Monday, August 31, 2009

Other People's Countries

We cannot really build a nation for other people. -- Wesley Clark
In this week's Sift:
  • Afghanistan Anxiety. I went trolling for wisdom and came up empty. Here's what I got instead.
  • Reacting to Ted. Maybe it wasn't his fault, but Ted set the pattern for a generation of Democratic presidential might-have-beens. On the other hand, I wish all famous-name-inheriting politicians followed his example.
  • Six Months With My Kindle. The new-gadget aura is gone. So how's it working out as an appliance?
  • Short Notes. Republican hope is great and white. Tom DeLay's embellished memory. How Blue Dogs bring home their chow. Bill Bradley's dumb idea. Ministers who pray for Obama's death. And the role of minotaurs in enhanced interrogations.


Afghanistan Anxiety
For a lot of commentators, the recent Afghan elections have been a time to reflect how the war is going. So for the last few weeks I've been collecting links and planning to pull together a condensation of the collective wisdom.

Good luck with that if you want to try it. The state of the war has been reviewed by the Washington Independent (which links you to a lot of other articles by people who ought to know something), Wes Clark, the Economist, and the New York Times -- just to get you started.

If you find any wisdom there, let me know. The main thing I picked up was anxiety. "The war is going badly," says the Economist. The NYT asks, "Could Afghanistan Become Obama's Vietnam?" That gives you the general flavor. Plus, there are the raw numbers: July and August have seen 146 coalition troops die. The previous two-month record was 77. But I'm not finding convincing arguments for doing anything in particular: pull out, double down, invade Pakistan. Anything. I'm hearing a lot of "the next six months will be critical" statements, which is commentator-speak for "I don't know what's the heck is going on."

Like the United States, I'm scaling down my objectives. Instead of the clear how-things-are and where-we-go-from-here article I was planning, I'm just going to explain the general anxiety.

Afghanistan, if you remember, was the war that made some kind of sense. It really did have something to do with 9-11, and the Al Qaeda infection was already there -- not like in Iraq, where we spread it around like an unsanitary surgeon.

The articles talk about a counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy replacing a counter-terrorism strategy. Here's what that's about: In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the initial Bush strategy was to go in and kill the bad guys. That's counter-terrorism, which was a complete insert-expletive-here disaster in both countries. Basically, the bad guys let us chase them hither and yon, leaving destruction in our wake. That convinced the populace -- most of whom didn't originally give a damn about us one way or the other -- that they had to get these foreigners out of their country. So they joined an insurgency. David Kilcullen described this pattern very precisely in The Accidental Guerrilla, which I discussed in March.

Counter-insurgency is the strategy that General Petraeus brought to Iraq in the famous Surge. The idea is that you stop chasing the bad guys and instead settle in with the people to defend them from the bad guys. In Kilcullen's words, you don't fight the enemy unless he gets in your way.

Now we get to the part that's confusing everybody: Kill-the-bad-guys is such a god-awful stupid strategy that counter-insurgency has been an undeniable improvement. If you're going to be in Afghanistan or Iraq at all, that's how you want to do it. But is it a good strategy? With a COIN strategy, can we hope to accomplish something positive rather than just spend money and get people killed? And will the objectives we can accomplish justify the cost? (The cost from here on, that is. The total cost-from-day-one will never be justified, but that's blood under the bridge now.)

Nobody really knows those answers, and that's why everybody is so anxious. We know from Iraq that the change-over from CT to COIN raises casualties temporarily, and that's happening in Afghanistan. In theory the numbers should start to drop again in 6-12 months. In theory.


Reacting to Ted
You don't need me to tell you that Senator Edward Kennedy died this week. There have been tributes in a bunch of newspapers and specials on lots of networks. The coverage hasn't reached Michael Jackson proportions -- which tells you something about our country -- but it's hard to claim that Ted hasn't gotten enough attention.

I have two personal reactions when I think about Senator Kennedy. First, he was the exception that tested one of my rules: In general, I dislike politicians who cash in on a famous name. That's one reason I had an instant distaste for George W. Bush. If W's name had been Smith, he'd have been the nobody his merits entitled him to be.

Whatever a person might think of Ted Kennedy's abilities, he wouldn't have entered the Senate at age 30 if he'd been a Smith. That said, his name was Kennedy and he did become a senator in 1962, during his brother's administration. And to be fair, he deserves to be judged on what he did with that opportunity, rather than whether he earned it or not.

And that's what gives my rule an exception: If you rise to power through your family connections, you should use that power to help the rest of us. That's the difference between Ted and conservative rich kids like W or Dan Quayle. Kennedy's family could send him to Harvard, so he wanted a good education for everybody. He got good medical care, so he wanted everybody to have it. He never had to take a debilitating job or work in a toxic environment, so he tried to protect all workers.

If some authentic rags-to-riches type wants to preach rugged individualism and you're-on-your-own capitalism, fine. But I can't listen to it from guys who have had everything given to them. If a famous heir wants to go into politics, he should be a Ted Kennedy.

My second reaction is that -- fairly or unfairly -- I connect Ted with a lost generation of Democratic leadership. Let me tell you about an editorial cartoon that has stuck in my head ever since I saw it in 1969. Nixon's inauguration was the end of maybe the most eventful and disturbing election cycle in American history: McCarthy's college kids chasing LBJ out of the race, the King and RFK assassinations, the "police riot" at the Democratic Convention, and so on. Humphrey came out as a damaged nominee, and his last-minute comeback fell just short. Nixon was president.

Anyway, the inauguration-day cartoon: It showed a park bench in front of the White House. Nixon was walking away from us, into the White House, his footprints in the snow trailing back to the bench. Still sitting on the bench was Ted Kennedy.

That's how inevitable his presidency seemed in those days. He wasn't even 40 yet, but he was the heir to two martyred brothers. History was proving him right about Vietnam. Nixon seemed like an accident, a product of 1968's one-of-a-kind circumstances. The White House still rightfully belonged to the Democratic coalition that had elected JFK in 1960 and given LBJ a landslide in 1964. Ted would take it back for us in 1972.

That summer brought Chappaquiddick, and the whole inevitability thing was over. And so began an entire era when it seemed like the Democrats couldn't get their first-string team onto the field. McGovern in 1972 and Carter in 1976 were second-stringers, not legitimate heirs to the Kennedy mantle. Ted tried to take the nomination away from Carter in 1980, but the combination of incumbency, residue of scandal, and a bad campaign resulted in Carter's renomination and loss to Ronald Reagan.

In the 1980s, Democrats had a new heart-throb who was always on the sidelines when the game was being decided: Mario Cuomo. Mondale and Dukakis were second-stringers, and when Clinton ran into his own scandals in 1992, no one had the stature to take advantage. We got used to having an if-only candidate, a candidate who could claim our hearts, but (for some reason) not our nomination. Our nominee would always be damaged, always somebody circumstances had stuck us with. That lasted right up to 2004, when Dean self-destructed and Hillary stayed on the sidelines.

I think 2008 marked the end of that era. Whether the primary campaign came out the way you wanted or not, every Democrat (other than maybe Gore) who should have run did. If you couldn't find a Democratic candidate to get excited about in 2008, you probably aren't really a Democrat. That hadn't been true since ... well, since Gene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and Hubert Humphrey faced off in 1968.

Ted Kennedy can't be blamed for the era he was born into any more than he can be credited for his name. But to me he will always be the central figure in those lost four decades, when Democratic presidential politics constantly had the crushed-rose scent of doomed romance.

