Monday, January 31, 2005

Little Big Brother

Stories like this one always bring to mind the oft-repeated saying, "the children are our future." However, I never quite imagined it to be Orwell's future. In the largest study of its kind, the University of Connecticut surveyed "100,000 students, nearly 8,000 teachers and more than 500 administrators at 544 public and private high schools" on their attitudes towards the First Amendment. "When told of the exact text of the First Amendment, more than one in three high school students said it goes 'too far' in the rights it guarantees. Only half of the students said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories."

Obviously, something is wrong here, and it doesn't have to do with school funding. The content of our national education is seriously lacking, as the article later mentions. Not enough time is being spent teaching youth about concepts that are central not only to understanding our republic but to ensuring its survival in the future. There has to be a way to integrate these things into the existing educational frameworks. Reading the Bill of Rights and the Constitution should be standard fare in all high schools, period. I hate to say it, but the only reason that I ended up reading the Constitution is because my teacher insisted upon it, whereas most kids in my grade did not read it as a part of their U.S. History course. This is especially troubling considering that I was fortunate enough to attend one of the best-known private schools in the country. I can understand that teaching the Constitution must be rife with sticky political considerations, but when you're missing the point of the First Amendment, something has to change.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Margin of Victory

It seems that the editors of the National Review have concluded that for any sort of legitimacy to come out of their still-being-disputed gubernatorial election, the residents of Washington State are going to have to take away the win from Democratic candidate Christine Gregoire (who after several rounds of recounting has a lead of about 120), and hold a statewide revote. As NRO puts it, Dino Rossi (the Republican candidate) should have to "prove that the number of ballots accounted for by fraud, error, or illegal votes exceeds Gregoire's margin of victory." Funny, I remember a slightly different brand of legal reasoning from the National Review the last time this issue came up.

Hypocrisy aside, there are some pretty good arguments to be made against revotes. The already over-litigated elections of today are going to look as straightforward as Pericles vs. Larry Flynt once losing candidates know that they can force a totally new vote by demonstrating some presumably subjective (I don't see how you could make this kind of thing scientific) standard of possible voter fraud in the first round. Short of self-evident, truly massive vote rigging a la Ukraine, it seems to me like revotes are more likely to harm than help the election process.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Good news from Iraq?

For two days in a row now, the New York Times has run front page stories hopeful about the outcome of the Iraqi elections. The first, on the secular leanings of the main Shiite political parties, sounds pretty promising. The fact that the leader of the prominent Islamic Dawa party is unreservedly stating "there will be no turbans in the government" is cause enough for some optimism.

The second article, on the Sunni political future in Iraq, describes the growing consensus among Sunni Arab leaders that "there is too much at stake... for Sunni groups to reject the political process." Unfortunately, this probably doesn't mean that the anticipated Sunni boycott of the elections will reverse itself in the next five days. What it does mean is that what passes for Sunni leadership today has decided to side with the Iraqi government, rather than the insurgents. Although Iraq's Sunni clerics sound pretty damn rejectionist when talking about the January 30th round of elections, they take a more balanced stance on the business of actually writing the constitution.

"All the Sunnis must take part in drafting the constitution," added Sheik Adhami, who is the imam of Abu Hanifa Mosque, possibly the most anti-American mosque in Baghdad.

And if the elections really do produce a secular-minded Shiite government, there's a good chance it will be sensible enough to take a conciliatory stance toward the Sunni minority in drafting the constitution. It's something to hope for.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Good Call

Now, normally I'm all for the Army's research into non-lethal weapons. For example, I think the microwave guns we may be deploying to Iraq in the near future are a very promising (and morally acceptable) way to deal with insurgencies that use civilian populations as their cover. However, I can't help but feel that we made the right decision in nixing our research into "an aphrodisiac to spur homosexual activity among enemy troops." Questions of efficacy aside (I seem to remember that the Spartans were pretty good fighters when they weren't boning each other), I'm not sure our current administration would have the political will to use this weapon in Iraq. At the very least, we would see some serious grinding of George Bush's mental gears as the mutual incompatibility of two major policy goals became apparent ("are you telling me I have to spread cheeks to spread liberty?").

Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Real State of the Union

Well, our recent trip to Brookings was the first time we did some kind of actual physical reporting on an event. Perhaps this will become somewhat of a regularity as Chris and I (along with Josh, an active reader/commenter) went last Tuesday to go see The Atlantic's "Real State of the Union" at Georgetown University. The night was pretty eventful, but I'll skip the Scientological temples and S+M sex stores to focus on the politics discussed.

The panelists included Norah O'Donnell, James Fallows, Stephen S. Cohen (different from the Stephen Cohen who writes regularly for The Nation), Jonathan Rauch, and William Powers (note: Powers is not as famous as the other panelists and thus the link is to the article he was discussing - which is unfortunately subscriber only).

Fallows had probably the most interesting topic of all the panelists. What he said is available in written form here, but his thesis is simple: that the US's military commitments in Iraq are not at all sustainable, in the medium-to-long run. An original point? Not entirely, but Fallows has several original takes on it. The one I found most interesting was his argument that with American participation in the military (measured as a percent of the overall population, not as a straight number) at its lowest level since before the Spanish-American War, policy-makers in our government have much less incentive to take military casualties into account when deciding whether or not to go to war. This, of course, leads to more poorly-planned wars, in which the lives of American soldiers are not properly safeguarded by the civilian leadership which orders them into battle.

Although there certainly is some truth to it, the big problem with this argument is that the trend Fallows identifies - less and less contact between Congresspeople and the realities of war - has been more than counterbalanced this century by other trends which have increased public awareness of war. Televised broadcasts and improved war reporting in general have made the costs of war quite apparent to the American public, as the history of every military conflict (or at least, the domestic political conflict behind every military conflict) from Vietnam on makes clear. Furthermore, technological advance in the form of things like precision-guided bombs has helped to reduce casualties pretty dramatically since the time of the draft. I think even a cursory (read: if you want numbers, you're finding them yourselves) comparison of casualties in American wars and occupations pre-Vietnam to those in wars and occupations post-Vietnam shows that the American public's tolerance for military casualties has diminished hand in hand with the average number of casualties we sustain in our conflicts abroad. Fallows's concerns are real, but the harms he worries about have been vastly outweighed by positive changes in the ways we conduct our wars.

