Monday, February 22, 2010

Sufficient Causes

We humans do, when the cause is sufficient, spend our lives. We throw ourselves onto the grenade to save our buddies in the foxhole. We rise out of the trenches and charge the entrenched enemy and die like maggots under a blowtorch. We strap bombs on our bodies and blow ourselves up in the midst of our enemies. We are, when the cause is sufficient, insane.
-- Orson Scott Card, Ender's Shadow
In this week's Sift:
  • Meet Joe Stack. The media can't decide whether the Austin kamikaze was a terrorist or not, but they're sure he was crazy. I'm sure he was a terrorist, but his manifesto sounds disconcertingly sane to me.
  • Torture is Nobody's Fault. Nobody cares when Dick Cheney confesses to war crimes, and John Yoo gets off scot free. All in all, a bad week for the rule of law.
  • Short Notes. My town stands up to conservative slander. Coverage of the stimulus' first birthday lacks substance. A Lord's Prayer parody. The real Ronald Reagan opposed military tribunals. The rich get richer and pay lower taxes. Obama's outrages were OK when the white guy did them. And more.

Meet Joe Stack
I admit it. I came to the Austin-kamikaze story expecting to fit it into this larger narrative of right-wing violence: Sooner or later the more wigged-out conservatives start manifesting the figurative violence of mainstream conservative rhetoric.

I still believe that story, but I don't think Joe Stack is an example of it. I'm not even sure how wigged-out he was.

Crazy conspiracy-theory types have a writing style that gives them away. They're so overwhelmed by the power of their own thoughts that they can't imagine the reader's point of view. They strain for emphasis by WRITING IN ALL CAPS or inappropriate bold and italics or

They mix up the general and the particular, so that an abstract discussion of political philosophy suddenly turns into a denunciation of a boss, sibling, or ex-wife of no public consequence. They want to make sure history records not just that they were right about the direction of western culture, but also about that incident at the bar in El Paso.

If they're writing a suicide or martyrdom note, they often seem to be whipping themselves up to the deed, as if they were afraid of chickening out. And they aggrandize the deed itself: It is part of some messianic mission that will bring down the Powers of Evil.

Joe Stack's suicide note/manifesto does none of that. It is surprisingly readable. For example, his first line correctly anticipates the reader's state of mind:
If you’re reading this, you’re no doubt asking yourself, "Why did this have to happen?"
Apparently Stack was a long-time anti-tax activist. He says that in the 80s he belonged to a group that tried to avoid taxes by using 
the wonderful "exemptions" that make institutions like the vulgar, corrupt Catholic Church so incredibly wealthy. ... However, this is where I learned that there are two "interpretations" for every law; one for the very rich, and one for the rest of us. ... That little lesson in patriotism cost me $40,000+, 10 years of my life, and set my retirement plans back to 0.
Throughout the piece, Stack's tone is alienated and embittered, but not irrational. He clearly believes that there is a corrupt power structure in this country, and that the people at the top (whether they are in government, business, unions, or churches) recognize each other's power and cooperate.

Is he wrong?

He contrasts the quick bailout of GM and the big banks with the slow effort to reform the medical system, where the insurance companies 
are murdering tens of thousands of people a year ... It's clear [our political representatives] see no crisis as long as the dead people don't get in the way of corporate profits rolling in.
Bitter, yes. But do you have to be crazy to believe that?

About the plane-crash plan itself, he says very little -- and nothing at all about his glorious martyrdom and the wonders it will accomplish. Instead, he seems quietly determined and claims only that other tactics will not work.
Nothing changes unless there is a body count ... I also know that by not adding my body to the count, I insure nothing will change.
Cynical, definitely. And immoral in his willingness to shed innocent blood to promote his agenda. And maybe, when the full story is told, we'll discover that he was crazy too. But nothing I've seen so far proves that.
The most ridiculous aspect of this story has been the media's uncertainty about calling it terrorism. The guy destroyed a civilian office building outside any war zone in order to produce "a body count" that would draw attention to his political agenda. That would seem to be a textbook example of terrorism -- except that what terrorist really means these days is Muslim. That's why the Fort Hood shooter was called a terrorist, even though he targeted soldiers on a military base. (Strictly speaking, that should make him a traitor, but not a terrorist.) Glenn Greenwald elaborates. AtlanticWire collects a range of comments.
Just a couple days before the Stack crash, Fox was trying to make the University of Alabama shootings into an example of left-wing violence -- despite a complete lack of evidence for any political motivation.
Senator Scott Brown gave his first post-election national TV interview to Neil Cavuto of (naturally) Fox News. (If you don't watch Fox you may not have noticed, but the network decided early on that the Haiti earthquake was boring and instead focused on promoting the Brown campaign.) 

TPM noticed Brown relating Joe Stack to his own voters, but I was more struck by what passes for an interview question on Fox. Cavuto asks: "Invariably people are going to look at this and say, well, that's where some of this populist rage gets you. Isn't that a bit extreme?"

So Cavuto imagines what "people" might say about Stack's attack, invents a response, and asks Brown to agree to that response. My question: Why does Brown need to be there at all when Cavuto can just interview his own imagination?

Torture is Nobody's Fault
It was a bad week for the rule of law. Last Sunday, Dick Cheney confessed to war crimes on national TV. Granted, he didn't say the exact words "I committed war crimes." But he did say, "I was a big supporter of waterboarding." Previously, he had told the Washington Times "I signed off on it."

Only among American neo-cons is there any doubt that waterboarding is torture or that torture of captured enemies is a war crime or that authorizing a war crime is itself a war crime. But Cheney's confession was a non-issue. The NYT combined the Cheney confession with Joe Biden's appearance on a Sunday talk show under the headline: Dueling Vice Presidents Trade Barbs. The WaPo had similar coverage.

If Cheney travels outside the United States, he may be brought to justice through extraterritorial jurisdiction, a legal doctrine by which any country can claim jurisdiction over war crimes that cannot be prosecuted in the home country. Or a country whose citizens were waterboarded under Cheney's signature may prosecute him. Barring that, he will remain at large. (You can sign a petition calling for Cheney's prosecution.)

And then Friday, the Justice Department finally released the 289-page report of its Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR is the Justice Department's internal watchdog agency) on the "torture memos" written by John Yoo and Jay Bybee for the Bush Justice Department's Office of Legal Council (OLC). The OLC is the official interpreter of the law for the executive branch, and other members of the executive branch use its opinions as cover -- if the OLC says something is legal, how are they supposed to know it isn't?

That's why it's particularly bad if the OLC becomes corrupt and starts justifying whatever the president wants it to justify, as Yoo and Bybee did. If the penalty for such corruption is not harsh, you can wind up in what law professor Jonathan Turley has called "Mukasey's Paradox" (after Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey):
Under Mukasey's Paradox, lawyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president -- and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers.
In other words, there are crimes but no criminals -- like torture, which violates the Convention Against Torture signed by Ronald Reagan, among other laws. But the torturers (and all those who had command responsibility over them, up to and including the president) can claim to have had the OLC's blessing. And yet the OLC is not responsible either. Everyone now admits the OLC's opinion was wrong, but so what?

That's essentially where we have wound up. The OPR report itself is highly critical of Yoo and Bybee. Each "committed professional misconduct" by failing to offer "independent legal judgment and render thorough, objective, and candid legal advice." Yoo's misconduct is described as "intentional" and Bybee's as "reckless disregard of his duty". (This is all on page 11 of the report.) OPR intended to refer these findings to state organizations that could have Yoo and Bybee disbarred as lawyers -- which is already far too light a punishment, in my opinion.

