Monday, November 29, 2010

Shining Images

Power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God's favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations -- to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image.

-- Senator J. William Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power (1966)

In this week's Sift:

The Sift Bookshelf: Washington Rules by Andrew Bacevich

Every political discussion these days seems to center on the long-term budget deficit and what we can do to narrow it. We talk about raising the retirement age or privatizing Medicare and all sorts of other benefit-restricting changes. But one idea never seems to come up, or when it does come up it quickly gets dismissed: We could stop policing the world.

The cost of policing the world shows up in two ways: First, year-in year-out we spend more on defense than any conceivable coalition of enemies. (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates our military spending, including ongoing wars, at 46.5% of the world total.) That's because we have to be prepared to intervene anywhere that evil might raise its head. We have to have military bases everywhere, and weapons and soldiers we could send to those bases at a moment's notice.

Second, we are fighting more-or-less constant wars, with no end in sight. Our combat mission in Iraq is supposedly over, but we still lose a few soldiers every month, and the country still isn't safe enough for its two million refuges to come home. If things deteriorate we might wind up sending troops back.

In Afghanistan our coalition regularly loses 50-75 soldiers a month. And no corner has been turned yet. The number of coalition deaths has gone up every year since 2003. Now we're talking about 2014 as a date for ending the war, but even that seems optimistic.

Put together, the USA Today estimated in May that the two wars were costing $12.2 billion a month. In addition, we are regularly blowing things up in Pakistan, where we are allegedly not at war. Sometimes we also blow things up in Yemen. Some people want us to attack Iran. Near term, it's more likely that we'll be fighting in one of those countries than that we'll get out of Iraq or Afghanistan.

Unlike entitlement programs, we have no way of predicting future military expenses. So we can talk rationally about when Medicare will go bankrupt, but not when our military commitments will become unsustainable.

Andrew Bachevich's recent book Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War, examines how we got here and why it is so hard even to discuss backing away. It's a history lesson that starts after World War II and goes to the present.

I found two things about this book striking: First, how consistent our military policy has been, no matter how our elections turn out. (I remember a joke from the 60s: "They told me that if I voted for Goldwater we'd soon have half a million troops in Vietnam. Well, I did, and we do.") Administrations change, circumstances change, enemies change, but the need to police the world goes on.

Why? The answer is pretty simple: Corporations make money off of it and pundits, politicians, and bureaucrats make their careers. Seen any pacifist talk show hosts lately?

Second, permanent war is a post-911 thing. It's easy to forget that. Every administration in my lifetime has fought somewhere, but the American people have never before accepted war as a way of life. We just had an election while two wars were ongoing, and frustration at the endlessness of them was not an issue. Hawks didn't demand escalating to speed up victory; doves didn't call for sudden withdrawal. It just wasn't a big deal.

That's new.

Bacevich calls for returning to a pre-1941 view of America's role in the world. We should be an example of freedom and democracy, not the guarantor of it. He admiringly quotes John Quincy Adams from 1821:

[The United States] is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

Touch Somebody Else's Junk

This week a great deal of ink was spilled in response to the new TSA full-body scanners and the opt-out pat-down that would be sexual assault if you hadn't consented in order to get where you're going. A lot of it was simple venting -- like the guy who protested "Don't touch my junk!" -- and provided little insight to the issues involved. Let me see if I can assemble the worthwhile ideas.

First, this is all a response to the underwear bomber who failed to do anything more than burn his own genitalia last Christmas. But by smuggling PETN explosive onto a plane in his underwear, he did point out a hole in airline security: PETN is plastic rather than metallic, so the metal-detectors didn't pick it up.

Ridiculous as that incident was, it pointed out a plausible avenue of attack if more competent suicide bombers could be found. (The problem with the whole suicide-bombing strategy is personnel. You're always relying on somebody who's never done this before.) To avert future PETN attacks, TSA decided it needed either a scanner that could find hidden bags of fluid, or it needed to check people for strange bulges in their underwear (as in the cucumber scene from This is Spinal Tap).

