Monday, July 27, 2009

By Light of the Midnight Sun

There are strange things done
in the midnight sun
-- Robert W. Service, The Cremation of Sam McGee

When my wife and I took a 25th-anniversary trip to Iceland last week, I wasn't planning to blog about it. But once I got there I found that this 300,000-person country embodied a lot of the issues of the larger world in miniature: alternative energy, the financial crisis, localism vs. globalism, and so on. (And yes, I know I'm exaggerating about the midnight sun. The Arctic Circle only touches Icelandic territory on Grimsey Island. So what I was seeing in Reykjavik was only midnight dusk.)

In this week's Sift:
  • The Global Energy Solution Might Be Local. Iceland has its post-fossil-fuels energy future well in hand. But what does that mean for those of us who don't live on top of a volcano?
  • An Economy in the Kreppa. Iceland had the mother of all banking collapses, and the government wasn't big enough to bail it out. Like our banking collapse, a few people got very rich off of it. And Iceland's government, like ours, isn't eager to investigate its financial power elite. But maybe it's going to happen anyway.
  • How the Republicans Could Come Back. Didn't they used to be the party of small businessmen?
  • Late Summer Reading. David Liss' novels are a way to get an education in spite of yourself. And Peter Abrahams' Echo Falls mysteries fix something that's been bugging me ever since the Hardy Boys.
  • Short Notes. The free market can't fix healthcare, and a big dose of insurance-company money could keep Congress from fixing it too. Pat Buchanan's white male pride. Jon Stewart skewers Lou Dobbs. And more.

The Global Energy Solution Might Be Local
Iceland is a good example of a point I've made before: When people talk about the future of energy, they often frame the question in a way that assumes there's going to be a single answer: Oil is going to be replaced by X, where X is wind or solar or nuclear or some new technology that will let us burn currently dirty or inefficient fossil fuels (like soft coal or tar sands) without wrecking the climate. But rather than one big answer, there might be a lot of little answers depending on local conditions: wind in the Dakotas, solar in Arizona, hydro in Quebec, and
so on.

Well, Iceland has almost no oil to speak of. In fact, the country has been energy-poor for centuries, because they have almost no coal and almost no wood. (Here's a joke I heard: What should you do if you're lost in an Icelandic forest? Stand up.) In a cloudy country that is dark for
weeks at a time, solar is going nowhere. The wind is pretty stiff, but I didn't see a single windmill the entire week. But they do have plenty of underground heat. As Popular Science puts it: "The island is basically one big volcano." And so today, Iceland is starting to think of itself as an energy-rich nation.

In Reykjavik, for example, nobody has a hot-water heater. Or rather, everybody shares one big hot-water heater under the nearby mountains; they pump fresh water down near the magma, let it heat up, and then send it throughout the city in insulated pipes. As a result, everybody's shower smells a little like sulfur. But they don't care, because the hot water is cheap and you never have to worry about your roommate using it all up. (Fortunately, the smell doesn't stick to your skin.)

And you know how most fossil-fuel power plants make electricity? They burn fuel to produce steam, then use the steam to push a turbine. Well, in Iceland you don't have to burn anything to get steam; you just stick a pipe into the ground. So they're well on their way to being self-sufficient in electricity -- at less than half the cost per kilowatt of the other Nordic countries. The only thing they're lacking is transportation fuel, and there's a proposed solution to that too: hydrogen.

The big difference between hydrogen and oil is that there are no hydrogen wells. Making hydrogen requires applying energy to some compound -- like water -- that contains hydrogen. Then you can transport the hydrogen somewhere, burn it, and get your energy back. So hydrogen is more like an energy transmission and storage system than an energy source. You can't, for example, run a car on magma. But if you have magma and lots of water -- which Iceland does -- you can make hydrogen and run a car on that. So far they're at the prototype stage: Some of Reykjavik's buses run on hydrogen, and they've got a prototype fishing boat as well. They're talking about having a "hydrogen economy" by 2050, but the recent economic troubles may have set back this goal.

All in all, Iceland is a happy example for the future of energy. But it's not a one-big-solution: Geothermal energy is never going to light up Times Square. On the other hand, if you're another fossil-fuel-poor island with volcanoes -- Hawaii and New Zealand pop to mind -- Iceland gives you a lot to think about. And even if you don't have volcanoes, you need to look around and say, "What do we have here?"

An Economy in the Kreppa
"Last September somebody stole the economy," our tour guide joked, "and they haven't found it yet." The Icelanders have a name for this: the kreppa. Like a lot of words in Icelandic, just saying it evokes the appropriate tone of voice. Kreppa literally just means crisis, but it rolls off the tongue with a disgusted sound reminiscent of "Oh, crap." English terms like recession or depression just can't capture it.

No first-world country got hit by the economic crisis as suddenly and extremely as Iceland. The industrial revolution didn't really make it to Iceland until the 1960s; museum pieces from the 1950s look a lot like American museum pieces from the 1800s. But they hit the ground running and before long established one of the most affluent societies in Europe. In 2007 they passed Norway to take the top spot on the UN's "best country to live in" list.

