Monday, December 28, 2009

Sifting the Sifts of 2009

Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you. -- Satchel Paige
All the 2009 Sift quotes are collected here.

In this week's Sift:
  • The Theme of the Year: Corporatism. This year I stopped thinking so much about liberals vs. conservatives and started framing the fundamental conflict more as people vs. corporations. That certainly made more sense out of how health care and global warming shook out. It also gives an answer to that frequently asked question: Why can't our side use the same tactics theirs does?
  • The Sifted Books of 2009. Do you ever find yourself thinking: "I know the Sift reviewed of a book about X, but I can't find it now." Here's the complete list from 2009, with links back to the original articles. Bonuses: Carlos Ruiz Zafon and how my Kindle is working out.
  • Short Notes. I never did figure out Afghanistan. I'm pleasantly surprised by the lack of major right-wing violence. Why history won't vindicate Bush. The most disappointing thing about Obama. And my growing disappointment with the Washington Post.

The Theme of the Year: Corporatism
Looking back through the year's Weekly Sifts, one theme pulls everything together: the dark influence of corporations. I've never been a big fan of corporate power and its ability to set our country's agenda, but as the year went on I got more and more radicalized. (The radical turn begins with Pioneers of Corporate Liberation in August.) At the beginning of the year I saw issues through a partisan political lens: I was a liberal and my goal was to battle the distortions that conservatives brought into the national debate. I saw this split as mostly economic: Conservatives represent the rich; liberals represent ordinary people.

Now I think that's only approximately true. The more important split is that liberals represent people while conservatives represent corporations. The rich tend to side with corporations against the rest of us, but that's just one of many human fault lines that corporations have managed to exploit. They also take advantage of our racial, religious, and social divisions. Corporations, for example, care not at all about abortion or gay rights -- but if politicians who stand for corporate power can use those issues get votes, that's wonderful for them.

That insight explains so many of the asymmetries in our political debate. Compared to people, corporations are few in number and their interests are simpler, so they are much easier to organize. We the people can only organize in public, through public institutions. So we need a trustworthy and reliable news media. We need that media to report the findings of an unbiased community of scientists and other experts. We need a transparent political process that identifies our common interests, empowers leaders to take action on our behalf, and holds those leaders accountable for their actions. Otherwise, collectively we have a very hard time figuring out what is true and what we can or should do about it.

Corporations don't need any of that. They hire their own experts to find out the information they need. They strategize behind closed doors. They hire lobbyists to deal directly with politicians and bureaucrats. The more secrecy, the better.

And so corporations don't need to control public institutions, they just need to make them unreliable. If politics becomes one gang of sleazeballs against another gang of sleazeballs -- that's good for them. If the scientific community obfuscates issues instead of clarifying them -- that's good for them. If the news media just repeats the competing lies of each side, without any attempt to find the truth -- that's good for them. If you wouldn't trust the media even if it did tell you the truth -- that's even better.

Again and again people ask me: Why can't our side use the same tricks the other side does? Why did Obama have to fend off scurrilous rumors but McCain didn't (except when he ran against Bush)? Why can't we have a propaganda network like Fox News? Why can they raise phony issues like death panels and voter fraud, but we can't? Why can they threaten to break all the traditions of the Senate, but we can't? When do we get to swiftboat somebody?

We don't. If we do, we've made a serious mistake, because we need public institutions to work. We need the truth to come out and to be trusted when it does. We need people to trust each other enough to take common action on issues of common concern. The corporations don't need that, so they can play by a different set of rules.

This year you didn't have to look very hard to find issues where corporatism was at work. It played a role in everything, as it always does, but it was particularly obvious in health care and climate change.

Health Care. This was an issue just about all year, and I consistently tried to do two things: Assemble real evidence about how bad our health-care system is, and fact-check the incredible stream of lies and nonsense that was put out against the various versions of the health-care bill.

Health-insurance companies, drug companies, and for-profit hospital chains make billions each year from the current system, so it stands to reason that they would put up a fight if those billions seemed endangered. The insurance companies in particular had to worry, because they are basically parasites; they fill a bookkeeping role that (even if they did it well, which they typically don't) wouldn't be worth what they're paid. So there was money aplenty to create reports, influence politicians, fund astroturf groups to organize and publicize protests, and in general influence the public debate in all the ways rich corporations can.

Corporate shills excel in fogging up an issue, so it was rare to hear a clean framing of the problem: Americans who get sick should receive medical care, and they shouldn't have to go bankrupt paying for it. I kept calling attention to two statistics: Health-care expenses play a role in about a million bankruptcies each year (compared to zero is, say, France), and among people without health insurance there are 45,000 more deaths each year than you would otherwise expect.

I debunked the jingoistic claim that we have the best health-care system in the world by pointing to the large-scale statistics: We spend almost twice as much per person on health care as people in other wealthy countries, and we don't live as long. But strangely, we do start living as long after we get under Medicare's umbrella. Our life expectancy after age 65 is not bad. So socialized medicine works. It works in other countries (where people live longer at less cost) and it works here when we try it (Medicare).

In a well-functioning democracy with a people-centered (rather than corporate-centered) news media, we might have had a real debate about expanding Medicare into a single-payer system for everybody. Did we? No. Instead we were bombarded with horror stories about Britain and Canada, whose health-care systems overall are far superior to ours. Again and again, people who thought socialized medicine was evil didn't realize that Medicare is socialized medicine.

Medicare-for-everybody would leave the health insurance companies with no role, so it was off the table from Day One. The next best idea was a public option, a government-run insurance operation that would compete with private health-care companies the way that the TVA competes with private power companies. The public option consistently polled well, but it got whittled down every time a decision got made, and was finally axed completely to get Joe Lieberman's vote in the Senate.

On the whole, the health-care package passed by the Senate will cover more people and save lives. But the health insurance companies are winners too, and they win at our expense.

