to claim Thomas Jefferson. Chris Rodda (author of Liars for Jesus) debunks.
The NYT's Room for Debate blog discusses the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the law against giving material support to organizations that the government has labeled as "terrorist", even if that "material support" is your public-relations advice or your speaking out on their behalf.

Digby points out the logic connecting recent decisions of the Rogers Court:
If you believe that multi-national corporations are exercising a right to free speech by spending unlimited funds to influence elections to their benefit, then you would naturally assume that exercising your right to free speech to influence organizations is equivalent to giving them money. The consistent concept for this court isn't free speech at all, it's their belief that money equals speech.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Popular Feelings

No amount of architect's plans, bricks and mortar will build a house. Someone must have the wish to build it. So with the modern democratic state. Statesmanship cannot rest upon the good sense of its program. It must find popular feeling, organize it, and make that the motive power of government. ... The task of reform consists not in presenting a state with progressive laws, but in getting the people to want them.
-- Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Politics, 1913
In this week's Sift:
  • The Summer of our Discontent. Liberals have been quietly unhappy with the Obama administration for some while. Now big-megaphone folks like Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow are starting to speak up.
  • Republicans Stand Up for BP. Whenever I lose faith in the Democrats, I just look at the Republicans. Things could be a lot worse.
  • The Umpire Strikes Out. John Roberts said Supreme Court justices should be like umpires. Retired Justice Souter explains why that is nonsense, and Senator Franken demonstrates how un-umpire-like the Roberts Court is.
  • Short Notes. Krugman wants a deficit. The No Fly List strands a Virginian in Cairo. The costs of unwinding Fannie and Freddie. Glenn Beck's novel. Israeli propaganda falls apart. The treason of JFK. The Right targets the Girl Scouts. And more.

The Summer of our Discontent
In spite of conservative charges that President Obama is some kind of Marxist radical, the Left has been quietly dissatisfied with him for some while: The stimulus was too small and mistargeted, too many Bush war-on-terror excesses continue, and the health-care bill began as a compromise with the insurance companies and got worse.

Still, criticism from the Left has been muted -- until recently. This week two media personalities with a lot of credibility among the liberal rank-and-file -- Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow -- spoke out loud and clear.

Jon Stewart used the simple technique that somehow the rest of the media never learns: He contrasted clips of what Obama said about executive power during the campaign with what he is doing now. And then he invoked pop culture images of people corrupted by success (Jennifer Lopez claiming she is still "Jenny From the Block") and power (Eric Cartman demanding "Respect my authoritah!"). All coming down to this:
Wait a second. All that power that you didn't like when someone else had it -- you decided to keep it. Oh my God ... you're Frodo!
It's the perfect image: I don't think Obama is a bad guy. But like the One Ring, the kind of power Bush established and Obama wields shouldn't exist. Destroying it takes courage, and I am beginning to doubt that Obama has that courage.

Rachel Maddow was so disappointed by Obama's Oval Office address about the BP oil spill that the next night she declared herself "fake President Obama" and gave the address he should have given.

On Tuesday, minutes after Obama's speech concluded, Rachel and Ezra Klein had expressed their disappointment in the vagueness of his assurances. The speech seemed to be more about image and theatrics, mainly emphasizing that the government won't forsake the people of the Gulf and won't let BP off the hook, without saying much about what is possible or how it would be done.

Rachel's fake-Obama (stage hands carried in an Oval Office backdrop as she started speaking) was more direct. First, she admitted that no one knows how to cap the well, that BP was allowed to drill this well even though no one knew how to respond to an accident like this. And so:
Never again will any company -- anyone -- be allowed to drill in a location where they are incapable of dealing with the potential consequences of that drilling. ... We will not play Russian Roulette with workers' lives, and we will not play Russion Roulette with irreversible environmental national disaster for the sake of some short-term income.
She pointed out that since 1960s the oil industry has come up with no new techniques for containing oil spills, and that the techniques that exist have been bungled. (This is a point Fishgrease has been making regularly on Daily Kos, and Rachel's show is the only major media outlet I have seen cover that story.) And finally, she promised to push a much-stronger version of energy bill currently stalled in the Senate, pledging to use reconciliation to push past a filibuster, and to use executive orders whenever possible to implement whatever can't be passed by reconciliation.
we will free ourselves as a nation, once and for all from the grip of this industry that has lied to us as much as it has exploited us as much as it has befouled us with its toxic effluent.
The real Obama expressed none of this fierce determination, pledging (as he did in the health care debate) to listen ideas from all parties and work with everyone. 

Republicans Stand Up For BP
Every time the Democrats make me lose heart, Republicans remind me why Democrats are necessary. Time and again these last two months, Republican leaders have demonstrated that their hearts anguish over the suffering of BP, not the people or wildlife of the Gulf states.

The poster boy, of course, is Congressman Joe Barton, who apologized to BP's president for the "shakedown" of Obama getting BP to put $20 billion in escrow to pay claims. (This is great, BTW. It should head off the legal song-and-dance Exxon did with the Valdez. And while the size of the fund is larger, the general idea is no different than what the Bush administration did in other cases.)

Republicans quickly tried to distance themselves from Barton, who will chair the House Energy Committee if the Republicans win a majority in the fall. (That's the point of this DNC ad.) But Barton was just repeating a Republican Study Committee memo, not going rogue.

And he wasn't alone. Michelle Bachman encouraged BP to say "We're not going to be chumps, and we're not going to be fleeced." That was too much even for Bill O'Reilly, and prompted this attack ad. And Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour argued the Mad-Hatterish point that making BP pay would harm BP's ability to pay.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has filed suit to get deep-water drilling in the Gulf started again. The six-month delay Obama imposed could turn this event into a "catastrophe".

A great graphic brings home how the official estimates of the oil spill have increased with time.

21 years after the Exxon Valdez, a report says: "only 14 percent of the oil was removed during cleanup operations" and "the remaining oil will take decades and possibly centuries to disappear entirely."