Flags all over the country are flying at half-mast for Senator Kennedy -- except at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Wonder why.


Six Months With My Kindle
Back in March I told you about buying a Kindle book-reader. Now I've had it six months -- long enough for the new-gadget aura to wear off. It's time to examine how it's working as a everyday appliance.

The short answer is that I'm reading about half of my books on the Kindle. Of the last 61 books I read, 32 are on the Kindle, 18 came from the library, and 11 are printed books I own. Some of the owned books were backlog off my shelf and some were bought new. The numbers may be slightly skewed by all the traveling I've done this summer, since the Kindle is way easier to take on a trip than a pile of printed books.

While I was doing that tabulation, I often had to check the Kindle's book-list to remember whether I had read a book on it or not. In other words, what I remember about reading a book on the Kindle is the book, not how awful or wonderful it was to read it on the Kindle.

The biggest change in my book-buying habits was unexpected: I'm buying fewer books that I don't read. In the past, I bought a lot of books not because I wanted to read them right away, but out of worry that I'd either forget them or not be able to find them later. Many of those books never got read.

That hardly ever happens any more. If a book is available on the Kindle, I can add it title to my "Save for Later" list. Whenever I decide I really want to read it -- maybe at three in the morning in a town that doesn't have a good bookstore anyway -- I can download it and pay for it. With that option, there's never a reason to pay for a Kindle book that I'm not ready to start reading immediately.

Another unanticipated consequence is that I'm reading more library books. Some books that I used to buy now go onto the save-for-later list -- and before I get around to buying them I see them in the library.

I'm also reading more classics, which are either free or very cheap on the Kindle. I read Pride and Prejudice and 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas for free, and Tolstoy's My Confession and The Death of Ivan Ilych because they came as part of a 50-works-of-Tolstoy-for-$5 package. I've also downloaded free copies of Oliver Twist and The Three Musketeers, which will be there the next time I'm stuck in an airport.

And then there was Amazon's attempt to manipulate my reading habits. Shortly after I got the Kindle, Amazon offered free downloads of sample novels by several authors who have written a lot of books. It was a clear "this is addictive; the first one's free" strategy. It worked, but not exactly as Amazon planned it. For example, I downloaded Lee Child's Persuader for free, then munched through 12 more of his books like salted peanuts. But I only bought one -- the last one, which my library didn't have yet.

In deciding whether to buy a Kindle, I had three main questions. First, would I use it? The answer there is clearly yes. Second, would it save space? This was the main issue for me, because I'm an apartment-dweller with vast numbers of books. Again, the answer is yes, both because electronic books take up no space and because I'm (unexpectedly) getting more stuff out of the library.

Finally, would savings on books ever pay for the Kindle? In March I was pessimistic about this; now I think it depends how I figure. A new Kindle was $350 when I bought mine; now it's down to $300. New books (typically ones that have no paperback edition yet) run about $10-15, older books $5-10, and classics either free or too cheap to worry about. (I got a Complete Works of Shakespeare for $2.) I haven't kept track of how much the books I've read on the Kindle would have cost me as printed books, but a wild guess is that I've saved about $3 on average. For 32 books, that means I've gotten almost $100 of my $350 back by now.

But that's the wrong way to look at it, because I'm reading and buying different books than before. Factoring in the books I haven't bought at all -- the good-intentions books that would have sat unread on my shelf or the ones that I have ended up getting out of the library rather than buying -- I believe that my total-cost-of-books has dropped quite a bit more than $100. So for me the economics seems to be working out. But your mileage may vary.

I've found that the Kindle is a more private way to read in public. The guy sitting there with his Kindle might be reading anything from the Bible to Terrorism for Dummies or Compensating For Your Small Penis. So I may finally get around to reading Lolita without worrying that the other people at Starbucks will think I'm a pedophile.

It's a mortal sin to use a bookstore as a showroom then order an e-book from Amazon. Unless the showroom is Barnes and Noble.

Slate suggests strategies for the Kindle's competitors.

If you just hate the whole idea of a Kindle and want someone to agree with you, the New Yorker's Nicholas Baker is your guy.


Short Notes
Forget the highbrow stuff with graphs and charts and numbers. We should show people this cartoon about national health care.

How can a guy as smart as Bill Bradley be this naive about Republicans?
The bipartisan trade-off in a viable health care bill is obvious: Combine universal coverage with malpractice tort reform in health care.
Yeah, that looks like it makes sense: Trade something the Left wants (universal health care) for something the Right says it wants (malpractice tort reform). But tell me this, Bill: How many Republican senators have told you they'll take that deal? Zero?

Let me explain why. Malpractice reform is like death panels. It's a bogus issue that Republicans raise purely to distract attention from real health-care reform. They want malpractice reform instead of national health care, not in addition to it.

In general, no Republican senator has proposed any set of conditions under which he or she would vote for a health-care bill. Until that changes, talking about bipartisanship is a waste of time.

The Blue Dog Coalition of right-leaning Democratic congresspeople receives more than half of its contributions from the health care industry. Coincidentally, these are the representatives most likely to drag their feet on heath-care reform. As Will Rogers once observed: "We have the best Congress money can buy."

Conservatives wonder why people think they're racists. Maybe because of stuff like this: "Republicans are struggling right now to find the great white hope," Republican Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins told a town hall meeting in Kansas this week.

The phrase great white hope goes back to the early 1900s, when Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight boxing champion. The "great white hope" was whatever boxer might reclaim the title for the white race. So now Republicans need a great white hope to reclaim the White House from the first black president.

Jenkins denies that's what she meant, but take her at her word for a second: How ignorant do you need to be not to grasp the implications? Are Republicans scraping that close to the bottom of the barrel when they pick candidates for Congress?

Panelists for the Onion News Network discuss the recently abandoned practice of putting suspected terrorists in an endless labyrinth with a minotaur. Was it torture? By eliminating the practice, has the Obama administration tied the hands and hooves of our interrogators?

In a sensible corporate system, investors would hold a CEO accountable if he outraged a significant number of the customers for no good reason. Well, some Whole Foods investors are acting sensibly.

Dancing With the Stars has put disgraced House leader Tom DeLay back in the spotlight, so of course we're asking his opinion about everything again. Misbehaving right-wingers at town hall meetings? Hey, the other side has done worse:
When I did my town hall meetings, I'll never forget one back in the '80s -- on health care, by the way. They brought in quadriplegics on gurneys and dumped them on the floor in front of my podium.
Funny, nobody else remembers that. Seems like it would stick in people's minds.

In June I told you about a minister praying for Obama to die. Here's another one. You know, I doubt there are many churches much more liberal than mine, and we said a lot of unkind things about Bush over the years. But I never heard of anybody praying for him to die. I never met a liberal who thought God would welcome such a prayer, much less answer it.

That's the single thing that most amazes and appalls me about right-wing religion: Their God is no better than they are. They might as well be worshiping Zeus or Mars.

You'd expect the people who study visualization methods to have a really kick-ass way to visualize their subject matter. They do. Move your mouse around and watch for the pop-ups.