Unfortunately, a lot of Iceland's apparent wealth was based on easy credit and a massive deregulation of the banks in 2001. In October The Guardian quoted an Icelandic chef:
When everyone was extremely rich in Iceland - you know, last month, it was with money that they never have earned. Now those who were extremely rich are just normally rich, but they think they are poor. They were spoilt, spending billions.
An auto salesman explains how it worked.
Customers would come in and we would apply for credit online for them, a 100 per cent loan, and they can drive away in their new Range Rover. It took ten minutes, it was very easy. But 60 to 70 per cent of those loans were in foreign currency, Japanese yen or Swiss francs, and they have gone up 90 per cent as the krona burns. A car worth 5 million krona now has a 9 million loan on it; how are people going to make those payments?
You can make a public morality play out of this, just as people do here. But there's also a private corruption angle -- just as there is here. Kaupthing, their biggest bank, loaned its officers huge amounts of money to buy Kaupthing stock -- and apparently forgave a bunch of those loans just before everything blew up. IceNews outlines a complicated arrangement that allowed a banker to build his dream house with other people's money and keep it after everything went bust.

And there's a bailout. The Icelandic government -- supported by only 300,000 people, remember -- has wound up holding a huge amount of debt. The natives are unhappy, to say the least. After an initial investigation that has been characterized as "a joke", officials imported an experienced fraud investigator from France.

In the background of all this is the proposal for Iceland to join the EU and start using the euro instead of the krona. Iceland has submitted its application, and the EU is likely to jump it ahead of various eastern European candidates. But it will be interesting to see how the Icelanders vote. Iceland's people would be less than a tenth of a percent of the population of the EU. And while Iceland's society is very European in terms of laws, markets, education, social services, and so on, the island also has a strong local pride. They identify with their Viking heritage. They take great pride in their language, which is so close to Old Norse that their schoolchildren can still read the ancient sagas in the original. It would be easy to imagine all that getting swamped in the vast mass of the EU.

How the Republicans Could Come Back
The tour guide I quoted in the last article was actually more than that: He also owned the tour bus and drove it. In other words, he was a small businessman -- the kind of person who used to be the backbone of the Republican Party in the US.

He told stories about corrupt politicians, the kind of stories that are amusing, but also make a person skeptical of government and government programs. He mentioned sensible things that Iceland does that it will have to stop doing if it joins the European Union -- because the one-size-fits-all regulations that come out of Brussels don't take Iceland's specific situations into account. He joked about avoiding taxes -- clearly he thought it was OK if you could get away with it, a sort of contest between the government and its citizens.

But he also expressed some satisfaction in paying taxes, because in a small country like Iceland you can see exactly where the money goes. He took pride in the services that Iceland provides for it's citizens: its healthcare, its education, its world-leading geothermal energy policy, and so on. It was clearly important to him that Iceland isn't some little backwater country where beggars collapse in the streets or desperate teens are forced into prostitution. I didn't hear him express
any social hatred -- no racism or sexism, no resentment of the unemployed or people of different religions or lifestyles. He seemed as skeptical of bigness in business as bigness in government. He thought that "about thirty people" profited hugely from the events that led to the kreppa, and they weren't heroes to him.

Here's what I found striking: In America, I used to hear this point of view all the time. The pre-Reagan Republican Party had a strand of enlightened conservatism -- people who shared progressive values, but doubted that government was the right vehicle for achieving them. Like small businessmen, they were pragmatic and evidence-based. They believed in budgets, and were against spending money just to "do something" about a problem. But if a program worked -- as, say, the FDIC or Social Security proved to do -- then they were for it, even if it wasn't something they would have designed. Socially, they saw the costs of change sooner than its benefits, and that made them generally support the status quo. But once change arrived, they were quick to accept it as the new status quo. They didn't march in Selma for civil rights, but afterward, why would they want to go back to Jim Crow and give up their black customers? They hadn't been feminists, but if a female-led business provided a good service at a good price, what was the big deal? And if that new immigrant with an unpronouncable name turned out to be a hard worker, hire his cousin too.

You can still meet people like that in the United States, but you never see them on political talk shows. The Republican Party does not represent them any more, so they are basically voiceless in American national politics. Today the Republican agenda is set by large corporations, militarists, the very rich, and evangelicals -- not small businesspeople. Republican positions on the major issues are ideological, not pragmatic. (Imagine one of today's Republican leaders saying, "I was against gay marriage at first, but they've been doing it in Massachusetts for a while now, and it seems to work OK." Not gonna happen.) Some Republican positions are just corrupt, like taking Exxon's view of global warming or Cigna's stand on healthcare. And if the evangelicals are against teaching evolution, well, who cares where our next generation of biologists will come from?

Every few days I see another article or TV segment about how to rebuild the Republican Party. To me it seems simple: Become the party of small business again. And I don't mean "Say nice things about small business" or "Have big corporate shills use small-business words to frame their global agenda." I mean, give real power to the kinds of people who run small businesses. Be pragmatic and evidence-based. Stay close to your communities, and listen to what the customers and employees are saying. Keep a budget. Be honest about what things cost -- even wars. Recognize that everything has to be paid for, but that some things are worth paying for.

I'll give you an example. My favorite part of The Omnivore's Dilemma is the chapter Michael Pollan spends with a Virginia farmer who has completely thought through the ecology of his particular 400 acres. The farmer slaughters chickens for his customers, but government health regulations make it completely impractical for him or any small consortium of his fellow farmers slaughter any larger animals. It's a bad joke, because the small-farm meat is much healthier than what you can get from a big packing operation. But think it through politically: Democrats represent the regulator's point of view; Republicans represent the big meat-packers who don't want competition. Nobody represents the small farmers, or the customers who want to buy from them.

Speak for that guy, Republicans. That's the way back.

Late Summer Reading: David Liss and Peter Abrahams
One effortless way to get a better, more intuitive understanding of how the modern world works is to read historical novels about how it got to be this way. That's the speciality of David Liss, whose novels are full of interesting characters, suspense, intrigue, an occasional murder -- and fascinating insight in some of our more mysterious institutions.

