Monday, May 30, 2011

Give 'em Hell

I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth, and they thought it was hell.

-- President "Give-'em-Hell-Harry" Truman

In this week's Sift:

  • Is Medicare a Fair Issue? The corporate-media pundits are telling us how unfair it is for the Democrats to "demagogue" the Medicare issue. But what is really unfair is the way Medicare came under attack to begin with.
  • The Sifted Bookshelf: Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. Millions of people are spending billions of hours in the virtual worlds of online games. What can those games teach us about fixing the "user experience" of the real world?
  • Short Notes. Cities as software. Sane Republicans need not apply for the 2012 nomination. Sarah still isn't running. Rolling Stone profiles Roger Ailes. A Palestinian view of Obama's Middle East speech. And I've added a Link-of-the-Day to the Weekly Sift Facebook page.
  • This Week's Challenge. Lots of people had advice for new graduates last week. This week: How do you talk to people who disagree with you?

Is Medicare a Fair Issue?

This week the momentum officially changed. Democrats have been reeling since the debacle of the 2010 election. They've been wondering how far the tidal wave would roll and how many of them it would wash out to sea.

Tuesday, Democrat Kathy Hochul won a special election in a very Republican congressional district. She did it by focusing on her opponent's support for the Paul Ryan budget plan, which would privatize Medicare. 235 Republicans in the House and 40 in the Senate voted for that proposal, so they'll be hearing about the issue too.

Suddenly, it's the Republicans who are feeling the fear.

Almost immediately, the pundit class started wringing its hands -- even in the so-called "liberal" parts of the corporate media. Across the board, the pundits had bought into the following line of thought: Long-term, the federal deficit is insupportable. Something has to be done to rein in entitlement spending. The fastest-growing entitlement is Medicare, so it has to be reined in first. The Ryan plan may have been extreme, but at least it recognized those realities. Now, everyone will be afraid to touch Medicare so nothing will happen. We're all doomed because the Democrats are demagoguing the Medicare issue.

Is that really what's happening?

The frame. Here's one of the most widely applicable tricks of propaganda: If you want to attack a party, a program, an ethnic group or whatever, you start with a problem that affects everybody. Then you take the particular way that the universal problem affects the people you want to attack, and you spin it as if it were a completely unique problem, something that "those people" need to fix right away.

It's easy. Sexual abuse of children by teachers and ministers is a problem, so let's ignore it and define the special problem of sexual abuse by gay teachers and ministers. What's wrong with those gay people? We have to do something about their child-abuse problem right away. You're not condoning gay sexual predators, are you?

Or we could ignore the general crime problem and focus on crime by illegal immigrants. Do they commit more burglaries and murders than comparable citizens? No. Is it worse to be killed by an illegal immigrant than by a citizen? I doubt it. But illegal immigrants have the same criminal tendencies that all humans do, so you can find cases to play up and make into a big deal.

That's what Republicans have done to Medicare. They've never liked Medicare, because it delivers a valuable service and so is like a billboard advertising the good that government can do. Republicans were against passing Medicare to begin with, and they make a serious run at it maybe once a decade.

To attack Medicare, Republicans can use this larger problem: America has by far the most expensive health care system in the world, one whose costs are pulling away from those of any other country -- including countries that consider health care a right, that cover everybody, and that have higher life expectancies than we do.

President Obama's Affordable Care Act began to attack that problem, but it's just a beginning. If we were serious, we'd be studying countries like France, Germany, and Japan to see how they deliver better medical care for 2/3rds (or less) of what we spend per person.

But instead, Republicans have shaped the expensive-American-health-care problem into a bludgeon to use against Medicare: Medicare is too expensive (just like the rest of American health care), and its costs are rising fast (just like the rest of American health care). So Medicare's cost is a completely unique problem that we absolutely have to do something about right now -- even as we try to undo Obama's timid first steps at medical cost control in general.

Paul Ryan claims that his privatization plan will control costs. (The Free Market Fairy will wave her wand.) But according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, that's wishful thinking. Actually, the Ryan plan will just shift the cost of medical care from the government to old people. (Ezra Klein takes Ryan's case apart in more detail.)

So fundamentally, the Ryan plan is just a Medicare bludgeon: It ignores the underlying problem to focus on the particular program it wants to destroy.

What can we afford? These days, we're hearing many cries of "we can't afford it" because "we're going broke". But it's important to ask who is going broke and what, exactly, we can't afford.

One answer is: If medical inflation continues its current pace indefinitely, our whole economy will go broke. Eventually, exponential growth would push our medical costs higher than our GDP. In the very long term that's a real problem, and if the Republicans have any plan to deal with it, I'm all ears. So far they haven't offered one.

(I have a plan: single-payer health care. Model it on what the French, Germans, and Japanese are doing. Their costs are lower and are rising more slowly than ours. And they have lower amenable mortality -- fewer deaths from curable conditions.)

Instead, we're talking about particular government programs funded in particular ways, and worrying about the date on which the funding will be inadequate. To solve that, the Ryan plan draws a line in the sand and says, "We'll only fund this much."

That "saves" the Medicare program by giving up on its mission. Ryan just surrenders to the notion that our society can't afford to take care of old people when they get sick. (Imagine applying the same "solution" to defense: We'll cap what the government spends, and if in the distant future that turns out not to be adequate, each of us will be responsible for the cost of defending our own homes against the invaders.)

That's the outcome we should be working hard to avoid, not the one we should be embracing.

And that's the Medicare issue in a nutshell: Democrats remain committed to the idea that America will take care of its old people when they get sick, and Republicans are willing to give that commitment up.

That issue is totally fair. Democrats should use it to give the Republicans hell -- in the Harry Truman way, by telling the truth about them.

To a large extent, Republicans are just starting to reap what they have sown. They won in 2010 by spreading the false idea that government spending was riddled with bridges-to-nowhere that the Democrats weren't willing to cut. Now that they control the House and a lot of state governments, what do they want to cut? Medicare, Medicaid, education, and a bunch of other programs that deliver services people actually need and use.

You can't turn off an idea like government-is-full-of-waste just because it's inconvenient now that you're in office. People know that huge numbers of bridges-to-nowhere have not been cancelled. And they're going to resent giving up services they need while all that (fictitious) waste is still untouched.

The Sifted Bookshelf: Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

Unless you're a gamer -- which I'm not (unless Sudoku counts) -- you probably have no idea how much time and effort your fellow citizens are investing in virtual worlds. It's awesome.

In the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 5 million "extreme" gamers, who average 45 hours a week gaming. Other sources say that 10 million Western Europeans and 6 million Chinese put in at least 20 hours a week. And if you picture this as vegging-out time, similar to watching re-runs of Gilligan's Island, you don't get it. We're talking about spending time in a virtual world that in many ways is more challenging than reality.

Know what the largest wiki other than the Wikipedia is? The WoWWiki created and maintained by the 12 million people who play World of Warcraft. The Halo-playing community also has a massive wiki. Think about that. This isn't just time spent playing the game, these are massive community documentation projects, undertaken volunteers who just want to demonstrate and share their knowledge.

Once you understand that, there are a variety of standard reactions. You might deplore the extreme waste of time and effort. Or you could blame someone: Something is wrong with the gamers; they're escaping because they can't hack it in reality. Or something is wrong with the games; they're designed to cause addiction.

Jane McGonigal is a game designer and a director at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. Her new book Reality is Broken asks a different question: What is lacking in Reality, that people go into game worlds to find? And what can game worlds teach us about how to improve the user experience of Reality?