The Umpire Strikes Out
For decades, conservatives have campaigned to change the way Americans talk about the Supreme Court, with very little push-back from the Left. And so major-media discussions almost invariably assume the conservative frame: Conservative judges strictly interpret what the Founders meant when they wrote the Constitution, while liberal judges "legislate from the bench" according to their personal sense of empathy. 

In his confirmation hearings, John Roberts summed it all up in this metaphor: "Judges are like umpires. Umpires don't make the rules; they apply them."

Two recent speeches have challenged both sides of that construction. Justice Souter's commencement address at the Harvard Law School demonstrated the naivety of the judge/umpire comparison, and Al Franken's speech to the American Constitution Society exposed the activist agenda of Roberts and the other conservative justices.

Souter did not refer to Roberts or the umpire analogy directly. Instead he talked about the "fair reading" model of constitutional interpretation: "Deciding constitutional cases should be a straightforward exercise of reading fairly and viewing facts objectively." This only works, Souter says, for "easy" cases -- the kind that don't make it to the Supreme Court, because lower-court judges are perfectly capable of reading laws and examining facts on their own.

He gives two examples of the kinds of cases that do make it the Court: the Pentagon Papers case in 1971 and Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In the Pentagon Papers case, two constitutional provisions clash: the First Amendment's guarantee of a free press and the Preamble's instruction that the government "provide for the common defense". So the Court's decision to allow publication was not based on an unconditional assertion of press freedom -- reading the First Amendment and ignoring the Preamble -- but rather on the government's inability to support its claim that publication would harm national security. Publication of plans for the D-Day invasion, the justices said, would have been a different matter. Souter draws this lesson:
[The Constitution's] language grants and guarantees many good things, and good things that compete with each other and can never all be realized, all together, all at once.
And that's why we need judges, not umpires.

In his second example, the meaning of the facts changes with time. The Brown decision (which banned "separate but equal" school systems for blacks and whites) reversed the 1896 Plessy decision (which upheld the constitutionality of separate black and white rail cars).  
To [the Plessy] generation, the formal equality of an identical railroad car meant progress. But the generation in power in 1954 looked at enforced separation without the revolting background of slavery to make it look unexceptional by contrast. As a consequence, the judges of 1954 found a meaning in segregating the races by law that the majority of their predecessors in 1896 did not see. That meaning is not captured by descriptions of physically identical schools or physically identical railroad cars. The meaning of facts arises elsewhere, and its judicial perception turns on the experience of the judges, and on their ability to think from a point of view different from their own. Meaning comes from the capacity to see what is not in some simple, objective sense there on the printed page. [Emphasis added.] And when the judges in 1954 read the record of enforced segregation it carried only one possible meaning: It expressed a judgment of inherent inferiority on the part of the minority race.
And that's why we need people, not machines or Vulcans, examining the facts.

Where Souter's speech is theoretical and academic, Franken's is partisan and radical. The Roberts Court, Franken claims, is not just calling balls and strikes.
The Roberts Court has, consistently and intentionally, protected and promoted the interests of the powerful over those of individual Americans.
A key technique of conservative legal rhetoric has been to marginalize the victims of its rulings.
So unless you want to get a late-term abortion, burn a flag in the town square, or get federal funding for your pornographic artwork, you really don’t need to worry about what the Supreme Court is up to. ... By defining the terms of constitutional debate such that it doesn’t involve the lives of ordinary people, conservatives have disconnected Americans from their legal system. And that leaves room for lots of shenanigans. 
While the public's attention is focused on cases about government power, corporate-power cases fly under the radar.
If you have a credit card, if you watch TV, if you file insurance claims, if you work – in other words, if you participate in American daily life at all – then you interact with corporations that are more powerful than you are. The degree to which those corporations’ rights are protected over yours, well, that’s extremely relevant to your life. And in case after case after case, the Roberts Court has put not just a thumb, but a fist, on the scale in favor of those corporations.

... What conservative legal activists are really interested in is this question: What individual rights are so basic and so important that they should be protected above a corporation’s right to profit? And their preferred answer is: None of them. Zero.
Franken listed a number of recent corporate-power cases and their results.
In Stoneridge, [the Roberts Court] stripped shareholders of their ability to get their money back from the firms that helped defraud them. In Conkright, it gave employers more leeway to deny workers their pension benefits. In Leegin, it made it harder for small business owners to stop price fixing under the Sherman Act. Now, the burden is on them—small business owners—to show that price fixing will hurt competition. In Iqbal, it made it harder for everybody to get their day in court. In Exxon, it capped punitive damages resulting from the Exxon Valdez oil spill because, get this, having to own up to your mistakes creates “unpredictability” for corporations.  Which, by the way, means that BP’s liability may be capped because the Court doesn’t want to cause an unpredictable impact on its future profitability. In Rapanos, it cut huge swaths of wetlands out of the Clean Water Act.  Wetlands that had been covered for 30 years. 
[I added the links. I encourage you to use them.] In this context, Franken finds the Citizens United decision (where "the Court answered questions it wasn’t asked, reaching beyond the scope of what they accepted for appeal to overturn federal laws the conservative wing didn’t like.") especially ominous. If the Supreme Court has an anti-people, pro-corporate agenda, then it is all the more important for voters to elect law-makers who will fix the injustices the Court creates. (Franken cites two such examples: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the bill that allowed Jamie Leigh Jones to sue KBR, whose employees gang-raped her in Iraq and then held her under guard in a shipping crate.)

Citizens United (where "the Roberts Court overstepped its procedural bounds so that it could graciously provide corporations with First Amendment rights") allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on electioneering. How many law-makers will be willing to undo corporate injustices if it means facing attack ads with an unlimited budget?

The Roberts' corporate-power agenda is sheltered by its innocent-sounding "umpire" metaphor and the conservative narrative that makes it sound like common sense. Franken closed by encouraging the Constitution Society to push a counter-narrative.
In our narrative, the legal system doesn’t exist to help the powerful grow more powerful – it exists to guarantee that every American is entitled to justice.

In our narrative, we defend our individual rights and liberties against corporate encroachment just as fiercely as we defend them against government overreach.

In our narrative, judicial restraint actually means something – for starters, how about ruling only on the case you’re presented?