Global Warming. Among climate scientists who are not funded by oil corporations or right-wing think tanks (who get their money from a variety of corporations and billionaires who identify with corporations), these facts are almost universally accepted:
  • The Earth is getting warmer.
  • Increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are the major cause of that warming.
  • Human action -- particularly the burning of fossil fuels -- is responsible for the build-up of greenhouse gases.
  • The warming process is going to continue.
  • The long-term results could be catastrophic.
But if you're a fossil-fuel-producing corporation or a fossil-fuel-burning power company, reducing carbon emissions will torpedo billions in future profits. In general, if you are currently sitting on a spigot of money, political and economic change looks more threatening than climate change -- and you have that spigot of money to spend to stop it.

So money from corporations like Exxon-Mobil funds "research" by "scientists" who publish in "journals". All the forms of science are imitated, but it's not science at all -- because the results are dictated by the money, not the data. The "research" is always going to say that global warming is uncertain. (All science is uncertain, especially if you don't want to believe it. No one can absolutely prove that the laws of the universe won't be completely different tomorrow morning.) 

And the same money funds political think tanks to say that because global warming is uncertain, nothing should be done yet. And (through advertising) it funds news outlets, so no matter how obvious the information-laundering process is, the media will write he-said/she-said articles quoting a few corporate-shill "scientists" as if they were equal to the larger mass of actual scientists. (Any reporter attempting to determine what is true will be smeared as demonstrating "liberal media bias".) And it funds politicians who repeat the talking points of think tanks and the media outlets, and vote to do nothing.

Occasionally, this machine may go on offense, as it did when it ginned up the phony "Climategate" scandal just in time to push the Copenhagen talks off the front pages.

I summarized the flaws in some of the major anti-global-warming arguments in February. And I debunked Climategate here and here. But fact-checking and debunking will never be enough, because it only takes a few minutes to make up new misinformation that requires hours of investigation to disprove. As one scientist put it:
At what point am I allowed to simply say, look, I've seen these kind of claims before, they always turns out to be wrong, and it's not worth my time to look into it?

Sifted Books of 2009
Near the end of The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon recalls "inhaling the enchanted scent of promise that comes with all new books." From the beginning, I've mentioned new books that were relevant to some current issue, but last year I started an occasional "The Next Time You're at the Bookstore ..." feature to highlight books, new and old, that you might want to read.

Before I list and link to this year's sifted books, The Shadow of the Wind itself deserves mention. Ruiz Zafon (filed under R) is a Spanish writer whose novels are engaging throwbacks to the 19th century. In the age of Dickens and Dostoyevsky, serious authors could get away with writing larger-than-life characters in larger-than-life plots. Now you either have to be gritty and realistic, ironically over-the-top like Thomas Pynchon, or consign yourself to the lower rank of genre authors like Stephen King or William Gibson. Some of the best  21st-century writers (Michael Chabon, Neal Stephenson) disguised their work as genre novels.

I don't know what court he had to apply to, but Ruiz Zafon has gotten a waiver from this rule. His two novels (The Angel's Game has just been translated) are clearly serious literature, but they are also filled with one-true-loves and capital-D Destiny and characters who may or may not be the Devil. Early 20th-century Barcelona (the site of both novels) is brighter and darker and more romantic than any actual city has ever been -- and it sits over the labyrinthine Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a sort of book-lover's catacombs. I can't think of anyone since Nikos Kazantzakis (Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation of Christ) who has pulled off anything like this.

Another book-related topic was the Kindle. I got one at the end of February, told you about it on March 2, and then did a six-month retrospective on August 31. The gist: It works, I use it a lot, and I enjoy using it, but it hasn't completely replaced paper books for me. The biggest change has been in how I acquire books. I used to make a lot of spur-of-the-moment purchases at book stores. Now, I know I can get what I want whenever I want it, so I'm more disciplined about only buying what I want to read right now. Unexpectedly, that disciplined approach means that I've been reading a lot more library books -- the library is where my spur-of-the-moment pick-ups happen now. That, more than the cheaper price of Kindle e-books, is why I've probably saved enough on books to pay for the Kindle.

Anyway, in no particular order, here are the books I've reviewed in the Sift this year:

Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough. Geoffrey Canada is a veteran black educator and social activist who is making a demonstration project out of a chunk of Harlem. He thinks he finally understands why rich white kids grow up smarter than poor black kids, and he thinks he can do something about it. In another ten years or so, we might have positive proof that you can change the ghetto rather than just pull a few kids out of it.

Nixonland by Rick Perlstein. The beginning of the Red/Blue divide is Richard Nixon. He understood the force of white working class resentment, and how it could be channeled into conservative politics -- even conservative politics that worked against the white working class. Thomas Franks' What's the Matter With Kansas? described a condition; Nixonland explains how it came about.

The Accidental Guerrilla by David Kilcullen. Kilcullen is the Australian guru of counter-insurgency (or COIN as the military calls it). The key COIN insight is that you win an insurgency by protecting the people, not by killing the bad guys. My favorite Kilcullen saying is that you should only fight the enemy when he gets in your way. The "accidental guerrilla" of the title is a guy who didn't have to be your enemy, he just comes to believe that you are a threat to his home and family.

The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics by Eric Beinhocker. Classical economics is based on a number of simplifying assumptions that aren't true, but they make the mathematics work out: the efficiency of the market, the perfect knowledge of all the market participants, and so on. Economists typically act as if these simplifying assumptions make no real difference in the long run, but increasingly it looks like they do. Beinhocker's book is about the reasons we have to believe that, and what might work instead.

The Dark Side by Jane Mayer. Jane Mayer was the New Yorker reporter who covered torture and civil liberties issues. The Dark Side puts a larger narrative around the various abuses like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford. Update Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with some insights from 1970s Marxist writer Harry Braverman, and you've got this protest against the prolertarianization of knowledge workers. Maybe working with your hands isn't such a bad idea after all.

