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Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Democrat's Dilemma

Republicans and Democrats share a history of legislative shenanigans, to be sure. And though Republicans are suddenly sounding reasonable when discussing the pork in the latest stimulus bill on its way to the Senate (after passing in the House 244 - 188, with all Republicans voting against), the traditional Republican mantra of tax relief for the upper and upper middle class would certainly be a bad proposal in today's recession.

But, again, Republican talking points today seem much more reasonable. Contra Bob Herbert, who writes in the NYT today that we should all just stop listening to the minority party (nice spirit of bi-partisanship, Mr. Herbert), I think the minority party, in its opposition, is helping improve the pork-ridden bill and hence is serving the public's interest.

They're doing this in two ways. One, they're caterwauling about the obvious pork in the bill. Indeed some of the more egregious examples of pork have already been removed, like hundreds of millions for contraceptives under the guise of a family planning expansion promoted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (Give initial credit for removal of this lu lu to George Stephanopoulos, who raised this issue in an interview with Pelosi on ABCs "This Week". Also it was President Obama who, officially, requested it be dropped. Bravo.) Resodding the White House lawn also got nixed.

Two, they're asking the hard questions about where the stimulus actually resides in the stimulus bill, questions that I think point to real problems that the majority Democrats seem curiously sanguine about, given the severity of the economic crisis.

For instance, the Congressional Budget Office released a troubling analysis of the proposed bill, calculating that only about 20% of the 816 billion will be spent in fiscal 2009. So much for shovel ready. And there's the troubling fact that, of this, only about 30 billion is tagged for infrastructure spending.

So, where is the money going? Well, to entitlement programs and special interest groups, of course:

  • 2 billion for child care subsidies
  • 50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)
  • 400 million for global warming research
  • 2.4 billion for carbon capture projects
  • 650 million for digital TV conversion coupons
  • 87 billion for Medicaid
  • 1 billion for nutrition programs
  • 66 billion for education spending

And on and on.

To be sure, some of this spending is laudable, and provides funding for worthy goals (like funding the arts, or modernizing the Smithsonian). But if it's really job creation that we're trying to accomplish, it's hard to understand the distribution of funds. For example, the unemployment rate for government workers is a mere 2.3% today, and in the education and health sectors it's only 3.8%. Yet fully 39% of the 550 billion allocated for spending -- the rest is tax relief -- targets these sectors. This is particularly puzzling when we consider the unemployment rates in the sectors hit hardest by the recession: 8.3% in manufacturing, and 15.2% in construction. As Alan Reynolds of the CATO Institute points out today in the WSJ, "If the intent of the plan is to alleviate unemployment, why spend over half of the money on sectors where unemployment is lowest?" Hmm.

So, here's the Democrat's Dilemma. They don't need the lowly Republicans to pass President Obama's stimulus plan; it'll likely sail through the Senate without major modification just as it did the House. And then it'll be law. But, if it's judged a failure in the coming years, they'll be solely responsible for it. Republicans, for their part, can look reasonable by simply pointing at the facts of the bill. They may get blamed for throwing out the spirit of bi-partisanship, but they have the pork in the bill and the puzzling distribution of funds to keep talking about. No one will care about their stubbornness today, if in a few years the stimulus is viewed as a Democratic christmas tree, full of entitlements and goodies for Americans, but a very flawed piece of legislation given its ostensible purpose.

And so it goes. As Speaker Pelosi put it, "We won, we write the bill". Indeed.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Armey Misplaces the Current Century

This was hilarious. Armey lets slip the dogs of politically incorrect war. He hits Joan Walsh with no less than "glad you can never be my wife", a comment that was over the top, to be sure.

But on the general contours of the stimulus discussion, it's becoming a commonplace for the Democrats to talk around the stimulus bill rather than about it, a sure sign that something's rotten in Denmark. There's suddenly very little direct explanation of how the stimulus happens. This was, I suspect, Dick Armey's frustration, a man with a Ph.D. in Economics (not that this gives anyone much of a leg up these days...) and of course the former House Majority leader.

Republicans, whatever you think of them as a party, have a point when they harp on the details of the stimulus package that just passed the House. They're doing the people's work right now more than the party in charge. Mad Money's Jim Kramer -- hardly an apologist for Conservatives -- said as much today. But Armey I think forgot himself on Hardball tonight...