More on the Atlantic's panel discussion later, hopefully.


UPDATE 2/1/2005 by Chris: I have discussed our visit to the Atlantic a bit more in my Greens Go Nuclear? post. So go there if you were checking here for the update!

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Iraqi Election News

We are now 11 days away from the Iraqi Elections. After the Inauguration, I expect the elections to become the news item for the next two weeks or so. One of the best sources of information for Iraq related news is the New Republic Blog "Iraq'd" by Spencer Ackerman.

Today we learn that the Kurds are essentially guaranteed control of Kirkuk, the "Jerusalem of the Kurds." While this may stop the Kurds from initiating a civil war, Ackerman points out that the area's Turkmen and Arabs are not so pleased with the situation.

It will be interesting to see how this all turns out, to say the least.

Double Vision

In a Nation article last week, Stephen Cohen argued that the Cold War's "manichean, double-standard thinking" is making a return in the American foreign policy establishment, manifesting itself specifically in American consternation over the first round of voting (the fraudulent one) in Ukraine. There are more specifics in this piece than I want to get into, but I'll quote one line that I think is really very telling:

"The possibility that Russia may have a legitimate security or other national interest in Ukraine, to which it has been intimately, even familially, related for centuries by geography, traditions, language, religion, economics and intermarriage, was flatly ruled out. Indeed, according to an approving report in the Times by Elisabeth Bumiller (Nov. 30), Washington "Russia specialists say [Putin's] involvement in Ukraine is his most serious offense yet in American eyes.""

Let's take a closer look at the implications of this statement. What Cohen is defending here as "legitimate...national interest" is Russian financial and rhetorical support for Viktor Yanukovich, a politician closely associated with the notoriously corrupt Kuchma government. Said government surprised no one on November 21st when it rigged the voting in favor of its preferred candidate, and delivered a vote count which the Russian government instantly pounced on as evidence of a democratic mandate for Yanukovich. Based on the history of Ukraine's recent election, I don't think it's disputable that Cohen - consciously or not - is defending Russia's right to fix elections in countries it has a national interest in.

Of course, when Israel showed signs of meddling in the recent Palestinian elections - the outcome of which Israel had just as much of an interest in as Russia did in Ukraine - the Nation got a bit indignant (and rightly so). By the same token, if the US in any way condones electoral fraud in the upcoming Iraqi elections, I have no doubt that the Nation will lead the charge against American interference. Yet somehow Russia is given carte blanche to undermine democracy abroad for reasons of realpolitik which would normally be denounced by the left - at least if practiced by a Western democracy. Who, again, is being biased by a double standard?

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Plan B, the 2nd time around

What if there were a way that we could safely and effectively reduce unwanted pregnancies and therefore reduce abortions as well? Well, there is a way, but access to it right now is prescription only as a result of some unfounded arguments by opponents of the drug.

Although the FDA initially rejected the application to make Plan B an over the counter drug, Barr pharmaceuticals is trying again.

Turns out, the arguments against the drug were bunk:
"Our findings were that women don't change their sexual behavior when the drug is easily available, but rather that they're more likely to use it if access is easier," said lead author Tina R. Raine of the Center for Reproductive Health Research and Policy at the University of California at San Francisco.


So, considering a scientific study now proves the obvious (that women aren't going to change their sexual behavior as a result of the availability of a drug that is relatively expensive if used frequently, not 100% reliable, and causes physical discomfort), I'd be interested to see where this goes. I for one, like the editorial staff at WaPo sincerely hope that social conservatives and liberals alike can look at the science and potential of this drug and realize that it has the power to affect enormous social good.

Edit>> Please see a discussion on some controversial aspects of this drug by Dr. Drew Pinsky that I also mention in my comment as his views have heavily influenced mine on this issue, and he is more qualified to speak on such items than I.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Redesign

I've just completed a preliminary redesign. Don't be surprised if you see more template changes as the group may decide to change to a different template in the near future.

In any case, I felt that the old black background was difficult to read and hard on the eyes. I hope you all like the new template. You'll also find that we've started linking to some useful News/Commentary sites as well as some blogs you should definitely check out.

We hope to also set up a kind of reciprocal linking system whereby we return the favor of those blogs that link to us, but we also don't want to incorporate a totally useless and ridiculously huge blogroll without any rhyme or reason.

We've gotten well over 1000 visitors in less than a month, and that is something we're very excited about. We seem to be getting new visitors every day, and so if you are new, welcome and take a look around. If you are a regular reader, we encourage your feedback on both the content and design of our site as always.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Always More Room on the Bandwagon

Thursday of last week brought an excellent column by Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic. Addressing the topic of redistricting reform, Beinart inadvertantly reveals he's been cribbing ideas from everyone's favorite new blog.

Seriously though, it's a good article, and I'm glad to see this proposal getting some more media attention. Like me, Beinart's hopeful about this:

"And the response shouldn't be limited to the Golden State. Democrats across the country should jump on the Schwarzenegger bandwagon, demanding that their states also take redistricting away from the state legislatures that deny voters a real choice over who represents them."

I haven't read much in the way of responses to Schwarzenegger's proposal, and what I have seen is mostly of the "ignore it because of the short-term costs to my political party" variety (although in the case of that link, with remorse). Beinart's article is a good counterpoint. Read the whole thing.