However, the conclusions of the report (which were ready for release in 2008, but have been held up by various internal Justice Department processes) were set aside by Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, who wrote a 69-page report supporting the statement: "I do not adopt OPR's findings of misconduct."

So Yoo and Bybee walk away with no consequences whatsoever.

I have not read either report cover-to-cover. I may have more to say later.

Yesterday, General Petraeus came out against torture on Meet the Press:
I have always been on the record -- in fact, since 2003 -- with the concept of living our values. And I think that whenever we have (perhaps) taken expedient measures, they have turned around and bitten us in the backside.
On hearing this statement, Matt Yglesias pronounced the death of the Petraeus for President movement.
it seems impossible at this point to imagine a Republican nominee who believes in the rule of law and humane treatment of detainees. And that, in turn, is obviously a sad state of affairs.

Short Notes
I'm used to national conservatives making up sensational nonsense, but recently a local conservative has been slandering my town's public schools. During a hearing of the New Hampshire House Judiciary Committee, Nancy Elliott, a Republican state representative from neighboring Merrimack, said that a Nashua parent had told her that fifth-grade students in Nashua were being shown pictures of naked men and told how anal sex is performed. Elliott blamed New Hampshire's same-sex marriage law for this outrage, rather than the true culprit: her own lewd imagination.

Fortunately, a Nashua alderman had the courage to call her on it: "Either turn in the name of the mother whose child was subjected to this alleged display of pornography to the Nashua Police Department, as required by law to protect the children, or recant and apologize publicly." Wednesday Alderman Sheehan got her apology from Elliott, who admitted that she could not verify her claims.

The first anniversary of the stimulus produced a lot of commentary, but not much insight. I found a lot of he-said/she-said about whether or not the stimulus was a success, but not much factual analysis of what it actually did. (I'd like to see an updated version of this pie chart.)

In general, critics of the stimulus point to the fact that unemployment is higher than it was a year ago, and they tell anecdotes about wasteful spending -- most of which are uncheckable.

Supporters point to the conclusion of just-about-every-economist-in-the-world that unemployment would be much worse without the stimulus.

I've been unsuccessfully googling around to find an original source for this parody of the Lord's Prayer. I got a version by email and have found other versions online, so I've cobbled the parts I like best together with some amendments of my own:
Oh Wall Street, which owneth Congress,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy lobbyists come.
Thy will be done
in legislatures as it is in boardrooms.
Give the unemployed this day no daily bread,
and forbid the homeless from trespassing, lest they bother us.
Lead us not into compassion,
but deliver us from socialism.
For thine is the loophole and the earmark and the bailout
forever and ever.

It's official: The very rich have been getting richer and paying lower tax rates. The government's report on the top 400 taxpayers showed that their inflation-adjusted incomes have increased 399%  from 1992 to 2007, while the bottom 90% of taxpayers saw an increase of only 13%. Meanwhile, the 400 paid an average tax rate of 16.6% in 2007 -- less than rate they paid in 2006 and less than the rate paid by those making a thousand times less.

Back when I first analyzed the Palin phenomenon in September, 2008, I predicted she would have trouble with "the other Republican base" -- not the working-class evangelicals, but the suburban professionals. At the time I fantasized what Barbara Bush might be thinking, but George Will would have worked just as well.

He still does. Thursday, George wrote the pretty much the same thing about Sarah that I wrote Monday.

Glenn Greenwald calls attention to the opposite media treatment of two similar events: It's bad for protesters to wave Mexican flags, but good for Sarah Palin to sport an Israeli-flag pin.
Ron Paul won the straw poll at the Conservative PAC convention Saturday with 31% of the vote. Romney got 22% and Palin 7%. Remind me again how popular Palin is.
Breaking news from the Onion News Network: The newly crowned Miss Teen USA declares herself beauty queen for life after executing several judges: "Opposition to my rule will be, like, totally crushed." 

ONN also covers the protests against Minnesota's proposal to ban marriages between people who don't love each other. Says one protester: "Beth and I have been seething silently in front of the TV for years. You can't tell me that's not marriage." 

At some point conservatives are going to have to decide how far to ride the energy of the lunatic fringe. Michael Gerson is already starting to worry.

These days racism always claims to be about something other than race, but whatever was OK when the white guy did it is outrageous when the black guy does it. Case in point: President puts feet on historic desk.

Oh, and now that we have a black president, we need an organization of military officers pledged not to follow unconstitutional orders (founded March, 2009). This apparently was not necessary under Bush and Cheney.

I know they can make up anti-Obama stories faster than anyone can check them, but you have to try sometimes: Obama actually did not use a teleprompter to talk to elementary school kids.
The comedians at Second City Network suggest a different way to make the point I wrote about last week: Climate is not weather.
Two interesting articles about the practice of journalism: (1) Michael Kinsley (Atlantic) claims that the conventions of newspaper-writing make stories much longer and harder to follow than necessary. And (2) George Packer (New Yorker) says that if the subject were war or finance, we would never accept the vapid stuff that passes for analysis of American politics:
A war or an economic collapse has a reality apart from perceptions, which imposes a pressure on reporters to find it. But for some reason, American political coverage is exempt.

Harper's Scott Horton interviews Will Bunch about his book: Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy. The most interesting paragraph:
And the idea of trying terrorists in military tribunals as opposed to a civilian court of law? The Reagan administration was completely against that. Paul Bremer (yes, that Paul Bremer) said in 1987, “a major element of our strategy has been to delegitimize terrorists, to get society to see them for what they are — criminals — and to use democracy’s most potent tool, the rule of law, against them.”
Bremer was Reagan's Coordinator for Combating Terrorism at the time.

The New York Times Magazine had a long-but-worth-it article asking How Christian Were the Founders? It starts with the largely successful efforts of Christian fundamentalists to make Texas history texts say what they want: "that the United States was founded by devout Christians and according to biblical precepts." And then it examines how accurate that position is.

Answer: It's complicated. Christianity and the Bible were indeed important to the Founders, but it's a mistake to jump to the conclusion that 18th-century Christianity was all one thing -- namely, fundamentalism. The Founders interpreted the Bible in various ways, just as we do today. And ultimately you have to explain this: They could have referenced God or the Bible in the Constitution, but they chose not to. That couldn't have been an oversight.

I wish the article had made this point: In addition to Christianity, there was also a strong classical Roman influence on the Founders. They often wrote under Roman pseudonyms. (The Federalist, for example, was a originally series of newspaper articles signed "Publius" rather than Hamilton, Madison, and Jay.) And their ethical ideas had as much to do with Greco-Roman Stoicism as with Christianity.

Apropos of nothing: a hilarious story of what happens when your 2-year-old gets his hands on something totally embarrassing.
Former Senator Rick Santorum understands why Admiral Mullen and other military leaders want to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military: "I'm not too sure that we haven't so indoctrinated the officer corps in this country that they can actually see straight to make the right decision."

That's because anyone who disagrees with Santorum can't have an actual reason, and because it's inconceivable that the head of the Joint Chiefs might know more about the military than Rick does.
According to the Wall Street Journal, female MBAs aren't keeping up with male MBAs. Prioritizing family over career may account for some of the long-term problems, but the bad first jobs are hard to explain without invoking discrimination.
Sunday the WaPo's Dana Milbank published what amounts to a fan letter for Rahm Emanuel, blaming every problem of Obama's first year on not listening to Emanuel. In response, Cynk Uygur does some interesting speculating: He figures that Emanuel is on his way out, and Milbank is publishing Rahm's parting shots for him.