Swearingen Reprieve

God bless Texas. It was the right thing to do.

Decaf Drinkers Shut Out

Starbucks nixes decaf after noon. I'm sure people will be screaming in the streets with this latest.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Brooke Blog

My daughter's blog. I gush.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


My wife brought our dog Sam back from the animal shelter Spring of 2006. He was a sickly puppy at the time, full of worms, with a running eye, and a pensive, shy demeanor. But he won over my wife, with his tawny fur and big, innocent eyes. He was Paul when we took him home, and when he reached our house he was Sam.

Sam's running eye was harmless, according to the vet, and the worms clinging in his swollen belly were let loose by the pills we embedded in his food. He grew larger by degrees I'm sure, but as we experienced him his progress was discreet, so that he was suddenly a larger pup, and then an adolescent, with no stages in between. Sam took to chewing everything in our back yard, which caused me great consternation, and prompted ongoing friction between my wife and I, as she remonstrated me on my lack of patience, and I her on our lack of unpunctured water hoses, and unchewed bushes, and boards on our deck free of marks from puppy teething.

Sam was a classic mut, a pound puppy that was listed as a cross between a Pit Bull and a Labrador, the faintly discernible drops in an ocean of breeds comprising his motley origin.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Troubles in Texas - New Evidence in the Larry Swearingen Case

A man on death row in Texas who is scheduled to be executed Tuesday for the murder of a nineteen year old college student received last minute hope from forensic pathologists -- including one who performed the original autopsy on the victim -- who have concluded that the prosecution's case does not square with further forensic analysis of the victim's body.

In 1998, Larry Swearingen was found guilty of the strangulation death of Melissa Trotter, whose body was discovered dumped in the woods of East Texas. The original autopsy concluded that her body was discovered about twenty five days after her murder, a conclusion that coincided with the last time she was seen alive, having lunch with Mr. Swearingen.

The latest forensic analysis since the 1998 murder, however, suggests a far different picture -- her body was discovered at most within fourteen days of her death, and probably within two to three days. The forensic evidence supporting this conclusion is substantial, including well-known decay rates for organs, levels of bacteria in the body, absence of factors such as bloat, lack of animal mutilation, loss of body weight, and others.

If the forensic scenario is correct, Mr. Swearingen could not have committed the murder, since he would have been in jail for unpaid traffic violations when the murder occurred. "It's just scientifically impossible for him to have killed the girl and thrown her into the woods," said James Rytting, Swearingen's appellate lawyer. "It's guilt by imagination."

In the original trial of Mr. Swearingen, the prosecution built its case on strong evidence, including "a match between the panty hose leg found around Trotter's neck and the stocking remnant found in a trash dump next to Swearingen's mobile home." Additionally, hair samples from Ms. Trotter were found in Swearingen's truck, and witnesses say that she had had lunch with Swearingen the day she disappeared.

Nonetheless, the Texas death penalty case is particularly troubling for the prosecution -- and more generally for advocates of capital punishment -- because it reveals that even when death penalty cases have seemingly indisputable, damning evidence and even after a lengthy appeals process, new evidence can surface that may call into question the guilty verdict. When such evidence is compelling, as it appears to be in this case, concerns about the innocence of the condemned should receive further, serious review. "Beyond a reasonable doubt" is the standard of course for all criminal trials in our judicial system; it does not appear, given the apparently exculpatory forensic findings in the case against Mr. Swearingen, that the standard has been met.

With days left before the state is scheduled to execute Mr. Swearingen for the murder of Melissa Trotter, one can only hope that the execution is stayed while the additional forensic evidence is reviewed.

Source article here.

Common Sense Stimulus

Conservatives assure us that the New Deal didn't work for supply side reasons; FDR raised taxes at the wrong time. Assuming this analysis is correct, what follows? Does this mean, then, that Conservatives ought to concede that the New Deal might have worked if taxes hadn't been raised? Liberals, for their part, offer that the New Deal -- while a success -- was nonetheless limited by FDR's failure to infuse the economy with enough cash, and at the right time (NYT's Paul Krugman is here paradigmatic). What does this mean? Their hedging suggests that an economic stimulus is not sufficient to recover from a recession. The economy has to be stimulated the right way.