Tryin' to anaesthetise the way that you feel

Music listeners around the entire Washington D.C. metropolitan area, and in fact the nation, were shocked to find out that the legendary WHFS changed its tune from rock to Spanish pop music. The station, owned by Infinity broadcasting (one of the very few large corporate holders of FM radio stations and a subdivision of Viacom) abrubtly changed format due to an ever diminishing audience and a very large but as of yet unfulfilled market potential for Spanish language radio. WHFS "El Zol" is now the largest and most powerful Spanish language radio station in the area.

The following is a fairly in-depth analysis of the current radio situation in the context of the demise of WHFS. I link to a lot of pages in this post, and feel free to read as many as you like. I do however, at certatin points emphasize the need for reading certain external articles. I do this simply because the external article explains a concept not well suited to abbreviation, but I do a poor job at summarizing them anyways for the lazy reader. I apologize for the length of this post, but this is a truly momentous occasion for the Metro area, and it is an issue which I feel passionately about.

For those waxing nostalgic about the good ol' days, the folks over at DCRTV have put together a pretty cool tribute page. While I can't say I actually remember the 102.3 days of the station as I was not even alive at that point, I do have fond memories of listening to the station in the early 90s. The DCRTV tribute includes an interview with Weasel (aka Jonathan Gilbert). For those of you unfamiliar with Weasel, he was my favorite DJ to ever grace the station, and he actually was there from the beginning and only left a couple of years ago. Weasel laments that sometime in the early 90s the jocks stopped being able to be as free form:

DID YOU GET TO PLAY WHATEVER YOU WANTED BACK THEN?

[Weasel:] Actually we did up until about 1991. HFS is perhaps the last station to have so much jock input.

(I really do encourage you to read some of the tribute page. Radio did not used to be such a cookie-cutter format: HFS used to throw jazz and blues into all of the alternative and progressive rock they were playing for example). However, I think it's premature to label the demise of the station as starting in '91, but it's a good point to start the analysis.

What he's referring to, is the gradual loss of autonomy of DJs as a result of a radically changing radio landscape. To understand contemporary radio's problems though, one has to also understand a major problem that afflicted radio about half a century ago: payola. Essentially, record companies would bribe DJs to play certain songs because the more airplay a song gets, the more the record sells. The practice was eventually ruled illegal and the record companies had to cease the practice. It's a scary prospect actually, record companies controlling radio. After all, what incentive do they have to provide quality programming? None really. Their motives are not to expose listeners to a diversity of music but rather to promote a return on their investments by concentrating available airplay for exposure of major acts.

The prospect of affecting airplay and thus having a great deal of influence on people's musical purchasing patterns, proved too attractive for the record companies to abandon it entirely. Thus, the scum-of-the-earth-indie-was-born (Eric Boehlert, of Salon.com is the author if the excellent article on indies, and I also have to emphasize the importance of that link. If you ever wanted to really understand why contemporary FM radio is really bad, it's a must read. In fact, Boehlert apparently has a whole series of articles he did on various problems in the radio industry including indies and consolidation.) For those who choose to skip reading the indie article, I'll explain the concept briefly here: Record companies pay middle men called "indies" who essentially do all of the bribing for them. The system has gotten so entrenched that it is virtually impossible to get airplay without paying an indie vast sums of money as they control almost every major Program Director in the industry. There are two major reasons why radio is abominable today, and one of them is indies.

The other reason is the increasing consolidation of radio stations. In 1996, the FCC attempted an experiment at deregulation and totally stripped away all previous ownership rules for radio stations (previously an individual company could only hold a handful of stations). Corporate beheamouths such as Clear Channel Communications quickly consolidated ownership of multiple stations. I certainly don't want to spend a great deal of time bashing Clear Channel, as people with greater expertise in the issue have done so very well already: the Wikipedia article has a good summary of the charges commonly brought up against them, and Boehlert also examines the issue in his series of articles. However, the ridiculous amount of radio consolidation that went on the aftermath of the 1996 rule change severely degraded the quality of FM radio throughout the nation. Back during the controversy over the recent FCC rule changes I recall watching the FCC commisioners on C-SPAN, and the main concern of the Congressmen grilling them was that consolidation of regional television affiliates would have the same horrible aftermath of the 1996 deregulation experiment in radio.

A virtual lack of autonomy for DJs to choose what music to play and an increasingly consolidated corporate culture of radio have turned the medium for the worst. When my dad told me that WHFS had died, I had to say "I didn't realize a station could die twice."

While the problems of indie control of playlists and consolidation are the root causes of radio's current problems, their influence came in somewhat gradually, and it's hard to really pick a point for the death of WHFS using such criteria.

I spent a very long time searching to try to find information about a really interesting Howard University documentary that was done a few years ago on the music industry. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful, but it was particularly illuminating. The documentary used Limp Bizkit as a case study in how the industry works. A totally unknown band, Limp Bizkit performed at the recent Woodstcok concert. The documentary shows interviews with people in the crowd explaining how they actually disliked the poor set put on by the band. Apparently the sentiment was shared amongst many concertgoers, and a few of them with no discerning taste whatsoever just got riled up from the load, fast music. The rowdy atmosphere of the Woodstock venue and delays for sets of more popular bands all combined into a perfect storm with the Bizkit set to produce a huge reaction out of the crowd. A record exec from Interscope, who hated the set, marvelled at the crowd reaction. He decided that no matter how untalented they might be, they certainly produced a reaction in people, and he decided to pursue signing them for a major deal. The dealings moved rapidly, and in no time Interscope had pumped enough money into MTV to let Bizkit (still virtually unknown to the mainstream) appear on the then extremely influential Total Request Live show. Within a week, their videos became regular appearences on TRL, and radio immediately began playing their talentless music. I remember the first time I heard Limp Bizkit on WHFS, and that moment marks for me, the death of the station. At that point, HFS had descended so far as to not even be playing progressive/alternative rock anymore. Instead of throwing jazz or blues into the mix like in the very old days of the station, they were succumbing to the awful trend of mixing bad white boy rapping with heavier rock sounds. The Limp Bizkit craze caused a predictable pattern in the record industry: copycat acts to captialize on the success of a popular "sound." It got so bad that I eventually stopped listening alltogether.