Time will tell on that. But I have to comment on this Milbank assertion:
Emanuel, schooled by Bill Clinton, knew what the true believers didn't: that bite-sized proposals add up to big things.
After 10 years it's fair to ask: What "big things" started as bite-sized Clinton proposals? Seeing none, I draw the exact opposite lesson: Bite-sized proposals fritter away your supporters' energy. Being too small to affect most voters, they just validate the conservative view that government can't solve our problems. I give Clinton credit for being a good executive (at least by comparison to W). But he left the Democratic Party no Clintonism to run on -- no long-term vision, no inspiring ideas, nothing to organize a movement around. That's why the Democrats got pounded in 2000, 2002, and 2004.

More details of the smear against ACORN are coming out.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Dare to be Stupid

If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can't it get us out? 
-- Will Rogers
In this week's Sift:
  • Dare to be Stupid. What's the responsible thing to do with a story that should never have gotten the public's attention to begin with? Ignore it and it festers. Debunk it you run the risk of entering the debate and becoming part of the problem. This week I follow Weird Al Yankovic's advice and dare to be stupid by covering two stupid stories: How the D.C. blizzard disproves global warming, and why Sarah Palin is a serious presidential candidate. 
  • The Future of Books. As we wait for the iPad to come out and possibly revolutionize the e-book market, a lot of people are talking about the future of books-on-paper.
  • The New Slums. Timothy Egan finds the forerunners of future slums in the over-built ex-urbs of San Francisco. It seems unthinkable that suburbs could become slums. But a lot of inner-city slums were unthinkable once too.
  • Short Notes. My favorite Marine survives to a distinguished retirement. Conservative American Christians suddenly notice the need for universal human rights. Greece has precisely the wrong amount of economic sovereignty. Health insurance rates are headed up already. And more.

Dare to Be Stupid
One of the challenges of journalism is figuring out what to say about a story that, in a perfect world, nobody would pay attention to at all -- or maybe they'd pay just a little attention before going on to more important things. ("Where's Obama's birth certificate? Oh, wait, here it is. Never mind.") You know the ones I mean -- stupid stories, ones that give you a bad feeling about the general public and whether you want to be included in their number.

The problem with not covering a stupid story is that it runs along stupidly without you, like a dog dragging its leash down the trail. Every day a few more people hear the story, and if no one debunks it, then the folks who aren't stupid but just don't have a lot of time to check things out -- they start to think it's true and maybe even important. ("Oh yeah. I heard that someplace.") 

If you do cover it, though, you're drawing even more people's attention to it. You're adding to the noise, convincing people that there is an actual "controversy",  and getting distracted from the stuff that actually deserves thinking and talking about. For example, every prime-time minute spent debunking "death panels" was a minute taken away from people who can't get medical care or who get it and then go bankrupt paying for it

Anyway, this week seemed to have more than its share of stupid stories. Let's roll up the cuffs of our pants and step out into the middle of two.

Snow Disproves Global Warming. This was a big theme on Fox News, where they put a copy of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth outside their D.C. offices and watched it disappear as the snow accumulated. "I'm not sure in which chapter," host Eric Bolling announced sarcastically, "Mr. Gore dealt with record snowfalls across the whole Eastern seaboard." The conservative movement's flagship newspaper, Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times, led an editorial with this paragraph:
Record snowfall illustrates the obvious: The global warming fraud is without equal in modern science.
And the Virginia Republican Party thought the point was so persuasive that it based an attack ad on it.

Several sources -- Bill McKibben, Time magazine, and so on -- tried to respond intelligently, but to me they all sound like a guy giving his wife a perfectly rational explanation of why he's on the phone with his ex-girlfriend. The articles require readers to think, and meanwhile the visceral contradiction between warm and snow is being reinforced. 

For what it's worth, the intelligent discussion of the storm goes like this: Climatologists actually did predict that global warming would lead to more serious snowstorms. For example, last year's report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program says: 
Cold-season storm tracks are shifting northward and the strongest storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent.
The atmosphere holds more moisture as it gets warmer, so precipitation of all sorts is likely to increase. If you live someplace that still gets below freezing occasionally, your odds of a major snowstorm go up rather than down. So warm and snow are paradoxical, not contradictory. ("Honey? What's wrong? Don't throw that.")

By the way, this is also why Antarctic ice is still increasing. Global warming has two predicted effects on the polar icecaps: increased snowfall and increased melting. In the Arctic, melting is the stronger effect, but the Antarctic is still in the temporary period where increased snowfall is the stronger effect. A UN Environment Program report says:
Even if Antarctica were to warm in the future, its mass balance is expected to become more positive: The rise in temperature would be insufficient to initiate melt but would increase snowfall.
An even more intelligent point of view refuses to get into the snow-and-global-warming discussion at all, because weather and climate occur on such different time scales that it's foolish to mention them in the same sentence. (It's like claiming that I'm on a diet because I'm not eating at this particular moment.) No matter how much the planet warms over the course of our lifetimes, there will still be some cold days. Undoubtedly next summer there will be a heat wave somewhere, and I doubt that Fox News or the Washington Times will present it as evidence that Gore was right after all.

Rachel Maddow tried harder to explain the nonsense in laymen's terms, and even enlisted the help of Bill Nye the Science Guy. But I think the best answer is to laugh at it, as Stephen Colbert did. After showing some of the Fox coverage, Colbert described it as "simple observational research: whatever just happened is the only thing that is happening." He went on to observe that it was dark outside, and concluded that the Sun had been destroyed.
The world has been plunged into total darkness. Soon all our crops will die, and it's only a matter of time before the mole people emerge from the center of the Earth to enslave us.
Sarah Palin is a Serious Presidential Candidate. Palin has been a non-stop stupid story ever since the 2008 campaign ended. She was newsworthy when she was the vice presidential candidate of a major political party (a party that became significantly less major because of her ticket's landslide loss). She was newsworthy in Alaska until she resigned after half a term as governor. Since then, not so much. She has no decision-making power, and her comments have not added a single quantum of insight to any issue. 

Nevertheless, I could have led with a Palin story almost every week since the election, and even I haven't been able to resist including an occasional short note about her, or her daughter (who is still on her pro-abstinence do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do tour of the country), or her daughter's baby papa, or her first-dude husband. The Palins absolutely should be on TV as a reality show. But news? No, I don't think so.

Palin's latest attempt to be newsworthy was to give the closing address at the Tea Party Convention in Nashville, which was a stupid story in itself. Picture a similar party on the Left, without Fox News to promote it 24/7. Wait, we don't have to picture it -- there's a Green Party. Any idea when their next convention is? And while we're at it: What's the name of the current governor of Alaska? You know, the guy who picked up the responsibilities that Sarah couldn't be bothered with. 

I've watched the speech; it's standard Republican boilerplate -- unspecific pleas to spend less and repeated invocations of "common sense solutions" that are never spelled out. And it's delivered badly. The audience, which paid big money specifically to see Palin, kept trying to get excited, but she mostly stepped on their enthusiasm. To get a view from the other side of the spectrum, check out Adam Kleinheider's claim that Palin is trying to "hijack" the Tea Party movement and that her speech was "derivative circa 2004 neoconservatism".

Anyway, this performance convinced the Washington Post's David Broder (supposedly the dean of political columnists) that we should "Take Sarah Palin seriously" and that Palin is "at the top of her game". Of course, the same David Broder declared in early 2007 that "President Bush is poised for a political comeback." A football coach would be fired for a call that bad, but there are no standards for pundits, particularly at the Post. Meanwhile, a poll in the same newspaper said Palin's unfavorability rating had hit 55% compared to 37% favorable, a new low. "Even among Republicans, a majority now say Palin lacks the qualifications necessary for the White House."