These are some of her findings:

  • Reality is simultaneously too easy and too unrewarding. The optimal human experience is to face a genuine challenge that we know we can overcome if we try hard enough and use all our abilities. Too often what we face in Reality is drudgery that may or may not accomplish anything -- or unemployment.
  • Games provide clear missions and well-defined success criteria. Reality usually doesn't.
  • Games emphasize hope over fear. You aspire to reach higher levels. And failure is nothing to be afraid of -- you just start over and try again. But Reality often emphasizes fear over hope.
  • Real work disconnects us from our social network. Games can keep us in touch with each other.
  • Reality trivializes our effort. The backstory of a game like Halo puts each individual's effort in an epic context. How often does your real job do that?
  • Reality is unimaginative and uninspiring. Things are the way they are, and we are seldom challenged to imagine them differently. But a game world can help us envision something radical.

The gaming community -- like the open software community -- demonstrates something we don't know how to think about yet: The 21st-century economy produces large numbers of people who are hungry for the right kind of challenges. Whoever figures out how to provide those challenges in real life will be able to channel vast amounts of effort and creativity.

The most interesting part of the book concerns "happiness hacks" -- simple habits that are clinically proven to make people happier: (Dance. Help a stranger. Get outside. Teach somebody something useful.) The problem isn't that we don't know how to be happy. The problem is that happiness-enhancing habits seems hokey, we have a hard time motivating ourselves to maintain them, and our everyday lives don't provide easy opportunities to practice them.

McGonigal describes a number of games that get around those problems. The most interesting was an experimental iPhone game implemented in Boston: GroundCrew. GroundCrew players submit and grant each other's wishes, which appear on a World-of-Warcraft-like quest board. The example in the book is of a dancer who can't leave rehearsal but really wants a latte. Another player queries the game for "quests" near him, sees the latte wish, and fulfills it -- gaining points in the game that will raise the value of his own wishes. I can imagine a lot of ways this model could go wrong, but the game designers seem to have anticipated them.

Watch McGonigal's 20-minute TED talk.

Do you have trouble motivating yourself and your housemates to keep the place livable? Do you want to settle once and for all that argument about whether you or your spouse does more housework? Do you want the kids to stop whining about every little thing you ask them to do?

You need to play Chore Wars. It's a game based on the quest-for-experience-points model, except the quests are household chores. The "players" design characters for themselves, agree on a set of "quests" and the points each one should be worth, and come up with real-life rewards for the winners. After the game is set up, players log in and claim the points whenever they complete something.

Basic accounts are free, and a one-time charge of $10 upgrades you to a gold account with extra capabilities.

Every day, huge numbers of adults play Lexulous -- online Scrabble -- with their mothers. "Check in on your mother regularly" is one of those good habits people feel guilty about not keeping up. But day-in-day-out, Lexulous players send a move, get a responding move, and maybe add a comment or two about the weather or how the grandkids are doing.

If you think "I'd rather get a call or a visit", you're missing the point. People who touch base every day are more likely to call or visit, and more likely to have something to talk about when they do.

The Quest to Learn school is using the gaming model to define a curriculum. Its web site explains:

Quest is not a school whose curriculum is made up of the play of commercial videogames, but rather a school that uses the underlying design principles of games to create highly immersive, game-like learning experiences.

Two sci-fi novels imagine how game worlds can influence Reality: Halting State by Charles Stross and the Daemon/Freedom™ series by Daniel Suarez.

Short Notes

The most paradigm-changing thing I read this week: Cities as Software. An Australian writing in a Dutch magazine points out:

The built environment and geography of a city is its hardware. … [V]irtually every urbanist I know is a hardware person. They come from backgrounds in town planning, engineering, design, architecture or activism around the preservation or possibilities of the built environment.

But cities are also software: sets of rules that define how spaces and buildings are used. And many cities have empty buildings -- idle hardware -- that are nonetheless expensive and/or difficult to access for temporary events. And yet, if you have enough temporary events, one after another, you have lasting change.

He goes on to explain how a shoestring operation, Renew Newcastle, is re-writing the software of an old Australian steel-making city:

In Newcastle in many respects nothing has changed since 2008. The buildings are mostly the same. The hardware is unchanged. Nothing has been built. No government has fallen. No revolution has taken place. Yet, on another level much has changed – dead parts of the city [are] active and vibrant, 60 projects have started, hundreds of new events have been created, and whole new communities are directly engaged in creating whatever it is that the city will become.

Recently, Lonely Planet rated Newcastle #9 on its Cities to Visit list.

When I think about what has made cities near me interesting -- Waterfire in Providence, Steampunk City in Waltham, the Lowell Folk Festival -- it's usually a temporary rewrite of the city software, not new hardware.

Here's what you need to know about the race for the 2012 Republican nomination: Sane people need not apply.This video was created to attack Jon Huntsman as a RINO (Republican in Name Only). But if you showed it to the average Independent, I think they'd vote for him. I was halfway through before I grokked the rhino image and realized it was supposed to be negative.

I'm constantly bewildered by the pundit-class assumption that the Republican establishment will control this process. After Romney implodes, I keep hearing, they'll steer the nomination to Tim Pawlenty, who garners 6% in the latest Gallup poll. Or maybe Huntsman, who (at 2%) is within the margin-of-error of zero. Bachmann, Palin, Santorum, Cain -- they'll all get swept under the rug somehow.

Propagandists are like arsonists: They always think they can control the blaze, and sometimes they're wrong. The Republican establishment stoked craziness they couldn't control in 2010, and wound up with un-electable Senate candidates like Christine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle. They don't control the craziness now, either.

BTW, I'm standing by my prediction that Sarah Palin won't run. Yeah, she's hinting, but I predicted that, too. I was particularly amused by this:

a person familiar with a potential Palin campaign describes a different approach. “What you would likely see [in Iowa] if Palin were to run is an unconventional and modern campaign focusing more on mass communications, internet contact, and mass assemblies as opposed to the more traditional one-on-five coffees,” the insider said.

The "insider" is spinning Palin's biggest weakness: She can't run a traditional Iowa/NH campaign, because she can't answer unscripted questions. The kind of blather she gets away with on stage or on Twitter won't work in somebody's living room.

Rolling Stone: How Roger Ailes Built the Fox News Fear Factory. And Media Matters gives a prime example of how it's working out.

The buzz has all been about the Israeli reaction to President Obama's Middle East speech. Rashid Khalidi gives a Palestinian view.

For a while now I've been thinking that the Weekly Sift Facebook page ought to provide something more than just a Monday-afternoon announcement that the Sift is up. This week I've started experimenting with a Link of the Day: A couple lines about something cool that I expect to say more about in the next Sift.

The Link of the Day is in the spirit of being a political blog for people who don't have time for political blogs (one of the slogans I've used to describe the Weekly Sift). It's just one thing. If you're looking for something to read over lunch, check it out.

This Week's Challenge

Last week's challenge -- what advice do you have for new graduates? -- got a lot of interesting responses. Only one person had a direct career suggestion (medical technology -- because it combines technology with people skills and subtle pattern recognition, it should be hard to automate completely). But more general advice (summarized and in no particular order) included:

  • Live within your means. (Several people offered some version of this advice: Spend less than you earn. Don't go into debt. Live below your means. Don't buy stuff you don't need. Take compound interest very seriously.)
  • Learn basic skills that will make you less dependent on the money economy. (This is my abstraction from a lot of more specific suggestions: Learn how to grow and preserve food, to repair stuff, to give first aid, to entertain yourself and others, and so on.)
  • Don't get married before you're 25.You don't want to hear the details. Just don't.
  • Make time to do what you love. If you can turn it into a career, that's wonderful. But even if you can't, don't lose it.
  • Bicycles. They're good for your health and the environment at the same time.
  • Don't let yourself rust. Keep moving, keep learning, keep adapting.
  • Maintain a social network. You can't count on staying in the same place or keeping the same job, so this won't happen by itself.