From the 1930s to the 1960s. Here, JFK is often credited with helping pull the economy out of recession with broad tax cuts. Does this mean, then, that stimulus in the 1930s Keynesian sense is in fact not necessary? Supply siders shout this from the mountain tops. (I'm not sure how the Keynesian crowd treats this case; my guess is that they credit the recovery with exogenous factors, rather than the tax cuts.)

Anyway, the point is, economists -- supply and demand side -- weigh in with sound and fury about effective remedies to recession whenever one occurs, but I think the absence of anything approaching consensus on the well studied, historical cases speaks volumes. It seems that the experts don't really know. What to do?

For our current economic woes, I'd like to take a stab at what I'll call common sense economics. I suspect it won't please either side of the ideological divide. But perhaps it would work.

First, let's forget cutting taxes on the rich right now, since a broad consumer recovery will rely more on everyday purchasing. Cut the middle to lower middle class taxes -- from 15% to 10%, for instance, for the middle class. That larger paycheck will, eventually, start burning a hole in millions of American wallets, and soon the Average American -- much more numerous than the Rich American -- will be getting that flatscreen T.V. he's wanted, and will resume taking his dear wife out to dinner and a movie again.

Second, cut the payroll (FICA) tax on small businesses. We can then, many of us, meet payroll, instead of going further into debt, and with enough wind in the sails we'll hire that new employee that we so desperately need. Multiply this by thousands and thousands, and we've got ourselves moving toward recovery.

Finally, we can address demand side job creation. I'm not a demand sider, so whatever I add about this will likely sound hand-wavey, but how about this: if we're in such a serious bind, and we need to act now, let's take our printed money and pore it into projects that attract work for people now. The world will be vastly different in two years; accordingly, our horizon for understanding what needs to be done to stimulate the economy cannot extend very far. Jobs now. Common sense.

In short, I propose that we recharge consumer spending by stimulating the middle class, and get the small business engine revved up again with a temporary relief from the onerous payroll taxes, and we spend stimulus money on projects that get people working now. It'll make a difference. And no ideological wars required.

The Tangled Webs the Republicans Weave

Republicans on the Hill have suddenly found their fiscally conservative sea legs, raising question after question about the size of Obama's fiscal stimulus bill, and sounding off about burgeoning deficits. Strange. For the last eight years not a peep, hardly a whimper from them, while spending increased year after year under the Bush administration, with nary a veto in sight. Republicans, when confronted with the budget deficit created under their watch, cited increased national defense spending in the wake of September 11 as the overriding factor. Fair enough.

Strange, though, that these same Republicans on the Hill are so eager to call the Democrats to account for forgetting that we're still in a war. Following this logic, don't we need to keep spending? Why go miserly now?

Perhaps, as is so often the case in politics, the suddenly spendthrift Republican attitude has surfaced mainly because the other party now holds the purse strings. And so the minority party rediscovers the problem of budgetary deficits, while the majority soon spends, and spends, and spends again.

Antarctica conundrum... solved at last?

Apparently, the Antarctica conundrum has been solved. Antarctica is now believed to be uniformly warming, according to Eric J. Steig at the University of Washington. The new evidence comes from interpolating the measurements of relatively isolated weather stations using satellite data. Some of those stations had been recording cooling temperatures, leading to the hypothesis that Antarctica was cooling in some regions, and warming in others.

I'm skeptical of "interpolation" techniques that run counter to the conclusions drawn from review of actual physical readings, but I won't be so bold as to declare this latest twist in the ongoing Global Warming discussion suspect. How would I know? We'll have to let the experts evaluate the findings over time, and communicate to us the validity and significance of this latest piece of the puzzle.

What I will offer, in the meantime, is a "meta" observation about how discussions about Global Warming typically go, this latest about Antarctica a prime example: if there is evidence of cooling somewhere (especially at the poles, which are in general more sensitive to the factors thought to lead to climate change), GW proponents are quick to invoke language about complexity, pointing out that we should expect local cooling even when the mean temperature of the Earth is increasing. When such evidence is debunked, however, or at least called into question, the GW crowd breathes a collective sigh of relief, and points to the latest warming as clear evidence for the global warming theory. In other words, when some Region A is believed to be cooling, it's argued that this is consistent with Global Warming. And when the science then suggests that Region A is in fact warming, the new finding then fixes the prior problem with Region A appearing to cool. But I thought it wasn't a problem? Such strategies justifiably encourage a healthy scepticism from the discerning public, who might begin to wonder what evidence would ever be counted against the theory by its proponents.