In our narrative, even if those big bronze doors have to remain closed for security reasons, the door to our legal system should be open to everyone, because what happens in our legal system matters to everyone.

Short Notes
I see the following scenario: a weak stimulus plan, perhaps even weaker than what we’re talking about now, is crafted to win those extra GOP votes. The plan limits the rise in unemployment, but things are still pretty bad, with the rate peaking at something like 9 percent and coming down only slowly. And then Mitch McConnell says “See, government spending doesn’t work.”
Like everybody else then, he under-estimated the unemployment rate. But the rest of this exactly what's happening.

So what's Paul saying now? He's getting increasingly frustrated at the consensus among the talking heads (not the public, incidentally, though you'd never know that from the media coverage) that we have to cut spending immediately. Government spending is supposed to be counter-cyclic: When everybody else cuts back, the government should spend, and vice versa. The long-term deficit is a problem, but the short-term deficit is necessary.

I always sensed there was something undemocratic and anti-due-process about the No Fly List. But I didn't realize it was quite this bad: A U.S. citizen who gets put on the List while he's overseas can't fly home, even under guard. So Yahya Wehelie, who was born and raised in Virginia and has not been formally accused of any crime, is stuck in Cairo until ... until when exactly?

After he was arrested for marijuana possession in the US in 2008, Wehelie's Somali-immigrant parents sent him to Yemen to learn some good Islamic values, pick up a little Arabic, and maybe find a wife they could approve of. Now they just wish he could come home. "I’m not even a religious person," Wehelie says, "I hate Al Qaeda."

From yesterday's NYT: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac wound up holding a lot of the mortgages nobody can pay, and the federal government wound up with Fannie and Freddie. So the taxpayers now own 160,000 houses -- that's the current inventory, not the total number foreclosed -- and the cost of unwinding the whole mess is estimated at $389 billion.

Fannie and Freddie are part of the conservative government-caused-the-problem argument. A good debunking of that is here, or in the book The Big Short that I reviewed two weeks ago. And I'm not sure how you blame Fannie and Freddie for stuff like this, reported by a Wells Fargo employee in Memphis:
“Your manager would say, ‘Let me see your cold-call list. I want you to concentrate on these ZIP codes,’ and you knew those were African-American neighborhoods,” she recalled. “We were told, ‘Oh, they aren’t so savvy.’ ”

She described tricks of the trade, several of dubious legality. She said supervisors had told employees to white out incomes on loan applications and substitute higher numbers. Agents went “fishing” for customers, mailing live checks to leads. When a homeowner deposited the check, it became a high-interest loan, with a rate of 20 to 29 percent. Then bank agents tried to talk the customer into refinancing, using the house as collateral. 

Drat on Chris Kelly for spoiling Glenn Beck's new novel. Apparently, Glenn took somebody else's bad novel and did a liberal/conservative flip on it. The original author gets a thank-you.
Carefully cropped and mis-captioned photos, spliced-together audio tapes ... Adam Greenhouse and Nora Barrows-Friedman report on "Israel's campaign to spin the attack, distort the facts and quell an outraged public" after the Gaza flotilla raid. Meanwhile, the global attention is causing Israel to loosen the most obviously non-military restrictions on Gaza imports.
The US discussion of Gaza and the Middle East in general includes very few Palestinian voices. Here's a Chicago Public Radio interview with Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi.

My article last week on the demise of the Big 12 Conference was premature. The next day Texas worked out a deal that made it more profitable to stay than to move to the Pac 10, so the ten-team Big 12 will go forward. If smaller Big-12 schools like Kansas and Iowa State ever wondered who was in charge, they know now.
An anonymous tea-party consultant tells his story in Playboy. And an Indiana Democrat concludes this from watching a local Tea Party meeting:
I came away with the conviction that this group was ignorant, annoying, and clueless, but not, ultimately, a threat to democracy, mainstream politics, or the Geek Squad.

Digby recalls the "Wanted for Treason" poster of JFK that was passed out in Dallas just before the assassination. Just change the photos, and it would look completely up-to-date.

You know who's in the Right's crosshairs now? The Girl Scouts.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Making Change

There is some magic in wealth, which can thus make persons pay their court to it, when it does not even benefit themselves. 
-- Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1764
In this week's Sift:
  • Saving BP. In BP's hour of crisis, its highly placed defenders reveal that it is not just a corporation. It is England.
  • College Conference Realignment. This only looks like a sports story. Really it's really a business story. And it is best explained by that great philosopher, Cyndi Lauper.
  • Follow-up on the Gaza Blockade. My view gets some unexpected support from Senator Schumer.
  • Short Notes. A cross-cultural look at the difference between liberal and conservative minds. Cheney's favorite memo is full of holes. Defenses of don't-ask-don't-tell get crazier and stupider. Off-set your infidelity. And more.

Saving BP
The proverb tells us that money can't buy happiness, and the Beatles reported that "Money can't buy me love." But apparently corporate money can buy sympathy from the powerful.

Immediately after the oil spill, the usual energy-industry-supported politicians spoke up on BP's behalf. Texas Governor Rick Perry, for example, used the phrase "act of God" and said that BP "historically had a very good safety record from my perspective." After a reporter reminded Perry of the Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 workers -- think about that: a foreign corporation's negligence killed Perry's constituents -- he spun that positively as well, pointing out that BP would have been extra careful this time knowing that it had "a bullseye on its back" because of its past sins.

I could give many examples, but you get the point: A lot of PR flacks work for BP directly, and a lot of them work for BP while ostensibly representing the American people. When the crisis hit, both kinds leapt into action.

After it became clear that you couldn't wish this spill away or pretend it wasn't a big deal, a lot of those voices shut up for a while. (Even Fox News' Brit Hume stopped asking "Where's the oil?" as if environmentalists had made the story up.) Then the second line of defense emerged: BP is an upright organization that will do the right thing if we just leave it alone. So Rand Paul (while still insisting that "accidents happen") characterized President Obama's criticism of BP as "un-American" and said: "I’ve heard nothing from BP about not paying for the spill."