Monday, August 24, 2009

One Brave Rush

I by no means wish to die. Yet, were there any cause, in this whole chaos of human struggle, worth a sane man's dying for, and which my death would benefit, then -- provided, however, the effort did not involve an unreasonable amount of trouble -- methinks I might be bold to offer up my life. If Kossuth, for example, would pitch the battlefield of Hungarian rights within an easy ride of my abode, and choose a mild, sunny morning, after breakfast, for the conflict, Miles Coverdale would gladly be his man, for one brave rush upon the levelled bayonets. Further than that, I should be loath to pledge myself.

-- Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Miles Coverdale's Confession," The Blithedale Romance

In this week's Sift:

  • The Enthusiasm Gap. As the healthcare battle gets down to the critical juncture, progressives are discouraged while conservatives are up in arms. There are more of us than of them, but will all of us show up?
  • The Ridge Revelation. What was once an accusation of crazy leftists turns out (again) to be true. But in the media, the people who were wrong about this are still in control, and still brushing off the people who were right.
  • A Last Blast of Summer Reading. A Brown student goes undercover at a religious-right university, and a B.U. law professor hits the road -- after stopping for a beer at Grendel's.
  • Short Notes. Nate Silver notes that the healthcare bill is being worked out by the senators most dependent on corporate money. An upcoming Supreme Court case might open the spigot of still more corporate money. Glenn Beck's resemblance to Father Coughlin. Kerry and Gore must be wondering: Why is John McCain constantly on TV? Rachel Maddow orders pizza. And more.


The Enthusiasm Gap

Here's where we stand on health care: Congress will reconvene September 8, the day after Labor Day. Neither house has yet passed a healthcare bill. The House seems likely to pass a bill with a public option, the Senate likely to pass one without it -- and watered down in a variety of other ways, probably. It then goes through the reconciliation process, which can be pretty arcane. (An explanation follows after the horizontal line.)

The August recess seems to have been at least a short-term win for the Republicans. (Long-term, I wonder how many swing voters they alienated.) They turned out people for the Congressional townhall meetings, and those people were loud enough to make themselves heard.

Another kind of enthusiasm gap is showing up in the polls: For example in Virginia -- a state Obama won last fall -- the Republican gubernatorial candidate is ahead because more McCain voters than Obama voters say they'll vote in 2010. Nate Silver generalizes to the rest of the country like this:

the depth of Republican support is starting to rival the breadth of Democratic support. ... the Democrats don't have a mass movement right now. They have an electorate that's maybe 60 percent unaware of the threat that things like health care are under in Washington, 20 percent aware but burned out or ambivalent, and 10 percent both aware and engaged but busy fighting with one another. That doesn't leave very many Democrats left to stand up and shout back.

Which leaves Obama's people wondering: Where are the crowds that Obama drew in 2008? And progressive bloggers are finger-pointing right back: Where is the candidate that inspired those crowds? Paul Krugman writes:

But there’s a point at which realism shades over into weakness, and progressives increasingly feel that the administration is on the wrong side of that line.

Mike Lux adds:

But what worries me the most is the hard-core Obama people I know, the ones who were most excited about him during the campaign who are growing so disillusioned.

Why disillusioned? Because we're still doing extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo is still open, Afghanistan is escalating, the Bush crimes are being swept under the rug, and there's been no clean break on things like warrantless wiretapping. Anybody who thought electing Obama would open the door on a new America is bound to be disillusioned.

But if those feelings are causing you to sit on your hands, it's worth watching the speech President Clinton gave to the recent Netroots Nation conference (of liberal bloggers). Clinton's speech is all about the long view. Hecklers bring him back to the least progressive moments of his administration -- don't ask don't tell and the Defense of Marriage Act -- and Bill defends doing what he did. He emphasizes that it sometimes takes 20 years to get what you want -- but that if you let yourself get discouraged and give up, you won't get what you want even in 20 years.

The Congress Matters blog continues to be the go-to spot for following the arcane procedures legislation must go through to become law. David Waldman explains how it is possible to pass a bill (i.e. health care) with 51 Senate votes. There are two ways: You can craft a bill very carefully so that it satisfies a bunch of rules that allow it to pass with a majority vote after it has been reconciled with the corresponding House bill -- which may or may not be possible here. But further than that, you can just ignore the Senate parliamentarian and do it. Republicans have done this kind of thing in the past -- they fired an uncooperative parliamentarian to get one of Bush's tax cuts through. But despite giving warnings about the horrible precedent such a thing would set, Democrats have never retaliated. Waldman thinks this failure-to-retaliate itself sets a bad precedent. (Tom Tomorrow would probably agree.)


Reconciliation processes are being studied now because Democrats in the Senate are finally starting to realize the obvious: No Republicans are ever going to vote for the healthcare bill, no matter what is in it. So what are those "bipartisan" negotiations about, anyway? In a normal negotiation, you give a little ground to get more support. But no matter what the Democrats give up -- single payer, the public option, and so on -- no Republicans pledge support. Senator Grassley wouldn't even commit to supporting a bill if he personally thought it was a good bill.

Healthcare co-ops have been proposed as an alternative to the public option. They'd be non-profit instead of public, and so would provide some kind of check on the private insurance companies, at least in theory. But as Washington and Lee Professor Timothy Stoltzfus Jost describes them, they don't sound very promising.

Until I read it, I didn't believe this op-ed could be as bad as my friend said it was. Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal printed "An Anesthesiologist's Take on Health-Care Reform," by Dr. Ronald Dworkin.

The gist of the article is this: Doctors know they have to take good care of rich people, and this leads to good work habits that improve the care of poor people too. I'm not exaggerating:

When a poor person complains in most environments, no one listens. But in health care, through a common private insurance system, poor people go to the same hospitals and doctors as rich people and thus enjoy the benefit of rich people's power.

But if there's a public option in healthcare, and increased taxes on high-wage professionals to pay for it, doctors like Dworkin just won't deal with the public plan. They'll cut back their hours and only work for higher-paying private insurance plans, splitting the health-care system in two. They'll do that because

Most doctors no longer think of their job as a calling. ... When the novelty of their career wears off, they continue to work but do so primarily to make a good living and retire while still healthy.

Or at least doctors like Dworkin think that way. After the system splits,

The poor and middle-class will be left to flounder alone inside the public system. Government-run health care will become like the public schools.

which suck, of course. WSJ readers know that without being told. I love the word choice here: Once the upper 1% peels off, the rest of us are "alone". Whatever shall we do without the rich to fight our battles?

Dworkin closes with the usual conservative fear-mongering, leading to: "Needless deaths will result."

Forget about healthcare for a moment. Forget the personal hubris of a man who imagines himself irreplaceable. The really striking thing in this article is Dworkin's Gilded-Age attitude: In any environment, only the rich can expect to have their needs met; the rest of us just have to hope we can ride on their coattails. It's pointless to try to improve public health, public schools, or public services of any kind, because by the nature of things, the public can't get good service. Only the rich can get good service.

If that attitude ever becomes widespread and overt, eventually there will indeed be "needless deaths". There will be a revolution, and all the Ronald Dworkins will go up against the wall.



The Ridge Revelation

Little by little, we're finding out that our worst speculations about the Bush administration were true. The latest comes from the new book by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, where he expresses his suspicion that terrorist threat levels were manipulated for political purposes.

That got covered pretty well by the mainstream media. But it touched off an interesting discussion in the blogosphere that hasn't been covered. It started with this column by Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, which (before he changed it) said:

Journalists, including myself, were very skeptical when anti-Bush liberals insisted that what Ridge now says is true, was true. We were wrong. Our skepticism about the activists' conclusions was warranted because these folks based their assumption on gut hatred for President Bush, and not on any evaluation of the raw intelligence.