Doubt is Their Product by David Michaels. Michaels looks at a number of industries where the same pattern played out: Anecdotal evidence that workers or customers were being harmed or even killed was initially suppressed, and when it couldn't be ignored any more, the problem was studied ad infinitum. Industry can pay experts to create doubt, and no quantity of evidence will ever be enough to prove that they should clean up their processes. These techniques started with the tobacco companies, but are now universal.

Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq by Steve Fainaru. It reads like an action novel, but it's not. A Washington Post reporter gets himself embedded with the most slipshod group of mercenaries in Iraq. It had to end badly, and it does. But along the way you get a lot of insight into the whole mercenary phenomenon.

How to Win a Cosmic War by Reza Aslan. Aslan is a liberal American Muslim of Iranian descent. The title is misleading: He thinks you can't win a cosmic war. If we frame the War on Terror as our-god-versus-their-god, nobody wins. This book makes a good companion to The Accidental Guerrilla.

In Late Summer ReadingA Last Blast of Summer Reading, and a note under my Big Boy Rules article I discussed some lighter, more entertaining fare:
  • The historical novels of David LIss, specifically The Coffee Trader and The Whiskey Rebels. Since then a new one has come out: The Devil's Company, which the flap says is about the British East India Company and the birth of the modern corporation.
  • The Echo Falls teen mystery series by Peter Abrahams, beginning with Down the Rabbit Hole. Since then I've started reading his suspense novels for grown-ups. He's another of those good writers hiding inside a genre -- or two genres now. Oblivion is a good place to start on his adult novels.
  • The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose. Roose was a liberal student from Brown who decided that rather than spend a semester abroad, he'd go somewhere really foreign -- Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.
  • Holy Hullabaloos by Jay Wexler. Wexler is a Boston University law professor who came up with an interesting device for making his specialty -- church-and-state law -- interesting. He went on a road trip to the sites of the major cases.
  • Anything by Lee Child. He writes action/mystery novels whose hero is an ex-military-police drifter named Jack Reacher. I got a Kindle version of one novel free, then took the next dozen out of the library in quick succession. If Tom Clancy had Stephen King's talent, he'd be Lee Child.

Short Notes
I never did figure out what we ought to do in Afghanistan.

The right-wing violence I warned about here and here still hasn't happened yet, at least not to any major extent. The initial surge of violent threats against President Obama has settled down, at least for now.
Bushies like to claim that history will vindicate them. Could that happen? In January I explained how historical re-assessment works, and why Bush is a poor candidate for it. In a nutshell, the perspective of history often changes the relative importance of an administration's successes and failures, but it doesn't turn failures into successes or vice versa. Bush didn't leave future historians any successes to re-evaluate.
The year's biggest disappointment was Obama's lack of action to restore the civil liberties that Bush took away. In February I gave my initial impressions of where Obama was going and summarized the state of this issue in October. 

In a country that took the rule of law seriously, we wouldn't just be talking about rolling back Bush's illegal measures (like torture and warrantless wiretapping), we'd be prosecuting the people who designed and implemented them, including Bush himself. Whenever this notion comes up in the mainstream media, it is dismissed as something wild and radical, when it is actually just a plain reading of the law. Even if you believe that the extraordinary circumstances of 9/11 justified the illegal measures -- I don't -- this isn't the right way to let people off the hook. That decision properly belongs to a jury.
Another subplot of this year's Sifts was my increasing disenchantment with the Washington Post. As science blogger Tim Lambert put it: "The Washington Post simply does not care about the accuracy of the columns it publishes."

Monday, December 21, 2009

How It Goes

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.
Everybody knows the war is over.
Everybody knows the good guys lost.
Everybody knows the fight was fixed.
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich.
That's how it goes.
Everybody knows.
-- Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows
(thanks to Eschaton for reminding me of this song)

In this week's Sift:
  • The Health Care Bill: Is Better than Nothing Enough? Other than Republicans and a handful of liberals, everybody thinks the Senate health-care bill is better than the current system. But liberals are split on whether we'd do better to start over and play hardball this time.
  • The Progressive Predicament. With a Democratic president and big majorities in both houses of Congress, why can't we do more?
  • Because It's Christmas/Solstice/Hannukah/Whatever. Fun holiday-themed stuff I found, plus I discover that I've written more about Christmas than I thought.
  • Short Notes. Ru Paul goes vogue while Sarah Palin stiffs her hairdresser. An example of conservative humor. Video of an undersea volcano. How Creation confused the Sumerians. And Stephen Colbert promotes a balanced doomsday investment portfolio: gold, women, and sheep.
Next week: The Yearly Sift

The Health Care Bill: Is Better than Nothing Enough?
The Senate got past the crucial procedure hurdle on health care: They shut down the Republican filibuster on a party-line vote early this morning, with independents Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman supporting the Democrats. There are few more procedural hurdles, but the 60-vote coalition is expected to hold. A vote on the bill itself is scheduled for Christmas Eve.

Is that the end of it? No, of course not. The Senate bill is different from the one passed by the House, so a conference committee will have to put together a merged bill that will then be voted on in both houses all over again. Liberals will try to get some of the House bill's progressive features (like a public option) into the conference bill, while Senators Nelson and Lieberman (the last two votes to come around in the Senate) warn that any changes to the Senate bill will sink the whole thing.

Victory or Defeat? A little over a week ago, Harry Reid thought he had a put together a compromise that would hold his 60 votes together -- in particular by getting Joe Lieberman's vote. It replaced the public option with an option for 55-64-year-olds to buy into Medicare -- a proposal that Senator Lieberman had publicly supported three months before. Liberals were pretty happy with that, but then Lieberman defected, turning against his own proposal and sending health insurance stocks soaring.