If BP engenders that kind of loyalty in American politicians, imagine how the Brits feel. (With our help, they've been overthrowing governments for BP for more than half a century.) London Mayor Boris Johnson denounced Obama's "anti-British" rhetoric -- apparently BP is indistinguishable from fair Albion itself. And the Evening Standard opined:
One in every six pounds that UK institutions earn in dividends is derived from BP: a reduction will have a direct, adverse effect, not just on fat cats, but on British pensioners. This is bad for all of us. We can understand American anger at this environmental and human catastrophe but the punitive approach to BP will help no one.
That concern is being echoed at higher levels. UK Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said:
It's in our joint interest to make sure that BP is able to go on functioning as an effective oil company
And Prime Minister David Cameron spoke with President Obama Saturday to "soothe transatlantic tensions" and stress "BP's economic importance to Britain, the U.S. and other countries." 

A few observations:
  1. We're going to have to watch the Obama administration carefully, or this poor-poor-BP view will seep into its responses to the situation.
  2. The conflict here isn't US vs. UK. Like Exxon-Mobil or Shell or Chevron, BP is sovereign unto itself. (PM Cameron should see what happens if he asks BP to do something unprofitable for the sake of the realm.) The fundamental conflict of our era is between corporations and humans. Voters in all countries need to look at their representatives and ask which side they're on.
  3. Corporations always try to win sympathy by pretending to represent people: workers, customers, stockholders and so on. They don't. In a crisis, management always hides behind these human shields. But it will gladly sacrifice any of them when it becomes convenient.
  4. If a BP bankruptcy threatens British pensioners, the British government would do better to aid those pensioners directly than to protect or prop up BP. That's the lesson of our Wall Street bail-outs: Remember how the hundreds of billions we gave the banks was supposed to re-start lending to small businesses? Imagine if the government had just lent a fraction of that money directly to small businesses.

Who says conservatives lack a sense of humor? Responding to a Twitter-post about the possibility of using illegal aliens to clean up the oil spill, Cato Institute scholar Michael Cannon tweeted that "they're very absorbent".  Yes, dehumanizing large groups of people is incredibly funny. I wonder if Cannon has heard the one about the number of blacks it takes to shingle a roof.
Ken Ringle, writing for the Watchdog website of Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism, thinks the oil spill may not turn out as bad as most environmentalists think. He covered a 1979 spill near Trinidad for the Washington Post, and was amazed that the effects dissipated so quickly. Crude oil, he says, breaks down faster and is less toxic than refined products like diesel fuel. Some of the bi-products evaporate while others are eaten by bacteria in sea water. (We'll see if this applies to the oil/dispersant mixture we have now.)

A lot depends on the quality of the oil. His 1979 spill was light Arabian, the highest quality crude oil and probably the easiest for the ocean to break down. The Alaskan crude on the Exxon Valdez was harder to break down, and it spilled into a much less vigorous ecosystem.

Color me skeptical, but Ringle doesn't appear to be an oil-industry PR guy. He seems to be making an honest point based on actual experience.

Republican House leader John Boehner seemed to suggest that the government should assist BP in paying for the oil spill. Well, more than seemedhe said this:
I think the people responsible in the oil spill--BP and the federal government--should take full responsibility for what's happening there
But then he noticed how bad the headlines about a "BP Bailout" looked, so he backed out of that position, claiming to have misheard the question. Someone in Boehner's office emailed Greg Sargent:
No taxpayer money for cleanup or damages -- period. BP pays. If the current law doesn't guarantee that, we are happy to work in a bipartisan way on reasonable new legislation.

Jon Stewart on BP's information-control tactics:
Apparently BP's greatest clean-up efforts are aimed at preventing fact-balls from washing up on the beach.

College Conference Realignment
Even though I'm a sports fan myself, I don't assume that Sift readers are. So I don't usually say much about sports, even when my alma mater goes to the Final Four two years running. But the apparent disintegration of the Big 12 conference seems bigger than your typical who-should-win-the-Heisman story, and you might want to pay attention even if you're not into college football.

In case you just said: "Colleges play football?" here's some background. Rather than hash out a brand-new schedule each year, colleges organize themselves into conferences: 8-to-16 teams that play each other. A conference is usually made up of schools that are in the same general region of the country, are roughly the same size, and have sports programs of reasonably equal strength. Most conferences include at least one titanic rivalry, like Ohio State and Michigan in the Big 10, or Oklahoma/Nebraska in the Big 12.

Fans get emotional about their conference identities and rivalries, but Cyndi Lauper was right, money does change everything.

So think like a business: College sports events draw a uniquely appealing audience for advertisers. Big schools like Texas or Florida have hundreds of thousands of alumni. So conferences like the Big 12 or SEC have millions of alumni, mostly with higher-than-average disposable incomes (being college graduates and all). And they don't all stay in Austin or Gainesville; you can find MSU Spartans or USC Trojans all over the country.

Back in 2007, the Big 10 tapped that potential by launching its own cable network. It seemed risky at the time, but now it's a gold mine. Because of the network, Big 10 teams get $15-20 million each in conference revenue-sharing, while Pac 10 teams get only around $10 million and the Big 12 a little less. So naturally, all the other conferences are looking into their cable possibilities, and they want to put together as salable a collection of schools as possible.

Two more economic factors: The top-drawer big-money bowl games like the Rose Bowl or the Orange Bowl (I refuse to include their corporate-sponsor names -- nobody paid me extra) are now part of the BCS system, which gives automatic berths to the winners of the major conferences. If you're not in a major conference -- I'm looking at you, Boise State -- it's almost impossible to make it into the national championship game, even if you go undefeated.

Plus, the national body that (sort of) governs the conferences, the NCAA, has ruled that you have to have at least 12 teams to split into two divisions and have a conference championship game, as the SEC, Big 12, ACC, and Big East do. That's another national-TV big-money event, so it pressures conferences like the Big 10 and Pac 10 to grow.

But college conferences aren't like the professional sports leagues: The Pac 10 may want to expand into the Denver market, but it can't just start up a new school in Boulder. It has to find an existing University of Colorado that it can lure away from its current conference, the Big 12.