The Coffee Trader is set in the world's first modern commodity exchange: Amsterdam in the mid-1600s, the time when European society was just finding out about this strange new beverage from the Ottoman Empire. This was the first time in history when a class of people made their living by trading pieces of paper -- promises to deliver commodities rather than the commodities themselves -- and a lot of the market manipulations thatare still in use today were brand new.

The Whiskey Rebels
is set in the new United States of 1791-92, a period of wrangling about what this new nation would be about. Was this really going to be a place where all people -- or at least all white male people -- were equal? Or was it going to be England all over again? The conflict was symbolized by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's favorite child: the Bank of the United States. Liss' plot revolves around a conspiracy to bring down the bank and get revenge on Hamilton for his pro-big-money policies. All the arguments about the government bailing out undeserving speculators happen in their original and simplest form -- at a time when you could go down to the Treasury Secretary's office in Philadelphia and wait until he had time to see you.

Peter Abrahams is fixing a mistake that has dogged teen detective novels since the days of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew: the fictional teens are just way too focused. Abrahams' 13-year-old detective Ingrid Levin-Hill is more like the teens I know: pulled in a hundred directions at once. She wants to get a part in the community theater play, her soccer team is starting the play-offs, there's a boy who seems to like her, her older brother's a jerk, her math teacher hates her, the richest family in town wants to push her grandfather off his farm -- and oh by the way there's a dead body that she knows something about and is afraid to tell the police. Maybe she'll just have to solve the mystery herself, in between practices, rehearsals, and pop quizzes.

Abrahams has written three Ingrid novels so far (the Echo Falls mysteries), and they all get their titles and themes from the plays Ingrid is trying out for. Start with Down the Rabbit Hole, where she wants to be Alice.

Short Notes
Paul Krugman lends his Nobel-prize-winning economic authority to the same argument I was making a few weeks ago: The free market can't solve healthcare.

Conservatives swear up and down that they're not racists. But somehow they can't stop doing stuff like this. And when it blows up in their faces, they portray themselves as the victims. Oh, the poor conservatives! Evil liberals call them racists when they're being racists. It's so unfair!

In a discussion with Rachel Maddow about the whiteness and maleness of the Supreme Court throughout our history, Pat Buchanan expresses his white male pride: "White men were 100% of the people who wrote the Constitution, 100% of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence, ..."

It's weird how different these same facts look if you change your perspective: Everybody but white males was locked out when the ground rules for our country were being written. I love the Constitution as much as anybody, but it's not a source of white male pride to me that we didn't let anybody else participate. And I have to wonder what else I'm supposed to be proud of. I mean, we really kicked those Native Americans' butts. And did you see Hiroshima when we got through with it?

Trust Steven Colbert to give Buchanan's outburst the respect it deserves.

And Jon Stewart skewers Lou Dobbs for indulging the Obama-birth-certificate nonsense.

Independent of what? During the healthcare debate, Republicans in Congress have been quoting numbers from the "nonpartisan" or "independent" Lewin Group. Lewin, it turns out, is a wholly owned subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, an insurance company.

And those blue-dog Democrats who are dragging their feet about passing a healthcare plan? They're being well paid for their efforts.

What if you could ignore the political reality of vested interests and their lobbyists, and could just design a healthcare system that works?
A lot of journalists have eulogized Walter Cronkite recently. But Glenn Greenwald is the only one I've heard make this point: What we admire about Cronkite is completely absent in today's major-network journalism. At certain key moments in his career, Cronkite told the public that what the government was saying wasn't true. Today's network journalists don't think that's their job.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Reasonable Creatures

So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do. -- Benjamin Franklin

No Sift next week
In this week's Sift:
  • Inspector Generals' Report on Warrantless Wiretapping. It's no substitute for a real investigation, but it makes the truth a little harder to deny: The Bush administration constructed a process to give them the answers they had already decided on.
  • Browser Wars to Become Operating System Wars. Google's Chrome Browser is going to turn into an OS and challenge Windows. And Wolfram Alpha is interesting once it figures you out.
  • Why I'm Afraid of Sarah Palin. Conservatives say the liberal reaction to Palin is all about fear. It is, but maybe not the way they think.
  • Short Notes. A first-person healthcare saga. Nate Silver's mathematical model of corruption. John Ensign's scandal keeps getting worse. Six percent of scientists are Republicans. (Why so many?) And the Westboro Baptist Church uploads a music video to tell us that Hank Moody was right: God hates us all.

Inspector Generals' Report on Warrantless Wiretapping
The 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) instructed the inspector generals of the various intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies to report on what we're now calling the President's Surveillance Program (PSP) -- warrantless wiretapping, in other words.

The unclassified version of the report came out Friday. It's short (38 pages) and readable, but contains little that we didn't already know. Like a whole series of the reports that have come out over the years on the Bush administration's illegal activities, it's main virtue is as an authoritative source. Bush supporters can more easily wave off the same information when it appears in the New York Times or in personal accounts like Jack Goldsmith's The Terror Presidency, which I reviewed here.

As Glenn Greenwald points out, the report is no substitute for a real investigation, because the inspector generals had no power to compel anyone's testimony (though they did get to look at a lot of classified documents). Key people like John Yoo or Dick Cheney just didn't bother to answer questions.

Still, seeing the whole process laid out in one place is striking. I am reminded of what the Downing Street Memo said about the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq: "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy". It's the same here: The authorization process for the PSP was whatever was necessary to get it authorized. The threat assessments, the legal opinions -- their purpose was not to guide policy, but to justify decisions already made.