The bill that survives in the Senate has no public option or Medicare buy-in. Federal subsidies are prevented from paying for the part a policy that covers abortion, but abortion-covering policies are allowed to be sold on the state-by-state exchanges -- unless the state passes a law opting out, as some will surely do. On the plus side, a loophole in the previous version of the bill allowed insurance policies to include lifetime limits -- a big reason why so many people with health insurance end up going bankrupt anyway. That loophole has been closed.

The outlines of this compromise have been clear all week, and Democrat voices have been split down the middle about whether such a bill should pass or not. Howard Dean wanted to kill it (but has since backed off a little):
This is essentially the collapse of health care reform in the United States Senate. And, honestly, the best thing to do right now is kill the Senate bill and go back to the House and start the reconciliation process, where you only need 51 votes and it would be a much simpler bill.
Ted Kennedy's widow Vicki wants the bill passed:
Ted often said that we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. He also said that it was better to get half a loaf than no loaf at all, especially with so many lives at stake. ... I humbly ask his colleagues to finish the work of his life, the work of generations, to allow the vote to go forward and to pass health-care reform now. As Ted always said, when it's finally done, the people will wonder what took so long.
The top liberal blogs and columnists were all over the map. Paul Krugman called the bill "an awesome achievement" but also "seriously flawed". Glenn Greenwald was less upbeat:
if progressives always announce that they are willing to accept whatever miniscule benefits are tossed at them (on the ground that it's better than nothing) and unfailingly support Democratic initiatives (on the ground that the GOP is worse), then they will (and should) always be ignored when it comes time to negotiate; nobody takes seriously the demands of those who announce they'll go along with whatever the final outcome is.
And Jane Hamsher was even more direct: "From what we know about the bill, it is worse than passing nothing."

The flaws. The basic analysis I gave you in September still holds: The various pieces of reform interlock in ways that defy a piecemeal approach. Everybody (except the insurance companies) wants to do away with exclusions for pre-existing conditions. But it you only do that, then you create a hole in the system: Healthy people can go without insurance, with the assurance that they can get coverage later if they develop a major health problem. With healthy people's money out of the system, premiums for everyone else would skyrocket, causing even more people to opt out of the system, until eventually only people with major health problems would seek insurance at all, and they would pay outrageous prices for it. You've made things worse, not better.

So if you get rid of pre-existing conditions, you need some kind of mandate that forces (or strongly influences) healthy people to get insurance. (Massachusetts already has a mandate. Ezra Klein interviews its main implementor.) Once you've done that, though, you've put the health insurance companies back in the driver's seat, because consumers have lost the option to say no. Even if the companies that sell insurance in your state offer only crappy policies at high prices, the law says you have to buy one anyway or pay a penalty. Under those circumstances, why should the industry offer anything but crappy policies at high prices? You've made things worse.

So now you need something that keeps insurance companies in check: Market competition might do it if it really existed -- right now it doesn't in much of the country -- and if the insurance companies couldn't just merge or collude (the problem with Republican proposals). Or the government could step in either with tight regulations or by offering a public option that competes with private insurance.

The main complaint of the kill-bill liberals is that the Senate bill doesn't do enough to control the insurance companies. (Dean called it "a bigger bailout for the insurance industry than AIG.") With no public option, there's no guarantee that the new state-by-state health insurance exchanges will foster enough competition to protect consumers. Although, as Josh Marshall pointed out, the public option as it stood a week or two ago was already so chopped-down that it wouldn't have accomplished much:
if you are worried about mandates now (and I think that's a very legitimate worry) you should have been worried about them with a Public Option too.
Probably more important, in the long run, is that the bill forces insurance companies to spend at least 85% of premiums to pay for health care.

What is "reconciliation"? At times it sounded like the kill-bill folks would be happier with the status quo. But (Jane Hamsher aside), their real point was that Democrats could start the process over, play hardball, and get a better result. (Al Franken does a good job explaining why this bill is better than the status quo.) There are basically two arrows that Democrats left in their quiver: They could have threatened a "nuclear option" of doing away with Senate filibusters altogether. When the Republicans were in the majority in 2005, they used such a threat to get Democrats to back down on filibusters of President Bush's judicial nominees.

The second filibuster-breaking option is reconciliation, the majority-rule process Republicans used to pass Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. The Wikipedia article on reconciliation explains the arcane rules of reconciliation pretty well. (Something I didn't know: the reason the Bush tax cuts phase out is that otherwise reconciliation wouldn't have applied to them.) Nate Silver explains how those rules would apply specifically to health-care reform.

As Nate points out, reconciliation has a bizarre aspect in this case: The popular parts of health-care reform violate the rules, but the controversial parts (like the public option) satisfy them. The bill would have to be cut in two, setting up a Game of Chicken: 41 senators could still scuttle health-care reform, but only by filibustering the part that got rid of pre-existing conditions. You'd like to think they wouldn't do that, but if they did we'd all be screwed. Reconciliation would be a very big bet on the general public-spiritedness of the Republicans and Joe Lieberman.

Democrats suck at Chicken, and the media always blames them for any bad results that come from it. We discovered this in 2007 when Bush vetoed the appropriation bill for his own wars, claiming that the Democrats had put too many strings on the money. The media blamed Democrats (not Bush) for endangering our troops, and the Democrats backed down, giving Bush the no-strings appropriation he wanted.

We'll discuss why things break that way in the next article.

After last week's deal broke down, liberal anger expressed itself in a stream of anti-Lieberman ridicule. DailyKos' Cheers and Jeers column published the lyrics to "Lieberman", which is sung to the tune of "Silver Bells". And there's a hilarious sock-puppet version of Democratic senators trying to negotiate with Lieberman.

Did you hear the one where Al Franken shuts down Joe Lieberman's speech? If you didn't, don't worry about it, because the whole story was bogus.

James Fallows dispels a lot of
myths about the filibuster.