In other words, only the pundit class really wants her to run. (And Democrats.)

Palin has a base: disaffected middle-aged and elderly white working-class evangelicals. That's nowhere near a majority, even in a Republican primary, and so far there's been not the slightest indication that she can attract anyone else. Jesse Jackson in 1988 had more upside than Palin does now. In 2008, the more the electorate saw of her, the less they liked her. That's going to hold true in 2012 as well.

No matter how much coverage she gets, she's still not newsworthy.

Steven Colbert demolishes Palin's rationalization of why Rush Limbaugh can use the phrase "f**king retard" but Rahm Emanuel can't.
Palin pledged to plow her $100K speaking fee back into the movement, but hasn't said how. Maybe she'll donate it to her PAC, so that it can buy more copies of her book.
Whenever Palin gets off her prepared script, she's in trouble. In response to a softball question at the Tea Party convention, she said: "It would be wise of us to start seeking some divine intervention again in this country, so that we can be safe and secure and prosperous again." Is that what her policies depend on? Vote Palin and pray for a miracle?

2008's least newsworthy person, Joe the Plumber, now says John McCain "used" him and "screwed up my life."

The Future of Books
Maybe it was the announcement of the Apple iPad, which will start shipping in late March, but something has caused another flurry of discussion about the future of books.

The New York Times noticed the decision of Cushing Academy to "give away most of its 20,000 books and transform its library into a digital center" and asked several experts to comment on this question: Do School Libraries Need Books? No one answers with a simple "no", but the depth of the writers' support for printed books varies, along with their reasoning for that support.

To me, the most interesting point was made by several people. Nicholas Carr put it like this:
The pages of a book shield us from the distractions that bombard us during most of our waking hours. As an informational medium, the book focuses our attention, encouraging the kind of immersion in a story or an argument that promotes deep comprehension and deep learning.
I get that point if we're talking about web browsing on a computer, where a chat window might pop up at any moment and dozens of links are always available. But I've had a Kindle for almost a year, and what it does best is re-create the focused space of a book. 

Liz Gray talks about how inexpensive books are, but that's only true in certain ways. Books are cheap, but libraries are expensive. You could buy a Nook or an iPad loaded with the Great Books collection (nearly all of which are in the public domain and essentially free as e-books) far cheaper than you could buy the paper-and-ink collection from Britannica. Which is more economical depends on a lot of assumptions about how the texts will be used.

I was glad to see all the participants dismiss the idea that paper/e-book is an either/or choice, as if buying an e-book reader would be a complete mistake if it didn't replace all the paper in your life.
In a separate discussion, Henry Farrell and Matt Yglesias make the link between e-books and the problem that so many nonfiction books are padded. Yglesias:
One reason I haven’t wound up using my Kindle as much as I thought I would is that it’s dramatically easier to flip/scan/skim with a paper book and an awful lot of books that are by no means bad books demand a lot of flipping/scanning/skimming. ... [I]n my experience it’s reasonably rare for even a pretty good non-fiction book to be an absolute masterpiece of composition that demands to be read from beginning to end. And unfortunately the trend is toward less-and-less in the way of the kind of editing that produces really well-crafted books.
But since an e-book's length is just a number (and doesn't have the symbolic value of a paper-book's physical heft) Farrell hopes we'll see a new market for the short e-book:
Ideally, we will end up in a world where people won’t feel obliged to pad out what are really essays to book length in order to get published and compensated.

I might as well make my prediction about the effect of the iPad. Dedicated readers will still want to have a dedicated e-book device like an improved Kindle or Nook, precisely for the closing-off-the-world effect Nicholas Carr attributes to paper-books. But lots more people will get iPads as generalized entertainment machines, and they will each read a few books on them.

The New Slums
Timothy Egan has an important article on his NYT blog: Slumburbia. He describes some California planned communities that were built during the housing bubble. They're two hours from San Francisco and now it's hard to find people who want to live there. 
Now median home prices have fallen from $500,000 to $150,000 — among the most precipitous drops in the nation — and still the houses sit empty, spooky and see-through, waiting on demography and psychology to catch up. In strip malls where tenants seem to last no longer than the life cycle of a gold fish, the bottom-feeders have moved in. “Coming soon: Cigarette City,” reads one sign here in Lathrop, near a “Cash Advance” outlet. Take a pulse: How can a community possibly be healthy when one in eight houses are in some stage of foreclosure? How can a town attract new people when the crime rate has spiked well above the national average? How can a family dream, or even save, when unemployment hovers around 16 percent?
For half a century, it has been unimaginable that the suburbs could turn into slums. But many of the inner-city slums that we take for granted today (or are re-gentrifying) were once fashionable neighborhoods too.

Egan calls attention to another unexpected fact: The recovering west-coast markets are the ones with strict housing codes: San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and San Diego.
The developers’ favorite role models, the laissez faire free-for-alls — Las Vegas, the Phoenix metro area, South Florida, this valley — are the most troubled, the suburban slums. Come see: this is what happens when money and market, alone, guide the way we live.

Short Notes
If you've been wondering what ever happened to that Marine I wrote about in Supporting My Troop in 2006, I went to his retirement ceremony Friday. Steve goes out as a Chief Warrant Officer 4. (Warrant officer is a rank most people haven't heard of, because there aren't that many of them. It sits between officers and enlisted men. CWO-5 is the highest rank you can get by coming up through the enlisted ranks.) A general officiated and awarded him the Legion of Merit -- it and the Medal of Honor are the only American medals that are worn around the neck rather than pinned to a uniform.

He's been back to Iraq and Afghanistan several times since I wrote about him, and from his emails I have picked up such un-actionable intelligence as the fact that Bagram gets cold in January. 

Some retirements are sad, but this one wasn't. Steve seems both proud of his career and happy that it's over. (He would have retired sooner if he hadn't been stop-lossed.) I share some vicarious pride, and I'm happy that no one will be shooting at him now. After he gets used to civilian life, I'm planning to point out how well decorated military veterans have done as Democratic candidates for Congress.

Glenn Greenwald and Digby both comment on this: The same people who think that foreign-born Muslims accused of terrorism should have no rights at all are outraged that white American Christians accused of kidnapping Haitian children may not be treated with full respect.

Whether this is due to hypocrisy (as Glenn says) or lack of empathy (Digby), you either believe in human rights or you don't. You can't expect anybody to take you seriously if you claim that other people have to respect the rights of people like you, but that people-not-like-you can be treated like animals. Digby:
It turns out that having a rule of law commonly respected the world over really comes in handy at a time like this. And every time the US government chisels away at our system of justice in the name of "protecting ourselves", or some yahoo prattles on about how someone doesn't deserve the same rights as somebody else, that fundamental protection gets weaker and weaker.
Fasteddie9318 on DailyKos compiles statements from a number of such yahoos: Scott Brown, Judd Gregg, Joe Lieberman, Susan Collins, Charles Krauthammer. All of them talk about the administration's "decision" to "grant" or "give" rights to people accused of terrorism. Here's the point (with my added emphasis):
It seems that conservatives see the Bill of Rights as a list of generous gifts from our government to its citizenry, rather than what it is: a list of prohibitions on government action to restrict or deny rights that it recognizes as universal. By that [conservative misconception], there are no inherent human rights, and if rights can be given by a government at will, then they can also be taken away just as easily.