Every 45 days the PSP came up for re-authorization. CIA analysts would compose the scariest possible assessment of the terrorist threat, without knowing that it was being used to justify that an extraordinary spying program was "reasonable". (That's because the Fourth Amendment protects us against "unreasonable searches".) If higher-up folks didn't think the justification was sufficient, the threat assessment was sent back so that the analysts could make it scarier.

The legality of the program was verified like this: Of all the lawyers in Justice Department, only John Yoo and Attorney General John Ashcroft knew about the PSP. Yoo wrote an opinion that the program was legal, and every 45 days Ashcroft signed off on it. ("[C]urrent and former DOJ officials told us that this certification added value by giving the program a sense of legitimacy.")

No one was checking Yoo's work, and it was shoddy. A legitimate legal memo discusses how the recommended action deals with difficult parts of the law and handles difficult precedents. Yoo just ignored them.

Glenn Greenwald summarizes:
These were not legal opinions in any sense of the word. What happened, instead, is clear: Cheney and Addington knew that Yoo was a hardened ideologue who would authorize anything they wanted. So they purposely chose only him -- a low-level Assistant Attorney General -- to be "read into" the program, and then used his memos to give themselves legal cover.
As soon as Yoo left the Justice Department, his replacement (Patrick
Philbin) got his boss (Jack Goldsmith) and his boss' boss (James Comey)
read into the program, and they convinced Ashcroft that there was no
legal basis for parts of the PSP. Ashcroft started refusing to sign,
and ultimately Bush himself had to vouch for the legality of the program (based on his deep understanding of constitutional law, I assume.) If you want to understand the Unitary Executive Theory in a nutshell, it comes down to one memo written by Alberto Gonzales, who was then White House Counsel. Deputy AG Comey wrote a memo about his continuing inability to find any legal basis for parts of the PSP. Gonzales wrote back:
Your memorandum appears to have been based on a misunderstanding of the President's expectations regarding the conduct of the Department of Justice. While the President was, and remains, interested in any thoughts the Department of Justice may have on alternative ways to achieve effectively the goals of the activities authorized by the Presidential Authorization of March 11, 2004, the President has addressed definitively for the Executive Branch in the Presidential Authorization the interpretation of the law.
In other words: the President has spoken, so the Justice Department should stop worrying about justice. Like everyone else in the Executive Branch, the Justice Department is just an extension of the President's will.

The other thing the report verifies is that the PSP includes more than what was revealed in the New York Times. How much more? The report doesn't say. It's still classified.

The other thing the report doesn't say is whether the nation gained anything in exchange for abandoning the rule of law. The IGs asked whoever would talk to them in the CIA, NSA, and FBI. The answers were weak. Nobody would come out and say we got nothing, but at the same time "Most [intelligence community] officials interviewed by the PSP IG Group had difficulty citing specific instances where PSP reporting had directly contributed to counterterrorism successes."

It goes without saying that the Obama administration is not covering itself with glory either. Laws have been blatantly broken, and there is no effort to bring the malefactors to justice. In effect, Obama is ratifying Richard Nixon's old idea that "when the president does it, that means it's not illegal."

Attorney General Eric Holder is hinting at prosecutions for torture, but Glenn is doubtful. The worrisome part of the Newsweek article about Holder's thinking is:
There were startling indications that some interrogators had gone far beyond what had been authorized in the legal opinions issued by the Justice Department, which were themselves controversial.
Glenn's concern is that Holder will focus on the little fish, as in the Abu Ghraib scandal. Sure, low-level CIA interrogators who exceeded their instructions might have committed crimes. But the real problem was that their instructions were criminal. Everything we know points to the conclusion that the Justice Department legal opinions (also written by John Yoo) were written in bad faith; the decisions had already been made and Yoo was instructed to justify them. It was a criminal conspiracy.

An analogy might help. Suppose I'm part of an agency that the president instructs to rob banks -- after he orders a lawyer to tell him he has that power. In the course of robbing a bank, I hit a security guard, which is not explicitly in my instructions. Prosecuting me for assault -- and letting the whole bank-robbing thing go -- won't do much to re-establish the rule of law.

Browser Wars To Become Operating System Wars
Because I use a Mac, I haven't had the chance yet to play with Google's Chrome browser, which has generally gotten good reviews. (Including this promising note about its security. There may be privacy issues, though.) Well, now Google is upping the ante, and things could get interesting: Chrome is going to be the basis of a new operating system that will compete with Microsoft's Windows.

The inner workings of ChromeOS will be Linux while the user interface will be Chrome. They're focusing on the cheap ($250-$500) netbook computers, which are based on the cloud computing model. (Netbooks can be cheap because their users do most of their storage and processing on the internet, not locally. I don't use a netbook, but the way I create the Sift is a simple example of cloud computing: I write the text on the Google Docs word processor -- I tried Zoho once, and it's just as good -- then publish it using Google's Blogger software and email it out using GMail. If my personal hard drive crashed, the Sift wouldn't be affected in the least, because it lives on servers on the internet.)

So far, Chrome has not threatened the dominance of Internet Explorer. But as an OS, Chrome could exploit a market niche where Google already has an advantage over Microsoft, which has been at best ambivalent about cloud computing. If trends break just the right way for Google, Windows could become mainly a business operating system and Chrome could grab the downscale computer-as-home-appliance market.

Slate's Fahrad Manjoo is pessimistic about the Chrome OS, while Wired's Priya Ganapati is just skeptical.