I describe this documentary at length because it illustrates a very important larger issue. Record companies constantly cede decisions about good music over to whatever the current impression is of the "sound" that the market wants for a particular genre. This practice further refines the boring homogeny of FM radio to an exact science. A talentless band that has not worked to develop a fan base or musical ability can be catapaulted to fame and fortune at the whim of one executive who decides to throw a lot of Interscope's money their way. Surely they had to catch on with the public, but that's not a hard thing to do when "Rock radio" is consigned to playing utter trash like Linkin Park or Limp Bizkit.

For an avid music listener like me, this was a tragedy, but it's not without it's silver lining. I'm not alone in my sentiment. 3.2 Million people have made the change to XM with me, and there's 1.1 million over at Sirius. While neither company is turning a profit, both expect large subscribership growth. Both, also, made extremely risky gambles on the conjecture that a market existed for subscriber radio. I believe XM is successful for several reasons. First and foremost, the founders of XM got the idea for satellite radio largely out of their displeasement with the current state of FM which they naturally assumed would be a shared sentiment amongst many people. Secondly, both radio services offer music outside of the mainstream fare, but satellite has a clear advantage over terrestrial radio that makes this possible. Satellite has a larger geographic base to draw from which allows it to conquer the constraints of geography and address THE LONG TAIL. XM is becoming increasingly influential. The Unsigned station is an amazing outlet for local artists to get heard on a national level. So, when Billy Zero started playing Stellastarr, a record exec got intrigued, and they got signed. When MTV needed a song to articulate the emotional complexity of the final episode of the Real World Paris, they chose to use the superbly talented Chuck Carrier's song "Endless." This is a great new world in radio. Local bands who would never have had a chance of getting play on their local station are getting airplay on a national level and apparently the industry is listening.

Still doubt XM's influence? Well, the ever popular O.C. television show hired music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas to make sure the show could continue to provide its viewers with really good indie rock. In an interview with TV Week a month or so ago, Patsavas indicated that her main source for music was satellite radio. In fact, it's quite interesting to note that almost all of the music played on the O.C. is first heard in rotation on XMU (one of the finest stations on the XM dial.) The reaction has been tremendous. The O.C. has catapaulted Death Cab For Cutie out of obscurity into the mainstream. (Just a few months ago, WaPo referred to Death Cab as "some band named Death Cab for Cutie" while discussing the lineup for the Vote for Change concert.)

Now, there are some drawbacks. Notably, I did just spend a good deal of time criticizing terrestrial radio for over-consolidation yet here I am lauding a totally consolidated radio format. Unfortunately, there is at this point, little that can be done to salvage the terrestrial format at any point in the near future, and satellite radio by its nature puts a great deal of programming under one corporate umbrella. It's an entirely different context actually, and it offers some real advantages. For example, XM stations can cross promote each other-- something unheard of in the terrestrial marketplace. More importantly, since it's a subscriber service, listeners are not bombarded with ads or idiot jocks who won't shut up. As far as I'm concerned, XMU carries the spirit of the old HFS in that it is a truly unique source for getting progressive and alternative music.

And, because this post is already absurdly long, I will conclude with a relevant tribute to the Elvis that understood the problems of radio across the Atlantic:

Elvis Costello - "Radio, Radio"
I was tuning in the shine on the light night dial
doing anything my radio advised
with every one of those late night stations
playing songs bringing tears to me eyes
I was seriously thinking about hiding the receiver
when the switch broke 'cause it's old
They're saying things that I can hardly believe.
They really think we're getting out of control.

Radio is a sound salvation
Radio is cleaning up the nation
They say you better listen to the voice of reason
But they don't give you any choice
'cause they think that it's treason.
So you had better do as you are told.
You better listen to the radio.

I wanna bite the hand that feeds me.
I wanna bite that hand so badly.
I want to make them wish they'd never seen me.


Some of my friends sit around every evening
and they worry about the times ahead
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
and the promise of an early bed
You either shut up or get cut out;
they don't wanna hear about it.
It's only inches on the reel-to-reel.
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
tryin' to anaesthetise the way that you feel


[Chorus]

Wonderful radio
Marvelous radio
Wonderful radio
Radio, radio...


Couldn't have put it better Elvis! (Although he's actually talking about the British crackdown on pirate radio stations, the song is just as pertinent in the context of American radio today as it was in England then.)

Friday, January 14, 2005

Social Security Reform

Yesterday morning I woke up uncharacteristically early to attend the Brookings Institution's symposium on reforming Social Security with Kyle. As the name suggests, the event was organized around the presentation of different proposals for dealing with Social Security's coming fiscal woes. The panel of speakers consisted of Jeff Brown, a professor of finance at Urbana-Champaign and advocate of personal accounts; Peter Orszag, a Brookings fellow and staunch opponent of personal accounts; John Rother, representing the AARP; and lastly Robert Pozen, a veteran of the finance industry and creator of his own plan for closing Social Security's budget gap. I don't think I could summarize the entire event (and in any case, the transcript should be posted by Brookings fairly soon), so I'll just write about those points which I found particularly informative.

•Brown identified one of the biggest arguments for personal accounts (the status quo alternative here being a government-run trust fund) as a means for saving up money in times of Social Security surplus. The argument? Congress can't raid personal accounts. Al Gore and his much-parodied "lockbox" proposals aside, you'd be hard-pressed to find a politician of the past two decades who's lifted a finger to stop Congressional looting of the Social Security trust fund. Essentially, Congress uses Social Security's current surpluses to finance higher levels of spending than would otherwise be possible, the downside being that Social Security assets aren't actually accumulating anywhere in preparation for 2018, when Social Security begins to run deficits. Even though we have a "trust fund" in place to deal with that eventuality, all that fund actually consists of is trillions of dollars worth of Treasury securities - I.O.U.s written by the US government. When 2018 rolls around, decades of negligence will mean that the federal government is going to have to find some way to raise the money to make good on those securities. For all its problems, a partially privatized plan - and specifically, its personal accounts - would be much more difficult for future Congresses to access.