Steig's results were published Thursday in the journal Nature.

Gore Gets His Hawk On

Richard Clarke (former Clinton antiterror czar), in his "Against All Enemies" book, describes a surprisingly hawkish Al Gore, arriving late to a meeting with White House Special Counsel Lloyd Cutler and President Clinton on the subject of "extraordinary rendition" -- the practice of sending prisoners to foreign countries to be interrogated. Mr. Cutler was strongly objecting to the rendition option, and, as Clarke recounts, had seemed to sway Clinton in his direction, when Gore arrived. According to Clarke, Clinton briefed Gore on the arguments presented in the meeting, and "Gore laughed and said, 'That's a no-brainer. Of course it's a violation of international law, that's why it's a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.'"

Gore's machiavellian moment raises interesting and obvious moral questions that I won't broach here. But his remark also underscores my own suspicion that, likely, "enhanced interrogation techniques" will continue to be practiced by the CIA whenever it's believed that such practices may reduce clear and present threats to national interest (such as, say, obtaining information from an Al-Queda operative about a planned attack). For all the hay making about the Bush administration's policies -- and I'll have more to say in another post about why it'll be virtually impossible to get a single prosecution if AG-designate Eric Holder ever proceeds with "torture investigations" -- covert techniques will likely continue, as I suspect they have for decades, and under Democratic or Republican administrations. As Mr. Gore puts it, of course it'll violate laws... that's why it's covert.

So I think the upshot here is that the Bush administration is guilty indeed, but of a political blunder, and a bad one: next time, don't brag about use of enhanced techniques as if it's scoring political points at home. It isn't. Just leave it covert, and we'll all be on our way.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Trio

I've long been interested in writing about our three favorite habits: alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. It's of course possible and perhaps even probable that I'm interested only because I indulge regularly myself. A kind of self-interest, as it were. But regardless, I'm here tonight to stand up in the group meeting and admit my problem. Here goes.

This evening after work I'm sitting watching the news, drinking a glass of Chianti, and it dawns on me, slowly, that something's wrong. Finally I pinpoint it... no coffee today. Not good. I drink, as a habit it should be told, two to three cups of strong coffee every morning, without exception. And today I was interupted working on the initial stages of my first cup, with no additional coffee drinking in my day.

So, here I am, hours later, with a physical problem worming its way into my awareness, and suddenly the nickel drops and it occurs to me that I haven't had enough caffeine. Ahhh. It all makes sense now. It explains how I'm dull, headachy, almost depressed. I'm sluggish, uninteresting and uninterested. The wine means nothing. In fact it's exacerbating my situation.

So, I hate to admit it, but I'm soon trucking down to the local Starbucks, 6:30 in the evening, wine half drank sitting on the counter, ordering a Grande Latte, with an extra shot. The perky woman behind the counter, with the store fairly dead by Starbucks standards, asks if (and I'm repeating this basically verbatim) "I'd like another shot on the house". Huh? This is bar talk. Sure, I reply, bellying up to the barista. Another shot of the stuff, and on the house, lady! Now I'm looking around. Things seem better. Perhaps I should strike up some random conversations with the other caffeinated souls perkily reading and chatting and yacking around me. Maybe this place could get jumpin' after all!

Anyway, this is an interesting subject to me, this whole idea of our habits and how we view them. And so I won't put off much longer my exploration of our beloved trio; call it the alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine diaries. More to come.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Olbermann Email

The email I sent to MSNBC below. It's based on an exchange from a prior post. In this exchange, there was consistency. But I think Mr. Olbermann is in much more of a pickle, if he keeps on his present track:

I watch with interest Countdown with Keith Olbermann. I'm confused however about Mr. Olbermann's Special Comment on the eve of the inauguration of President Obama, where he makes an impassioned, forceful case that "Bush is guilty of torture" and ought to be investigated and perhaps tried and found guilty, in spite of President Obama's public statements to the contrary. President Obama, for his part, just wants to "move on". This profound disagreement between Mr. Olbermann and President Obama is particularly puzzling since, otherwise, Mr. Olbermann speaks quite positively and even glowingly about our new President.