That happened Thursday

One school switching conferences is not unusual, at least not in recent years. Penn State (formerly conferenceless) joined the Big 10 in 1990. (Giving it, oddly, 11 teams; find the hidden 11 in the Big 10 logo.) In 2005 the ACC poached Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College from the Big East, which in turn swallowed Cincinnati, Louisville, DePaul, Marquette and South Florida.

But Colorado's move was just the beginning. Friday, Nebraska joined the Big 10 and Boise State left the Western Athletic Conference for the Mountain West. For the moment, the Big 10 has 12 teams and the Big 12 has 10.

But it's not going to stop there. Five other Big 12 teams are on the Pac 10 shopping list: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M. (Texas is the big one. It's supposed to decide what it's doing tomorrow, and if it leaves the dam breaks.) The Big 10 may expand further: maybe just by adding independent Notre Dame, but possibly the Big 12's Missouri as well. What would the Big 12 have left? Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Baylor. Who's going to buy that cable package?

In other words, in spite of fielding teams as good as anybody's for a long time now, the Big 12 could be about to close up shop. And Nebraska and Oklahoma -- arguably college football's greatest rivals, who played some of the greatest games in NCAA history -- are going to be in different conferences for the first time since the 1920s. 

Sing it again, Cyndi, maybe this time with a country twang for the Big 12 fans in the Great Plains:
I said, "I'm sorry baby I'm leaving you tonight. 
I found someone new he's waitin' in the car outside." 
"Honey how could you do it?
We swore each other everlasting love." 
I said, "Well yeah, I know, but when we did 
there was one thing we weren't thinking of
-- and that's money. 
Money changes everything."

Follow-up on the Gaza Blockade
Last week I told you that the Gaza Blockade is targeted at the civilians of Gaza, and not just at Hamas. This week a strong Israel supporter said the same thing. Senator Chuck Schumer, speaking to the Orthodox Union:
The boycott of Gaza to me has another purpose. Obviously the first purpose is to prevent Hamas from getting weapons by which it will use to hurt Israel. But the second is actually to show the Palestinians that when there’s some moderation and cooperation, they can have an economic advancement. When there’s total war against Israel, which Hamas wages, they’re going to get nowhere.

And to me, since the Palestinians in Gaza elected Hamas, while certainly there should be humanitarian aid and people not starving to death, to strangle them economically until they see that’s not the way to go makes sense. So I think the boycott is important for bringing about peace in the Middle East. To show the Palestinians that ... [interrupted by applause] ... to show the Palestinians that a path of living with Israel and the Jews is a better way to go than a path of total and obdurate confrontation.

And so I think that Israel has to continue the blockade. And so far, that's what's going to happen and let's hope it continues. And it's our job to support it.
Schumer uses boycott and blockade as if they're synonyms, but there's an important distinction. If Israel doesn't want to trade with Hamas-controlled Gaza, fine. That's a boycott, and it's Israel's legitimate privilege to make that decision, just as people who sympathize with the Gazans don't have to buy Israeli products or perform in Israel or screen Israeli films or invest in companies that do business with Israel.

But to keep goods out by force, to prevent those who want to aid or trade with or invest in Gaza from doing so, is another matter. That's a blockade, an act of war. And to wage war against civilians -- not to injure them accidentally while attacking military targets, but to target them intentionally -- is both against international law and morally reprehensible.

The obvious response is: "Hamas wages war against civilians too." That's true, and is also illegal and reprehensible. (As I said last week, I have no objection to a blockade that purely targets Hamas' offensive weapons rather than the civilian population of Gaza.) 

But from an American point of view, there is also this difference: No major American politician announces that shooting missiles into Israeli neighborhoods "makes sense" or "let's hope it continues" or that "It's our job to support it." And I doubt that many American audiences would applaud if one did.
Israel has appointed its own commission to investigate the flotilla incident after rejecting an international inquiry.
Add the International Committee of the Red Cross to the list of organizations who are analyzing the blockade the same way I am.
The whole of Gaza's civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility. The closure therefore constitutes a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel's obligations under international humanitarian law.

Short Notes
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt gives a fascinating talk about the five innate moral values, and how the appreciation of them differs between social liberals and social conservatives in a wide range of countries.

Dick Cheney has been pushing for the release of a CIA memo that he says will prove the effectiveness of "enhanced interrogation" a.k.a. torture. Well, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility has looked at the memo and found that it contains inaccuracies that undermine its conclusions. For example, it claims that waterboarding Abu Zubaydah led to the arrest of alleged dirty bomber Jose Padilla, and supports this claim by misstating the date of Padilla's arrest: The memo claims 2003, but Padilla was actually arrested in 2002, before Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded.

Sam Seder reports on "escalating border violence" in this week's edition of "That's Bullshit!"

Arizona continues to put forward its credentials as America's Bigotry Center: Yuma's mayor used his Memorial Day remarks not just to denounce the effort to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, but to promote the larger stereotypes behind DADT. Mayor Krieger lauded the typical soldier who fought in World War I and on Omaha Beach as "a man's man" and said:
I cannot believe that a bunch of lacy-drawered, limp-wristed people could do what those men have done in the past.
Eric Alva, a gay Marine veteran who walks on an artificial leg after stepping on a mine in Iraq, responded:
Because of my injuries, my wrist might not be as strong as it once was, but my fidelity to this country and its founding ideals has never once wavered. Gay and lesbian service members have always fought to defend this country — soon, we will be able to do so as equals. On the next Memorial Day, I ask Al Krieger to remember our sacrifices, too.