One quirky but interesting competitor to Google's search engine is Wolfram Alpha. It gets stumped by a lot of queries that Google handles easily, but when it knows what you mean, it returns answers, not references. "Capital of Illinois" netted me the name (Springfield), population, position on a map, current time and weather, and so on. "Distance to Mars" produced an up-to-the-minute estimate (171.7 million miles). Given "sunset chicago august 1, 2009" it came back with 8:10 p.m.

Why I'm Afraid of Sarah Palin
Sarah Palin's resignation has turned into the political junky's version of Michael Jackson's death. It's incredibly easy to get so drawn into the details of the soap opera that you forget why you started watching it in the first place. As in: Did you hear what Levi said about a reality show? (Or maybe this is the reality show.) What's up with being interviewed in hip-waders? (An Evening Sun blogger speculates that's all she has left after the RNC reclaimed the $150,000 worth of clothes it bought her for the fall campaign.) All that stuff about Alaska spending "millions" on "frivolous" ethics complaints turned out to be false. (It's more like a few hundred thousand, and if the complaints are all frivolous, why did she reimburse the state $8000 of travel expenses?) Is she really claiming a per diem to live in her own home? And so on.

When I take a step back, though, the more interesting question is: Why do we care? Why is Sarah Palin the bright, shiny object that otherwise thoughtful people can't stop looking at?

The knee-jerk answer (because she's so good-looking) doesn't hold up. We're not talking Anna Kournikova here. Until recently, a female politician could only achieve high office late in her career, so Palin looks great within her peer group of women like 76-year-old Dianne Feinstein or 69-year-old Nancy Pelosi. But put Palin on any national stage other than politics and she doesn't stand out. Let CNN's Campbell Brown interview her, for example, and we'll see who's attractive (and smart and articulate).

So why, then? Palin-pushing conservatives claim it's because liberals are afraid of her authenticity. She's the real deal, they say, like Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich were in the 80s and 90s. But that doesn't explain why she generates so much hostility among non-liberals like Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan: "In television interviews she was out of her depth in a shallow pool. ... She wasn't thoughtful enough to know she wasn't thoughtful enough." Or Cathy Young: "While not an intellectual, [Reagan] was a man of ideas. Palin is not known to harbor those."

I'll agree with Bill Kristol this far: It is fear. I do feel a rising sense of panic when I watch Palin, similar to what I felt watching Bush run against McCain in the 2000 primaries. But (in both cases) I don't think it has anything to do with conservative authenticity exposing my liberal false consciousness.

I think I can explain my Palin anxiety in a way that Republicans might recognize from their own experience. (They can fill in the corresponding Democrats themselves.) Like most Americans of left or right, I hold two contradictory visions of American politics. On my happy days, I picture intelligent people of good will who just disagree about how the world works. So in 2008, when Republicans talked about nominating McCain or Romney or even Huckabee, I thought: "Well, I wouldn't vote for them, but I get it." I could understand how somebody with a different worldview might want one of them to be president.

On my unhappy days, I fear that the other side suffers from a dangerous lunacy. Nothing but gibberish comes out of their mouths, and the idea of engaging them in rational discussion seems pointless, even foolish. I'd just be humoring their delusions. In 2000, for example, the Republicans had a choice between a charming war hero and a spoiled rich kid who had failed at everything he had ever attempted (only to be bailed out by his family connections so that he could fail again). They picked the rich kid, and what rational thing could I possibly say about that? I started to panic.

That's how I feel when I see folks getting excited about the prospect of Palin running for president. I start to worry that my unhappy, paranoid side might be right. Maybe I'm living in an insane asylum. Maybe crazy people are the dominant voting demographic.

It's not that I think she's crazy; it's the idea of her as a national leader that is crazy. It's not her incoherent rambling or her constant misrepresentation of established facts or her family issues or anything else people attack her for. It's: Why are we having this discussion at all? As with George W. Bush in 2000, if I start with a blank sheet of paper and try to imagine reasons why a sane person would want her to be president, the page stays blank. It's not her lack of experience, it's her lack of ... everything.

She arrests my attention because there's a vicious cycle running in my head: This can't be happening. It is. This can't be happening. It is. No, wait, if we just explained things more clearly, public sanity would re-assert itself. It won't. No, wait.

BTW, I think my introspection -- to the extent that it applies to liberals in general -- points out a mistake we're making in arguing about Palin. Our this-can't-be-happening panic makes us want to explain to her supporters why they're wrong. But that just feeds our energy into her persecution narrative: Those elite educated liberals don't get it, and so on.

As a result, Palin supporters never have to make a positive case for her. The right question: "Why, of all the 300 million people who live in America, should this one be our leader?" never gets asked, much less answered.

We need to make them explain more clearly. Don't attack; just be curious and keep asking questions.

Other interesting takes on Palin: Dahlia Lithwick, Frank Rich, and Judith Warner. And Scott Bateman's animation and annotation of her resignation is fun.

Short Notes
Some people respond to statistics, some people respond to stories. If you had a "Yeah, I know ..." reaction to the stats about the uninsured I posted last week, read Progressive Fox's "How I Lost My Health Insurance at the Hairstylist's."

Last week I blamed special-interest money for the problems we're having getting a public option into Congress' healthcare plan. Little did I know that Nate Silver already did a mathematical analysis of this a month ago. His conclusion is that special interest money's largest effect is to turn moderate Democrats against a public option.
if a mainline Democrat has received $60,000 from insurance PACs over the past six years, his likelihood of supporting the public option is cut roughly in half from 80 percent to 40 percent.