So the scans make sense from some narrow airline-security perspective: Somebody told TSA to defend against this threat, and the intrusive scans and searches are the most obvious way to fulfill that mission. It's easy to imagine the outcry if a PETN explosion brought down a plane a year after it had been demonstrated that such an attack was possible.

Whether the scans make sense from a broader anti-terrorism perspective is more debatable. If you see an airliner bomb just as a way to kill 300 innocent people rather than an end in itself, you recognize that there are a lot of ways to kill innocent people in an open society like the United States. (You could blow yourself up in a mall food court on Black Friday, or even in the densely packed lines of people waiting to go through airport security.) There's no point taking extreme measures to guard one door to mayhem if you leave the others wide open.

In short, from this point of view life in an open society is inherently risky. It's not clear why airports should be a little chunk of police state in the middle of an otherwise free country.

There's a legitimate debate to be had between those two views. But there's a third POV out there that is just dangerous. Charles Krauthammer writes:

The only reason we continue to do this is that people are too cowed to even question the absurd taboo against profiling - when the profile of the airline attacker is narrow, concrete, uniquely definable and universally known.

It is undoubtedly silly to search 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds. But if word got out that we had a "narrow, concrete" profile of terrorists, Al Qaeda could start a worldwide search for out-of-profile sympathizers. Somewhere there is an 80-year-old with nothing to lose, or an 8-year-old that somebody thinks is expendable.

But an even more serious problem with the "universally known" profile is that it conveniently exempts people like me and Charles Krauthammer. (I can imagine Krauthammer's reaction if he were pulled out of a line because someone thought Jews were suspect.) It's way too easy to give away somebody else's rights.

This is one of the many problems caused by the open-ended nature of the War on Terror. If a serial killer who looked like me had just escaped from a nearby prison, I could live with the indignity and inconvenience of constant suspicion for a week or two until they caught him. But that's not what's happening. We're talking about permanently treating certain kinds of people differently. And once we've established that innocent people who fit a certain description permanently have fewer rights than the rest of us, where does that stop?

Where to draw the line between security and convenience is a question best decided by an informed public -- a public that has to submit to the inconveniences it requires in the name of security. If I'm not willing to submit to a full-body scan or an invasive grope, what right do I have to demand it of someone else?

I wonder why Amtrak isn't making hay out of this. They've poked at the inconvenience of plane travel in the past. Why not hit it harder now?

Hope and Denial

A new study by two Berkeley psychologists is apparently about people's attitudes towards global warming, but I think it speaks to something much deeper that liberals need to bear in mind as they craft their messages. Feinberg and Willer are checking this hypothesis:

information about the potentially dire consequences of global warming threatens deeply held beliefs that the world is just, orderly, and stable. Individuals overcome this threat by denying or discounting the existence of global warming, ultimately resulting in decreased willingness to counteract climate change.

The researchers screened participants to identify people who have what they called "just world beliefs" -- the idea that the world is fundamentally fair and predictable. Then they split the group in two and exposed each half to a different article about global warming. The two articles had the same first four paragraphs predicting the dire consequences to future (i.e. innocent) generations if we change nothing. But one group saw an article with an optimistic ending, emphasizing what we could do to avert these disasters, while the second saw a pessimistic ending, leaving little hope that change would be possible or effective.

As you might expect, the people who saw the optimistic message came away with a more optimistic attitude towards combatting global warming than the people who saw the pessimistic message. But here's what's interesting: The optimistic-message group had its belief in global warming itself increase after reading the article, while the pessimistic-message group grew more skeptical about global warming.

In other words, confronted with a message that undermined their belief in the world's underlying justice (that innocent future generations will suffer and there's nothing to be done about it), participants discounted the whole issue. It's just not happening.