I really don't understand Olympia Snowe. Democrats went to great lengths to try to win her vote, and various versions of the bill had the public-option trigger that she said she supported. But at no point did she do what a person negotiating in good faith does: make a definite offer. She always had some suggestion that would make the bill more to her liking, but she never promised, "I'll vote for it if ..." We come out of this process still not knowing what SnoweCare would look like.

The statement she released Sunday to explain her anti-health-care vote complained about the "artificial and arbitrary deadline of completing the bill by Christmas that is shortchanging the process." We can only speculate how much time Snowe's ideal process would take. The House passed its version of the bill November 7. President Obama's original goal was a bill by the end of August. Health care plans were widely discussed in the 2008 elections -- Ezra Klein points out how close this plan is to what Obama campaigned on -- and President Truman proposed the first national health care plan in 1945. If not now, when?

Republicans played no constructive role in this process. They still refuse to recognize that the uninsured or under-insured are a problem. They eventually did present a health-care proposal, but the Congressional Budget Office's analysis concluded that it would accomplish virtually nothing: The number of uninsured would continue to increase, from 50 million in 2010 to 52 million in 2019. (The Republicans' summary of their plan in fact makes no claim about helping the uninsured, who aren't a problem.) Their plan would make it harder for an insurance company to cancel your policy because you got sick, but do nothing to help people with pre-existing conditions.

One of the more bizarre anti-health-care arguments came from Chuck Norris, who writes a syndicated column. (Liberals get tarred with being the party of Hollywood, but notice that whenever the conservatives get a movie star -- Reagan, Schwarzenegger -- they showcase him. Outspoken liberals like George Clooney and Sean Penn don't have columns.) Norris writes:

What would have happened if Mother Mary had been covered by Obamacare? What if that young, poor and uninsured teenage woman had been provided the federal funds (via Obamacare) and facilities (via Planned Parenthood, etc.) to avoid the ridicule, ostracizing, persecution and possible stoning because of her out-of-wedlock pregnancy?
Does Norris really believe that if Mary had just had the money she would have forgotten that visit from the Archangel Gabriel and aborted Jesus? I wonder how Catholics are reacting to this implied slur against the Mother of God. So far my "Chuck Norris" search on is coming up with no comment. Catholic League President Bill Donohue is so quick to jump on any liberal statement that he thinks abuses Catholic symbols or concepts, so surely he'll be all over this. Won't he?

In fact, he's not reacting. Because Donohue's outrage is not religious at all; he fakes it for partisan political purposes. Norris is a conservative, so Donohue (and other Catholic conservatives who use religion to mask politics) has no reason to gin up phony indignation against him.

The Progressive Predicament
Watching the ever-shrinking reform of the health-care system has made a number of progressives ask some bigger, harder questions. Thomas Shaller wonders why
the bar to clear for public support seems to be asymmetrically higher for progressive agenda items than conservative agenda items. ... the political reality that less support is needed, say, to pass a tax cut for rich people or start a war than is needed to expand health care coverage or raise the minimum wage
And John Aravosis asks:
how was George Bush so effective in passing legislation during his presidency when he never had more than 55 Republicans in the Senate?

DailyKos' thereisnospoon says outright that Obama and the Democrats in Congress sold us out on health care and financial reform, and delivers this wake-up slap-in-the-face:
He hasn't done this because he's a bad guy. In fact, he's a great guy. I think he's doing pretty much the best job he can. He's sold you out because he's not afraid of you. And really, if I may be so bold, he shouldn't be afraid of you. You don't know who really runs the show, and you're far too fickle and manipulable to count on.
S/he (I'm not sure) laughs at the idea that Democrats could elect a president and 60 senators and then expect that they will go off and work our will. It's more difficult than that.
The Right has built vast networks of think tanks, newspapers, periodicals, cable news channels, and political advocacy organizations to spread their finely tuned, well-honed messages. Their politicians may fail them, and their actual policies may be deeply unpopular, but their message machine nearly always works its magic to get them what they want, even when Democrats are in power.

That's partly because the American political Right never quits and never gives up. They know that organization is the key to their success, and they don't trust politicians to do their work for them. Democrats, on the other hand, get disappointed and quit when our politicians don't pan out the way we wanted. That's why we lose.
Until liberals have an equivalent level of organization, s/he claims, our agenda will always fall by the wayside.

OpenLeft's Paul Rosenberg pulls a bunch of this together, and then makes some very good observations about structural problems in the American political system.
We are the only advanced industrial nation with a pronounced and persistent class skew to our rates of voter participation-a skew that persistently under-represents progressive views, and like any feature of the political system that has endured this long, there is nothing accidental, incidental, casual, or individual about this.

Sure it's specific individuals who are not voting, but their non-participation is
not fundamentally a result of individual choice. They are responding rationally to the fact that their votes don't make a difference, that politicians don't listen to people like them, and that paying attention to politics only gets their hopes up in order to dash them--an extra helping of bitter disappointment that they really don't need in their lives.
He proposes an agenda to change the nature of the political process: election reform, strengthening unions, immigration reform so that we no longer have a non-voting underclass, and so on. Democrats pay lip service to this stuff, but haven't put any real muscle behind it.

I'll add this: It all comes down to the difference between corporations and people. Corporations are rich, they're totally amoral, they never take their eyes off the ball, and they don't get discouraged. People aren't like that. So a political movement that looks out for people is disadvantaged when it faces a political movement that looks out for corporations. This doesn't mean that people can't win, but they've got to face their disadvantages squarely.

Because It's Christmas/Solstice/Hannukah/Whatever
A chorus of silent monks does the Hallelujah Chorus with cue cards. (And this has nothing to do with Christmas, but having found the Amazing Acts blog, I had to show you the Grocery Store Musical.)

The Guerrilla Handbell Strikeforce gives a Salvation Army bell-ringer some unexpected support.

I linked to this last year, but it deserves to be an annual: Straight No Chaser's version of the 12 Days of Christmas. (If you also like their playing-it-straight Carol of the Bells, you should buy their album.)