And even after being called out on this, he wrote a second post re-affirming:

I still think that some journalists were right to be skeptical of the doubters at the time. I think that some journalists were correct to question how they arrived at the beliefs they arrived at.

Glenn Greenwald was not pleased:

Throughout the Bush years, those who said demonstrably true things were continuously dismissed as fringe, conspiracy-driven leftist-losers: those who questioned whether Saddam really had WMDs; those who argued that the invasion of Iraq would lead to long-term military bases in that country; those who worried that warrantless eavesdropping and Patriot Act powers would lead to abuses; those who opposed the war in Afghanistan on the ground that it would be drag on for years with no resolution, etc. etc.

Having been proven right about all of those things hasn't changed perceptions any at all. As Ambinder's comments today reflect, the paramount unchangeable Beltway Truth is that those who distrust government claims are unSerious Fringe Leftist Losers. Even when they turn out to be right, they're still that.

Marcy Wheeler always writes more coolly than Glenn, but had basically the same reaction. She calls Ambinder on the "false binary" of either having access to the raw intelligence or just being a Bush-hater.
God forbid a journalist use simple empiricism--retrospectively matching terror alerts with reports on which they were based--to assess the terror alerts. God forbid a journalist learn that we went to Code Orange because someone claimed terrorists were going to take down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blow torch, and from that learn to be skeptical of terror alerts going forwards. It's not as if, after all, the election eve alert was a one-off, the only alert in which the hype was later shown to be over-hype. There was a pattern.
Yeah, there was a pattern: With very few exceptions, the mainstream media refused to do any serious investigative reporting about the Bush administration, reported as fact whatever their inside sources told them, and then ridiculed anyone less gullible than themselves. And now that it's history, no lessons have been learned. At virtually every network and newspaper, the same people who missed story after story during the Bush years are still in charge, still on the air, still claiming that even if they were wrong, they were wrong for the right reasons.


A Last Blast of Summer Reading

I keep forgetting to mention one of the more enjoyable books I've read this summer: The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose. Roose is a freshman deep in the heart of liberal academia -- Brown University in Providence -- when he has a crazy idea: Rather than do a semester abroad someplace like Europe or the Third World, why not visit a really foreign culture: Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia? Everyone who tries to talk him out of it -- his parents, his friends, his lesbian aunt -- just prove the idea's power. They're all afraid that the born-agains will do some voodoo to his brain and he'll never come back, a worry that seldom comes up when you plan to go to Bangladesh.

Liberty and Brown don't have a student-exchange program, and Roose doesn't picture Liberty agreeing to a straight I'm-here-to-study-you-people arrangement, so he goes undercover: After a friend gives him a crash course in how to act fundamentalist, Roose enrolls at Liberty, takes the standard classes, lives in the dorm, and does his best to keep the rules. By chance he winds up being one of the last people to interview Jerry Falwell.

The book is interesting both as an inside view of extreme religious Right and as a double-agent story. Roose's challenge is to keep his own sense of identity even though (1) everything he believes is under constant attack; and (2) he isn't really what he lets others believe he is. Holding Liberty's culture at arm's length would defeat the purpose of coming, and yet he doesn't want to lose himself in it, even if the Liberty does have some good points. They're never going to convince him about evolution, but he's surprised how easy it is to relax and have fun on a date when sex is not an option. And what should he do when a Liberty woman starts to like the guy he's pretending to be?

In the end, Roose completes his semester and returns to Brown -- not as a converted fundamentalist, but not unchanged either. It's an ending I've seen twice before in books where sociologists immerse themselves in religious-right cultures: Spirit and Flesh by James Ault and Straight to Jesus by Tanya Ezren. Come to think of it, it's not that different from the ending of Tootsie, or maybe even Twelfth Night. Living on the other side of the fence always changes you.


Boston University legal professor Jay Wexler came up with an interesting hook for a book about church-and-state issues: He turned it into a road trip. In Holy Hullabaloos he hits to road to tour the sites of some of the pivotal church/state cases.

Wexler writes in an engaging style and manages to get across key legal distinctions without sounding like a professor. Also, his road-trip gimmick subtly demonstrates how law differs from legislation: Law is about people. No matter how abstract or even perverse the court ruling eventually turns out to be, each case starts with some particular person having a very understandable grievance. (Wexler already had me in Chapter 1, where the road trip takes him to the Grendel's Den bar in Cambridge. I've been there and knew it had something to do with a legal case, but had never grokked the particulars.)

Along the way, Wexler's own religious and political views come through. He's a secular Jew who hated Hebrew school and has had little to do with religion since. He's also a liberal who can't stop making Justice Scalia jokes. But he spends so much of the book making fun of himself that his opinions don't seem oppressive. If you don't agree, he's just a funny guy with funny ideas. He also does a good job of letting the people he meets talk rather than talking over them.

Where does he go? To a football game at the Texas high school that had to stop having prayers at their football games. To the Creation Museum in Kentucky. To the Florida town that tried to stop the Santerians from sacrificing chickens. To the Senate Chaplain's office. To the Wisconsin town that had to let Amish kids drop out of school early. To the Hassidic community of Kiryas Joel, which eventually got to be its own school district. And a few other places. It's a wild ride -- at least for a road trip with a law professor.


Short Notes
Nate Silver wrote a very important article that I missed until other bloggers flagged it. Nate is a numbers guy (a baseball wonk, originally), and he has a knack for putting his finger on just the right statistic. Here he compiles which senators get the highest percentage of their contributions from corporate PACs.

The list is dominated by small-state senators, which Nate explains like this: Senators who represent a lot of voters can attract a lot of contributions from them, while small-state senators can raise proportionately less money from their constituents. But to a big corporation, all senators are equal. They're just as happy to buy a senator from Idaho as one from California. So while small-state senators might not get more corporate money than big-state senators, they're more dependent on that money -- and, presumably, more influenced by it.

Now look at the six senators who are negotiating the Senate's version of the healthcare bill, and where they fall on Nate's list: Enzi (#1), Grassley (6), Conrad (11), Baucus (13), Bingaman (14), and Snowe (20). In case you're wondering: The chance of randomly picking six senators and having them all fall in the top 20 is about 1 in 30,000.

While we're talking about corporate cash influencing politicians, a case soon to be argued before the Supreme Court could release a torrent of it. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission challenges the century-old ban on corporations -- not corporate political action committees, but individual corporations -- contributing directly to political campaigns.

At the center of this case is the notion of corporate personhood -- the bizarre doctrine that corporations are essentially "persons" for legal purposes. If so, then how can we deny them the right to free speech inherent in the ability to contribute to the campaign of some one who speaks for you?

Steve Benen notes that John McCain has been on at least one of the major Sunday talk shows 11 times in the last 8 months, and then asks:
Refresh my memory: was there this much interest in John Kerry's take on current events in 2005?

Rachel Maddow has been on a roll lately. She has spelled out the details of the corporate astroturfing better than anybody. And the parable of ordering pizza (in which her sidekick Kent Jones claims to want pizza but says no to any proposed pizza order) was a great analogy for what the Senate Republicans are doing with health care.

Scott McLemee provides the kind of deep-background insight I just love: He flashes back to the 1949 book Prophets of Deceit, which analyzed the techniques of Depression-era rabble-rousers like right-wing radio personality Father Coughlin. What Scott notices is how eerily Prophets describes Glenn Beck.