This piece of advice popped into my head while I was reading other people's suggestions: Don't wait for permission. If you want to be a journalist, go cover stuff. If you want to make movies, make them. Who's stopping you? Do stuff, throw it out there, and get feedback so that you can improve.

This week: Do you stay close to people whose worldviews/philosophies/politics are opposed to your own? Can you talk to them? How do you do it?

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift's Facebook page.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Where to turn?

If their elected officials depend on the corporation for campaign funds, there is no one to whom the miners can turn to make sure their workplace is safe.

-- GIIP Report: "Upper Big Branch"

In this week's Sift:

  • Jobs of the Future. Two consecutive jobless recoveries raise a question: Does the economy work differently now? And is concentration of wealth the culprit or technology?
  • Why I Hate Vouchers. Private-sector competitors to public programs achieve their "efficiency" by skimming off the easy-to-serve. That begins a vicious cycle of erosion, which continues until the public program serves only a small group of very needy, very powerless people -- who can then be ignored. If we had the stomach for it, we could achieve the same savings by ignoring the needy without going through the voucher charade.
  • Short Notes. An independent report lays it on the line: Massey Energy's calculated neglect killed 29 miners. What can we learn from the Rapture? Obama offers substance -- and is mostly ignored. Now that we have a Democratic president and a Republican Senate minority, judicial filibusters are back. The Catholic Church's Woodstock defense. I refuse to care about Arnold. The Onion outs the Facebook-CIA connection. It's OK to be Takei. And more.
  • This Week's Challenge. If not "plastics", then what should we tell this year's graduates?

Jobs of the Future

We've now had two jobless recoveries in a row. The 2001 recession technically ended in November, 2001 (see Wikipedia's list of recessions), but the total number of American jobs didn't return to its pre-recession level until October, 2003. And while the 2007-2009 recession ended in June, 2009, we're still nearly 7 million jobs short of the March, 2007 peak.

So recessions end, but jobs return slowly. Worse, the new jobs aren't as good as the old ones. Laid-off welders don't get rehired at Chrysler, they become shelf-stockers at WalMart.

As different as they seem otherwise, both Bush and Obama followed the widely accepted get-the-jobs-back formula: run deficits and cut interest rates. Interest rates plunged near zero. Bush got his deficit mostly by cutting taxes; Obama mostly by increasing spending. Both fought wars. But neither got a clean bounce in jobs.

What's up with that?

Some economists blame the workers: They don't have the right training for the new jobs. (Structural unemployment, it's called.) But if that were the whole explanation, some industry would be begging for workers, and some credential would be a magic ticket. What is it? If you were remaking The Graduate today, what word could plausibly replace "plastics"?

What if it's not the workers? What if the economy has changed in some sinister way?

Wealth and demand. Regular Sift readers have been down this road before. In November, I explained the argument Robert Reich makes in Aftershock: Concentration of wealth is the underlying problem. A mass-production economy requires a massive number of people with disposable income. If wealth gets too concentrated, demand lags, and then no one wants to invest in new production -- because who's going to buy the new products? So instead of productive investment, capital gets sucked into speculative bubbles like the dot-com bubble that popped in 2000 or the housing bubble that popped in 2007-2008.

Reich's theory solves the jobless-recovery mystery like this: Ordinary recessions start because investment and production get ahead of demand -- builders overbuild, factories over-produce, stores over-order. Then everybody puts the brakes on at once, and times are tough. But after six months or so, the over-stocked inventories run out, new merchandise gets ordered, factories start up again, and workers get re-hired.

By contrast, the expansion phase of a bubble isn't just over-optimistic, it's delusional. (The high-flying start-ups of the dot-com bubble had no business models. No amount of economic growth would have made them profitable.) When the bubble pops, the fantasy is exposed and there's no going back. So it takes longer for the unemployed to find jobs again, because so many of them will have to do something genuinely new.

Reich's diagnosis and prescription focus on politics: Since Ronald Reagan, tax cuts and de-regulation have tilted the playing field to over-favor the rich, leading to an over-concentration of wealth and a bubble economy. Undo that, and you return to the broadly shared prosperity of 1950-1980.

But what if it's not that simple? What if something other than politics has its thumb on the scale?

Technology and the neo-Luddites. Martin Ford's recent book The Lights in the Tunnel argues that concentration of wealth is itself an effect of something else: technology.

His argument is a refinement of the one Luddites made 200 years ago and that was made most entertainingly in the 1951 Alec Guinness film The Man in the White Suit: Eventually, automation and technology will eliminate the need for workers.

200 years ago, it didn't work out that way. Instead, demand expanded to match the increased productivity, which is how the average American or European now lives at a level of luxury that was unimaginable then.

Why won't that keep happening? Most economists are confident it will, but Ford makes two counter-arguments: First, we are approaching a game-changing point where machines become autonomous. The wages of machine-operators won't keep pace because there won't be any machine-operators. Second, the acceleration of technology may reach a point where economic forces can't keep up. In theory new markets would continue to be created, but those too would automate faster than human workers could be trained to fill the new jobs.

Low-demand dystopia. In either case, an unregulated market leads to a low-demand dystopia, where production depends entirely on capital, labor is irrelevant, and so only people with capital are economically viable. In short, income depends entirely on owning things, not doing things. So production shrinks to accommodate the needs of owners, and the unemployed masses subsist on welfare and charity.

If this seems incredible, Ford gives one very good historic example: the slave-holding South. Economically, slaves are capital, not labor. (The are bought and maintained like robots, not hired and incentivized like workers.) So the South was a society in which virtually all production came from capital. The result was a stagnant economy that worked well for the small owning class, but in which an ambitious young person without money had few opportunities. And the South only worked as well as it did because of exports -- external demand. An entire world based on such a model would be a low-demand dystopia.

Marx addressed a similar dystopian vision by having the government own the means of production. In practice, that didn't work out so well -- whether government takes over business (communism) or business takes over government (fascism), the combination becomes totalitarian because it's too powerful to control.

Instead, Ford proposes a complex system in which taxes shift away from wages to focus on capital and production, funding a complicated set of incentives for citizens to live in society-enhancing ways -- thus keeping income widely distributed and maintaining the mass market. I'm not sure this is any more workable than communism, but it does have the virtue that it can be implemented within our current economy, with the incentives supplementing wages rather than immediately replacing them.

Future jobs vs. futuristic jobs. Personally, I believe that Ford's vision is worth keeping in mind as a thought experiment that shows what's wrong with conservative economic policies. But I believe his dystopia is further off than he thinks, because economic forces have quite a bit of resiliency left if we stop sabotaging them by favoring capital over labor.

A short post by Matt Yglesias makes an excellent point: Most "jobs of the future" will not be futuristic. It has never been the case that new industries created the mass of new jobs needed. We're fooled by looking at the huge factories of the 19th and 20th centuries. They employed a lot of people individually, but collectively they didn't come close to absorbing the jobs lost when agriculture automated. (You can see the same phenomenon in China today. Even with a massive export market, Chinese factories are barely keeping up with the flow of peasants into the cities.)

Technology creates jobs through economic growth, not through new industries. For example, one of the growth professions of the 19th century was teaching. Teachers had been around forever, but until the 19th century only rich children had them. The growth industries of the late 20th century weren't rocketry or nuclear power, but health care and food preparation -- because prosperity let people live longer and eat out more.

Rich families today employ lots of trainers, coaches, therapists, decorators, and advice-givers of all sorts. If many more people suddenly became "rich" by today's standards, the economy would need a lot more such advisors -- and not a lot more nano-technologists.

I know it seems crazy to imagine an economy full of people advising each other -- who will make stuff? But it was just as crazy in 1800 to imagine an economy where hardly anybody farmed.