Newt Gingrich can't get his story straight about when we should treat terrorists as criminals.
Europe is discovering the downside of a currency zone that is bigger than any government: Greece can't devalue its currency (the Euro) and it can't count on help from the rest of the EU.
I'm waiting for the moral and fiscal watchdogs on the Right to condemn Blackwater billing the government for a prostitute.

Robert Reich's health insurance company just raised individual premiums 39%.
A new poll says Americans want gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. It's not even close: 57% - 38%. And 82% think the military shouldn't discipline gays who get outed against their will.
Last week's "Why are liberals so condescending?" op-ed in the WaPo was solicited by the editors, not volunteered by the author. That's your liberal media in action.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Think and Imagine

Gentlemen, we have run out of money. Now we have to think. -- Winston Churchill
In this week's Sift:
  • Thinking Deficit. I can understand the $1.6 trillion deficit in this year's budget. It's the $1 trillion in 2020 that bugs me. One way or another, that's not going to happen. But which way?
  • The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ... look at Methland by Nick Reding. If a book about a drug problem makes you think of bad high school assemblies and Reefer Madness, think again. Reding connects the dots between crystal meth, the forces that are destroying our small towns, and the corporate-dominated political system that keeps us from doing anything about it.
  • Deniers Deny that Climategate is Debunked. A Penn State investigation reveals what I told you at the time: The Climategate emails don't show anything underhanded. But Senator Inhofe misstates the investigation's conclusion, the same way he misstates everything about global warming.
  • Short Notes. Just two this week: Barack and I miss each other again, and John Oliver extends don't-ask-don't-tell to John McCain's age.

Thinking Deficit
There are two ways to look at a new federal budget: You can narrow in on how your favorite programs fared, or you can step back and wonder where it's all going. I'll skip the narrow look, because lots of people are doing it and I can't guess what your favorite programs are anyway.

Coverage of the big picture has mostly centered on getting hysterical about the size of next year's deficit: $1.6 trillion, up from the current $1.4 trillion. Color me unfazed. Like Paul Krugman, I'm more worried about cutting spending while unemployment is this high than I am about the sheer size of one year's deficit.

What does worry me, though, is the projected deficits of the next ten years: They go down as the economy recovers, but they bottom out at over $700 billion in 2014. Then they start up again and hit $1 trillion again in 2020. And even that sorry scenario is based on the assumption that the next ten years are normal economic times. What if we have to adjust to something major, like a fall in world oil production, a deadly global epidemic, yet another war, or a chain-reaction of global warming effects?

Everyone wants to pose as tough-on-the-deficit these days, but on all sides it's more flash than substance. As Matt Yglesias points out, not even Democrats propose major tax increases, not even Republicans propose big cuts in Social Security and Medicare (with one exception we'll discuss below), and neither calls for scaling back the global mission of our military. But that's the whole ball game -- taxes, entitlements, the military -- everything else just nibbles at the edges.

All this can continue as long as foreign central banks are willing to loan us money -- not forever, in other words. If they decide we've had enough, a deadly chain reaction starts: The interest rate we have to pay goes up, raising the deficit even further. It's a musical-chairs moment when everyone who has been dancing merrily suddenly scrambles to grab a seat.

I think a lot of us are beginning to realize something politicians still can't say in public: We have entered an era of broken promises, and we won't come out of it for a long time. The only question is: Which promises will get broken and how suddenly? Will it happen like the 2008 collapse, where overnight the the rock-solid stock in your IRA -- the AIG or General Motors or Fannie Mae -- became worthless? Will our pensions and cash savings suddenly inflate away, as happened to so many Russians after the Soviet Union fell? Will we all deny that it's happening, while simultaneously trying to make sure that the brunt of any shortfall hits somebody else? Or will we rise to the occasion, set some priorities, and scale back our expectations sensibly together?

So far it's hard to give good odds on that last outcome. We all need to train ourselves to object to the words unthinkable and unimaginable. (As in "It's unthinkable that America would step back from its global responsibilities.") Thinking and imagining are tools for choosing the future rather than having it forced on you. We should use them.

The outer limit of what a Republican can propose is Paul Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future" which eliminates the long-term deficit.

If you cut to the chase, he does it by getting rid of Medicare: The government sets strict limits on how much it will spend on privatized vouchers for seniors to buy their own insurance. Eventually medical inflation trivializes the value of the vouchers, and the government is off the hook. Matt Yglesias elaborates:
Right now if you’re old, and you get sick, and there’s some treatment that will uncontroversially cure you, then doctors come and cure your illness no matter your income. The Ryanverse won’t look like that. ... Lots of seniors will die preventable deaths due to lack of funds.
The rest of Ryan's proposal is (as Kevin Drum says) smoke and mirrors. He sets limits on the growth of various kinds of spending, which is fine until you have to specify exactly what you're not going to fund -- which Ryan doesn't do.

Other Republicans like to point out that there is a Republican plan to solve the deficit problem, but they won't stand behind even its sketchy details. Still, I'd like to see a corresponding liberal thought experiment, no matter how politically unthinkable its specifics would be.

The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ...

Most drug-epidemic books are like the assemblies we suffered through in high school, full of Reefer-Madness urban legends about evil pushers and weak-willed addicts who suffer horrible fates.

Instead, Nick Reding has written one of those rare dot-connecting books. To Reding, the meth epidemic is all about what's wrong with our small towns -- he focuses on Oelwin, Iowa -- and with the national political system that keeps us from fixing our problems. It's not just about smugglers and dealers and users. It's about Big Pharma, agribusiness, illegal immigration, and squeezing the working class out of the American dream.

Mayberry's Drug Problem. A year or two ago, when a cousin died prematurely of no apparent cause, my father speculated that he had showed signs of meth addiction. At the time I didn't think to ask: When did my Dad learn the signs of meth addiction? How could there be a drug problem that this 80-something farmer knew more about than I did?

Meth is different from our other drug epidemics, in ways that are hard to discuss honestly in public. Mainstream America has always pictured drug problems as centered in segments of the population that are ... expendable. Sure, there might be drugs in the local high school, but that's just spill-over from the black ghetto or the hippies or new immigrants we didn't want here anyway. The problem always really belonged to those people -- how dare they bring their filth into our communities?

We can't tell that story about meth. The center of the meth epidemic is small-town white America, the kind of people who show up at Sarah Palin rallies and think of themselves as the "real" Americans. A modern-day Sheriff Andy would be tracking down Mayberry's meth labs rather than watching Otis sleep it off in jail.

Millions Americans are like me: We don't live in a Mayberry, but we think of ourselves as from there. Somewhere in the back of our minds is a grandmother's house that is over the river and through the woods. It's beyond our imagination that the people who live in that house now might be meth addicts.

Because it was so incongruous, so injurious to our national mythology, the meth problem flew under the radar for a long time. At first Reding thought it was his strange luck to keep running into meth stories while he was researching something else. After he became convinced that meth was a widespread problem, he couldn't get big-city editors interested. A Mayberry-centered drug problem didn't make sense, so it couldn't be happening.

What meth does. You can't understand the epidemic without appreciating the biology. The human body has a reward system. When you do something you know is good, chemicals get released in your brain. That's what feelings like pride, satisfaction, and general well-being come down to: neuro-chemicals.

Meth tricks that system. Take meth, and suddenly you have the brain chemistry of someone who just scored the winning touchdown or aced the SATs. You feel like you can do anything, but you don't have to, because everything is fine. You don't even need to eat or drink or sleep.

Short-term, meth is performance-enhancing: You can ignore obstacles and do more stuff better. Long-term, meth screws up the system it tricks. If you quit using the drug, suddenly you can't generate feelings of pride, satisfaction, or general well-being no matter what you do. Even if you score the winning touchdown in reality -- it doesn't matter; it doesn't feel like anything without meth.