More worrisome testimony that the U.S. military is turning into a fundamentalist Christian militia. The comments are worth reading too.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Exact Measures

Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them. -- Frederick Douglass
In this week's Sift:
  • Yes, They Did Corrupt the Justice Department. The Judiciary Committee files show that we weren't just making a bogeyman out of Karl Rove.
  • Should You Boycott Whole Foods? Probably not -- no matter what their CEO just said. But you might want to re-examine why you shop there to begin with.
  • Healthcare is About Real People. So much of the debate about healthcare is in some fantasy realm: death panels, what might be happening in other countries, and so on. The best thing liberals can do is get real people to tell their stories.
  • Short Notes. Heckuvajob Brownie brings his heckuva powers to a new job. Joan Baez dialogs with picketers. Rick Perlstein assures us that right-wingers were always crazy. The townhall protesters are fodder for Jon Stewart. And the oil industry plans a new astroturf campaign.


Yes, They Did Corrupt the Justice Department
The major media gave it a big ho-hum, but this week the House Judiciary Committee released thousands of pages of documents from its investigation of the U. S. Attorneys scandal. The upshot is that everything we irrational Bush-haters suspected was true: The Bush administration fired nine U. S. Attorneys not for any reason internal to the Justice Department (as witness after witness tried to imply), but because the White House (i.e. Karl Rove) didn't think they were working hard enough to influence elections by bringing bogus cases against Democrats.

Will anything be done about it? Or is this something else we need to "look forward" from? It's too soon to tell. I will make this prediction: All the second-level people, everyone under 50 whose crimes do not become an indisputable part of the public record, will return to power in the next Republican administration. Don't think there won't be one.

The poster boy in this scandal is David Iglesias, the former U. S. Attorney who (during his time as a Navy JAG) was one of the real-life models for the Tom Cruise character in A Few Good Men. (Maybe it's time to make another movie about him.) As Newsweek puts it, Iglesias was fired
following a barrage of complaints from [New Mexico] Republican Party officials and members of Congress that he was not doing enough to prosecute voter-fraud cases and bring indictments that would hurt Democrats and boost the GOP's prospects in the key swing state.
Iglesias told Newsweek:
This confirms my worst nightmares. There were improper and potentially illegal -- as in criminally illegal -- reasons for my removal.
The Rove connection here is no longer some paranoid liberal fantasy. White House Counsel Harriet Miers (who would be on the Supreme Court now if Bush had had his way)
described getting a phone call from a "very upset" Rove telling her that Iglesias was "a serious problem and he wanted something done about it."
The (Bush) Justice Department Inspector General issued a report on the scandal last September, which Newsweek summarizes like this:
The Justice inspector general, Glenn Fine, said in his report, however, that he could not get to the bottom of the U.S. attorney controversy because key White House players—including Rove and Miers—had refused to be interviewed, citing executive privilege.
The Justice Department currently has a special prosecutor, Nora Dannehy, investigating whether obstruction-of-justice or perjury charges should be filed.

This story has two angles that are hardly being covered. One is the Big Picture: In addition to influencing individual elections, Rove wanted voter-fraud cases filed against Democrats all over the country in order to produce political momentum for state laws making it harder to vote. It's widely believed that marginal voters -- the poor, the uneducated, the old, people who don't speak English well, and so on -- are overwhelmingly Democrats. So Republicans favor laws that scare them away from the polls or make them jump through hoops to vote.

Of course Republicans can't openly say "we want to keep legal voters away from the polls", so they have created the bogus voter fraud issue. Election fraud in this country is virtually never done by having real people show up at the polls and claim to be somebody else, but that is the purported focus of voter-ID laws, like the Indiana law upheld by the Supreme Court last year. The "unintended" consequence is that people people who don't have drivers licenses -- overwhelmingly the marginal voters -- have a much harder time casting a ballot.

The second uncovered angle is: What about the U.S. attorneys who weren't fired? Did they somehow play ball with Rove?

And that brings us to Chris Christie, who kept his job even though his name appeared on some preliminary firing lists. Perhaps coincidentally, within two months of the 2006 election Christie's office leaked to the press that it was investigating Democratic Senate candidate (now Senator) Bob Menendez on a real estate deal -- a move that both damaged Menendez' campaign and helped Republicans make a national both-sides-are-guilty argument to defuse their own corruption scandals. Whether the Menendez investigation was real or not, it did not lead to any charges.

Christie is currently running for governor of New Jersey on an anti-corruption platform.

This Republican talking point shows up in the comment section of nearly every article on this topic: U. S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, so there's nothing illegal about firing them.

Here's the answer: A lot of otherwise legal things become illegal if they're part of a criminal conspiracy. So there's nothing illegal about picking somebody up in front of a bank and giving them a ride -- unless you're the get-away car in a robbery.

In general, firing U.S. attorneys is legal. But if the firings were part of a conspiracy to harass Democrats and impede legitimate investigations of Republicans, they're illegal.

Republicans pushed a similar point after Bush commuted the sentence of Scooter Libby. Yes, the president has the legal power to commute sentences. But if there was a larger criminal conspiracy -- if the plan was for Libby to obstruct justice and use Bush's commutation as his get-away car -- then it was illegal.

Here's another example of corruption in the Bush Justice Department:
Career federal law enforcement officials who worked directly on a probe of former Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) said they believe that word of the investigation was leaked by senior Bush administration political appointees in the Justice Department in an improper and perhaps illegal effort to affect the outcome of an election.

Matt Yglesias does something here that you rarely see: A flashback to how the press covered something that we're now starting to learn the truth about. He gives us almost 4 minutes of Chris Matthews' Hardball panel discussing (on March 24, 2007) Congress' attempt to get Karl
Rove to testify. In those four minutes, literally no one expressed concern that our justice system might have been seriously compromised. Matt quotes Glenn Greenwald's contemporaneous comment:
Really, is it any wonder at all that our government is so fundamentally corrupt and broken when we have a press like this? Why wouldn’t top government officials lie continuously when our national press corps finds such lying to be such a source of merriment and humor, and can summon the energy only to attack, mock and condemn those who find the lying objectionable, rather than the liars themselves?


Should You Boycott Whole Foods?
Before I get into the details, I have to say that I'm of two minds about boycotts. In the ideal boycott, you temporarily stop doing business with an organization until they change some particular practice. The classic example is the Montgomery Bus Boycott that ended the segregation of city buses.

But a boycott is on shakier ground when you're trying to punish somebody for their personal political beliefs rather than what their organization does. The worst example in recent years was the campaign to get radio stations not to play songs by the Dixie Chicks after one of them told an English audience that she was ashamed of President Bush.

In general, I dislike any step down the road towards apartheid between liberals and conservatives. So, for example, I don't respond to the anti-abortion activities of Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan, because I don't have to agree with you to eat your pizza.

So what did Whole Foods do to arouse the ire of would-be boycotters? Nothing directly, but CEO John Mackey, wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal against healthcare reform. Wait, that's unfair: He's only against the kind of reform that keeps sick people out of bankruptcy. But he's for the kind of reform that frees health insurance companies from all oversight. So he wants no state regulation, no federal mandates about coverage, and so on. (I explained last week why this is a bad idea.) This point caps it off:
Many promoters of health-care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care -- to equal access to doctors, medicines and hospitals. While all of us empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?
It's obvious to Mackey that no one has a right to eat or to come in out of the rain, so of course sick people no right to treatment. But he does show compassion for those without health insurance -- he suggests they be covered by charity. (A similar turn of mind led Scrooge to recommend prisons and workhouses as a solution to the poverty problem.)