•One item Orszag hit on quite a bit was his proposal for raising the American rate of savings. Orszag supports federal regulation mandating that employers, by default, opt their employees into voluntary 401(k) plans (as opposed to the status quo, where most but not all opt their employees out). Since these are voluntary saving plans, employees would retain the right to opt out upon request. Although this proposal at first struck me as the mother of all technicalities, Orszag backed it up with research indicating that switching to his system of automatic enrollment could heighten nationwide participation in 401(k) plans from the status quo, where about half of all households do not keep a significant amount of savings in retirement investment, to a point where 85%-95% of all workers contribute a meaningful amount to retirement accounts. In effect, he's harnessing the power of human laziness (well, he calls it "inertia") to incentivize saving.

•Raising the retirement age beyond a certain point will undermine a basic goal of Social Security - providing retirement security to the lower income brackets in society. So says Robert Pozen, and I'm inclined to agree. Whereas white-collar workers (journalists, managers, think-tankers) are theoretically at least able to keep working up until the point when they are seriously incapacitated by disease or senescence, the blue-collar workers who make up the lower-income segments of society have a very real limit on their ability to keep working. Manual labor-intensive jobs just don't exist for, say, 65-year olds, and retirement policy should take this fact into account.

Sorry for the excessively long post; a lot got said yesterday, most of it worth repeating.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Does Torture Work?

I really don't believe that it does, and I've yet to be persuaded otherwise. Anne Applebaum's Op-ed today in the Washington Post (or WaPo, as the blogosphere has come to call it) weighs in:

"The question has been asked many times since Sept. 11, 2001....I've heard it said that the Syrians and the Egyptians 'really know how to get these things done.' I've heard the Israelis mentioned, without proof. I've heard Algeria mentioned, too, but Darius Rejali, an academic who recently trolled through French archives, found no clear examples of how torture helped the French in Algeria -- and they lost that war anyway. 'Liberals,' argued an article in the liberal online magazine Slate a few months ago, 'have a tendency to accept, all too eagerly, the argument that torture is ineffective.' But it's also true that 'realists,' whether liberal or conservative, have a tendency to accept, all too eagerly, fictitious accounts of effective torture carried out by someone else."

I'm with Anne 100% on this one, and that Slate article was written by Fred Kaplan on September 14th. You can read the article for yourself, but Kaplan, employing inferences from his reading of Hersh's book, tries to make the case for torture. In contrast, Applebaum's article uses direct quotes from experienced field officers about the problems with using torture, a belief that extends to former Joint Chiefs of Staff, as Chris said in an earlier post. However, I think Applebaum's conclusion really gets at one of the biggest problems: the insistent desire of certain individuals to believe that torture does indeed work, despite a large body of evidence to the contrary (and I apologize for quoting so much but she says it best):

"[S]ome military intelligence officers wanted to use harsher interrogation methods than the FBI did. As a result, complained one inspector, 'every time the FBI established a rapport with a detainee, the military would step in and the detainee would stop being cooperative.' So much for the utility of torture.

Given the overwhelmingly negative evidence, the really interesting question is not whether torture works but why so many people in our society want to believe that it works. At the moment, there is a myth in circulation, a fable that goes something like this: Radical terrorists will take advantage of our fussy legality, so we may have to suspend it to beat them. Radical terrorists mock our namby-pamby prisons, so we must make them tougher. Radical terrorists are nasty, so to defeat them we have to be nastier.

Perhaps it's reassuring to tell ourselves tales about the new forms of 'toughness' we need, or to talk about the special rules we will create to defeat this special enemy. Unfortunately, that toughness is self-deceptive and self-destructive. Ultimately it will be self-defeating as well."


edit>> changed to a block quote for clarity that the quote does not end after the first paragraph -- chris

All About Orrin

Orrin Hatch, former Senate Judiciary committee chair, has a lengthy editorial in the National Review today arguing for a parliamentary rules change to end our current "political and constitutional crisis that undermines democracy, the judiciary, the Senate, and the Constitution."

He is referring here to the Senate Democrats' tactic of filibustering those judicial nominees they most object to. Like a lot of other prominent Republicans, Hatch is up in arms over the use of this (somewhat) unprecedented measure, calling it a deviation from the Senate's Constitutionally enumerated purpose of providing the President with "advice and consent" on his nominations. What Hatch doesn't tell us is that the Senate has always been red-lighting judicial nominees that enough Senators objected to, blocking their nominations through non-filibuster methods. The recent use of the filibuster is just a different (and if anything, less likely to succeed) means to the same ends.

What makes this editorial especially rich is the fact that it was Orrin Hatch himself who made the use of judicial filibusters inevitable. As the Washington Monthly points out, Hatch's repeated changes to Judiciary committee rules for short-term partisan gain have eliminated the traditional means by which Senators blocked judicial nominations. I'll excerpt the relevant history:


When Democrats were in power and Republicans were in the minority, senatorial courtesy prevailed in judicial nominations. For decades, the rule was this: if both senators from a judge's home state objected to (or "blue slipped") a nominee, he was out. But when Republicans took control of the Senate during the Clinton presidency, these rules no longer looked so good to them:
*

In 1998, for no special reason, Orrin Hatch decided that only one senator needed to object to a nomination. This made it easier for Republicans to obstruct Bill Clinton's nominees.

*

In 2001, when one of their own became president, Hatch suddenly reversed course and decided that it should take two objections after all. That made it harder for Democrats to obstruct George Bush's nominees.

*

In early 2003, Hatch went even further: senatorial objections were merely advisory, he said. Even if both senators objected to a nomination, it would still go to the floor for a vote.

*

A few weeks later, yet another barrier was torn down: Hatch did away with a longtime rule that said at least one member of the minority had to agree in order to end discussion about a nomination and move it out of committee.