Why I Hate Vouchers

In an LA Times story running down the Milwaukee teachers' union, we get one small fact that sums up why I hate voucher programs.

Low-income parents can use vouchers to send their children to private and parochial schools, a decades-long experiment that [Governor Scott] Walker proposes expanding. That has left the [Milwaukee public school] district with a disproportionate share of students with learning disabilities — 19%. In voucher schools, which can return students to the Milwaukee district if they don't behave, the figure is 1% to 8.6%.

I'll bet it now costs the Milwaukee public schools more to educate their "average" student than the private schools spend. And no doubt voucher supporters are wielding such statistics to prove that private schools are more "efficient". But the underlying phenomenon isn't government inefficiency. It's that vouchers encourage the easy-to-teach students to leave while the hard-to-teach students stay.

That's how vouchers work -- not just in education, but in general. Government programs are based on the idea that we are a community, so we're all in this together. Voucher programs are based on the idea that we are all individuals, so if you can get a better individual deal, you should go for it.

The result is always the same: Fortunate people who are easy to serve can take their vouchers into the private sector and get a better deal. The pool that is left behind in the public program is harder to serve, so average costs go up, making the private-sector voucher a good deal for even more people, in a vicious cycle.

The Walker education-voucher program is eroding Milwaukee's public schools this way. The Ryan healthcare-voucher program will do the same to Medicare and Medicaid.

In the long run, there is only one way that vouchers will save taxpayers money: Eventually the public-program pool gets so small and so needy that it has no political power. Then we can lock them away in some cheap hellhole institution that doesn't serve their needs at all, and what are they going to do about it? Cha-ching!

Of course, we could get the same savings without involving the private sector: Just let public programs throw hard-to-serve people out on the street to fend for themselves. But that would be horrible and heartless, wouldn't it? The rest of us will sleep better if we achieve the same result by sleight-of-hand.

The same shell game is happening in states that privatize their prisons. Do private prisons save money? No. Even though (like private schools and private health insurance programs) they "steer clear of the sickest, costliest inmates", they cost more.

Back in the 90s, Newt Gingrich owned up to the erosion strategy, saying that he favored letting Medicare "wither on the vine" rather than attacking the popular program directly. Afterwards, pundits agreed that it was scare-mongering to quote Newt accurately on this subject.

Now he wants to declare another mulligan: He retracted his criticism of Paul Ryan's Medicare-slashing voucher proposal after a firestorm of protest from the Right. So he says that it's unfair if Democrats use the tape: "Any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood, because I have said publicly those words were inaccurate and unfortunate."

Democrats, as we all know, get to retract any gaffe they make, and no one ever mentions it again. Just ask Howard Dean and John Kerry and Bill Clinton.

Short Notes

The Governor's Independent Investigation Panel has issued its report on the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 miners a little over a year ago. Let's skip to the conclusions on page 108:

Ultimately, the responsibility for the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine lies with the management of Massey Energy.  … The April 5, 2010 explosion was … a completely predictable result for a company that ignored basic safety standards.

Massey didn't ventilate the mine properly, let coal dust build up, and eventually the inevitable spark came that it all set off. Massey was warned, battled federal safety regulators tooth and nail, paid some wrist-slap fines, and did things its own way until 29 miners died. How could that happen? Easy.

Many politicians were afraid to challenge Massey’s supremacy because of the company’s superb ongoing public relations campaign and because CEO Don Blankenship was willing to spend vast amounts of money to influence elections. … If their elected officials depend on the corporation for campaign funds, there is no one to whom the miners can turn to make sure their workplace is safe.

And that's a lesson for all of us. Corporations are sociopaths. If they can make money by killing people, they will. And if elections depend on corporate money, governments will let them.

The failed Rapture prediction triggered two Interesting articles: When Prophecy Fails in Slate and Rapture-Ready: the Science of Self-Delusion in Mother Jones.

Summary: Rationalization has great power to resolve contradictions of all sorts, and religious people aren't the only ones who use it.

While the media has been focused on the antics of Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich, President Obama has given substantive and informative speeches on immigration reform and the Middle East and education.

Out of this, only one line drew national attention: "We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps." The furor over this -- MIke Huckabee said "The President of United States betrayed Israel" and many other Republicans expressed similar feelings -- is a little mysterious. When has a U.S. president said anything significantly different?

In the spirit of Emma Goldman ("If I can't dance, I don't want your revolution"), here are the biting-but-entertaining political videos of the week: John LIthgow performs a Newt Gingrich press release, a hippyish chorus on a hillside reminds us that the issue with the Koch brothers is "the evil thing", and George (Sulu) Takei offering his name to counter Tennessee's new don't-say-gay law. Also, WhoWhatWhy recalls the classic George Carlin "I'm a Modern Man" routine.

The Onion News Network reveals that Facebook is actually a very efficient CIA program.

BTW, the don't-say-gay bill got watered down before it passed. Now it's only prepared materials that can't mention homosexuality; teachers can still answer questions about it. [Full -- and proud -- disclosure: My nephew Mike Stephens interned for State Senator Andy Berke, who is quoted criticizing the bill.]

Media Matters totals up the partisan split of Meet the Press guests, going back to the Clinton years. Conclusion: When Democrats control the White House, MTP splits its guests almost evenly between the two parties. Under Republican administrations, Republicans get a 60/40 advantage.

Ask yourself: Which failed presidential candidate have you seen more often on national networks: John Kerry or John McCain?

I just shook my head sadly during the John Edwards debacle, so I'm going to similarly restrain my reaction to Arnold Schwarzenegger. We'll have plenty of time to discuss their sex scandals if either of them runs for office again. And if they don't, I don't care.

On his NYT blog, college professor Stanley Fish comments on the deals Florida State has made with the Koch brothers and BB&T, which I wrote about last week.

Is the [Koch] foundation funding the study of free-market economics — a perfectly respectable academic subject — or is it mandating that free-market economics be promoted in the classroom? Is it a gift intended to stimulate research the conclusions of which can not be known in advance, or is it a gift intended to amplify a conclusion — free-market economics is good; regulation is bad — the philanthropists have already reached and want to broadcast using Florida State University as a megaphone?

… If, in the judgment of an instructor, “Atlas Shrugged” will contribute to a student’s understanding of a course’s subject, there is every reason to assign it. But if assigning “Atlas Shrugged” is the price for the receiving of monies and the university pays that price, it has indeed sold its soul.

It was fun to watch Jon Stewart debate Bill O'Reilly about the Fox-promoted, scary-black-guy controversy over the rapper Common (seen here with his monstrous friend Elmo). But I wonder if Stewart lost just by showing up, because his appearance helped Fox keep the story hot.

Remember 2005, when the Democratic minority had just enough Senate votes to filibuster judges nominated by a Republican president? The Republicans threatened the "nuclear option" -- eliminating the filibuster -- until a bipartisan "Gang of 14" rode to the rescue with a compromise under which only "extraordinary circumstances" would justify a judicial-nomination filibuster.

As a result, centrist Democrats did not support a filibuster of the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito, who turned out to be the deciding vote in Citizens United. (Justice O'Connor, the Reagan-appointed judge Alito replaced, has said that she still supports the decision that CU overturned.)

Well, now the Republicans have a Senate minority and a Democratic president is nominating judges, so of course that agreement is toast. Dahlia Lithwick assembles all the that-was-then-this-is-now hypocrisy.

A church-funded study of sexual abuse by Catholic priests attributes the scandal to the social turmoil of the 60s and 70s. The NYT refers to this as the "blame Woodstock" theory.

I agree with Matt Yglesias: It's fine if you want to make the case that a government program isn't working or costs too much. But once you have an arbitrary spending cap, what ends up mattering is the political clout of the beneficiaries, not the effectiveness of the programs.