So, my question to Mr. Olbermann is: If President Obama does not wish to investigate possible "war crimes" committed by the former Bush Administration, and if it's so clear cut that such acts were in fact committed, what does this say about President Obama?

We can assume that President Obama must have the relevant facts at his disposal. So, following simple logic, should Mr. Olbermann conclude that President Obama is just weak, or rather is he morally suspect? This question Mr. Olbermann ought to answer directly. Otherwise, he seems to be talking "out of both sides of his mouth" as they say, and his many viewers ought to call him on it.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Remember the 70s

Some more red meat for the Global Warming "deniers", as Global Warming believers like to put it (can't we just say Global Warming "sceptics"? Aren't "believer" and "sceptic" a pair?). Anyway, check it out. I haven't done much with it but received it from a friend in Seattle who works in the ultra-liberal tech community there; he's a closet denier.

The Haters

Rush Limbaugh says that he hopes President Obama will fail. Is he serious? Wow, this surprised me. His "reasoning" seems to be that, if Obama succeeds, he will have succeeded only in ushering in socialist solutions to our current economic woes. Ergo, he must fail.

What's interesting here is that Limbaugh isn't saying that socialist policies will fail (put aside, for now, what constitutes "socialist"), but rather that if socialist policy succeeds, this is itself a failure for us. This, of course, is a complete tangle. If an economic remedy worked -- if it succeeded -- by any measure of success I'm aware of, the country would be (somewhat definitionally) better off. Because the policy worked! And so, Limbaugh is apparently at war with "socialistic policies" regardless of outcome. Now that's an ideologue. Better that we plant both feet in traditional capitalism come hell or high water than try non-capitalist policies, because God forbid they might work (and then what?).

Of course I'm not a "socialist"; this not what I'm getting at. It's just so over the top to want a President to fail, just to preserve some view of the world. This is not my view of America or politics generally.

On the other side of things, right-of-center thinkers especially, please take time to watch Countdown with Keith Olbermann and immediately after The Rachel Maddow Show. They're so Rush Limbaugh. I get this perverse sense of superiority watching people with such a simple rubric, their whole raison d'etre predicated on the proposition that "the other side" is evil. It's really good viewing.

Mainly, lately, it's the simple idea with these shows that "Bush is evil". That's it. I've been watching. That's pretty much it. It's an almost religious calling to continually open wounds and fester them and spew forth venom at George Bush. Bush is an idiot, he should be accused of war crimes, he ruined the country, and on and on. I keep hoping, but there seems no possibility of acknowledging anything positive whatsoever about the Bush years. Nothing. There's just this Limbaugh-like failure to accept or to even grasp the context of the former Administration, and indeed the precarious place that we all occupied in the wake of September 11.

Nothing but hatred... that's easy enough. What's harder is to try to figure out what happened, why particular decisions were made, what effects they had (positive and negative), and what can and should be done better next time. A sober, thoughtful analysis. But you won't get this from Olbermann or Maddow.

In the same vein, Limbaugh ought to attempt a similar treatment of Obama's current plans. But he won't. And so you won't get it from him either. And on and on the haters go.

Gaza War Zone

Stacking up bodies in Gaza, again. There is no clear path ahead for this damnable conflict. Israel offers at present no answer. Their thesis is apparently that Hamas can be bombed into military submission (which it likely can) and then soon after into changes in politics (which it can't). And so the bodies keep piling up. What the First World fails to understand about this perpetual bloodbath is that it is, at root, a religious war.

It is true that the Israeli response is heavy-handed and troublesome (again), but equally, Hamas is predictably fomenting a constant radicalization of this conflict at the expense of compromise, an end to violence, and a lasting peace. Victory at all costs makes sense when one is confronted with an enemy bent on global domination, as Churchill well knew and as France surely learned in those dark hours of the 20th century. But the "kill the Infidels" battle cry of Hamas given Israel's desire to exist in the region without constant threat of terrorist attack cannot be excused easily, if at all. It is a Holy War more than a rational assessment of the conditions for peace. And so the usual carrots offered by the First World-- money, prospects for a better economy -- never find purchase with Hamas, and more generally with leaders steeped in radical Islamic dogma. To hell with modernity makes it difficult to propose modern solutions.