One thing I would like to stress is that the current state of the Senate's judicial proceedings in no way constitutes a crisis. In their own defense, the Senate Democrats cite the very pertinent fact that the Senate has confirmed 88% of Bush's nominations, the same percentage confirmed in Reagan's first four years, and a significant improvement over the 81% confirmed in Clinton's, or the 77% confirmed in H.W. Bush's. The Republican drive to get rid of the filibuster isn't about restoring "the Senate's historical practice" any more than it is about relieving the political crisis that doesn't exist. It's about solidifying one-party control of Congress, destroying Senate traditions and creating political crises in the process. Democrats owe it to themselves to make an issue of this.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Tsunami and Taxes

Since apparently people are intimidated by the thought of signing in to comment (or don't care) we four are the only ones commenting. So I thought I'd make this an official post, even though it's in relation to Nick's Post a few days ago relating to whether the United States is giving enough humanitarian aid in light of the recent Tsunami. Nick is quite right in saying that when you look at our contribution per capita, we're on par with other developed nations. However, Robert Kuttner was pointing to our stinginess based on the proportion of our GDP we were giving, not on our per capita contribution.

This discrepancy seems analogous to the argument of taxation. One who believes in a flat tax would say that per person, we're each giving about the same amount European countries are, and thus don't deserve the miserly reputation. However, one in favor of a progressive income tax could argue that on average, the American citizen is richer than a European citizen and should be able to part with more money for humanitarian aid. (Hey, it's not a perfect analogy but I like it all the same.)

I feel that while the United States doesn't wholly deserve its foul reputation (in this particular aspect), we should judge by proportion of GDP. It simply isn't enough to look at the size of a country and determine its responsibility in the world, we need to look at the economic state as well. Otherwise we'd be asking the 1Billion+ people of India (still considered a developing nation) to shoulder much of the burden, while the 60 million in Britain to do relatively little.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Abu Who?

Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has been declared the victor in the recent Palestinian elections, reportedly garnering 62.3% of the vote. Although a margin of victory like that would spell a mandate for any U.S. president-elect, one must take into account the fact that Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas, boycotted the elections, despite the best efforts of Richard Gere.

Most recent writing about Abbas have examined his recent actions in an attempt to divine his true political nature. Although he has a long history of trying to work for peace with Israel, his statements both past and present have cast some doubt on his intentions. As Andrew Apostolou mentions in the National Review Online, "Abbas called the second intifada (uprising) against Israel a mistake on December 15, 2004. By January 1, 2005, however, he was willing to promise to protect Islamist terrorists such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad from Israeli attacks." Charles Krauthammer's recent piece in the Washington Post Op-Ed page, "Arafat's Heir," took an especially pessimistic tone, declaring, "In Abbas's first moment of real leadership, his long-anticipated emergence from the shadow of Arafat, he chooses to literally hoist the flag of the terrorist al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. ...Can Abbas turn into a Sadat, who also emerged from the shadow of a charismatic leader, reversed policy and made peace with Israel? I'll believe it when I see it. And hear it. " Apostolou and Krauthammer decidedly do not share President Bush's eagerness to work with Abbas, which Bush demonstrated via a lengthy phone conversation soon after Abbas was declared the victor.

I must disagree with Krauthammer and Apostolou in this matter. Both of their arguments seem to focus solely on Abbas's campaign efforts in the past month to the exclusion of decades of work with Israel towards peace. Krauthammer contrasts Abbas's conflicting statements with those of Arafat, but does not mention the peace plan Abbas authored with Yossi Belin in 1995 or the "principles of peace" concerning a two-state solution that resulted from negotiations Abbas led with Israeli General Matityahu Peled in 1977. In fact, I think his reputation as a PLO dove perfectly explains his "numerous radical statements." An outspoken moderate committed to making peace with Israel and clamping down on terror could not survive as a Palestinian leader. If Abbas acted in such a way as to satisfy conservative curmudgeons like Krauthammer, he would probably be denounced as a tool of the Israeli government and quickly assassinated. As is, it will be hard enough for Abbas to operate in any moderate fashion, as he no longer will have the behind-the-scenes role of the Arafat era. He also does not carry the same respect among the general Palestinian populace that Arafat did, further complicating his ability to act.

Abbas will not begin his term with a celebration of the state of Israel, to be sure, but to then make the argument that he is nothing more than a "secret lover" of Arafat is to be ignorant of history. At the very least, at the beginning of his presidency, Abbas will have to concern himself just as much with garnering popular support as with negotiating with Israel. His success, along with Israel's, depends on it.

The Wages of Generousity

In a recent Prospect article Robert Kuttner argues, among other things, that corporate tax loopholes are bad policy, that the Bush administration likes tax cuts a little too much, and that the tsunami is a major disaster that requires a serious response from first-world nations. Bold points all, but what gets to me about this piece is the assumption that the US is unique as a miser among first world nations when it comes to humanitarian aid. Kuttner states that "The $350 million pledged by the Bush administration, some of which will be diverted from other relief needs, represents 0.003 percent of our national income. Europe, on average, is spending about triple that."

There are two points I think are worth noting here. The first is that the humanitarian aid Bush has pledged is by no means the extent of US government contributions (to say nothing of charitable contributions, although those are a bit harder to quantify). For over a week now the USS Abraham Lincoln's battle group - and the dozens of aircraft it brings - has been engaged in search and rescue missions off Sumatra. Seeing as how America spends far and away more on its naval capabilities than any other country, this seems like a pretty decent specialization of aid resources.