The liberal message in general says that the economic system and global power structure is unjust and needs to change. But if we stop there, or worse, if we imply that the Powers That Be are too powerful to challenge, a lot of people will simply decide to believe another set of facts. They won't believe that Americans are dying for lack of health insurance, or that people desperately looking for jobs aren't finding them, or that innocent people got sucked into Guantanamo and now can't get out.

That's why Obama had to run on themes of hope and "Yes we can." Because if nothing can be done, then why disturb yourself by learning about the world's injustices?

Short Notes

An amazing one-minute video of a stunt pilot whose maneuver turned into a bigger stunt than he planned.

Cognitive dissonance watch: If you're worried that you're going to leave your grandchildren a trashed planet, you're an alarmist. If you're worried that you're going to leave them a pile of federal debt, you're a serious person. Grist's David Roberts explains the actual difference:

deficit concern is being driven by the wealthy, to secure their privileges. Climate change will affect everyone, but its worst effects will fall on the marginalized, poor, and dispossessed, and as a result, it's being ignored and minimalized.

Like so many pieces of right-wing mythology, the account Limbaugh, Beck, et al give of Thanksgiving is not true.

For years one common complaint about the Left was that we made everything political. You couldn't tell a joke or use common English without somebody dragging politics into it. Well, Dancing With the Stars was political this year, and we had nothing to do with it.

An Italian lingerie company has started its own version of Cash for Clunkers.

Now that the Republicans have successfully blocked a cap-and-trade law, the battle shifts to the EPA and the extent to which it can act without further authorization from Congress. Which means: You can expect an across-the-board attack on the EPA as an evil corrupt Marxist agency.

Grist examines one opening salvo, and finds that the Wall Street Journal is lying through its teeth.

I seem to be on a Grist binge. Well, this is Grist's response to the James Fallows piece on clean coal that I linked to a couple weeks ago. The Grist-gist is that the content of Fallows' article is as well-thought-out as Fallows' stuff usually is. But the existence of Fallows' article gives aid and comfort to the wrong people:

If "clean coal" development isn't happening in the U.S., it's not because DFHs are against it, it's because nothing is happening in the U.S. A piece focused on that corrupt, criminal inaction might rattle a few cages. A piece reassuring Big Coal and its many backers that they'll always be in the driver's seat won't.

[DFH is a standard pejorative or ironic acronym for left-wing environmentalists.]

A 1999 study showed that medical mistakes in the US caused about 100K deaths and a million injuries a year. A new study of hospitals in North Carolina shows that nothing has changed:

About 18 percent of patients were harmed by medical care, some more than once, and 63.1 percent of the injuries were judged to be preventable. Most of the problems were temporary and treatable, but some were serious, and a few — 2.4 percent — caused or contributed to a patient’s death, the study found.

The findings were a disappointment but not a surprise, Dr. Landrigan said. Many of the problems were caused by the hospitals’ failure to use measures that had been proved to avert mistakes and to prevent infections from devices like urinary catheters, ventilators and lines inserted into veins and arteries.

This is part of our overall "amenable mortality" problem -- the number of Americans who die because we take bad care of each other. The French do much better. (Actually just about everybody does much better, but the French are particularly good.) We could imitate them, but that would be socialism and we are a freedom-loving capitalist country. "Give me liberty or give me death" -- you didn't realize how literal that was, did you?

The New Yorker's George Packer reads President Bush's memoir so that I don't have to. "Very few of its four hundred and ninety-three pages," he reports, "are not self-serving."

For Bush, making decisions is an identity question: Who am I? The answer turns Presidential decisions into foregone conclusions: I am someone who believes in the dignity of life, I am the protector of the American people, I am a loyal boss, I am a good man who cares about other people, I am the calcium in the backbone. This sense of conviction made Bush a better candidate than the two Democrats he was fortunate to have as opponents in his Presidential campaigns. But real decisions, which demand the weighing of compelling contrary arguments and often present a choice between bad options, were psychologically intolerable to the Decider. They confused the identity question.