Mackey's editorial is no worse than what a lot of conservatives say, but it was a thumb-in-the-eye to Whole Foods' liberal customers. Whole Foods was overwhelmed by callers (512-477-4455) and by protesting commenters on its website -- many of whose comments got removed.

But should we boycott Whole Foods, as some are proposing? As an occasional but not regular Whole Foods shopper, I say no, because there's no goal. I don't see what Whole Foods can do to surrender, so boycotters are mainly just venting.

On the other hand, you might re-examine why you shop at Whole Foods in the first place. If you like their food, don't give it up because Mackey disagrees with you about healthcare. But if you shop at Whole Foods to make the world a better place -- you're not. Just give that idea up. Whole Foods is anti-union, uses harsh tactics against its competitors, and is a major force for corporate rather than local organic farming. Because they charge high prices and only locate in upscale neighborhoods, they point to a future where the rich eat healthy food while the poor consume whatever crap agribusiness wants to produce. You'd do about as much good -- and pay less -- if you bought organic food at WalMart.

The Texas Observer, in an article that was widely quoted, but which I can't find on its website, summed it up:
People shop at Whole Foods not just because it offers organic produce and natural foods, but because it claims to run its business in a way that demonstrates a genuine concern for the community, the environment and the 'whole planet,' in the words of its motto. In reality, Whole Foods has gone on a corporate feeding frenzy in recent years, swallowing rival retailers across the country. ... The expansion is driven by a simple and lucrative business strategy: high prices and low wages.
(It's only fair to point out that another Texas Observer writer likes Whole Foods.) If you want your grocery dollars to improve the world, find a nearby farmers' market or food co-op instead. But keep in mind that green shopping is no substitute for regulation. As Andrew Szasz puts it:
Surveys show that Americans care about the environment, water pollution, and air quality, but there’s a disconnect. Instead of engaging in political action, people go shopping and think they’ve solved the problem. That needs to change.

Another boycott-like action: Since the inauguration, Glenn Beck has been working hard to stir up an misinformed mob. But when Beck said that Obama was a "racist" who had "a deep-seated hatred for white people" that was the final straw for Color of Change, which started pressuring Beck's advertisers.

The campaign is working:
In what is shaping up to be one of the more effective boycott campaigns in years, advertisers are abandoning the "Glenn Beck" show on Fox News following the host's incendiary comments
Advertisers like Procter & Gamble and Geico. A spokesperson for Sargento Cheese said:
We market our products to people regardless of their political affiliations. Yet we do not want to be associated with hateful speech used by either liberal or conservative television hosts.


Healthcare is About Real People
The healthcare debate is a great example of Stephen Colbert's observation that "Reality has a well-known liberal bias." Conservatives do well as long as the debate is about bizarre fantasies like Sarah Palin's "death panels". Conversely, the most persuasive liberal argument is to get real people telling their stories.

So this week, rather than analyze the issue myself, I'm mainly going to link to people telling their own stories in their own words. Basically, the stories fall into two categories: horror stories from the American health care system, and stories that contradict the crazy conservative inventions about what happens in countries with "socialized medicine".

The most hilarious fantasy-versus-reality story is Investor Business Daily's editorial against Obama's healthcare plan, which (until the world exploded in laughter) contained this paragraph:
People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.
Lost in their paranoid fantasy of Obama killing off the cripples, IBD overlooked the well-known fact that Stephen Hawking is British. Hawking felt obligated to comment:
I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS. I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived.

The evils of the British NHS are a staple of Republican attacks -- even though no Democratic proposal is based on or resembles the NHS. Even so, if the NHS were so bad, you'd think that trashing it would be good politics in the UK.

Apparently not. When Daniel Hannan, a Conservative Party member of the European Parliament, went on a series of American TV shows to criticize the NHS, the rest of the Conservative Party ran for cover. Conservative leader David Cameron described Hannan's views as "eccentric" and told BBC News: "The Conservative Party stands four square behind the NHS."

TPM reader JR tells a story of his/her daughter getting better treatment in Scotland that she got in the US.

An American doctor currently living in Germany tells how that country's system works:
People here freely change jobs, careers, and locations without any regard for health insurance, and they are free of the fear of going bankrupt or losing their homes or life’s savings if they were to get seriously ill

Loudmouth Liberal on DailyKos tells about having a baby with American health insurance:

This week, Baby Liberal turned one. It goes without saying that Mr. Liberal and I think our son is absolutely perfect. What he is NOT, however, is priceless.

On the day he arrived, my little darling was worth $56,826.50. By the time we left the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) eight days later, he was worth an additional $21,651.50. Having already met the $6,000.00 maximum out-of-pocket deductible with my prenatal care, my precious bundle of joy had a pricetag of $84,478.00 before we'd purchased the first pack of diapers.


DailyKos' Jerome a Paris described what happened five years ago, when his four-year-old son was diagnosed with a brain tumor in France.
world class treatment was provided immediately, not subject to any "death panel" of any kind, and at no cost to us. In this case, treatment was provided in a public hospital, but if the best solution had been in a private clinic (or even, in some cases, if the only solution was to ship my son to a foreign specialist, something which happens in rare instances), then my son would have been taken there at no cost to us, everything been covered by the "S├ęcu"

A TPM reader recently diagnosed with breast cancer in France tells about the closest thing she has seen to a "death panel":
It makes a decision about a patient's health that does not depend upon considerations like age, income, pre-existing conditions or lifestyle. The council has only one question to answer: does the patient have an illness (or trauma) that requires long term treatment? If the answer to that question is yes, the person is immediately covered at 100 percent for the duration of the illness.

Finally, there's Remote Area Medical Group, which was founded to bring medical care to poor people in third world countries. Now they do 65% of their work in the United States. CBS covered the long line of people waiting to get free care at an RAM event in the L.A. Forum. Joan Walsh comments:
It's a wonderful example of American volunteerism and compassion; it also represents a complete breakdown in our values of fairness and equal rights.
The British, French, or Germans would be ashamed to see their countrymen forced to use a medical service designed for the world's most backward places. Are we?


Short Notes
Here's a moving account of Joan Baez going out to have a conversation with an aging Vietnam vet who was picketing her concert.

Here's how the conservative meritocracy works: They've got a job as a radio host for Mike "HeckuvajobBrownie" Brown. David Sirota comments:
This guy is literally the international posterboy for incompetence - a guy who basically did nothing while an American city drowned. And just four short years later, he's on the airwaves as a serious political/governmental expert

A commenter on a Whole Foods forum gives a long but hilarious response to the point that the government can't do anything right.

Historian Rick Perlstein faces the question of whether right-wing crazies are crazier now than they have been in decades past. The answer is no, they're very similar, but today's media covers them differently.

The astroturf campaign to derail healthcare reform is going so well that the oil industry is planning to run one against climate change.