Working class values. Our culture idealizes hard work. Pulling an all-nighter, going pedal-to-the-metal to get the big project done -- those are heroic stories, the kind we like to tell about ourselves. A drug that helps you do those things seems almost virtuous.
It's one thing for a drug to be associated with sloth, like heroin. But it's wholly another when a formerly legal and accepted narcotic exists in one-to-one ratio with the defining ideal of American culture.
Reding follows a number of Oelwin residents throughout the book. One is Roland Jarvis. He started taking meth in the 1980s so that he could work occasional back-to-back shifts at Iowa Ham, the local meat-packing plant. The factory was paying $18 an hour and meth was cheap by comparison. Then Iowa Ham got bought by Gillette and then by Tyson and then eventually closed. Wages got slashed to $6.50 an hour with no benefits, and then the jobs went away altogether.

How do working-class people deal with a drop in income? They work harder. They take second and third jobs. They sleep less. If a drug will help you do that -- what a godsend! And if your place in the legitimate economy goes away, there's an illegitimate economy that needs hard-working people too. You can start cooking meth yourself and selling it to your friends so that they can work three jobs.

Once you start cooking your own meth, you can be high all the time -- including when you're cooking meth. One cold winter night, Jarvis had a paranoid delusion that the cops were about to raid him. So he dumped all his chemicals down the same drain, and they blew up. Impervious to pain, Jarvis thought he could fight the fire, but he wound up burning off his hands and his nose. When the EMTs eventually found him running around frantically, near-naked in the snow, they hoped that he would just fall over and die, because they didn't know what to do with him. But he lived.

Immigration. You know who really wants a hard, dangerous $6.50-an-hour job with no benefits? An illegal immigrant. The meat-packing plants of Middle America have lots of them. Illegals acquire somebody else's driver's license and social security number. The employer doesn't look at it too hard, and everybody's happy.

The illegal immigration problem is hard to solve because many powerful people don't want to solve it. Employers all over the country depend on illegal immigrants not just to take bad jobs, but to keep legal workers in their place. Don't want to take a 2/3rds pay cut? Good luck in your next job. Want to protect yourself by organizing a union? Labor laws don't apply to illegals. You can't organize workers that the management could have arrested and deported whenever it wants.

Everybody knows how to stop illegal immigration. You enforce the law on the people who have something to lose: the employers. Every day, some bar gets shut down because it accepts fake IDs too easily. You could shut down factories the same way. When the jobs dry up, the immigrants will stop coming.

But if you want to put on a show of fighting illegal immigration without actually doing anything about it, you build a fence at the border. Think about it: If there is opportunity on one side of a border and none on the other, people will cross. Not even the Berlin Wall kept everybody in. How is our fence going to keep people out? Arrest them, send them back -- even shoot them down like the Soviets did -- and more will come.
[T]alk of increased border technology seems only to work in tandem with -- and as a cynical addendum to -- an utter lack of interest in removing the real impetus to walk across the desert: Cargill-Excel in Ottumwa is always hiring.
Where meth comes from. Two places: Home cookers, who we'll discuss in a minute, and Mexico. The vast majority of illegal Mexican immigrants have no connection to the drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs in narc jargon). But once there's an outside-the-law highway to bring illegals to factories in Iowa, drug traffickers can use it to bring meth right to the working-class communities. Being poor, desperate, and easily replaced, the illegals don't take a big cut. And when drug-smuggling illegals try to avoid the notice of police and other authorities, they look just like all the other illegals.
the same American immigration policy that provides a low-wage workforce ideal for the food industry is what keeps the DTOs in business. ... the interests of the DTOs are aligned with the likes of Cargill and ADM.
Home cooking. To make your own meth you need some farm-related chemicals, plus either ephedrine or pseudo-ephedrine. Back in the 80s, the DEA wanted pharmaceutical companies to rigorously account for all the ephedrine they imported and what they did with it. The Mercks and Pfizers didn't want to, and they pay lobbyists to keep Congress from making them do things they don't want to do. It took a long time for the DEA to get effective regulation.

Then the cookers switched to pseudo-ephedrine, which you can find in over-the-counter decongestants. There are ways to make equally effective decongestants with similar molecules that can't be turned into meth, but again, the drug companies didn't want to. They allowed Congress to regulate pure powdered pseudo-ephedrine, but not pills. So cookers bought enough decongestants to dry up Niagra, ground them into powder, and didn't miss a beat.

Eventually, meth started making headlines. When it appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 2005, Congress had to do something, so it passed the Combat Meth Act, which appeared to give the DEA everything it wanted: Limits on how much pseudo-ephedrine a customer could buy, plus a record-keeping network that you couldn't circumvent by going from one store to the next.

But the final draft was influenced by another group of lobbyists: the National Association of Retail Chain Stores (NARCS, believe it or not). The Walgreens and CVSs didn't want to keep those records, or tell customers they couldn't buy something they wanted. So they pressured Congress to let the states enforce the law, and then they pressured the states not to enforce it. Reding quotes Tony Loya of the DEA:
"We pass a law, and then we basically tell these huge companies that they're not responsible for complying. It's stunning."
Agribusiness vs. agrarian culture. Every drug problem eventually comes down to the users. Why do they do it? Each user's story is unique, but there are also larger forces at work: The fewer opportunities people have to experience satisfaction in their real lives, the more tempting drug-induced satisfaction is.

The biggest difference between the Mayberry of Sheriff Andy and the Oelwin of Roland Jarvis is that the food business has been taken over by giant corporations. Farming towns and mining towns once represented the two extremes of small-town life. In farming towns, multiple independent producers and small businesses traded with each other. The economies were robust, the power structures democratic. By contrast, mining towns were company towns. Wages were whatever the company paid, prices whatever the company store charged.
Today, farming and mining communities are becoming indistinguishable says [sociologist William] Heffernan.
More and more land is either owned or contracted by Cargill or some other giant. Increasingly, farmers grow what the company tells them to grow and sell for what the company is willing to pay. Increasingly, local businesses are chain stores, managed by people who weren't born nearby and hope to be promoted to somewhere far away. Relationships that used to be permanent are now temporary. Money that used to rattle around in the local economy now zooms off to corporate headquarters.

The small town of myth, the one that exemplified true American values, wasn't just small. It had a particular kind of culture -- a culture of people, not corporations. That culture is a thing of the past.
In my telling meth has always been less an agent of change and more of a symptom of it. The end of a way of life is the story; the drug is what signaled to the rest of the nation that the end had come.

Deniers Deny that Climategate is Debunked
At the center of the trumped-up Climategate scandal was Penn State climatologist Michael Mann. A Penn State commitee of two deans and the university's research integrity officer just released their completed report, which concludes
that there exists no credible evidence that Dr. Mann had or has ever engaged in, or participated in, directly or indirectly, any actions with an intent to suppress or to falsify data ...[or in] any actions with intent to delete, conceal or otherwise destroy emails, information and/or data ... [or in] any misuse of privileged or confidential information available to him in his capacity as an academic scholar.
After clearing Mann of these three accusations, the investigating committee noted that the fourth accusation (whether Mann "deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research") would be better judged by a committee of researchers, so they appointed one. Nothing in the report indicates that the fourth accusation will prove to be any more credible than the first three.

Unsurprisingly, James Inhofe (the Republican senator from Exxon-Mobil Oklahoma) is completely ignoring the Mann-vindicating parts of the report, writing only: "Penn State's internal inquiry found further investigation is warranted."