A former Disney special effects guy does Christmas Light Hero, sort of Guitar Hero in Christmas lights. But I still like the classic 2005 Christmas Lights Gone Wild.

Here are some science tricks to amaze your friends with at the Christmas Party.

I have a Christmas column out today at UU World: Christmas Nostalgia for the Family We Never Were. I'm not generally negative about Christmas, but here I take a look at one of its stranger aspects: The way we get nostalgic for a way of life most of us have never actually experienced. It's not just that you can't go home again, it's that home never was that way. What can you do with that?

Looking back, I'm a little surprised to realize just how much holiday writing I've done over the years: Midwinter, a short story about an ancient Solstice, Carol at Christmas, one of my Mike DeSalvo stories, a poem titled Christmas, and comic fiction I wrote for UU World last year: The Ghosts of a Unitarian Christmas.

Short Notes
Video worth watching: a deep sea volcano erupting.

People say conservatives have no sense of humor, but it's not true. Their humor is like the guys in junior high who would trip somebody and then laugh at them. If you can stand it, check out the "Feliz Navidad" parody "Illegals in My Yard."

The best parody of Sarah Palin's book is Ru Paul's Going Vogue.

Another great Sarah Palin story. But I think this one calls for a generous interpretation: She didn't intend to stiff the hairdresser, paying just fell through the cracks. It makes me wonder, though: How much stuff will fall through the cracks when she starts running a national campaign?

Last week I linked to Jon Stewart's exposure of the incestuous relationship between Glenn Beck and the gold companies that advertise on his show. Well, now Stephen Colbert has extended that critique to the whole conservative talkshow universe, and has decided to get into the act himself. He cuts to an ad where John Slattery (Roger Sterling from Mad Men) explains the three parts of a balanced doomsday portfolio: gold, women, and sheep -- because in addition to food and wool they provide warm companionship if someone steals your women.

The Onion counts down the
top ten stories of the past 4.5 billion years. My favorite: Sumerians look on in confusion as God creates world.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Circling the Wagons

One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives. -- Mark Twain

This week underlined a theme I wish more people understood: It's way easier to make stuff up than to do the research to explain what really happened and why. In the time it takes to debunk one lie, ten more can start circulating. So both main stories this week are about undoing the damage of bogus scandals.

In this week's Sift:
  • Playing Defense I: The Climategate Emails. AP went beyond he-said/she-said journalism and did some actual reporting on the content of the emails. They didn't find anything alarming. Meanwhile, a scientist blogging at the Economist addressed one data-manipulation charge, and gave us insight into the psychology of climate scientists. Also, WaPo consults its own climate-change expert: Sarah Palin.
  • Playing Defense II: ACORN. If you throw enough accusations at a group and if its political allies are wimpy enough not to say anything, the public will start to think the group did something wrong. Congress banned ACORN by name from any government contracts, based on baseless charges of vote fraud and an edited video. It turns out that's what a bill of attainder is, and Constitution doesn't allow them.
  • Short Notes. Stephen Colbert gives a remarkably cogent explanation of a corporate personhood case, and makes it funny too. I don't know what to tell you about healthcare, or about Uganda's kill-the-gays bill. Obama in Oslo. Republicans go both ways on impeachment. Gretchen Carlson is smarter than she tries to look. The War on Christmas vs. real religious discrimination. A very Brady apocalypse. And more.

Playing Defense I: The Climategate Emails
Associated Press outdid themselves this week. Instead of just repeating the press releases of anti-global-warming groups, five reporters read more than a thousand of the hacked "climategate" emails, and then sent a number of the key ones to "seven experts in research ethics, climate science and science policy" for analysis and comment.

Wow. That sounds like something real journalists would do. I didn't know you still had it in you, AP.

Conclusion: "the messages don't support claims that the science of global warming was faked. ... the exchanges don't undercut the vast body of evidence showing the world is warming because of man-made greenhouse gas emissions." The scientists tried "to present the data as convincingly as possible," but were not part of a "culture of corruption" as some Republican politicians have charged. The article also quotes Mark Frankel, director of scientific freedom, responsibility and law at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, saying that he saw "no evidence of falsification or fabrication of data."

The article does criticize the scientists who wrote the emails for sometimes making "generous interpretations" of the data and resisting sharing their data with skeptics.

A scientist blogging at the Economist addressed one particular accusation of data manipulation: temperature adjustments at Darwin, Australia, which amateur global-warming skeptic Willis Eschenbach called a "smoking gun."

Here's what that's about: The people who collected temperature data decades ago had no idea anybody would ever look at their measurements as part of a long-term global pattern. So:
The early temperature measurements we have are a broken and incomplete record of more and less good data from instruments that were often changed, moved, or that found themselves in different settings over time. When scientists started putting together the vast library of the planet's temperature records in the 1980s in order to do climate-change assessment, they needed to be able to weed out these changes and errors.
So climate scientists have developed elaborate statistical methods to estimate how far off a given thermometer was at any particular time by comparing it to nearby weather stations, and checking the record for obvious explanations (like moving the thermometer). Papers on climate change then use the statistically adjusted data rather than the raw data.

Naturally, if you examine all the adjustments to all the weather stations in the whole world, there's bound to be one where they "adjust" a long-term cooling trend into a long-term warming trend. There is: Darwin. If you cherry-pick that one and present it as if it might be typical, then you have a "smoking gun" of data manipulation.