This isn't just Bush, it's a whole segment of the electorate. An awful lot of the populist criticism of Obama is phrased in terms of what he is rather than anything he has done or is trying to do. (Here's a clip of Rachel Maddow talking to Joe Miller supporters on the street in Alaska. The conversation turns to Attorney General Eric Holder, who they know is "anti-gun". But they have no idea what anti-gun thing he is supposed to have done.) Obama is a socialist, a Marxist, a foreigner, a Muslim. He's anti-American. What he does is almost an afterthought compared to what they think he is.

You don't usually think of concrete as a high-tech material, but that could change. Cracks in concrete actually start at the molecular level. (The article says subatomic, but I doubt that.) Adding carbon nanotubes to the usual mixture fills invisible holes to make highways that could last 100 years instead of 20.

Another concrete innovation is a bacteria that colonizes tiny cracks and produces a glue that hardens. Presto! Self-healing buildings.

The world uses so much concrete that any improvement in it is a big deal. One source in the second article says that concrete production accounts for 5% of global carbon emissions.

Seneca Doane has the right phrases for talking about the Bush tax cuts: Democrats want to extend the cuts for the first $250,000 of a family's income. Republicans want extra tax cuts for people who make more than that.

Extra -- that's the key word.

A jury of his peers found Tom DeLay guilty of money laundering. Predictably, DeLay used the familiar conservative line about "criminalization of politics" to describe the verdict.

"Criminalization of politics" goes back to the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration, and it means that liberals prosecute conservatives for doing things that are "just politics". In truth, though, no American has ever been convicted of being a conservative. Every person convicted in such cases -- like Scooter Libby in 2007 -- is convicted of violating an actual law. The indictment cites a law, the prosecution assembles evidence that the law was broken, and the jury unanimously declares itself convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.

What "criminalization of politics" ought to mean, what it could more accurately refer to, is that politicians often pursue politics through criminal means like money laundering or obstructing justice. Occasionally they get caught, as DeLay was.

Just in time for Christmas shoppers, the NYT announces its 100 notable books of 2010.

In addition to those, let me plug a little-noted novel of 2008: The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. I've had a hard time figuring out who to recommend it to, because (as one reviewer says) it "cuts across genre and expectation lines in the best possible way." Ostensibly a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, it combines some authentically good SF ideas about matter and identity with social insight, an outrageous sense of humor, and a very non-SF writing style. (Think Neal Stephenson).

The pioneers of science fiction (Wells, Verne, Asimov, Heinlein, et al) had fascinating ideas, but generally pedestrian writing styles. Harkaway also has fascinating ideas, but (like Stephenson) he clearly relishes words and all the wonderful ways they can be put together into sentences and paragraphs and scenes.

Times are hard -- unless you're a corporation. Corporate profits set a record last quarter. I'm sure they'll be using that money to create jobs any day now. (That was sarcasm.) Think how many jobs they'd create if Obama weren't so anti-business, or if the corporate income tax were lower.

One of the most publicized of the global-warming deniers is Lord Christopher Monckton, who isn't any kind of scientist, but is a viscount -- which must mean something, I guess. In this audio-and-slide presentation, John Abraham of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota goes through Monckton's presentation slide-by-slide and debunks his claims.

The typical sequence is: Monckton makes a claim and mentions some scientific paper as evidence. Abraham explains that Monckton is either misinterpreting or just making something up. Abraham writes to the authors of the Monckton-quoted paper, who agree with Abraham. It happens over and over and over.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at 


SPN Headlines said...

Hi Doug!

The new initiative to Physically Examine Random Voyagers (PERV) has attracted some rather unsavory characters to the ranks of the TSA....REVEALING story at:

Peace! :-)

DavidW in SF said...

Thanks for another great Sift.

One correction though: It looks like the "one-wing aircraft video" was a CGI-based promo viral video for the company whose logo is all over everything in the video. Snopes looked into this a couple years ago.

Anonymous said...

..."Give me liberty or give me death" - wouldn't this have to be "Give me liberty AND give me death" to fit this context? :)

Great work as usual, this is my favorite weekly!