This is why I get a chill in my bones any time I hear discussion of “caps” on federal spending. … Capping things is code for “let’s keep all the spending that lobbyists love and make up the difference by slashing the incomes of poor people.”

Evidence: Even at a time when the deficit is supposedly Public Enemy #1 and Exxon's profits are at an all-time high, the Senate can't muster the votes to eliminate tax subsidies for the oil companies. Let's take the money out of Medicaid instead, or cut more Pell grants.

Lawrence O'Donnell relates the history of "starve the beast".

This Week's Challenge

Several high school and college students are regular Sift readers. What advice would you give them about preparing for the future economy?

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift's Facebook page.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Schoolroom Philosophy

The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.

-- Abraham Lincoln

In this week's Sift:

  • Turning Marketshare into Mindshare. If no one trusts Lex Luthor but everyone trusts the University of Metropolis, there's an obvious deal to be made -- if U-Met is willing. Small wonder that in the real world, as the states stop funding their universities, special interests are stepping up to fill part of the gap -- in return for the opportunity to cloak their message in academic prestige and propagandize American students.
  • The Republican Field Takes Shape. Paul and Gingrich in, Huckabee out. And Romney can't escape the healthcare trap.
  • Short Notes. Florida outlaws sex. An FCC commissioner gets her legal payoff. Jon Stewart's un-Common takedown of Fox. Shakespeare or Batman? And more.
  • This Week's Challenge. Know any quotes that would look good at the top of a Sift?

Turning Marketshare into Mindshare

As states continue to slash their budgets, the headlines focus on cuts to K-12 education. And that makes sense, both because that's where the big money is and because just about everyone cares about some child who might be immediately affected by K-12 cuts. But budgets are also being slashed at the state universities, and in the long run that might just as important.

The trend. The new budget from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, for example, cuts Penn State's money in half, reducing state funding to 8% of the university's budget. And this represents a long-term trend, not just a reaction to the current economic situation. In 1970, Penn State got 37% of its budget from the state.

Other states have seen similar trends. The University of California was tuition-free until 1971. But under Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget, student fees in the U of C system will surpass state funding for the first time ever.

The student perspective. Federal aid to students trying to pay these fees is also being cut. President Obama's budget proposal cuts Pell grants, and Rep. Ryan's Republican alternative cuts them even more.

As a result, the days when a young person could "work his way through college" -- making enough to live on while paying minimal fees at a state university -- are over. To go to college today, you need either well-to-do parents or the willingness to take on massive debt.

And while taking on debt may be a reasonable financial move if you're getting a high-market-value credential like an MBA or an MD, it's hard to imagine degrees in special education or social work ever paying off, no matter how valuable such careers might be to society. A law degree may still be a profitable investment if you're going to Wall Street or becoming a lobbyist. But if you're planning to fight for social justice, it isn't.

Now put yourself in the shoes of a talented young minority student from a bad neighborhood. College already seems like a huge risk; few people you know have attended and perhaps no one has graduated. Cynical voices tell you that the powers-that-be don't want to hire people like you anyway. Are you willing to saddle yourself with, say, $100K of debt on the off-chance you'll be the exception?

The social perspective. Raising the costs and risks of college hardens the boundaries between economic classes. Even as we maintain the appearance of a meritocracy, the well-to-do children get the training they need to "merit" professional-class careers, while less privileged children don't.

Devil's bargains. Universities see this problem too, and it motivates them to chase after money that doesn't come from students or governments. So they press their alumni harder for gifts and manage their endowment portfolios more aggressively -- sometimes taking risks they shouldn't.

They also work harder to commercialize their research, which undermines their mission. The whole point of universities was to replace the guild system of the Middle Ages, where all technical knowledge was a trade secret, with a Republic of Letters, which distributes knowledge freely.

But in order to profit from something you have to put up toll gates, because people who can access your knowledge freely won't pay you for it.

Trust for sale. The most insidiously tempting way to raise money is to quietly sell off the university's greatest assets: trust and intellectual respect. Lots of willing buyers have lots of money. If no one trusts Lex Luthor but everyone trusts the University of Metropolis, then the solution is obvious: LexCorp needs to pay U-Met to distribute its message.

That's happening. This week, two Florida State professors drew attention to a deal FSU made with the Koch Foundation -- with the conservative Koch brothers, in other words -- to fund two professorships in economics. In exchange for their money, the Kochs get veto power on hiring for the two positions. Naturally, Paul Krugman's students need not apply.

Florida State has also made a deal with BB&T, an ultra-conservative bank holding company, to fund a course on ethics and economics. That sounds innocuous, but by "ethics in economics" BB&T means teaching that free-market capitalism is moral and socialism is immoral. So the deal specifies that Atlas Shrugged be covered, whether the course's professor finds it worthy or not. BB&T has made similar deals with James Mason University and Guilford College. Meredith College rejected $420K of BB&T money to protect their academic freedom.

BB&T also funds professorships at Clemson's Institute for the Study of Capitalism. Among its other activities, CISC runs an undergraduate summer conference on Atlas Shrugged. From its web site, I see no sign that CISC's "studies of capitalism" include, say, Karl Marx. (My nephew graduated from Clemson Friday. He had to read Atlas Shrugged, and endured a class from a global-warming-denying professor. Fortunately, his liberal antibodies were up to the challenge.)

For $30 million donated to George Mason University, the Kochs got the Mercatus Center, which specializes in giving academic cover to politicians who want to gut government regulation.

What's new? Billionaires have a long history of funding American higher education. That's why universities bear names like Carnegie-Mellon, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt. The University of Chicago -- where I got my Ph.D. -- is a Rockefeller project that he didn't bother to name after himself.

But something is different now. In the Gilded Age, the robber barons were buying their way into high society with their good works. Where a British financier might marry a cash-poor countess or otherwise induce the crown to give him a title, an American industrialist would build a library or save the local opera company from a financial crisis.

The best ticket into high society was a project with high name recognition, but none of the taints of filthy lucre. Hence the robber-baron universities have high academic standards and a great deal of independence.

Today those forces are reversed; money is prestige. So billionaires like the Kochs have no interest in high society, and they use their foundations to gain hidden influence rather than to build their names.

Propaganda U. Imagine being an impressionable young student at University of Alabama/Huntsville, and wandering into this talk at the College of Business. It's a Koch-funded professor from CISC and the Mercatus Center speaking in a Koch-funded lecture series. Are you being educated or indoctrinated? It's one thing to run into a politically motivated professor, but it is quite another to have professors who were hired by special interests to promote views beneficial to those interests.

As public funds for higher education dry up, that is going to become more and more typical. Right-wing political indoctrination will be the price students pay to get an affordable college education, in the same way that they sit through McDonalds ads to watch television.

Worse in the long run is that society is losing a platform for disinterested research, and a source of expertise that can challenge the "experts" manufactured by corporate PR departments. Decades ago, when doctors from the Tobacco Institute told us that the smoking-cancer connection was unproven, we knew what was going on. But how many people today realize they are getting energy-industry propaganda when a talking head from "the Mercatus Center at George Mason University" appears on their TV? And how many Mercatus Centers does it take to discredit all academic voices?

Democracy only works when the electorate has access to high-quality information, and has some way to verify the trustworthiness of the experts it listens to. Otherwise it's garbage-in/garbage-out. David Mindich put it best: "Government supported by an uninformed citizenry is not a democracy; it is a sham."

If you're wondering what "ethics in economics" Atlas Shrugged promotes, it's a lot like what Rand Paul was saying Wednesday:

With regard to the idea whether or not you have a right to health care you have to realize what that implies. I am a physician. You have a right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery.