I was so busy catching up last week that I forgot to mention where I was during my two-week break from the Sift. I was blogging the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Salt Lake City. No, SLC is not sacred to UUs as well as Mormons; the General Assembly moves around. But SLC turns out to be a perfectly wonderful city; I'd happily go back there on vacation.

At General Assembly, I always like to cruise the booths that have snappy buttons and t-shirts. My favorite button, which I probably would have seen a year ago if I lived in California: "Can we vote on your marriage too?" I also liked "God is not a boy's name."

I also forgot to post the funniest video I had found while I was away: Jon Stewart's reaction to Mark Sanford's inability to keep quiet. It doesn't get old.
Dan Froomkin has landed at Huffington Post. Firing Froomkin was just one more self-inflicted wound as the Washington Post struggles to compete.

The John Ensign scandal just keeps getting worse. And Josh Marshall asks: "Which is more emasculating? Getting paid a hundred grand by the guy who screwed your wife? Or being a fifty-something United States senator and still needing mom and dad to cut the check to pay off your mistress and her husband?"

Republicans warned us their families would fall apart if gays started getting married. Why didn't we believe them?

The Pew Research Center has an interesting statistic buried deep in a recent report: 55% of scientists say they're Democrats, 32% Independents, and only 6% Republicans. You think maybe this has something to do with Republican efforts to sneak religion into science classes, deny global warming, and censor reports written by government scientists? It's a theory.

DailyKos' leading economic chart-watcher says the economy has started to turn. But Robert Reich makes a good point: "Recovery" is the wrong way to think about it, because that implies we can go back to what we were doing before.

I know it looks like a parody, but no, they really mean it. Those lovely folks from Westboro Baptist Church (the ones who go around the country reminding us that "God Hates Fags") have made a music video "God Hates the World" to the tune of "We Are the World".

Everything I'm reminded of, though, really is a joke. The main character on Showtime's Californication is the author of a novel called God Hates Us All. And in the intro to the HBO series True Blood (where vampires are a minority group seeking their rights), a roadside sign reads "God Hates Fangs".

Monday, July 6, 2009

Dual Citizenship

Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place. ~Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, 1977

In this week's Sift:
  • A Logical Guide to Healthcare Reform. Three factors will shape any healthcare bill: What makes sense, what can be made to sound good, and what lobbyists are willing to pay money for. A public option makes sense -- but will that be enough?
  • Que Sera, Sarah. Don't look at me. I wasn't expecting her to resign either.
  • Short Notes. New Zealand Air has nothing to hide. Antidisestablishmentarianism in Illinois. The glory days are over at the Washington Post. But the revolution in Iran may not be over for a long time.

A Logical Guide to Healthcare Reform
Almost all the debate about Obama's healthcare plan centers on three issues:
  • How close will it come to covering everybody?
  • Will there be a public option?
  • How much will it cost?
Let's take them one-by-one.

Coverage. The Census Bureau has estimated that 47 million Americans lacked health insurance in 2006. That number was trending upward at the time, so it was probably higher than 47 million even before last September when the economy began collapsing. Of course, that isn't the same 47 million people from one month to the next; Families USA estimated that 86.7 million Americans were uninsured at least temporarily between the beginning of 2007 and the end of 2008.

Even that number doesn't capture the full extent of the problem, because many people who have some kind of health insurance aren't insured for their most serious illness, which their insurance company considers a "pre-existing condition". In March, Time magazine writer Karen Tumulty told the story of her brother Patrick, who had been insured continuously by the same company for six years. When Patrick developed an expensive kidney condition, the company refused to pay. Why? His policy renewed every six months, and at each renewal he was considered a new customer. Since it took his doctors eight months to diagnose his problem, it was already pre-existing by the time his treatment started. Tumulty estimates that 25 million apparently insured Americans would be in a similar position if they happened to get sick.

Of all possible health plans, only single-payer (the government covers everybody) completely solves the problems of uninsurance and under-insurance. But that is off the table, because Congress is afraid that single-payer would turn us into a totalitarian state like Canada.

A second-best approach to coverage is mandate-and-subsidize: The government forces people to buy health insurance, and helps out people who can't afford it. Massachusetts currently does this; you pay a penalty on your state income tax if you can't prove you have health insurance. It's not perfect, but their rate of uninsured people has dropped from 6-10% to about 2.6%. Mandate-and-subsidize, however, is considered too heavy-handed for a federal plan. (After all, the Massachusetts plan is left over from the socialist regime of Governor Mitt Romney.)

So we seem to be stuck with a third-best approach: subsidize and hope people are smart enough to recognize a good deal. Subsidize-and-hope only sort of works: The first Kennedy-Dodd proposal would have left 37 million people uninsured by 2019. And it has been revised because it was too expensive.

Public option. The most heated debate has been about whether there will be a public option. In other words, will the plan only include private health insurance or will one choice be some sort of Medicare-for-everybody? This is the most naked special-interest vs. public-interest issue, so it has the most confusing rhetoric. Your representatives can't just say: "I'm against a public option because I need money from drug companies and insurance companies to get re-elected" or "I'm counting on making a bundle as a lobbyist after I leave Congress, so I need to keep the corporations happy." So they need to come up with other explanations.

The basic problem is that a public option would be too good. Medicare
  • has low administrative costs;
  • doesn't spend any money on advertising, multi-million-dollar executive salaries, or stockholder dividends;
  • is big enough to demand that healthcare providers accept reasonable prices;
  • doesn't cancel anybody's policy.
So if Medicare were an option for everybody, everybody might do the smart thing and choose it. And that would be a sneaky, back-door path to a single-payer system, which (as I already pointed out) would end America-as-we-know-it and make us just like the Soviet Union or Australia.