The town-hall craziness is bringing out the best in Jon Stewart. Check this and this.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Outcompeting the Facts

Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the "body of fact" that exists in the minds of the general public. -- from a tobacco industry strategy memo, 1969

In this week's Sift:
  • Pioneers of Corporate Liberation. Someday, when corporations are finally liberated from their human oppressors, they'll look back with gratitude to those freedom-loving pioneers, the tobacco companies. We owe them for so much: the phony research institute and the astroturf campaign most of all. Their vision lives on in the recent townhall meeting protests.
  • Individual Health Insurance: Giving Up the Safety of Numbers. When it's just you and your family against a giant insurance company, who's going to win?
  • Short Notes. Care Bears vs. My Little Pony. When building demolition goes wrong. Autopilot error replaces pilot error. Maybe Blackwater really is getting away with murder. I still can't sympathize with Harvard even after they lose billions. And more.


Pioneers of Corporate Liberation
When I was in high school, the Mobil corporation used to buy advertising space in major newspapers to publish its own editorials. Purists objected that democracy wasn't supposed to work this way, with booming corporate mouthpieces making themselves heard above the voices of ordinary citizens and their representatives in politics and the media. But from today's perspective Mobil's editorials look like relics from an age of innocence. Sure, Mobil's bottomless purse could insure that its agenda (mostly oil-company tax breaks and hobbled environmental regulations) stayed on center stage independent of its merits. But at least we knew we were listening to Mobil. We could consider the source and evaluate the ideas accordingly.

That was a simpler time, and the seeds of a more complicated time were only sprouting.

Someday, when corporations rule the world openly (like the machines in The Matrix), they will undoubtedly write their history as a story of liberation from human oppression, with the tobacco companies as their Paul Reveres and Martin Luther Kings. Because it was the tobacco companies who pioneered the techniques of corporate lib.

It started when Big Tobacco realized that it couldn't put its case across openly. If the makers of Marlboro and Lucky Strike simply published their message in the New York Times, saying "Don't believe all this nonsense about lung cancer" in Mobil-like signed advertisements, any wannabee Marlboro Man would consider the source and understand the truth: Tobacco companies wanted him to volunteer for a nasty death to keep their profits up.

That wouldn't do at all.

So instead, the companies funded the Tobacco Institute -- a "research" institution that funded "scientists" and published "papers" in "journals". The Institute never tried to prove that cigarettes were good for you -- that was a bridge too far -- but instead kept raising the standards of proof to argue that the link between smoking and cancer was still "controversial". That tactic changed the shape of the public conversation. Previously, whenever cigarette executives tried to defend their product in public, they would be grilled about why they were giving people cancer. But now, anti-cigarette activists could be countered by scientists with doctorates from impressive universities. The activists could be grilled about why they were misrepresenting the data and presenting their views as facts when the scientific community was still divided.

As long as the money flowed, new points of controversy could always be found. The televised discussion shifted away from easily understood topics like profits and cancer. Instead, rival eggheads argued about sample bias and standard deviations. Politicians (also funded by the corporations) could call for more research rather than action; they appeared to be doing something when actually they were just keeping the game going. Bored and confused, the public would tune out rather than use the machinery of democracy to defend itself from predators.

The predators liked that.

If this is reminding you of today's debates about global warming or universal health insurance or even creationism, you're starting to get the point. The tobacco companies were ground-breakers and trail-blazers. Like Moses, they may not reach the Promised Land themselves, but they have pointed the way. Other vested interests can follow their path and be liberated from the oppression of an informed public.

A second tobacco industry innovation was the astroturf (i.e. fake grass roots) campaign. Why stand up for corporate profits when you can defend smokers' rights? The poor beleaguered smokers have had it up to here with being nagged and taxed and made to stand outside in the cold. They're mad as hell and they aren't going to take it any more! It's bad enough that the non-smoking majority is fitter and healthier and likely to dance on smokers' graves -- do they have to lord it over them as well? The tobacco companies didn't even have to invent the pissed-off smokers. They just had to fund the infrastructure to organize them and publicize their message.

Everybody does astroturf now. A city doesn't have to be any bigger than my own Nashua, New Hampshire to have a local astroturf campaign. The City of Nashua is trying to take over the local water company (Pennichuck) because many of us are convinced they're poor guardians of our watershed. The takeover proposal started when Pennichuck tried to sell itself to a multi-national water corporation, but has dragged on for years (after we voted overwhelmingly to exercise eminent domain) due to legal challenges. Whenever the takeover becomes an issue in a local election, we are inundated by commercials in which angry local citizens rage against bureaucrats who want to spend their money frivolously on a safe and secure water supply. The angry citizens repeat "facts" conveniently supplied by Pennichuck.

I have never seen a commercial on the anti-Pennichuck side, because where would the money come from? Preserving the watershed doesn't create a pile of cash to pay for air time. It just ... preserves the watershed. (If you'd like to add your voice to the support of our poor oppressed water company, you can easily do so from the corporate web site. No doubt some corporate-supported citizen action group will contact you to see if you would look good on TV.)

The most famous single example of astroturfing was the Brooks Brothers Riot during recount of the Bush/Gore race in Florida. What originally appeared to be a spontaneous demonstration by Floridians fearing vote fraud turned out to be an operation planned and carried out by Republican political operatives.

And that brings us to the demonstrators disrupting the town hall meetings in which Democratic congresspeople have been trying to discuss health care with their constituents. By most accounts, the protesters are not of the Brooks-Brothers variety. (Though a few of them are.) ABC News (among others) says there were "no lobbyist-funded buses" outside one such meeting. So the astroturfing here is more of the Pennichuck or smokers-rights variety: real people, really pissed off -- but stoked and organized by corporate money. Typical organizing groups include Conservatives for Patients Rights (led by former hospital-corporation CEO Rick Scott, under whose leadership HCA did things that led to them paying a $1.7 billion settlement for fraud) and FreedomWorks (led by former Republican House leader Dick Armey, whose lobbying interests closely match FreedomWorks projects).

But as I watch the videos, I'm convinced that the people on the ground are genuine. They're real people, really pissed. And why wouldn't they be pissed? They're being ruled by a secret Muslim who isn't really president because he wasn't born in this country. He's going to take away their guns and leave them to die when they get old. He's planning to surrender to the terrorists, raise taxes and undermine religion. He pretends to be a Christian, but he might even be the anti-Christ. Did I mention that he hates white people?

Sane folks have been scratching their heads for months, wondering what all this nuttiness could possible be about. Well, this is what it's all about: The point is to create free-floating anger among working-class whites who feel dispossessed. Once the mob exists, corporate shills can turn it against anything that threatens their clients' profits.

As you watch the news unfold, you should never forget that the health insurance industry makes billions of dollars a year, and they're not going to give that up without a fight. They've fought this battle before and won. In the 90s they formed the Coalition for Health Insurance Choices front group to defeat the Clinton health plan with those folksy Harry and Louise ads. What a nice couple Harry and Louise were! They wouldn't steer you wrong, would they?

Now that Democrats are making an issue of it, the mob tactics of the townhall protesters (spelled out in this memo by a FreedomWorks volunteer) are clearly embarrassing honest conservatives. (See the update at the bottom of this Tigerhawk post, for example.) But they're trying to claim the Left does the same thing. The SEIU points out the difference.

The NYT's Sheryl Gay Stohlberg asks some good questions about how politicians can distinguish real public concerns from drummed-up ones.
“When a politician can’t tell what’s grassroots and what’s Astro, that’s dangerous,” Mr. Zelizer said. “In the long term, that could undermine the potential of grassroots mobilizers to change things. At a certain point, it’s crying wolf. No one is going to believe it’s real.”
And maybe, in the long term, that's the point. If the machinery of democracy gets wrecked or hopelessly corrupted, the predators never have to worry about it again.