Atlas Shrugged is filled with speeches like that. Yeah, doctors in socialized-medicine countries like Canada are just like field slaves in the antebellum South. It's exactly the same thing, morally speaking.

I don't need to take Paul's statement apart, because Lawrence O'Donnell already did.

A California school board has ordered that high-school science classes be "politically balanced" when they tackle issues like global warming. In other words: the science has to be balanced with oil-company propaganda.

Wonder what those upbeat Exxon ads are about? Hydrofracking.

A global-warming-denying think tank recently announced that 900 peer-reviewed papers shared their skepticism. Are those 900 independent looks at the topic? Not exactly.

The Carbon Brief blog took a closer look: Ten authors account for 186 of those papers. Nine of the ten "have links to organisations funded by Exxon-Mobil, and the tenth has co-authored several papers with Exxon-funded contributors."

For example, 67 of the papers were authored or co-authored by one person: Sherwood Idso, president the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, which receives support from Exxon-Mobil and has even closer ties to the Western Fuels Association.

The Republican Field Takes Shape

Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are in. Mike Huckabee is out. Mitt Romney still has no solution to the health-care problem that will kill him in the primaries. The Trump balloon is whizzing around erratically as it loses air.

By the time we reach the Iowa caucuses, we'll see a fading Romney candidacy, one other governor or ex-governor (Daniels, Pawlenty, or Huntsman) trying to pick up Romney's "reasonable conservative" mantle, Gingrich, a religious right candidate (I think Bachmann), and Paul.

President Obama should be sighing with relief.

Huckabee. Huckabee was the only Republican I could imagine both getting nominated and winning in November. His views are as nutty as Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann, but he looks and sounds much more reasonable when he talks about them.

Huckabee's announcement was a little strange. He denied all the practical reasons for not running: He could raise money, get support outside the South, his family was OK with running, and so on. "All the factors say go," he said, "but my heart says no." Maybe I'm being too cynical, but I can't help thinking there's something we don't know: a health problem, a family problem, a skeleton that might escape the closet -- something.

The interesting question is where the religious right goes now. I still think Palin won't run and they'll wind up with Bachmann.

Paul. Ron Paul is 75, would legalize heroin, and still thinks it was a bad idea to force bars and restaurants to serve blacks back in the Sixties. About 10% of the country thinks he's wonderful, but probably not that many more would vote for him in a general election after a campaign made his views clear. His support will seem formidable as long as the primary vote is split many ways, but (as in 2008) he will not pick up supporters from the candidates who drop out.

Romney. The health-care speech Mitt Romney gave in Michigan Thursday -- in which he tried once again to explain how his Massachusetts health-care plan can be good while Obama's nearly identical national plan is bad -- exemplifies why I expect the wheels to come off his candidacy.

The only convincing case for Mitt becoming president builds on the "compassionate conservative" theme Bush ran on in 2000: Romney can work with reasonable Democrats to achieve compassionate goals through market-oriented mechanisms that don't scuttle conservative principles.

The Massachusetts' health-care plan is what makes that case. Romney could build on that success with other market-oriented solutions to real problems, like a cap-and-trade system to control global warming.

But now you see his dilemma: Because Obama has occupied the lane that Romney would naturally run in, Republicans now consider Romney's natural message to be radical Marxism. Without that message and record, Mitt is just a well-financed guy who looks presidential and has high name recognition. That will get you good poll numbers when the election is far away, but it won't win anything.

BTW, Romney's health-care speech was pathetic. Unable to make his best case -- that RomneyCare is such a great idea Obama had to steal it -- he is stuck repeating boilerplate Republican health-care proposals: limit malpractice awards, allow interstate insurance competition, give individuals the same health-insurance tax incentives that businesses have, and so on.

That all does zilch to cover the 50 million uninsured Americans. The CBO ran the numbers when congressional Republicans proposed a similar plan in 2009. It concluded that after 10 years, the Republican plan would cover a whopping 3 million of the uninsured, but due to factors like population growth the total number of uninsured would not change.

Gingrich. Digby says Newt "puts disparate pieces of new age futurism in service of wingnut goals." He should use that as a slogan.

And she puts the "liberal media" on notice:

I'll be expecting the NY Times to treat his sex life with the same interest they treated Hillary Clinton's when she ran in 2008. Do he and his wife sleep together in the same bed? Are there any rumors about him cheating? (After all, it wouldn't be the first time.) The Times felt it was newsworthy for Clinton, it should certainly be newsworthy for Newt.

The Nation assembles The Eleven Craziest things New Gingrich Has Ever Said. #1 is Newt's dystopian vision of a future in which a "secular atheist" America is "dominated by radical Islamists". Whenever I meet a radical-Islamist-secular-atheist, I shiver in horror.

Short Notes

The Southern Fried Science blog points out the hazards of electing no-nothings to represent you. Because Florida legislators don't realize that humans are part of the animal kingdom, their anti-bestiality law accidentally bans sex in general.

Here's how our system works: In January, FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker was on the winning end of the 4-1 vote that OK'd the Comcast/NBC Universal merger. Wednesday, she took a job as "senior vice president for government affairs" -- top lobbyist, in other words -- for the NBC Universal division of Comcast.

Under the administration's get-tough rules against such revolving-door deals, she will not be able to lobby the FCC itself for two years. I'm sure that diminishes her future value to Comcast, but future value is not what the public should be concerned about. Her diminished future value makes it all the more obvious that she's being rewarded for her past value to Comcast, for the work she did as an FCC commissioner. But as long as there's no smoking-gun evidence of such a deal -- no signed contract, no taped conversation -- it's all completely legal.

It is not even a month since President Bush's FCC chair, Michael Powell (Colin's son), became the president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, an industry lobbying group. Multichannel News described Powell as "a deregulatory chairman who focused on marketplace mechanisms to spread broadband via cable, telephone and even power lines." Translation: Even back then he was a friend of the people who pay him the big bucks now.

The Troubadour uses Gerald Stern's poem "Behaving Like a Jew" to explaining why, as a Jew, he feels compelled to support the rights of Palestinians.

Presbyterians are the most recent Protestant denomination to approve ordaining gay and lesbian ministers. The United Church of Christ, the largest synod of Lutherans, and the Episcopalians already do. The Methodists are still fighting about it. (My church -- the Unitarian Universalists -- has been doing it so long it's not even controversial any more. I've co-taught classes with both gay and lesbian ministers.)

The reason this fight is so bitter and intractable is that it depends on what you think the heart of Christianity is. If the heart of Christianity is tradition, gay ministers are anathema. If it's scripture, the issue is murkier. (Christians typically ignore Old Testament rules that aren't repeated in the New Testament, and the handful of supposedly anti-gay New Testament texts only make that point after a considerable amount of interpretation.) If it's a set of values, the highest of which is compassion, then you look at a long-persecuted group of people and ask why. Finding no reason beyond "we've always done it this way", you end the discrimination.

The staunchest anti-gay Christians are the ones who believe Christianity is a text interpreted by a tradition. They are almost never convinced to change their minds, but denominations change as the old guard dies off.

Did Shakespeare say that, or Batman? I'm proud of myself for getting 26 out of 30.

David Morris charts Ten Depressing Ways America is Exceptional.

Not sure how it took me 5 years to run across this: Al Franken's "Gospel of Supply Side Jesus".

John McCain may have reversed himself on a lot of other issues, but torture is where he gets stubborn. He's not letting the Bushies get away with claiming that torture led to Bin Laden.

The only reason to pay attention to Fox News' latest scary-black-guy story, the trumped-up controversy over the poet/rapper Common, is so that you can appreciate Jon Stewart's take-down of their deception and hypocrisy. Jon is pioneering an attitude we should all try: "This isn't even fun any more. I barely even get angry about this. I just feel sorry for you guys now."