Not to be outdone, top Catholic military chaplain Archbishop Timothy Broglio cut loose with his own barrage of mental static about DADT. After repeating what the catechism says about homosexuality (i.e., it's wrong), Broglio presents the following points as if they were relevant:
  • "unions between individuals of the same gender resembling marriage will not be accepted or blessed by Catholic chaplains" Did someone think they would?
  • "First Amendment rights regarding the free exercise of religion must be respected." I'd love to hear the Archbishop explain how a soldier saying "I'm gay" violates somebody else's free exercise of religion.
  • "Does the proposed change authorize [homosexuals in the military] to engage in activities considered immoral not only by the Catholic Church, but also by many other religious groups?" Authorize? The Pentagon doesn't throw heterosexuals out of the military now. Does that mean it authorizes heterosexual acts? All of them?
  • "For years, those struggling with alcoholism have benefitted from Alcoholics Anonymous. Like homosexuality, there is rarely a cure. There is a control through a process, which is guarded by absolute secrecy. It is an equivalent to 'Don’t ask don’t tell'." Ummm, Timmy ... are you sure you thought this one through? The whole point of DADT is that a soldier can't say, "My name is Bob and I'm gay."
That's the weakness of hierarchical systems. (You can't get much more hierarchical than a military archbishop.) The leaders aren't used to being argued with, so they say stupid things. Gene Robinson, the first gay Anglican bishop, patiently responds

The Sift is overdue in examining recent developments (or non-developments) in Afghanistan. I'll try to fix that in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, here's Bob Herbert's take:
If we don’t have the courage as a people to fight and share in the sacrifices when our nation is at war, if we’re unwilling to seriously think about the war and hold our leaders accountable for the way it is conducted, if we’re not even willing to pay for it, then we should at least have the courage to pull our valiant forces out of it.

A great parody of carbon offsets: The Cheat Neutral web site allows you to offset your infidelities.
I got sick of listening to other people's commencement speeches, so I wrote my own.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Powerful symbols

Where knowledge is limited, and the desire to learn the complex reality doesn’t exist, public opinion can be shaped by whoever generates the most powerful symbols. 
-- George Friedman, 
 In this week's Sift:

The Gaza Blockade
When you tell an Israel/Palestine story, it's always hard to figure out where to start. Usually the right (or wrong) starting point can make either side sound like the good guys. In general, each side begins with some outrage committed by the other -- as if that event came out of the blue, with no provocation whatsoever.

I think I'll start with the first thing I remember. That's a bias too, but at least it's a different bias than most other writers.

I remember the Six Day War in 1967. I was ten. It was June and even though school was not quite done for the summer, I was home with a cold. So like any budding news junkie, I lay on the couch drinking one Pepsi after another (got to keep your fluids up) and watching the war on TV.

I was a huge Israel fan. We all were in those days. The news media had played up the statistics that made Israel look like the underdog: its population compared to the total population of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria; the size of the Israeli army compared to the armies it faced, and so on. Plus, Jews had been victims of the Nazis and Arabs got their weapons from the Soviets, so Israel was definitely America's team.

In those late-Civil-Rights-era days I was as innocently racist as any other white 10-year-old American boy. So for me the war had a cowboys-and-Indians quality, with Arabs as the uncivilized savages. On TV, the war was just a bunch of arrows on a map. No live cameraphone videos made the destruction real. The casualty totals were just a scoreboard, and our side was putting up a lot of points. I loved it.

I mention this so that you'll know where I'm coming from.  I've lost patience with Israel over the last 43 years, but I don't enjoy bashing them. I'd like to root for them if I could. But I just can't any more.

Gaza and Hamas. Israel came out of the 1967 war with control of Gaza. They gave Sinai back to Egypt in the Camp David Accords of 1979, but Gaza wasn't part of that deal. Israel unilaterally pulled out of Gaza in 2005.

The strange arrangement that passes for local control made Gaza and the West Bank the responsibility (in some nebulous sense) of the Palestinian National Authority, but then the Bush administration pulled one of its typical stunts. It wanted support for its claim that the Iraq War was promoting democracy in the Middle East, so it pressured Palestine's ruling Fatah Party into parliamentary elections it didn't want. The far more radical Hamas unexpectedly won those elections, and then the Bushies changed their tune: They encouraged Fatah to fight

That mini-civil-war resulted in Hamas controlling Gaza, which it made into a base for firing rockets into Israel. Israel struck back just before New Years 2009 by launching the 3-week Gaza War, after which a U.N. report accused both sides of war crimes. Human Rights Watch summed up the response like this:
More than one year after the conflict, neither side has taken adequate measures to investigate serious violations or to punish the perpetrators of war crimes, leaving civilian victims without redress. Israel’s investigations have fallen far short of international standards for investigations, while Hamas has conducted no credible investigations at all.
Blockade. Israel and Egypt have been blockading Gaza by land and sea since Hamas took control in 2007, and sanctions go back even further. Last Monday, Israeli commandos seized seven boats in international waters (and an eighth on Saturday) trying to run that blockade. They encountered resistance on one, and killed nine passengers (including an American who was shot in the back of the head, among other places). Some other passengers and a few Israeli soldiers were injured.

In last week's Short Notes, I called this a "pirate attack" and was taken to task by an Israel supporter in the blog comments. I promised to figure out what I'm talking about before saying anything else.

In the reading I've done since, there seem to be three separate questions about the Israeli raid that could have different answers:
  • Was it legal under international law?
  • Was it moral?
  • Was it good policy for Israel?

I'm going to say "no" on all three. Here's how I analyze it: As my commenter pointed out, the legal question is more complicated than just whether the ship was in international waters. If the blockade itself is legal, then the blockade line can run into international waters if it doesn't go unreasonably far outside the territorial 12-mile limit. This raid happened 40 miles out (some sources say 80), but I'm not too bothered by that: The point of international law here is to prevent mistakes that widen the conflict. The flotilla knew about the blockade and had announced the intention to break it.

To me the key issue is the legality of the blockade itself. As in all these terrorism-related conflicts, international law is a little out of date. You run into questions that don't make much sense, like whether Gaza is a country and whether Israel is at war with that country. Leave that stuff aside; Israel is right that you can't apply the legalisms too literally until the law gets modernized. 

The truly relevant questions are: Is Israel defending itself from a legitimate military threat? (I think they are. The Hamas rockets may not threaten the survival of Israel as a country, but we wouldn't put up with rockets from Vancouver hitting Seattle.) And is the blockade an appropriate response to that threat? In other words, is the civilian suffering caused by the blockade simply collateral damage from an operation with a clear military purpose?