The Economist's blogger explains all this, concludes that the Darwin data is nothing to worry about, and then provides this revealing commentary:
So, after hours of research, I can dismiss Mr Eschenbach. But what am I supposed to do the next time I wake up and someone whose name I don't know has produced another plausible-seeming account of bias in the climate-change science? Am I supposed to invest another couple of hours in it? ... At what point am I allowed to simply say, look, I've seen these kind of claims before, they always turns out to be wrong, and it's not worth my time to look into it?
This is a point AP barely notices, and it explains something that bothered the AP reporters:
The e-mails show that several mainstream scientists repeatedly suggested keeping their research materials away from opponents who sought it under American and British public records law. It raises a science ethics question because free access to data is important so others can repeat experiments as part of the scientific method.
But that paragraph from the Economist points at an explanation: The scientists know what will happen after the data is released. Exxon-Mobil will pay somebody to go over it with a fine-tooth comb, looking for something like the Darwin adjustments that can be blown into an issue. Then the manufactured issue will be taken up by the conspiracy theorists (with some cheerleading by Glenn Beck and the rest of the right-wing noise machine), and the scientists will have to spend God-knows-how-much time responding. How will they get any work done?

This isn't the normal give-and-take of science. It's a campaign of harassment that makes use of amateurs, but is organized and funded at the top levels by corporate vested interests. No wonder independent scientists have a bad attitude about it.

The main denialist argument lately has been the spike of 1998. 1998 was such a hot year (warmer than this year, for example) that if you start drawing your graph there you can claim that there's no warming trend at all. OK, then why is the now-ending decade the hottest ever recorded?

The Washington Post editorial page continues to plumb new depths. (I stopped reading the Post regularly in June when they fired Dan Fromkin. Now I only go there when somebody else links to them.) In order to increase our understanding of the issue of climate change, they printed an op-ed by Sarah Palin -- just the person whose expert opinion I wanted to know.

FireDogLake predicts "Michele Bachman piece on quantum mechanics to follow." Foreign Policy focuses on Palin's long-standing misrepresentation of the polar bear issue, while the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder takes her Post op-ed apart line-by-line. On the science blog Deltoid, Tim Lambert compares her whoppers to similar nonsense published in the Post by George Will. He titles his piece "The Washington Post can't go out of business soon enough" and says that the Post
simply does not care about the accuracy of the columns it publishes. ... So what use is the Washington Post? If they are not going to do even the most perfunctory fact checking on the stuff they publish, what value do they add?

When global-warming denier Lord Monckton appears in friendly venues, he often doesn't sound quite as nutty as he really is. (Except maybe this time.) Here, his wiggy side comes out: "The number of people being killed by this misplaced belief in Climate Change, is if anything greater than the number of people killed by Hitler."

One of the more entertaining global-warming warnings comes from the Blue Man Group.

Playing Defense II: ACORN
When I first read the Constitution back In Civics class, one short line was particularly obtuse: "No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed."

My teacher easily explained ex post facto law: It declares something illegal after the fact -- easy to see why we don't want Congress passing such a thing. But bill of attainder remained mysterious to me. Well, it's a mystery no longer. According to federal judge Nina Gershon, this is a bill of attainder:
None of the funds made available by this joint resolution or any prior Act may be provided to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), or any of its affiliates, subsidiaries, or allied organizations.
It was part of the continuing resolution that has funded all government agencies since October 1.

A bill of attainder, it turns out, is "a law that legislatively determines guilt and inflicts punishment upon an identifiable individual without provision of the protections of a judicial trial." In other words, Congress couldn't pass a law saying, "Doug Muder is a traitor and shall spend 20 years in prison." It's a separation-of-powers thing. Congress can't circumvent the courts by handing out its own punishments.

Judge Gerson ruled that Congress passed this provision in order to punish ACORN without a trial. "I can discern no non-punitive rationale for Congressional preclusion of the plaintiffs, and the plaintiffs alone, from federal funding."

The Center for Constitutional Rights has a good summary of the finding, but avoids one important question: Given that the Republicans are badly outnumbered in both the House and Senate, how did they manage to get a bill passed punishing one of their enemies? I mean, sure, Fox News was 24/7 anti-ACORN for a week or two -- but how does that get written into law?

The answer is simple: Democrats are wimps. If the right-wing media can stir up enough nonsense about a Democratic ally, so that Democrats in Congress think they'll have trouble explaining their vote to the public, they'll abandon their ally, even if the attacks against it are more or less baseless.

Time named the ACORN sting video its #9 scandal of 2009, which shows just how far the nonsense went. Maybe it should have joined Death Panels on the Top 10 Untruths list.

Short Notes
I've been trying to figure out what to write about the Citizens United case now before the Supreme Court. It's a corporate personhood case, and threatens to undo all limits on what corporations can spend in political campaigns -- in the name of protecting corporations' "first amendment rights." The place to start is probably Stephen Colbert's discussion: Let Freedom Ka-Ching.

Hard to tell where we are on health care now. Senate Democrats came out of a meeting with an apparent agreement to replace the public option with an option for uninsured people over 55 to buy into Medicare. There was a lot of debate on the blogosphere about whether that plan was better or worse than the anemic public option that had been in the Senate bill. But it may all be moot, because Joe Lieberman has backed out.

I'm coming to think Harry Reid has three options for getting that last vote on the bill: (1) Let Republican Olympia Snowe dictate what it will take to get her vote. (2) Go over Lieberman's head and negotiate directly with his owners, the health insurance companies. (3) Change the Senate rules to break the filibuster.

Blackwater and the CIA had "a far deeper relationship ... than government officials had acknowledged." The NYT's James Risen tells us that the mercenary company was involved not just in protecting CIA and State Department personel in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in "snatch and grab" and other offensive operations. Risen and Eric Lichtblau are the reporters who got a Pulitzer for breaking the NSA warrantless wiretap story, and Risen is also the author of State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.

If you want to see a vision of where this kind of thing can go, read the novel The Army of the Republic by Stuart Archer Cohen, which I reviewed a year ago. You can wind up with private contractors doing stuff government is forbidden to do, but working hand-in-glove with government agents who do things private contractors can't do. Between them, very little is forbidden.