This Week's Challenge

Do you think it's easy to come up with a new Sift quote every week? Help me out. Send a quote that would work well at the top of a Sift.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift's Facebook page.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Surviving the Enemy

There are those in our own country too, who today speak of the protection of country, of survival. A decision must be made. In the life of every nation, at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat, then it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival on what is expedient, to look the other way. Only ... the answer to that is: Survival as what?

-- Spencer Tracy as Judge Dan Haywood,
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

In this week's Sift:

  • The Death of the Bogeyman. If you want to know how I feel about killing Osama bin Laden, you'll have to specify whether we're talking about the Saudi billionaire's son or the mythic Master of Evil.
  • The View From Peru. Hernando de Soto has long been the Right's favorite third-world economist. But I wonder how long that can last, now that he has started applying his theories to us instead of them.
  • Short Notes. Exporting democracy has caused a shortage. Maddow's amazing interview. The Daily Show's royal wedding coverage. A congressional candidate's entire web site gets spoofed. And more.
  • This Week's Challenge. Want to get a letter to the editor published? Here's how I do it.

The Death of the Bogeyman

Every now and then, a real person becomes a fictional character. It happens. A nice-looking girl named Norma Jean turns into the sex goddess Marilyn Monroe. Four guys from Liverpool become the greatest rock stars ever.

Some people say mythic or legendary instead of fictional, but it comes down to the same thing: Your real life gets swamped under the stories about you.

I'm told such people continue to be real, even after they turn fictional. But I can't say for sure. I assume you could have sat around the pool with Marilyn and worked on your tans together. It might still be possible to have Paul or Ringo over to play some Beatles Rock Band. But personally, the only rock stars or Hollywood goddesses I have ever known were fictional.

The only Osama bin Laden I ever knew was fictional too. Once, I'm told, he was just a rich kid from Saudi Arabia. But I never met that guy. Long ago he became the fictional Master of Evil, the God of Terror who stalked my country, the Bogeyman.

Now he's dead.

If you want to know how I feel about that, you'll have to specify whether we're talking about the Saudi rich kid or the Bogeyman. The real Saudi guy … well, I believe in human rights, and I suspect his DNA tests as human. So I would rather we had put him on trial, because that's the American way.

But like everybody else, I'm glad the Bogeyman is dead. How could I not be? Some of my friends found it unseemly to celebrate Bin Laden's death, but I didn't. The Death of the Bogeyman is one of the great old holidays. It doesn't get celebrated every year, like the Birth of the Savior does, but that's all the more reason to do it up right.

Just remember, though: The Bogeyman always reincarnates. I mean, Hitler died. So did Stalin and Mao. Pol Pot. Ayatollah Khomeini. Saddam Hussein. Evil just kept right on rolling. President Bush pledged to "rid the world of evil-doers", but (short of annihilating the human race) that's not going to happen. The Bogeyman will reincarnate. Soon, probably.

Consequences. Eliminating the Bogeyman always has unexpected effects. Saddam's capture made the war harder for America, not easier. Until then, Iraqis worried that Saddam would come back if the U. S. failed. But with Saddam out of the picture, Iraqis could focus on a new question: Why is my country full of foreign infidels? The U.S. lost 486 soldiers in 2003, the year that ended in Saddam's capture. But we lost more than 800 soldiers every year from 2004 to 2007.

Many people are predicting a similarly perverse effect of bin Laden's death: Support for the Afghanistan War will dry up. So although President Obama has seen a medium-sized jump in his popularity this week, the pendulum could swing against him if he doesn't start extricating us from Afghanistan, especially if his 2012 opponent can promote a vague Nixon-like peace-with-honor plan.

Alternet's Adele Stan speculates that Bin Laden's killing in Abbottabad might further destabilize Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons.

The operational consequences for Al Qaeda are probably small. Communicating only by monthly courier, Bin Laden couldn't have been a hands-on leader. So his significance to Al Qaeda must also have been largely as a fictional character -- the Man America Can't Catch, maybe because Allah hides him. His death will mostly just hurt their recruitment and morale.

New Era? Personally, I hope Bin Laden's death marks the end of the nasty and dismal era that began with 9-11. I think we all feel the change, but no one knows quite what it means yet. We'll be arguing about it at least through the 2012 elections.

We have an opportunity now to re-open a lot of conversations: Guantanamo, torture, warrantless wiretaps, and the Bush Doctrine of preventive war. If we play our cards right, those things could join the Fugitive Slave Act, the Japanese internment, and mutually assured destruction as relics of the bad old days, when we were all crazy.

It can be a new era for the Muslim world as well. The revolutions of the last few months had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, and Bin Laden posters were nowhere to be seen during the Cairo demonstrations. Bin Laden's big idea was that the dictatorships of the Middle East could not be toppled one-by-one as long as America stood behind them. His strategy was to go after America first, making us yank our hands out of the backs of our pseudo-Muslim puppets. That view seems irrelevant now.

No one can say exactly how things are going to play out in Egypt or Tunisia or Yemen or even Syria. But none of those stories fit into the Bush vs. Bin Laden narrative of the last decade. I never liked that narrative, so I have hopes for the new one.

I took this opportunity to review Terrorist Strategy 101: a Quiz, which was one of my first blog posts to get any attention. (It was on the front page of Daily Kos shortly after the 2004 elections.) While a few of the predictions are off-base, I think the logic holds up pretty well.

One of the stranger ideas to float around in right-wing circles is that we should have desecrated Bin Laden's body.

On the other side, some claim burial at sea is not in accordance with sharia, though others note various exceptions that might apply to Bin Laden.

BTW, I notice that Muslims say "sharia" or "Islamic law" while anti-Muslims say "sharia law". I don't know whether "sharia law' is one of those intentionally offensive phrases like "Democrat Party" or just a clueless redundancy like "Rio Grande River". If you know, comment on the blog or send me email.

A possible replacement Bogeyman is running into trouble. The Guardian reports:

Close allies of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been accused of using supernatural powers to further his policies amid an increasingly bitter power struggle between him and the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Several people said to be close to the president and his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, have been arrested in recent days and charged with being "magicians" and invoking djinns (spirits).

Witch trials -- it looks like the modernization of Iran has reached the 17th century.

Disinformation watch. Did torture produce the information that found Bin Laden? Nope, and nope, and again nope. Did the Dalai Lama really say that killing Bin Laden was OK? No, he didn't. Was Rush Limbaugh serious when he said, "Thank God for President Obama"? No, he wasn't.

On the Fox Business channel, waterboarding is a big joke.

Abbottabad turns out to fit perfectly into the Muppet Show theme song.

Jon Stewart's reaction: "Abbottabad sounds like the name most New Yorkers would have invented for the fictional place they would have loved to kill Bin Laden."

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. If Bin Laden had been captured rather than killed, we'd be hearing about how wimpy Obama is. But now John Yoo says killing Bin Laden was wimpy -- Obama should have tortured him for intelligence.

I think Osama fantasized for a decade about staying true to Allah while being tortured for intelligence. For him, it would have been better than 72 virgins.

Some of the same people who thought Bush's mission-accomplished stunt was brilliant also think that Obama has "pounded his chest too much" about Bin Laden. Like gorillas do, I guess.

You'd think Obama would know: Black heroes are supposed to be humble like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, not uppity like Jack Johnson and Muhammed Ali.

The View From Peru

Once in a while, it helps to go outside the polarized American system of Left/Right, Republican/Democrat, and get a view from somebody who on occasion will either please or annoy either side -- like the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto.