The focus-group-tested code phrase for this possibility is "government takeover of health care". Missouri Congressman Roy Blunt, head of the Republicans' Health Care Solutions Group, puts it like this:
If there’s a government competitor, in the very short term, you wind up with no competitors. When voters begin to understand that the government takeover of health care is really the end result of a government competitor in the marketplace, they’re not going to like that.
That's because voters don't want the option to pay lower rates for more secure coverage -- at least not if it means that health insurance companies won't have profits they can contribute to the campaigns of congressmen like Roy Blunt or many foot-dragging Democrats.

In his June 23 press conference, President Obama pointed out how nonsensical this rhetoric is:
Why would [a public option] drive private insurers out of business? If private insurers say that the marketplace provides the best quality healthcare, if they tell us that they're offering a good deal, then why is it that the government -- which they say can't run anything -- suddenly is going to drive them out of business? That's not logical.
Yes, he sounds like Mr. Spock when he talks that way. But he's right.

Everybody understands that we need to control healthcare costs. Our current system is tremendously wasteful. Already in 2003, we were spending nearly twice as much per person as Canada or France (which is widely believed to have the world's best healthcare system -- see this comparison by the Dallas Morning News or the World Health Organization ratings). A more recent survey didn't include France, but estimated that we spend $6697 per person each year while Canada spends $3326 -- and Canadians on average live more than two years longer than we do. (If only we had their warm, healthy climate.)

Numbers don't quite match up from one study to the next, because it's not obvious what to count as "healthcare spending". (Dental? Eyeglasses? Breast implants?) But just about everybody pegs our total annual cost over $2 trillion. The unimaginable scale of that number creates opportunities for rhetorical sleight-of-hand, because it's easy to put forward plans that sound convincing and actually would cut costs, but on an insignificant scale.

Malpractice suits, for example, cost billions each year. But that's actually a trifling part of our healthcare bill. Statistics are hard to lay your hands on for some reason, but Kaiser estimated that there were about 11,500 paid malpractice claims in the United States in 2007, and an average payout of $310,000 in 2006. Blindly multiplying those numbers together gets you an annual cost around $3.5 billion. (I don't fully trust that calculation, but ten times that number would still be a drop in the bucket.) And on the wider question of "defensive medicine" -- unnecessary tests ordered by fearful doctors -- the Congressional Budget Office found "no statistically significant difference in per capita health care spending between states with and without limits on malpractice torts."

Not all costs are equal. Even more important, we need to understand that a lot of very different things get lumped together in that simple word cost. The cost of healthcare is made up of four factors:
  1. The cost of providing the care that people need in the most efficient way.
  2. Inefficiency in providing the care that people need. For example, a late and expensive treatment for a disease that could have been spotted and treated much earlier, or treating something in the emergency room that could have been handled by a general practitioner.
  3. Overtreatment, i.e., providing care that people don't need and may even be damaged by. Overtesting falls into this category also.
  4. Costs that have nothing to do with treatment: advertising, profit, administration, and so forth.
The best way to cut costs, if you can manage it, is to eliminate 2, 3, and 4, and then do research to come up with even more efficient ways to do 1. The worst way to cut costs is to leave 2, 3, and 4 alone and cut 1 -- in other words, you make sick people go without care.

That, in a nutshell, is why I'm a liberal on this issue. If you look at conservative cost-cutting proposals, they inevitably cut 1 and increase 4.

Any proposal that calls for increasing competition in the private sector is a boon to the advertising industry. You know the ad wars between Viagra, Levitra, and Cialis? (If you watch TV at all, I'm sure you do.) Well, imagine if every piece of the medical industry had to establish a brand and compete for individual consumer attention. Do you know the difference between Laboratory Corporation of America and Quest Diagnostic? You would. They're the duopoly that dominates lab testing. They could advertise like ATT and Verizon.

Liberals and conservatives also have different approaches to decreasing overtreatment, because they have different explanations of how overtreatment happens. In the conservative narrative, overtreatment is your fault: Because insurance is picking up the tab, you go the doctor for every little sniffle.

This is one of those rhetorical sleights-of-hand I talked about. Yes, everybody remembers a time when they took their toddler to the doctor for something that turned out to be nothing. There was an office visit and perhaps an antibiotic, and maybe it cost your insurance company $100. If every single person in America could eliminate one such episode a year, that would save $30 billion annually -- which is a round-off error when you're talking about $2 trillion.

The importance of that Atul Gawande article I linked to a few Sifts ago is that it pointed out the real culprit in overtreatment: the corruption of doctors who are either paid by the procedure or get kickbacks from the testing labs. In short, it's a capitalist problem, not a socialist problem. Making our system more capitalistic will increase overtreatment, because it will turn doctors into healthcare salesmen.

In the conservative vision, individuals cut costs by being hard negotiators and looking for the best deal. Picture it: A doctor tells you that your daughter will die in a day or two unless he does a liver transplant. And naturally you react the way you would if a mechanic said your car needed a new transmission. You wonder if he's just trying to make a buck, so you take her to another hospital to make sure, and then you shop around to get the cheapest possible liver transplant. Maybe you even pretend to walk away so that they'll cut their price.

Is that going to happen? Really?

What about computers? Whenever you challenge the free-market model, somebody is bound to start talking about the computer industry. Yes, they advertise and pay high salaries and make profits, but still competition forces prices down and performance up. Why couldn't the same thing happen in healthcare?