What to do? Who knows? I do know that the political Left hopes that compromises and concessions by Israel will have some real effect on the policies of Hamas. It's hard to see how this will transpire, and history suggests that it's just so much more wishful thinking . On the Right, this idea that full-scale bombing campaigns into heavily populated areas will brow-beat Hamas into "coming to the table" is surely wishful thinking as well. The end Israel will achieve, if any at all, is just another temporary cessation of violence, while Hamas re-organizes, and reloads. In the meantime, thousands of innocent people in Gaza are the unfortunate and truly tragic victims of this damnable conflict.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day 2009

President Barack Hussein Obama. Congratulations! My wife and I watched the inauguration with the unmistakeable sense of significance, that something significant was unfolding in front of us. Years from now, people will ask each other what they were doing on this inauguration day. It's a distinctively American moment, full of meaning and purpose and emotion that wells up out of our unique and sometimes painful and even at times tragic past. But always, in this continuing American narrative, there is an ineradicable optimism, a deep well of hope for a better tomorrow. This our President Obama expressed in words today, and symbolized in his person and in the office that he now holds. Congratulations.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Keith Olbermann's Really Special Comment

Perhaps it's not NYT's Paul Krugman, as I suggested here, but rather media personality Keith Olbermann, who is most energetically expressing the anger from the wider-circulated Left about the Bush Administration's policies regarding fighting terrorism after September 11. His moral indignation cannot best be captured with just words, I don't think, and so (another first on this blog), here's the video.

These are Mr. Olbermann's concluding remarks, by the way, on Martin Luther King day and on the eve of the inauguration of President-Elect Obama. A little ironic, maybe, given that MLK did not strike a particularly litigious tone, and that Mr. Obama seems intent on moving forward and healing wounds -- bridging gaps -- between the Right and Left with his upcoming Presidency. If President-Elect Obama is watching Keith Olbermann's program at all, he's certainly getting confirmation from cable news media that the road ahead will be long, indeed.

(Incidentally, I'm sure there's a better way to embed the video, but I couldn't find it on blogspot from my brief perusal of the options. I'll look into it. Also, if time is an issue with viewing, the last 2 - 2.5 minutes are I think of most value, although the clip in toto is quite worth it as well.)

Glenn Greenwald (Salon.com) on FISA Ruling

More on warrantless wiretapping in the courts. The Wall Street Journal editorial (find it here with my initial commentary) made mention of the limited scope of the recent FISA ruling -- it applies only to the 2007 Congressional authorization of eavesdropping powers -- but perhaps a little too quickly. Greenwald makes it a bit more clear. However, as Greenwald himself admits, the ruling is still "significant". WSJ said as much or more when concluding that it "sets a precedent".

In general, I'm interested to see how Obama treats the terrorist fighting apparatus erected by the Bush administration after September 11: the warrantless wiretapping issue, Guantanamo, homeland security, and a host of other issues that, on the one side, are intended to keep us safer, and on the other, present challenges to our liberty. This double edged sword will be held in his hand soon enough.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Tone in Washington

Two recent columns, from the New York Times and Washington Post, respectively, pretty much book-end the "Bush was evil, Bush was good" debate. On one end, Paul Krugman wants to charge Bush with war crimes. On the other, Charles Krauthammer asks us to acknowledge our debt to Bush.

Whether you're liberal or conservative minded, have a look. It's worth reading them back to back.

For my part, I always get a little uncomfortable when intelligent people reach such radically different conclusions from (one would assume) the same set of facts and observations. Feels a little nihilistic to me, like there's no real fact of the matter, only different and perhaps too firmly held opinions, determined by fundamentally different, and incompatible, ideologies. Yet, perhaps our problem is not so much our failure to find objective truths but rather the way that we find (or think we find) them, by constructing political ideologies -- broad, sweeping systems that purport to explain the political world around us and to determine how we ought to think and act. Perhaps.