My second point is a little less specific. The argument Kuttner makes - that the US spends far less than other first world countries do on humanitarian aid, once size is taken into account - is not at all uncommon, and in my experience is taken as the conventional wisdom by the NYT editorial page, among other places. There's just one problem: it's not really true. As Daniel Drezner points out (taken from an OECD study), the only countries that substantially outspend the US per-capita on humanitarian aid are the Scandinavian states, Switzerland, and Holland. The US is a little behind Great Britain, a little ahead of France and Canada, and substantially ahead of many other first world countries (Germany and Japan, for instance). Here's the full chart, in per capita cents per day:

1. Norway 21.04
2. Sweden 11.81
3. Denmark 5.95
4. Switzerland 5.85
5. Netherlands 5.15
6. Belgium 2.94
7. United Kingdom 2.58
8. Finland 2.38
9. United States 2.34
10. France 2.17
11. Canada 2.10
12. Australia 1.93
13. Ireland 1.83
14. Austria 1.23
15. New Zealand 1.18
16. Spain 0.61
17. Germany 0.61
18. Italy 0.42
19. Greece 0.27
20. Japan 0.06
21. Portugal 0.03

In other types of (non-humanitarian relief) aid, the United States comes out looking a little more stingy. But that's only measuring direct monetary contributions. Studies which take into account the other ways in which the US contributes to third-world countries (as an immigration outlet, security provider, etc) tend to show the US performing quite respectably among other first world nations.

One last thing - speaking as a 2004 Kerry voter, I really hope Democratic writers trying to find "an idiom of values that plays in the heartland" can refrain from saying stuff like "The good heart of the American people, my eye." Just a thought.

False Pretenses

As a firm supporter of education reform, and especially coming from a large public high school, I have a very personal bone to pick with No Child Left Behind. From the very beginning it was touted as an excellent system which had worked wonders for areas of Texas. It was adopted nation-wide, expecting such improvements as were induced in Texas. It later came out that the results were found to be questionable in some cases, downright lies in others. Thus it was with great confusion that even after the program was revealed as a fraud, no great commotion was made to remove schools and students out from under its shadow. But since the program started under false pretenses, why stop there?

In a recent scandal that caught a number of front pages, it was recently discovered that the dept. of Education secretly paid conservative journalist Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote No Child Left Behind. When confronted, Strom Thurmon protege Williams made no debate about the ethical misconduct. He openly admitted that his motives had been questionable -- actually, I found his honesty quite refreshing.

And yet through all this, there is little or no talk about disbanding the program. Perhaps lawmakers and policy-setters feel that the program itself is sound, and could still prove beneficial. I beg to differ. It puts unnecessary stress on standardized testing, giving teachers no choice but to teach to a test, abandoning all pretensions of education. Also, based upon the insistence that all 'groups' within a school pass stringent English-based tests, it is difficult for crowded public schools to pass. With larger non-English speaking and special education programs, public schools get the short straw, for if even one such category fails to show sufficient improvement, the school is labeled a 'failing school' and is threatened with drastic staff changes or funding cuts.

It seems somehow ironic to me that the schools which most need assistance have the greatest number of obstacles thrown in their paths. Short of scrapping a faulty, biased program promoted by lies and deceit, we should at least revise the No Child Left Behind policy to stop kicking schools while they're down.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Hotel Rwanda

Powell avoids calling the situation in Darfur genocide. Instead, he referred to it as a "difficult, terrible conflict."

Last night I went to go see Hotel Rwanda with several friends including Kyle. Afterwards Kyle and I (still in shock from the movie) were commenting on how it made us hate the international community for not intervening. One of the many powerful scenes in the movie is when the terrified Tutsis seeking shelter in the hotel listen to the radio as western commentators discuss the semantics of whether or not to call it "acts of genocide" or just simply "genocide." The semantic argument of course seems patently absurd considering innocent civilians are being brutally massacred by machetes throughout the country. Powell avoiding the issue is eerily too much like this semantic argument.

[begin sarcasm] At least we've learned our lesson. America won't sit by while anorther Rwanda occurs. [/sarcasm]

Also, for all of our readers, I highly recommend the movie. Go see it. (And, to Powell's credit, he did previously call it genocide-- However, as Marisa Katz has so intelligently put it, "saying the word will be just as cowardly as not saying anything at all."

Friday, January 07, 2005

Enough Talk!

Arnold's back, and this legislative sesson he's armed for bear. In his January 5th State of the Union address, the Governator became the only nationally recognized pol to address an aspect of domestic policy as pressing as it is underrecognized - redistricting reform. That last link is to a Brookings Institution draft (couldn't find the final study online, sorry) which gives a pretty good background on the state of redistricting policy in America today. Mann concludes that the most commonly used system - having state legislatures redraw congressional and state district lines (generally every ten years) - has resulted in the two abuses of redistricting power we see today. In states with one-party control of both legislative houses, the dominant party tends to draw a district map which "advances its partisan interests." The Texas Republican party's recent bout of redistricting is a pretty good example of this.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, neither split-party legislative control nor supermajority voting rules result in the drawing of fair and representative districts. If anything, these conditions produce even less competitive Congressional districts, as they "facilitate bipartisan gerrymanders." When one party is unable to craft a map that works exclusively to its benefit, the two parties tend to collaborate on drawing districts that protect incumbents.

I think Mann understates the depth of this problem. Recent rounds of House elections have been absurdly uncompetitive, to the point where incumbent turnover in the Senate - you know, that body thats supposed to be less responsive to flickers in public opinion - is greater than in the House. As the Center for Voting and Democracy reports, in 2002 a mere 38 of the 435 Congressional districts saw House elections with races which were at all competitive (i.e. the victory was by a margin of less than 10%). Many of these 38 cases only came about because the incumbent retired or died. In the 2004 election, party lines in the House shifted by a seismic seven seat margin. Governor Schwarzenegger said it well (Christ, I can't believe I just wrote that): "Here is a telling statistic: 153 of California's congressional and legislative seats were up in the last election and not one changed parties. What kind of democracy is that?" Schwarzenegger's put his political weight behind moving control of redistricting from the California legislature to "an independent panel of retired judges," a system that would be near ideal when compared to the status quo. If the past year is any guide, this probably means that Schwarzenegger will put his plan into a referendum when it gets derailed in the legislature - and that it will have a good chance of passing.