Now think about the difference between buying a computer and buying health insurance. You and the people you trust are going to buy many computers over the years, and you can start judging them as soon as they come out of the box. Are they fast? Convenient? Reliable? When something goes wrong does the company make it good? Even in the store, the specs are well-defined and meaningful.

Health insurance isn't like that. Sure, you use your health insurance fairly often. But you don't really test it. Do you know how well your insurance would perform if you got cancer or some expensive long-term condition like ALS? Or just some mysterious pain the doctors couldn't quite diagnose? Probably not. That coverage is what you're really paying for, why you really need insurance, and you have no idea whether you're getting it or not.

That's not like a computer at all. Competition in health insurance is not based on performance, because by the time you need performance, it's too late to change your brand loyalty. (Now you have a pre-existing condition.) So competition is not going to improve performance. It's just going to improve marketing.

My conclusion. If a single-payer system really is politically impossible (which nobody really knows, because no national leader has ever made a serious case for it) then we have to make sure that we get a real public option, one that isn't artificially crippled with rules that make it "competitive" with private plans. If that happens, then I expect the public option really will drive the private plans out of business, because a public plan is just a more efficient way to deliver care. If I'm wrong, and the free market really can improve the efficiency of private plans, then so be it.

And I know there will be scary commercials against any plan that includes a mandate, but I think we need to try it. If we're not willing to let the uninsured suffer and die -- and I hope we're not -- then they really are being covered at least to some extent. We need to make that coverage visible rather than hiding it in the inflated costs that the rest of us pay for everything medical. When the true costs of things are visible, we can try to deal with the situation logically.

Isn't that right, Mr. Spock?

Que Sera, Sarah
There's still no good explanation for Sarah Palin's announcement Friday that she's going to resign as governor of Alaska. What she said in her rambling public statement made no sense even to other conservatives or members of her family, so we've been left to read tea leaves. Cenk Uygur takes you through the various possibilities.

The timing is the biggest clue. She made her announcement on a Friday between Michael Jackson's death and the Fourth of July, so it's clear she wanted as little coverage as she could get. Also, the absence of stagecraft made the announcement seem hurried. Given time, any good high school journalism student could have written a clearer statement. And the small audience (who look confused in the reaction shots) suggests that she just called a few friends, got a TV crew, set up a podium in her back yard, and went for it. Why so fast?

My best guess: Either she's getting out in front of a scandal we'll hear about soon, or her resignation was part of a deal that will keep something secret.

To me, the most puzzling thing about Palin and her fans is their conviction that she was/is persecuted by the media. The working title of a pro-Palin biography is The Persecution of Sarah Palin, for God's sake.

I hope the book compares Palin's treatment during the 2008 campaign with that of all the other previously unknown VP candidates whose teen-age daughters turned up pregnant in the middle of a national campaign. Wait -- there isn't anybody else like that, is there? We used to take for granted that a scandal of that magnitude would sink a candidate, but Palin was allowed to ride it out.

From my point of view, Palin has gotten unusually soft treatment. She was never asked any hard questions during the campaign. It just looked that way because she fumbled so many easy questions. I doubt Katie Couric thought she was going in for the kill when she asked what newspapers Palin reads.

When conservative blogs fulminate about satirical articles or images of Palin, the commenters almost always say that if this were done to Obama, no one would stand for it. In truth, worse stuff is done to Obama every day, and he ignores it because (1) he's got class, and (2) he takes his job seriously, so he's got no time for this nonsense.

Look at, say, this image. Or this one. Or maybe this or this. I could go on and on. And there are countless videos arguing that Obama is the anti-Christ or satirizing the Obamessiah. Photoshop on, wingnuts. Nobody cares.

BTW, I think this anti-Obama video done to Cake's song "Comfort Eagle" ("we are building a religion...") is actually pretty good.

On the other hand, Vanity Fair doesn't like her very much.

This video of Palin telling Hillary not to "whine" about the media is priceless. And just in case her career really is over, TPM collects their top 10 Palin videos.

Short Notes
New Zealand Air has come up with a novel way to make its safety video interesting: The crew is actually naked; their uniforms are body-painted on. Strategically placed arm rests, safety belts, and life jackets avoid an R rating.

An Illinois minister celebrates Independence Day by writing a newspaper column calling for a Christian Revolutionary War: "We must not relent until our Christian heritage is established again in every aspect of society." What do you know? A real, live antidisestablishmentarianist.

Truth-teller Dan Froomkin is gone from the Washington Post. More and more the Post opinion pages are becoming a home for neocons in exile: Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, editor Fred Hiatt, as well as an occasional op-ed by Paul Wolfowitz and various other war criminals. When I looked at the Post ombudsman's article about Froomkin's firing, I counted eight approving comments. I added the 557th disapproving one.

I was already thinking I was done with the Post. Commenter mmadd summed it up: "the Post that I loved is gone." Froomkin was just the last straw; the Watergate glory days have been over for a long time. And then they did this.

The pot continues to boil in Iran, with a major group of clerics declaring the officially re-elected government "illegitimate" and the major presidential contenders continuing to publish reports of election fraud.

Still, no popular nonviolent movement can topple a government that retains both its will to resist and the loyalty of its military. The Shah went down because soldiers and police began tearing off their uniforms and throwing their weapons into the crowd. At Tiananmen Square,
on the other hand, soldiers followed orders and the Chinese government weathered the storm. So far, the Iranian theocracy seems to be weathering the storm.

But it's way too early to declare a winner, because in Iran these things play out over years. The major anti-Shah demonstrations started in 1977, and his government didn't fall until 1979.