To be sure, a scepticism of ideology is not new to America. It undergirds an intellectual movement -- pragmatism-- that emerged here in the 19th century with Constitutional scholars like Oliver Wendel Holmes Jr., as well as philosophers such as Charles Pierce, William James, Dewey and others. The emergence of American pragmatism in the 19th century is, like many intellectual movements, multifarious, but at least in part and perhaps centrally it can be seen as a response to the idealism that helped ignite a powder keg, the American Civil War. As Holmes, who fought bitterly in the Civil War as a young man and who nearly died there in battle, wondered: if all of our ideals led us to the carnage of the Civil War -- if our politicians and intellectuals couldn't save us from nearly tearing the Union apart -- of what moral and practical benefit were those ideals? His thought of course found its expression in monumental works like The Common Law. His contemporaries -- James, Pierce, and Dewey -- wrote the more theoretical underpinnings of political pragmatism and are still part of the philosophical canon (though perhaps, after World War II, less so).

President-Elect Obama may or may not be a pragmatist, in the grand tradition of Holmes and the great 19th century philosophers. He is fond of studying Lincoln, I hear (a good sign). At any rate, we will indeed need change in Washington. First on the list, I hope, will be a change in the often too partisan tone. I'm hopeful that Mr. Obama's eloquent words and to some early extent his first deeds as President-Elect signal just that.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Surprising FISA Ruling

It turns out that the Bush Administration's warrantless wiretapping program was legal and Constitutional, according to, somewhat surprisingly, the FISA appellate court in a just released 2008 ruling . This is quite a ruling, especially coming from FISA. Not sure I agree, but then I'm not a Constitutional scholar either.

I haven't seen this in the media, come to think of it, and it seems significant, since what's at issue -- whether the government can spy on its citizens -- is clearly of major concern to all of us. Someone cover this story! I'd like to hear some analysis of it from both sides.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

US Airways Flight 1549

I've been following aviation for a while now; my dad is a retired pilot for US Airways, where he flew the 737 (he may have flown you at one time, if you flew in the 1990s). I myself completed ground school last year and have a few hours flight training time in a Cessna 150.

What the heck... this latest the most amazing story... a swept wing dual engine commercial jet at just over 3,000 feet loses power in both engines. This is almost certainly a recipe for disaster, and yet here's the news reporting no casualities and a successful "ditch" (a technical term meaning it isn't a crash but a controlled water landing) into the Hudson. This is really something. At roughly 200 knots a plane of that size with even partial engine failure will require an immediate nose down (i.e., it can't keep climbing!). And with the catastrophic engine failure on flight 1549 there's no routing to an alternate airport, and the pilot, Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger III, has no time to do much of anything. He initiates a bank (while losing altitude quickly, I would imagine), and kisses it down on the Hudson with no fuselage failure, and with 155 people (2 pilots, 3 flight attendants, and 150 passengers) alive. "Nice job" doesn't really capture the moment. This is just simply amazing.

Incidentally, I asked my father once if he ever had a scare when flying commercial for US Air (this conversation happened in November 2001, after a 757 crashed shortly after takeoff from JFK, no survivors). He responded, in his usual matter-of-fact fashion, that he had only one scare. In a blizzard, taking off from Philadelphia. The planes had been grounded for a while, and finally they got a green light to go, which I think was "green" for reasons not entirely explainable by safety criteria alone (management, losing money, saying get the planes up in the sky).

Taking off in a blizzard. Next time you do it, remember this: the turbines in a jet can "flame out" when ingesting liquid, which means effectively that they, well, flame out, like a candle no longer lit. A severe enough storm such as a blizzard can literally extinguish the jet engines (it's rare, but it can happen). This is effectively what happened to my father, except the engines didn't extinguish, they "burped", as he put it.

Taking off, there's a speed that, once reached, requires that the pilot attempt to get the aircraft airborn, called "V1". The crew on the Philly takeoff had reached V1, and so had nothing left to do but cross their fingers, sitting on burping jets in a blizzard with hundreds of people on board, hoping that the engines wouldn't flame out.

I asked what dad and the other pilot said to each other later, and he just said they looked at each other and took a breath, and that was that. Well, dad's a pilot.

Congrats to the pilot on 1549! All lived (except the geese).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Obama, Pragmatist?

President Elect Obama had dinner at conservative columnist George Will's house, where David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, Paul Gigot of the WSJ, and other conservative luminaries accompanied him.