I'm generally not much of a populist, but redistricting reform is something that's as badly needed in California as it is in the rest of the nation. If referendums are what it takes for Arnold to shove his plan through the California legislative process, then more power to the people.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Unite the Clans

Working special events in the Library of Congress affords special opportunities and insights into American Politics, such as attending the Black Caucus, a Democratic caucus, a members-only GOP senators' meeting, and speeches by Obama. Although I officially did NOT hear anything from within the GOP meeting, I continue to be amazed at the degree of "Us vs. Them" sentiment in American politics. I've continued to praise unaffiliated or indepentent voices, such as FactCheck, Colin Powell, or McCain. I share this view with my hero, Jon Stewart.

Jon Stewart first became my hero for tearing into CNN's Crossfire, and especially their conservative host Tucker Carlson. He condemned them for providing no unbiased news source, and accused them (in a witty fashion, as always) of being political hacks. So it was with a huge grin on my face that I read in the Washington Post today that CNN is cancelling Crossfire. Upon reading the headline, I suspected that Jon Stewart's publicity had something to do with the program's closure, and my suspicious were confirmed beyond any doubt in the article. "CNN/U.S. President Jonathan Klein sided yesterday with comedian Jon Stewart... 'I think he made a good point about the noise level of these types of shows, which does nothing to illuminate the issues of the day,' Klein said in an interview."

But it's not enough for me to just point out that we have too much of a two-party system. What can we do to, as the Warcraft 2 cheat went, 'Unite the Clans'? I maintain that the simplest and most significant way to strike a blow to the partisan status quo would be to change our plurality voting system to approval voting. By giving smaller parties a chance for some power, the major two parties would lose some of their vice-like grip on the capitol. Sure, coalitions could still form, but there would be more room for compromise, and more different voices being heard. I'm sure it wouldn't solve all of our problems, but it would be a start. It's not enough to complain and notice problems in our government, we need to brainstorm solutions. And since there's no built-in cheat code to win, we have to do things the hard way.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Republican Backtracking

As I read the paper this morning, I was hit by a surprising volly of two big backsteps by the Republican leadership and a big hit against the conventional wisdom that Gonzalez will be confirmed to Attorney General without much of a problem. A Social Security analyst for the Heritage Foundation says:
"If this was a case of just price indexing and doing nothing else, frankly, some of the [opponents'] charges are pretty valid," John said. "But if you give the personal accounts as well, you're giving people the opportunity to make up the difference. Not everyone will do that, but a substantial number will."
Is he accepting Kinsley's Proof in a very subtle way? I think he is. While he may misleadingly argue that a "substantial number" will make up the difference (as there is very little evidence that this is plausible), he doesn't argue that privatization will increase benefits in any way. Thus, it looks like even the Heritage Foundation is either not sticking to the administration line on this (not highly likely) or the strategy for rolling out private accounts will include telling everyone that their benefits will at best be the same but most likely cut by privatization (not to mention it will slow economic growth by increasing interest rates, weakening the dollar, and increasing the national debt.) It will be interesting to see the White House line develop on this in the coming weeks, but if privitaztion at its best is only equitable with the current government management of benefits, then how could any sane Congress let this plan go through when there are MUCH BETTER ALTERNATIVES???


Also, in today's paper, the GOP decides to abandon the ethics changes they had proposed on New Year's Eve. After I found out about the proposed changes, I turned to my father, a federal employee, and remarked, "Let me get this straight. If you accept a gift valued at say, $50 ($25 over the $25 limit) then you could lose your job." My dad interjected, "Certainly, it would be definite grounds for dismissal." I continued, "Yet, Tom Delay can be indicted by a grand jury on campaign finance charges, use the FAA's resources to track down political opponents fighting his gerrymandering of questionable legality, and can bribe other politicans for votes on legislation...yet he still gets to keep his job?"

Looks like enough House Republicans saw the sheer absurdity of essentially taking away the traditional ethical restrictions on its members as it would easily be viewed as a highly partisan tactic meant to defend questionable activity. Now if they only had the sense to reprimand Delay more harshly-- perhaps his constituents will, but that's doubtful.

Lastly, I thought I should bring up this little nugget:

"A dozen high-ranking retired military officers took the unusual step yesterday of signing a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee expressing "deep concern" over the nomination of White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales as attorney general, marking a rare military foray into the debate over a civilian post."

The signers of the letter include a former chariman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former Air Force Chief of Staff -- this is not some group of no-name disgruntled soldiers. I hadn't really given a whole lot of thought before to the power of military opposition against U.S. sanctioned torture, but they have very good reason to take a stand.

Money Quote from their letter:

"Today, it is clear that these operations have fostered greater animosity toward the United States, undermined our intelligence gathering efforts and added to the risks facing our troops serving around the world,"
I think the American public, both left and right, could actually become very opposed to Gonzalez' nomination if this group or more others like it can create enough of a stir. Here's a crazy idea for some Senate floor confirmation hearing theatrics that could really get some attention: Ideally get a pair of senators, (1 Republican--John McCain anyone? 1 Democrat) and have them both start showing huge poster board images of the Abu Grahib abuse-- followed by blow ups of quotes of internal documents revelead through recent ACLU FOIA requests and International Committee of the Red Cross reports while debating Gonzalez' confirmation, and then finish by blowing up real big this little legal opinon sanctioning U.S. sponsored torture Gonzalez did not so long ago. Sure, such a scenario of theatrics is probably just as likely as a Senator actually reading this blog, but nevertheless I have a lot of faith in the American public's ability to oppose such vile acts. Perhaps I'm naive, but I think that people aren't sufficiently outraged at Gonzalez or even the recent allegations of torture because there aren't images like Abu Grahib confronting them on television and thus psychologically the torture does not exist. Put those images on the Senate floor in the manner I described above, and not only would you get the attention of all of the American newsmedia, but you would also probably have a good chance of blocking his appointment.