De Soto's book The Mystery of Capital is an icon among conservatives, because it outlines a capitalistic path for third-world development, one that focuses on establishing the rule of law and the transparency of markets. If you've ever said, "They don't need our money, they need to follow our example", then you're likely to be a de Soto fan. That's why he won prizes named after Barry Goldwater and Milton Friedman and Adam Smith.

But de Soto has one decided drawback as a right-wing hero: He really means it. De Soto-ism is not just a compassionate veneer to slap onto a policy of plutocratic class warfare. He really wants a legal/economic system that is lawful and transparent. What's more, he believes that the first world would do well to practice what it preaches to the third world.

So de Soto's view of the 2008 economic collapse is not likely to win him another Friedman award.

One basic idea runs through all de Soto's writings: Markets work well when everybody knows what they're buying and selling, but they work badly when doubts creep in. (Maybe what you're buying doesn't really exist, maybe the guy selling it to you doesn't really own it, maybe owning the thing entails drawbacks and restrictions you don't know about, and so on.) When there is no trustworthy way to dispel such doubts, even an honest seller can't get what his property is worth. And sometimes doubt gets so extreme that the market just breaks down, the way credit markets broke down in 2008.

When he looks at third-world poverty through this lens (in The Mystery of Capital), de Soto sees that a lot of the urban poor are not destitute, but everything they own or control is either off the books or otherwise ambiguous. They can use it, but they can't take it to a bank and get a loan. So they can't start family businesses or send their kids to college, or do any of the other things that people with recognized property do. De Soto wants to get poor people's unofficial property into a lawful transparent system, so that they can use it as capital.

But when he turns that lens to the 2008 financial collapse, de Soto sees that the first world had the kind of system he wants for Latin American, until we threw it away by de-regulating.

It is the business of government, de Soto argues, to create and enforce standards that allow people to know what they're buying. The great achievement of the West was the creation of "public memory systems" that standardized and kept track of who owned what, who owed what, and who was responsible for what risks. These systems replaced informal relationships and handshake commitments with publicly verifiable facts.

Over the past 20 years, Americans and Europeans have quietly gone about destroying these facts. … The results are hardly surprising. In the U.S., trust has broken down between banks and subprime mortgage holders; between foreclosing agents and courts; between banks and their investors—even between banks and other banks. Overall, credit (from the Latin for "trust") continues to flow steadily, but closer examination shows that nongovernment credit has contracted.
… When then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson initiated his Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in September 2008, I assumed the objective was to restore trust in the market by identifying and weeding out the "troubled assets" held by the world's financial institutions. Three weeks later, when I asked American friends why Paulson had switched strategies and was injecting hundreds of billions of dollars into struggling financial institutions, I was told that there were so many idiosyncratic types of paper scattered around the world that no one had any clear idea of how many there were, where they were, how to value them, or who was holding the risk. These securities had slipped outside the recorded memory systems and were no longer easy to connect to the assets from which they had originally been derived. Oh, and their notional value was somewhere between $600 trillion and $700 trillion dollars, 10 times the annual production of the entire world.

De Soto understands that there is no "free" market, if by free we mean unregulated. Markets are created by regulation.

Markets were never intended to be anarchic: It has always been government's role to police standards, weights and measures, and records, and not condone legalized sleight of hand in the shadows of the informal economy. To understand and repair one of mankind's greatest achievements—the creation of economic facts through public memory—is the stuff of nation-builders.

To avoid another 2008 collapse, he argues, we need to re-regulate finance. Governments should standardize and keep records on all the new financial instruments, and insist on accounting standards that make corporate risks transparent again. Otherwise, how can investors know whether they are buying a piece of the next AIG?

And if they can't know, why will they invest at all?

Short Notes

April's best satire. Exporting Democracy Has Led to Shortages of it in U.S., Expert Say.

a new study commissioned by the University of Minnesota ... predicts that if the U.S. continues to export democracy at its current pace it may completely run out of it at home by the year 2015.

House Speaker Boehner recommends we deal with the shortage by exploring "alternative forms of government, such as oligarchy or plutocracy."

Friday Rachel Maddow did one of the most powerful TV interviews I've ever seen: As the NRA convention was happening downtown, she got a driving tour of PIttsburgh's gun-infested Homewood neighborhood from its councilman, Rev. Ricky Burgess.

Earlier on the same show, she used quotes from the Republican presidential debate in South Carolina to make an important point that no one else is making so clearly: The party's libertarian small-government rhetoric doesn't match its meddling big-government social policies -- exemplified by a new Florida law about how low students can wear their pants.

Tuesday she was on Jon Stewart's show.

Speaking of Jon Stewart, Tuesday's show also had his royal wedding coverage. The royal family banned satire and comedy shows from using the news footage -- which they can do in the UK. Jon decided not to take that lying down.

In 2007, the possible presidential candidates who were making appearances in early primary states went ahead to run, while the ones who weren't, didn't. Using that criterion, Nate Silver says:

the 2012 Republican field is far more defined than most people think, with Mr. Gingrich, Gary Johnson, Mr. Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Mr. Romney as likely’s and Mr. Huckabee, Mr. Trump and Mr. Paul as maybe’s.

According to Frank Lunz's focus group, the big winner of Thursday's debate was Godfather's Pizza founder Herman Cain -- despite the fact that he doesn't have an Afghanistan policy and doesn't expect to have one until he takes office.

The first rule of political web design has to be: Get control of all the URLs for your candidate's name. Republican congressional candidate Jane Corwin must have missed that class. Her web site is, and a devastating parody (with all the same photos -- you have to see it) is now at

She says: "Together we can build a bright future that is lit with prosperity and opportunity." The parody says: "Together we can make delicious soup from the bones of the poor."

Can't decide which baseball team to root for? Follow this flow chart.

This Week's Challenge

If you ever think about writing a letter to the editor, try it this week. If you send one in, feel free to leave the text as a comment at the Sift. If you get published, leave another comment  with the link.

Thursday, I published this letter in my local paper, the Nashua Telegraph. Over the last 30 years, I've published a lot of letters, in everything from the NYT and Time to one of those free papers for shoppers.

Here are my tips for getting a letter published.

  • Don't ramble. Pick one point and make it.
  • Shorter is better. The more prestigious the newspaper, the shorter letters need to be (unless you're famous). My letter to the Telegraph would have been way too long for a major big-city paper.
  • Personalize. How does your experience give you unique insight? In my letter, I take advantage of the fact that I would be one of the last people to qualify for Medicare under the Paul Ryan plan. So I wonder: What if someday I'm the last Medicare recipient alive? Will they keep the program running just for me? Probably not.
  • Localize. Newspapers want their letters column to be a back-and-forth forum for their readers, not a megaphone for outsiders making nationalized arguments. So, for example, my letter blames the Medicare privatization plan on New Hampshire's two representatives, who voted for it, rather than Wisconsin's Ryan, who wrote it.
  • Be topical. In a major newspaper, you just about have to be responding to a specific article published in the last few days. (Name it!) In a lesser paper, you can get away with a topic that is "up" in a more general way. If you're stuck for a topic, try relating tax cuts for the rich to program cuts for the needy. Some recent article is bound to be relevant.
  • Don't be ashamed to aim low. When you've got your letter sharpened as far as it will go, you've got a judgment to make. Remember: Getting printed by a free weekly with 100 readers is better than not getting printed by the Wall Street Journal. (Telegraph circulation: around 27,000 -- a lot more than the zero NYT readers who would have seen my letter.)
  • Follow instructions. Every paper tells you what it wants to see on its letters. (Daytime phone number so they can call to verify that you wrote it?) Give it to them.

If your letter doesn't get printed, don't get discouraged -- it still gets counted. Sheer numbers will push a paper to print more letters on a topic. So if you see another letter making a point similar to yours, you may have helped get that one printed.

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