But SourceWatch's characterization of astroturf is a good place to start:
Unlike genuine grassroots activism which tends to be money-poor but people-rich, astroturf campaigns are typically people-poor but cash-rich. Funded heavily by corporate largesse, they use sophisticated computer databases, telephone banks and hired organizers to rope less-informed activists into sending letters to their elected officials or engaging in other actions that create the appearance of grassroots support for their client's cause.

Another sign that corporate America has only your best interests at heart:
Newly unveiled court documents show that ghostwriters paid by a pharmaceutical company played a major role in producing 26 scientific papers backing the use of hormone replacement therapy in women, suggesting that the level of hidden industry influence on medical literature is broader than previously known.
Later research (sponsored by the federal government, not drug manufacturers) concluded that the therapy increased post-menopausal women's "risk of invasive breast cancer, heart disease and stroke."

Now, there's nothing wrong with a drug company doing research and telling doctors about it. The problem here is the misrepresentation. If your GP read those articles, she thought she was getting an impartial assessment -- not a sales pitch from the manufacturer.

An invaluable resource to keep track of astroturfing is the SourceWatch web site. Another is the recent book Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health by David Michaels. (I'll have more to say about the book after I finish it.)

Watch for this bit of media bias: Displays of anger are OK if you're a conservative. Any anti-Iraq-War or anti-globalization protest that wasn't perfectly peaceful quickly evoked the word thugs. But if a conservative yells or gets violent about healthcare he's just channeling legitimate popular rage at an out-of-touch government.


Individual Health Insurance: Giving Up the Safety of Numbers
Double-X's Sarah Wildman tells her health-insurance story: She and her husband looked for a family health insurance policy with maternity coverage and spent an extra $126 a month for it. The big print listed all the stuff it covered, but deep in the fine print of an addendum, the policy capped benefits at $3000 per pregnancy. After 36 hours of labor led to a caesarian, Wildman unexpectedly wound up on the hook for $22,000 -- which the insurance company waived only after it found out she was a journalist writing an article about her experience.

Individual (not group or employer-based) health insurance is where the greatest abuse is. The insurance companies know they're much bigger than you are, so they hide things in the small print, deny coverage at will, and more-or-less just dare you to sue them.

This is the part of the market that John McCain wanted to expand. I can't find the text of McCain's plan on the web any more, but the gist of it is:
American families know quality when they see it, so their dollars should be in their hands. When families are informed about medical choices, they are more capable of making their own decisions, less likely to choose the most expensive and often unnecessary options, and are more satisfied with their choices.
McCain was all about giving American families the power to choose which health insurance company would rip them off. Echoing this position, Charles Krauthammer thinks our healthcare system only needs two tweaks: (1) Curb malpractice payments and (2)
Tax employer-provided health-care benefits and return the money to the employee with a government check to buy his own medical insurance, just as he buys his own car or home insurance.
Lindsey Graham chimed in during a recent interview with Ezra Klein:
If I gave you and your family x amount of dollars to purchase health care, you'd be able to go shop around and make a choice and if the incentives were such that you could actually benefit from those choices, you'd make those choices.
When Graham (like Krauthammer) used a car-buying analogy, Klein came back with exactly the right response:
The car example is interesting. When I go to get a car I can walk out of the dealership if I don't like the prices. But if I have a pulmonary embolism and am on a gurney, it's hard to comparison shop, or to have anyone do it for me.
Graham rephrased the point and then dodged it completely, as Republicans always do.

McCain also wanted to create a "national market" for individual health policies, which would allow insurance companies in one state to write policies in another. Think about what that means: All the insurance companies could move their operations to whichever state would offer the least consumer protections. (Ever wonder why you mail your credit card payments to South Dakota? Same idea.) Republicans in Congress still like that proposal.

Kevin Drum wonders why we're talking about private health insurance as if it were some treasured part of American life:
Healthcare itself is provided by doctors, nurses, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, hospices, and device makers. Insurance companies do none of this. They don't do research, they don't perform surgeries, they don't change bedpans, and they don't make diagnoses. They're just middlemen. All they do is pay the bills after marking them up 30%. They don't do anything at all to make healthcare better or more efficient. But for some reason we're supposed to care about whether they continue to exist or not. Why?
He quotes an LA Times column debunking those studies about how satisfied Americans are with their coverage:
Most people are satisfied with their current insurance because most people never have a complex encounter with the health insurance bureaucracy. ... If your typical encounter is an annual checkup or treatment of the kids' sniffles, or even a serious but routine condition such as a heart attack, your experience is probably satisfactory. But ... [a]nyone whose condition is even slightly out of the ordinary knows the sinking feeling of entering health insurance hell -- pre-authorizations, denials, appeals, and days, weeks, even months wasted waiting for resolution.
Repeating a point I made last week: Routine care is not why you need insurance. If you're not poor, you could pay for our own check-ups and children's sniffles -- probably for less money than your health insurance costs. But you need insurance for scenarios that would bankrupt you. The current system doesn't handle those situations well, and the free market can't fix the problem for a very simple reason: You don't know whether your coverage is good or not until you get sick, and after you get sick the insurance company no longer wants your business. So they have no motivation to provide good service to sick people.

WaPo's Steve Pearlstein can't maintain his balance any more. After listening to the Republican attacks on Obama's healthcare plan, he concludes that
they've given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They've become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems.

Case in point: Sarah Palin pictures her Down-syndrome baby Trig standing "in front of Obama’s 'death panel'," which presumably would deny his right-to-life for some eugenic reason. This fantasy is based on nothing more than a speech by right-wing crazy-lady Rep. Michelle Bachman of Minnesota. In turn, that speech is based on nothing beyond a New York Post column by Betsy McCaughey, who turns out to be the ultimate source for all kinds of misinformation.

In response, Joan Walsh and Harold Pollack just kind of lost it. I can't blame them.

Another case in point. We should be talking about costs and benefits and who's going to pay for what. Instead we're talking about whether Obama will kill your grandmother.

This music video explains what hot babes are really looking for in a guy: coverage.


Short Notes
Transformers and G.I. Joe made profitable action movies, but maybe Care Bears vs. My Little Pony is going too far.

I'm not sure what this graphic is good for, exactly, but it is kind of fun: How different kinds of people spend their days.

Paul Krugman doesn't exactly say the recession is ending,
But we appear to have averted the worst: utter catastrophe no longer seems likely. And Big Government, run by people who understand its virtues, is the reason why.
If government had done what the Republicans in Congress wanted and (in the words of John Boehner) "tightened their belt" rather than accept a deficit to stimulate the economy, Krugman thinks we might be in another Great Depression now.

German magazine Der Spiegel wonders (in English) if cockpit automation is just replacing pilot error with autopilot error.

By now you've probably already seen this video (where a building demolition in Turkey goes horribly wrong and the building rolls rather than implodes). But it's just too good to leave out.

Don't feel bad if you didn't see the recession coming: Neither did Harvard. Vanity Fair outlines what happened when the world's richest university assumed that it could only get richer.

I always suspected that Blackwater's Erik Prince was getting away with murder. But I thought I was being metaphoric.

AP's Kathy Gannon refuses to be fooled by the artificial line dividing Afghanistan from Pakistan. It's called Durand Line for a reason: It was drawn by Mortimer Durand, a Brit. The Pashtuns who live on either side of it are not impressed.