And here the Israeli case doesn't hold up. I think a blockade that purely intercepted Hamas-bound weapons would be legal. A blockade of dual-use materials would be debatable, depending on the balance between military benefit and civilian suffering. (The current blockade keeps out cement needed to rebuild homes Israel destroyed in the Gaza War, on the grounds that the cement could also be used to build defensive positions like bunkers and barricades.) 

But the Israeli blockade goes way beyond that, keeping out anything Gazans might use to rebuild their economy or make life enjoyable. The Israeli human rights organization Gisha compiled a list of permitted and prohibited materials. (It's not official -- I don't think there is an official list -- but has been compiled from the import requests that have been granted and refused.) Prohibited imports include most spices, newspapers, fruits, seeds and nuts, and a lot of other things with no apparent military value. Basic foodstuffs like rice are allowed.

It seems clear to me that the purpose of the blockade is to punish the civilian population of Gaza for its support of Hamas. As Dov Weissglass, an advisor to the Sharon and Olmert administrations, put it in 2006: "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger." In other words, the Israelis know how bad it would look to have Gazans dying in the streets, but they want to keep them as miserable as possible.

A blockade targeted at civilians is as illegal as any other act of war targeted at civilians. (The UN Human Rights Commissioner agrees.) So the blockade and the raid enforcing it are illegal.

Second question: Is it moral? Obviously not, for the same reasons. If Israel were just doing what was necessary to stop Hamas attacks, I'd empathize. ("If only that were true," muses Peter Beinart.) But they're not. They're intentionally punishing the civilian population.

Finally, is it good policy? The George Friedman article I quoted up top is spot on here. A lot of Israel apologists have talked about how the flotilla was looking for trouble. Well, duh. That's the whole point of asymmetric warfare in its full spectrum from Gandhi-style non-violence all the way to armed insurgency: You provoke your more powerful opponent into doing brutal things that radicalize its opponents, alienate its allies, and demoralize its supporters. 

Mission accomplished. Israel had designed its illegal blockade to be just humane enough to fly under the radar of world opinion. (I, for one, was paying no attention. What Gaza blockade?) Now we have to look at it. That's what the activists on the flotilla hoped to accomplish, and with Israel's help they succeeded.
Cenk Uygur makes a good point about the 1-minute video that shows Israeli commandos under attack as they rappel down onto the ship: Israel should release all the video they have of the raid, not just the minute they want us to see.
I'm amazed at how seldom the media mentions the fact that Turkey -- the source of the seized flotilla -- is a NATO ally of the United States. Instead, Liz Cheney referred to "the Turkish-Syrian-Iranian axis".
More flotillas are planned, including one by an organization of German Jews.
A public conversation is starting that would have been unthinkable not too long ago: Is Israel a strategic liability?
Interesting case made by Peter Beinart in the NY Review of Books: Older Jews retain a strong liberal Zionist tradition, but among younger Jews liberalism and Zionism are splitting. 

Young Israeli Jews and young American Orthodox Jews, Beinart claims, are increasingly radical Zionists with little interest in Palestinian human rights. (A majority of Israeli high school students would ban Arabs from the Knesset.) Conversely, young American non-Orthodox Jews are mostly liberals who identify less and less with Israel. (In focus groups, young American Jews often refer to Israel as they rather than us.)

A 39-year-old liberal Zionist himself, Beinart deplores both sides of this trend, and closes with a call for 
an uncomfortable Zionism, a Zionism angry at what Israel risks becoming, and in love with what it still could be. 

The Sift Bookshelf: The Big Short by Michael Lewis
I've been struggling for a year and a half to understand and explain the financial collapse of 2008. The Big Short is the most useful book I've found so far. Michael Lewis has taken the arcane details of credit default swaps (CDSs) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), put them together with stories of real Wall Street investors, and woven the whole thing around one of the standard action-movie plots to make a very readable book.

Here's the plot as you've seen it in a hundred movies: Life is perking along normally, but a Really Bad Thing is about to happen. A volcano is about to blow, aliens are about to invade, a bio-engineered disease is about to get loose -- it doesn't matter what it is, the plot is the same. Anyway, a handful of people realize what is going on, they try to tell everyone else, and everybody just thinks they're insane until all Hell really does break loose.

OK, now imagine that the Really Bad Thing is that some large chunk of American mortgages are about to go into default, and make the whole financial system insolvent. The Big Short tells the story of how a few Wall Street outsiders figured it out and what they tried to do about it.

The characters are quirky and Lewis makes those quirks seem charming. Michael Burry, for example, never knew he suffered from Asberger's until his son was diagnosed with it. Obsessively reading stock market research in a room by himself just seemed like a good work ethic.

The hard thing to understand about the housing bubble and the financial collapse that followed is how so many people went crazy at the same time. Well, now I get it: There was originally only one crazy thing, it created a hole in the system, and all the other crazy things were just people trying to re-route the money flow to take advantage of the hole in the system.

Let me make an analogy: Suppose I invented a machine to turn rat droppings into gold. It would flip the whole economy upside down. Suddenly rat droppings are valuable. People leave their otherwise productive jobs to start collecting rat droppings. Other people start raising rats to get the droppings. After it turned out that my machine didn't really work, it would look like everyone was crazy. But there is just one insane idea, and everything else proceeds rationally from there.

That's what happened.

The original hole in the system was at the bond-rating agencies -- Moody's, S&P, and Fitch. The investors of the world trust those agencies to evaluate whether the corporations who raise money by selling bonds are going to be able to pay that money back when the bonds come due. It doesn't matter whether an investor has heard of XYZ Corp. or examined its financials -- if Moody's rates its bonds AAA, then they're good as gold. Every AAA bond, no matter who is backing it, is as good as every other AAA bond. At least that's what investors believe.

Now you need to understand something about the financial community: The people who finish at the top of their class get jobs with the big investment banks like Goldman Sachs. The people who finish at the bottom go to the rating agencies like Moody's.