Retired General Barry McCaffrey wrote a ten-page memo that (beginning on page 4) takes a short-notes approach to Afghanistan. I think it allows him to do more justice to the chaotic nature of the situation than if he had to assemble a single coherent narrative. Some of his notes are downbeat, some outright Pollyanna-ish. (Like when he says that released detainees at Baghram "invariably" thank the base commander and hug him good-bye.) Maybe that's really how it looks.
I can't figure out how much attention I ought to pay to what Rachel Maddow calls "the kill-the-gays bill" in Uganda. It's based on the theory (popularized by American evangelicals) that homosexuality is curable, and so anyone who remains gay does so by choice. So the Ugandan bill takes a carrot-and-stick approach, pushing "treatment" for homosexuality and ramping up punishment for gay activities -- up to and including execution.

What I haven't been able to figure out is how serious a proposal this is. Lots of outrageous bills get proposed in the parliaments of the world, and you can't get excited about all of them. If this is a serious threat to murder gays and lesbians, major protest is called for. But if it's just some Ugandan politician's posturing for the Ugandan equivalent of the religious right, I'm not interested.

Believe it or not, I don't have any trusted source on Ugandan politics. So I have no idea.

I do know that the idea of curing gays has been kicking around for a long time in this country, and it is almost entirely the result of wishful thinking on the part of evangelicals. I reviewed a book on the ex-gay movement for UU World several years ago.

Retail sales makes an interesting graph. It bottomed out last December and is starting to inch upward. Still well below the peak in December 2007. Calculated Risk comments.

We still don't know what to call these last ten years, but they're almost over. Best and worst lists of the year or decade are already starting to appear. Including: worst movies of the decade, the all-decade baseball team, the all-decade football team, and Time's Top 10 Everything of 2009.

A new study out of China says soy might actually benefit breast cancer survivors rather than increase recurrence risk, as was previously suspected.

Two reviews [NYT, WSJ] of Barnes & Noble's e-book reader, the Nook, claim that it was rushed out for Christmas. It has some features that the Kindle doesn't have, but the complete package isn't implemented right yet. If you're tempted, wait for them to iron out the bugs.

The Nook's most interesting feature could help sell a lot of pricy coffee drinks: You can read whatever you want if you're in a B&N store.

Gretchen Carlson plays a dimwitted blonde character on Fox News, but Jon Stewart outs her as a high school valedictorian, an honors graduate of Stanford, and a classically trained violinist. Take that, Gretchen. I can't wait to see how Fox strikes back.

Stewart also pointed out the symbiosis between Glenn Beck pushing paranoia on his show and Glenn Beck pushing gold on an infomercial.

Stephen Colbert was on a roll Tuesday night. In one show, he mocked the Fed on his own, mocked it further while talking to Senator Bernie Sanders, and then interviewed Andy Schlafly, the founder of the Conservative Bible Project.

As part of his annual War on the War on Christmas, Bill O'Reilly ordered an ambush interview of the superintendent of an elementary school in Chelmsford, Mass. -- because the school isn't allowing enough Christmas to suit a few of the parents, who say they're going to sue. I happen to know one cute little girl who goes to that school. Her mother reports the "general consensus of the parents I know" about the complaints and lawsuit threats: "Don't these people have anything to DO?"

You know where there's really a war on Christmas? Israel.

And here's what actual religious discrimination looks like: Article 6, Section 8 of the North Carolina Constitution disqualifies from elective office "any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God." Based on that, at least one guy is threatening a lawsuit to block Cecil Bothwell from taking his newly-won seat on the Asheville City Council. Bothwell has described himself as an atheist or a post-theist, but denies that he denies the being of Almighty God: "I simply consider the question of denial or acceptance irrelevant."

Whatever he does or doesn't deny, a court will undoubtedly rule that the religious freedom Bothwell gets from the U.S. Constitution can't be invalidated by any state's constitution. Sooner or later, he'll take office.

I'm sure this will be news to Bill Clinton, but South Carolina Republicans don't believe illicit sex is grounds for impeachment -- at least not impeachment of Republicans. The constitutional laws subcommittee of the SC House has voted 6-1 against impeachment of Governor Mark Sanford, and the Republican House speaker praised the result. (Meanwhile, wife Jenny Sanford filed for divorce.)

I guess I praise the result too, because the normal way to get sleazeballs out of office should be to wait for their terms to expire and elect somebody else. Impeachment should be reserved for situations where ongoing abuses of power make waiting too dangerous. (That's why the Constitution suggests treason and bribery as grounds -- if the President is working for somebody else, we need him gone.) As subcommittee Chair Jim Harrison (a Republican) said: "Impeachment is not akin to a recall. We can't impeach for hypocrisy. We can't impeach for arrogance." Why do I think he'll forget this principle the next time a Democrat has a sex scandal?

All four Democrats on the subcommittee voted against impeachment.

When it comes to President Obama, no sex scandal is necessary. A new poll by Public Policy Polling says that 35% of Republicans "support the impeachment of President Obama for his actions so far." PPP's Tom Jensen comments:
I’m not clear exactly what "high crimes and misdemeanors" they are using to justify that position, but there may be a certain segment of voters on both the right and the left these days that simply think the President doing things they don’t agree with is grounds for removal from office.

It's not news, but it's something I didn't know and just found out: The Green Bay Packers get their name from the Acme Packing Company that was their sponsor in the early days. Most football team names turn out to have dull histories, but the Baltimore Ravens honor local writer Edgar Allan Poe, and the Philadelphia Eagles are connected to the eagle symbol of FDR's National Recovery Administration. No wonder Rush Limbaugh was so hard on Donovan McNabb.

Gossip site Heckler Spray on the new baby of quarterback Tom Brady and supermodel Gisele Bundchen:
Let's pray that this little boy never meets and falls in love with Shiloh Nouvel Jolie Pitt. A baby that mixes the genetics of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Tom Brady and Gisele would probably bring about the end of the world.