Short Notes
Tuesday President Obama was in Nashua and I was close to his home in Hyde Park. Our paths didn't cross.

John McCain had an open mind about repealing don't-ask-don't-tell -- until it became an actual possibility. Now he's against it. The Daily Show responded with a discussion about whether people as old as McCain should be allowed to serve in the Senate.
Jon Stewart: It's not like John McCain chose to be old.
John Oliver: What, Jon? You think he was born old?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Safe Ground

Reformers who are always compromising have not yet grasped the idea that truth is the only safe ground to stand upon.
-- Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Woman's Bible

In this week's Sift:
  • What Happened in Massachusetts? Scott Brown won for a lot of reasons, and some of them will be a problem for all Democrats in November. But moving to the right isn't the answer.
  • Obama Bounces. Progressives needed to hear a good State of the Union speech from Obama, and they did. Then he ran rings around House Republicans in a televised Q&A session.
  • Short Notes. The economy grows, but jobs don't. Justice O'Connor disagrees with the Court. CBS favors conservative ads. How Norway beats staph. A jury refuses to justify killing an abortionist. Good-bye to Howard Zinn. And more.

What Happened in Massachusetts?
Few political events could have been more surprising than the Democrats losing Ted Kennedy's seat in the Senate on January 19. Massachusetts was the only state that McGovern carried against Nixon in 1972. President Obama got 62% of the vote there just 14 months ago. But Martha Coakley lost to Scot Brown on January 18, and it wasn't even close: 52-47.

So what happened?

Surprising events seldom have just one cause: Large national forces were at work, Brown ran a better campaign than Coakley, and some of it was luck. If you want to give a no-big-deal explanation, you focus on luck and tactics. If you want to tell a this-changes-everything story, you focus on the national forces. Let's go through all three.

Luck. This election came at a bad time for the Democrats. The economy is sufficiently out of the woods that it's hard to remember how scared we all were a year ago. (Any time you dodge a bullet, denial quickly kicks in and you start telling yourself, "That gun was never really loaded.") But the recovery is not far enough along to have produced any jobs yet. Plus, Republicans have succeeded in pretending that the Bush administration never happened, or if it did happen, it was a very long time ago and has nothing to do with our current problems. (Rachel Maddow's account is hilarious: "It's almost like the Republicans want us to believe they didn't exist until about two weeks ago.")

The Massachusetts election was also just a week or two before the expected final vote on the health-care bill, just as the final wording was being worked out by the House/Senate conference committee. Consequently, all the media coverage was about the ugly process and not the result. The whole country has watched the bill get more complicated and insurance-company-friendly -- not because the changes were popular or made sense, but because the last two or three senators managed to hold the bill hostage.

Worse, even the content-based coverage focused on the little contentious details that still needed to be worked out: abortion, enforcing the mandate, taxing so-called "cadillac" insurance policies, and so on. The big picture, the reason real people should care about health-care reform, got lost: Sick Americans should get the care they need, and they shouldn't have to go bankrupt paying for it.

Finally, this was a moment when there was no actual bill. Anything from either the House or the Senate bill could wind up in the final one, and literally anything could still have been slipped in at the last minute by the conference committee. It was a perfect moment to raise fears that would be hard to refute.

Imagine instead what would have happened if this election had been three weeks later, with the health-care bill passed and signed. All the process issues would have been water under the bridge, the media would be focusing on what the program would actually do (rather than whatever wild things critics were saying about it), and congressional Democrats would have gotten a boost from having accomplished something rather than just talking endlessly. Coakley might well have won.

Tactics. But then you have to ask: Why wasn't the bill already passed and signed? That wasn't an act of God. The Democrats could have had this done months ago. But they didn't see the Massachusetts election day as a deadline, because they never imagined losing.

The whole party, not just the Coakley campaign, was complacent. Coakley came out of the primary way ahead of Brown in the polls, but having spent all her money. Democrats were reluctant to contribute to a campaign they assumed would win anyway. Conversely, Republicans had nothing to lose, and knew that even a close loss would get them a lot of positive buzz.

So Brown had several weeks to advertise without response. He was able to define his own image and set the basic issues of the campaign. He did it very well.

The way the Brown campaign framed healthcare was particularly brilliant. You see, there are two main things to understand about the politics of healthcare:

(1) People who experience socialized medicine like it. No democracy has ever repealed a universal health-care system. Once in place, government health-care systems are so popular that even conservatives won't run against them. In this country, the last Republican to campaign against Medicare was Goldwater. Socialized medicine works, and voters like it once they see it.

(2) Healthcare separates the Haves from the Have-Nots. I don't mean this in the usual sense of rich-against-poor, but in the very literal sense that if you already have health-care coverage you like, you have more to lose and less to gain from any change to the system.

Now, naively, you might think that people who get their healthcare from Medicare or the VA or Medicaid would be fans of socialized medicine: They have experienced it; they know it works. But Scott Brown was smart enough to realize this: People who already benefit from socialized medicine are Haves, not Have-nots.

Being the most liberal state in the nation, Massachusetts already has a government-mandated near-universal health-care program. In fact, the Massachusetts system looks just like the much-reviled Obamacare: Private insurance companies compete on regulated exchanges, individuals are mandated to buy coverage if they don't already get it through their employers, and people who can't afford premiums are subsidized.

So did Brown run against this evil socialist health-care system? No, of course not. ("I support the 2006 healthcare law") It would have been suicide. A post-election poll showed Massachusetts voters supporting their state health-care plan 68-27. Even Brown voters support the state plan 51-44.

Instead, Brown argued that Massachusetts voters are Haves, so they should oppose this proposed change to the status quo. And he attacked the national health-care bill by claiming it would hurt Medicare. This government health-care plan, in other words, is a threat to the government health-care plan you're using now.

National forces. Democrats are in trouble nationally, at least according to the current polls. The Daily Kos tracking poll has Republicans leading on a generic Congressional ballot ("Would you like to see more Democrats or Republicans elected to Congress in 2010?") 39-37, even though the approval rating of the current Republicans in Congress remains extremely low (21% compared to an also-abyssmal 37% for Congressional Democrats). There is also an enthusiasm gap. According to the same poll 80% of Republicans say that they either definitely or probably will vote in 2010, compared to 66% of Independents and only 52% of Democrats.

That said, Steve Singiser has an insightful article on Daily Kos discussing the recent wave of Democrats-are-doomed punditry, even among political scientists who ought to know better. The same signs were much worse for the GOP in 2006 and 2008, Singiser claims, without yielding the same level of doom-saying.

The right-wing media has been pushing the people-are-mad-as-hell story since the summer town hall meetings. With so much noise and spin, it's hard to tell what the real level of public anger is or what exactly the angry people are angry about. The number of people who tell pollsters that the country is on the wrong track has been rising lately and is up to 60%, but that number was over 80% just before the 2008 election.

My take: There is considerable discontent in the country, but it isn't ideological. One of the most unpopular recent policies, for example, is the bank bailout (which everyone forgets was done by Bush). But people surely don't believe that ideological conservatives would be tougher on the banks than ideological liberals.

Looking forward, getting out in front of the popular discontent is going to be the defining tactical challenge of 2010. It's not just a liberal/conservative thing.

Retreat? The inside-the-beltway reaction has been that Obama needs to slow down and move to the right. Former Clinton advisor Mark Penn, for example, wants Obama to take post-1994-debacle Bill Clinton as a model. He should "break health care up into its components" and "start with the easy stuff like electronic medical records." He should not "be afraid to do what some think of as the small stuff" and should "look for ways to be genuinely bi-partisan." In particular, "Genuine bi-partisanship would have given the Republicans malpractice reform in exchange for a public option."