OK, now the CDOs (i.e. derivatives) come into the picture. They're complicated investments that look like bonds but are based on huge pools of home mortgages. You don't need to understand them. What you need to understand is this: While there originally was some legitimate purpose to creating CDOs, at some point the smart kids at the big investment banks realized that the dumb kids at Moody's weren't very good at rating them. Moody's wasn't drilling down to look at the soundness of the mortgages the derivatives were based on, it was rating the derivatives by applying simple models that had been valid in the past. If you were really smart, you could create a fantastically complicated CDO that would fool those models. You could take a bunch of mortgages that should never have been made and turn them into a AAA-rated bond.

Rat droppings into gold.

Once the droppings-to-gold machine exists, the whole financial system starts to re-arrange itself to take advantage. Ordinarily, it makes no sense to loan money to people who can't pay it back. That loan is a rat dropping. But suppose I can charge a fee for making the loan and then sell the loan to somebody else who can sell it to somebody else who can sell it to somebody who can turn a bunch of these things into a AAA bond? And what if mutual funds and pension funds and insurance companies are as happy to buy those AAA bonds as if they had been issued by the U.S. Treasury?

Then it's logical to make as many of those loans as you possibly can. You can get rich by loaning money to people who can't pay it back.

That's what happened.

Now look at the secondary effects: Even as house prices go higher and higher, more people can afford to buy them, because the mortgage companies don't care whether they can make the payments. People start buying houses they have no intention of living in, because they can buy them completely on credit and probably sell them at a profit in a few months. And then people start building houses and condo complexes in places where no one wants to live, because they can sell them to people who have no intention of living there.

It's crazy, but it all makes sense given that somebody can turn bad loans into AAA bonds.

Now suppose you run a small hedge fund (like Steve Eisman or Michael Burry) or you are a couple of young guys (Charlie Ledley and Jamie Mai) who are on a roll and have turned $100,000 of your own money into millions. Suppose you're just stubborn enough to drill down through all the gobblygook and arrive at the fundamental truth: These AAA bonds are based on loans are never going to get paid back.

What do you do? Well, you can try telling people, but nobody is going to believe you. Moody's says these are AAA bonds, and in order to explain why Moody's is wrong you'd have to find somebody intelligent enough to understand your logic and make them sit still and listen to you for about a day. And if you found such people, 9 out of 10 of them would refuse to believe that things had gotten that crazy. "Nah," they'd say, even after they understood your logic, "that can't be right."

In stocks, there's a tried-and-true way to tell the market it's wrong: You sell something short. You borrow the stock from somebody, sell it to somebody else, and figure that you'll buy the shares back and return them to their original owner after the price crashes. If enough people sell a stock short, they correct the system: They drive the price down to where it should have been to start with. Along the way they get rich, because they buy the stock back for less than they sold it for.

The market had no mechanism for selling CDOs short. But it did have credit default swaps (CDSs). A CDS isn't a "swap" at all, it's an insurance policy on a bond. If you have bonds that you think might go bad, you can go to a big insurance company AIG, pay them a premium, and if the bonds do go into default it becomes AIG's problem.

That sounds sort of sensible. But then realize that the CDS market is completely unregulated: You can buy a CDS on bonds you don't own, which is sort of like buying fire insurance on somebody else's house just because you know they smoke in bed. And unlike fire insurance, AIG doesn't have to set aside a reserve fund to pay off on houses that burn. (Congress refused to regulate the CDS market.) You're just trusting that AIG can pay, because it also is a AAA-rated company.

Now here's the final piece of the puzzle: Once you do your CDS with AIG, betting that one of the CDOs will default (OMG!), AIG can sell its interest in your policy to someone else. From their point of view, your policy represents a stream of premium payments, and it only requires a pay-off if a AAA-rated bond goes bust. So your policy is now yet another AAA-rated investment that is ultimately backed by bad mortgages.

Get that? Your attempt to correct the mortgage-backed security market ends up creating yet another mortgage-backed security.

This is how the losses on mortgage-backed securities wound up being bigger than the mortgages themselves. When a mortgage went bad, the holder of the mortgage lost money. But so did all the people who owned the wrong side of the CDSs based on that mortgage. It's like a casino takes $1 million of bets on whether or not you will pay off your $100,000 mortgage. When you default, there is $1 million of winnings and $1.1 million of losses.

So in the end, the people who figured out what was going on failed to correct the market, and instead became part of the problem. No one listened to them, but they got rich when everything went bust. Of course, most of the people who were wrong also walked away rich after the bailouts. 

As you can imagine, Lewis' unlikely heroes wind up feeling odd about the whole thing. Michael Burry got out of the hedge fund business and was last seen obsessively trying to learn to play the guitar.

Short Notes
The National Center for Atmospheric Research just released a simulation of where the BP oil spill might go given typical ocean currents. Oil pools up aimlessly until about Day 80 -- around mid-July -- when it hits the Florida/Cuba gap. Then the currents very quickly pull it up the East Coast to North Carolina before shooting it out into the Atlantic.
More about the BP cover-up of clean-up workers' health problems.

I missed this last week: Susan B. Anthony scholars Ann Gordon and Lynn Sherr did a reality check on the pro-life movement's (and particularly Sarah Palin's) attempt to claim the trail-breaking suffragette as one of their own. 

This is all of a piece with the new Texas school curriculum, the sainthood of Ronald Reagan, celebrating the Confederacy, rehabilitating Joe McCarthy, defending the Japanese internment, the "failure" of the New Deal, the Christian orthodoxy of the Founders, and the Creation Museum: Increasingly, the Right presents history as whatever it needs history to be.

Harry Reid looked like a dead man walking just a few months ago. Now, as the Nevada Republican primary approaches and voters can see just how wing-nut crazy the alternatives are, Reid has pulled ahead.

You gotta love South Carolina politics. Where else could you refer to native-born American Methodist as a "f***ing raghead" because her parents are Sikh? (Sikhs, BTW, aren't any kind of Muslim, but some do wear turbans.)
How does Arizona get that bad rap about being racist? Maybe like this

President Bush confessed to a war crime, and said he'd "do it again to save lives." Now if only he could identify any lives that he saved.
Rush Limbaugh believes so strongly in traditional one-man-one-woman marriage that he'll try it for a fourth time.