Even if you believe that people should still be listening to Mark Penn (the mastermind behind Hillary Clinton's bungled 2008 campaign), this is all incredibly clueless. Let's start with the malpractice reform suggestion. No Republican ever offered this deal. In fact, no Senate Republican ever offered any deal on health care. Here's the typical pattern: Olympia Snowe put forward her public-option-trigger idea, but when Democrats offered to put it in the bill, she wouldn't promise to vote for it. Again and again, Lucy pulled the football away from Charlie Brown.

Republicans have repeatedly denied that people-without-health-insurance is a real problem, just as they deny that global warming is a real problem. What could Obama possibly accomplish by negotiating on those terms? You can compromise on solutions, but not on whether there's a problem.

Politically, Bill Clinton is an example of what to avoid. He managed to get himself re-elected, but he lost the House in 1994 and never got it back. He entered office with 56 Democratic senators. When he left in 2001 there were 50 and the progressive movement was in tatters. Democrats went down to huge defeats in 2002 and 2004, when the party continued the Clintonesque move-to-the-center approach. And Republicans were so grateful for his help on welfare reform, NAFTA, the Defense of Marriage Act, and don't-ask-don't-tell that they impeached him.

Fundamentally, the argument between Republicans and Democrats is whether government can help people solve their problems. To win that argument Democrats have to help people solve their problems. Focusing on meaningless trivia just makes the Republicans' case for them: If government isn't going to solve problems for you, then the best you can hope for is a tax cut.

Health care. Democrats need to get health care done, not pull it back and start over. (You do it like this.) That's true across the board. Even without the magic Senator #60, Democrats have bigger majorities in both houses of Congress than any administration has seen in decades. If they can't achieve anything with those majorities, why should voters show up for them in November?

Remember when the stimulus bill passed? Al Franken was still tied up in a court challenge and Arlen Specter hadn't switched parties yet, but somehow they got it done with only 58 Democrats. This fake beer ad has the right message.

Obama Bounces
President Obama had two big TV hits this week: the State of the Union address (video, transcript) Wednesday and his Q&A session with the House Republicans Friday. Put together, the two events stopped the bleeding from the Scott Brown race. LIke a lot of the liberal base, Joan Walsh suddenly remembered the President Obama we voted for.

The task of the SOTU speech wasn't to outline a new policy track. Instead, Obama wanted to reassure America that he understands what's going on and knows what he's doing. Polls indicate that he succeeded.

A lot of the speech was devoted to recalling facts that his opposition has managed to obscure: He inherited a huge deficit and the threat of a depression. He increased the deficit to avoid the depression -- something liberal and conservative economists alike recommended, even if they disagreed on the particulars. He cut taxes on working families and didn't raise taxes on anyone.

Now the economy has stabilized, but lots of people are still unemployed. He's going to keep using the deficit to stimulate the economy for another year, and then start cutting the deficit. He had several other policy proposals -- a jobs plan, a new tax on big banks, repealing don't-ask-don't-tell -- but mostly called for action on the proposals he has already made: "Don't walk away from [health-care] reform. Not now. Not when we are so close." And to the congressional Democrats he said: "I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills."

Obama challenged the Republicans on health care:
But if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors, and stop insurance company abuses, let me know.
After the speech, Republicans objected that they have already presented a plan. And they have -- but not a serious one. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office the Republican plan would accomplish none of the goals Obama listed. McJoan on DailyKos and MediaMatters have the details.
Obama's meeting with the House Republicans at their annual retreat was truly remarkable. It's impossible to imagine President Bush doing anything like it: facing hostile questions for over an hour without losing his cool, with no staff to give him answers or allies to toss him softballs. He challenged the factual basis of many of the questions and had substantive answers. (The best measure of how well Obama did: Fox News cut away in the middle to show something else. They knew their side was losing.)

whether it will be remembered as a moment that began to ease the tensions between the two parties -- or an asterisk in this era of polarized politics.
Duh. Polarized politics isn't some kind of Hatfield-McCoy feud that nobody remembers the cause of. Polarization serves the interests of powerful forces in our society. Those forces didn't lose their power Friday and their interests didn't change.

Here's what will change: Republicans will never again let themselves be televised going head-to-head with Obama. They'll go back to sniping at him from a distance.

Short Notes
Now we've had two consecutive quarters of growth in the overall economy. Will that convince businesses to start hiring people? So far it hasn't.

Last week I blamed the Citizens United decision on the fact that Justice Alito replaced Justice O'Connor. Looks like I was right.

Stephen Colbert:
Corporations are legally people. And it makes sense, folks. They do everything people do except breath, die, and go to jail for dumping 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the Hudson River.

CBS thinks politically charged ads are OK -- if they're conservative. It will show Focus on the Family's anti-abortion ad during the Super Bowl, but not an ad from a gay dating website. In 2004 CBS refused to air ads from the United Church of Christ, which wanted to tell gays and lesbians they'd be welcome at a UCC church.

The abortion ad tells the story of a woman who claims that doctors urged her to get an abortion in 1987. She had the baby anyway, and that child is now star college quarterback Tim Tebow. Like many heart-warming stories from the religious right, this one might be stretched a little.

WWDQD: What would Dr. Quincy do? In Orleans Parish, Louisiana there's a vicious attack-ad in the race for coroner. You've got to wonder how much this race is going to cost, and why the office is worth that kind of money.

I'll let Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert tell the James O'Keefe story, because I don't think the incident deserves a lot of serious news coverage. This is an irresistible shiny object for liberals, but it takes us off-message.

Unlike us, the British are having an official inquiry into how the Iraq war started. You can keep up with it here. This week the inquiry drew special attention because Tony Blair testified for about six hours. He was self-justifying and unrepentant, but at least somebody asked the questions. A report will come out eventually. It's hard to say whether there will be any other consequences.

We can't do anything like that in this country, but at least we have our sense of humor. Human Rights First makes an ad spoofing Liz Cheney's Keep America Safe ad.

I may be the only person who thinks so, but I like the idea of trying Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in Manhattan. I know the security is expensive, but if we can pull this off, I think it's a huge propaganda victory for the US.

Americans need to look at this from the point of view of the young Muslims that Al Qaeda wants to recruit. Bin Laden has been telling them not to be fooled by American rhetoric about freedom and human rights; that's just for white Christians, not for Arabs or Muslims. And he's telling them that Americans are cowards who will throw all their principles out the window whenever they get scared.

Again and again, the Bush administration made Bin Laden a prophet by acting in unprincipled and cowardly ways. Trying KSM in Manhattan, where his crime was, is brave and principled. It would undo some of the damage that the Bush administration did to America and win back a little ground in the war of ideas.
Speaking of terrorists, Scott Roeder was found guilty of first degree murder. He admitted killing abortionist George Tiller, but claimed his action was necessary to save the lives of unborn children. His lawyers were pushing for a lesser charge: voluntary manslaughter, which would have let him out of prison in five years. The judge eliminated that option on Thursday, ruling that no unborn children were in imminent danger during the Lutheran church service where Tiller was shot. (What is it about conservative terrorists and churches?)

Rest in peace, Howard Zinn. My favorite Zinn story is a bit of historical trivia: No one was home when the FBI came to arrest Daniel Ellsberg for leaking The Pentagon Papers, because the Ellsbergs and the Zinns were down in Harvard Square watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (Ellsberg decided not to go home, and became the subject of a major manhunt.)

Ellsberg remembers Zinn here. Bob Herbert and many others also eulogized him.