On the cable news yack-and-attack today, Obama's latest "post partisan" move seemed to prompt some crinkled brows from the likes of Hardball's Chris I'll-yell-until-you-answer-me Mathews, and Keith Olbermann from Countdown fame (also an occasional, but pretty good, sports analyst for ESPN).

Olbermann in particular made me chuckle a bit, covering this latest from Obama. I think he needed more time to digest, actually, because he seemed to be asking his viewers both "Why didn't Bush do this?" and "Why in the heck did Obama DO this?". (In other words, meeting with the opposition is good, and why meet with the opposition?)

Ahh, yes. I think people covering the Hill don't yet know what to make of Mr. Obama. Pragmatism and a willingness to get past petty partisan quibbles left Washington long ago. Certainly, President Bush's famous -- now notorious -- claim to be "a uniter, not a divider" has become the subject of jokes; Washington is more divided now than ever. I'm hopeful that our new President is quietly, pragmatically uniting the country with political skill and intelligence even as the partisans around him continue reading from yesterday's script. He just might pull it off.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

More Outrage (or, how the Internet proves anything for anyone)

I may have to retract my prior claim that it's an outrage that people accuse Bush of knowing that Iraq had no WMD (at the time of the war, that is). I did some research, and it looks like maybe Bush knew about 9/11:




Further, Bush clearly authorized the torture in Abu Ghraib:


And the news of Bush authorizing military incursions into up to 20 countries is particularly troubling:


Also, it seems that Bush knew about the devastation Katrina would bring, the day before it happened:


I have, however, found less evidence that Bush knows about the aliens in Roswell, although see this about his veep, setting up a shadow government in Area 51:


What did Cheney know, and when did he know it?

More. I've found evidence of a shadow government set up by the Bush administration, the so-called COG:


And what's up with the connection between Bush Republicans and Osama Bin Laden?:


I'm pleased to report on this blog, however, that I've found no real evidence that Bush knows about the Lochness Monster, or Bigfoot. I'm trying to confirm talk of a Yeti cover up from those seething with hatred of the Bush administration who reside in remote areas of the Himalayas.

Will keep all posted.

Why It's Outrageous to Call Bush a Liar

Yes, I know he bungled many aspects of the war in Iraq (including the decision to wage it, in my view). Yes, I know about Mission Accomplished. Yes, I know there were no WMD.

But here's why it's outrageous to say that Bush lied to the American people about the existence of the WMD to get us into Iraq. To begin, if it was all a lie, President Bush must have known that there would be no mushroom cloud, and no biological weapons, and that therefore there was no imminent threat, because Saddam Hussein had no active WMD. We have to believe he knew this (it's in fact necessary to believe this to get the liar charge off the ground). Two, given that President Bush knew this, he still committed his staff, the international community, and thousands of American troops to wage a war that he knew was not necessary at all.

Now, we need these two claims to support the "Bush lied" charge. This is the logic (in a simplified version, but adequate to make the present point clear). And here's where the liar charge starts to unravel. We are to believe that President Bush, ignoring the best intelligence from the CIA, from Great Britain, from France, and indeed China and Russia, had some independent information, that in fact Iraq did not have WMD. That's, right, President Bush has this secret intel-- independent of the conclusions of the entire world intelligence community -- and that he therefore knew (or at least strongly suspected) that there were no WMD in Iraq. That's what we have to believe. Put aside worries about how possibly a guy commonly accused of being a bungling ignoramus had such personal, penetrating intelligence about weapons in Iraq; to make our "Bush is liar" charge we must simply suppose that he did.

Second, given that he has this independent source of intel that shows no WMD in Iraq, he yet decides to launch a full scale attack, in the process pulling the rest of the world into a pit of mortars and explosions and violence. In Hitler like fashion, the diabolical Bush, knowing there were no WMD, still lets slip the dogs of war. And the rest of the world goes along with it (make sinister sounds of laughter now).

Now, if you believe these two claims -- that Bush knew there were no WMD in spite of the consensus of the intel community, and that he nonetheless claimed that WMD were there (that's the lie part), then, well, you should go around charging that Bush lied to us.

But if you find any problem with these claims (say, for instance, that Bush had no such super-secret intel from some unknown, Godlike source), then probably you don't mean that he lied about the existence of WMD in Iraq. Probably you mean that you're against the war, and that it was a bad idea, and that even if Iraq had some mustard gas, it would have been far preferable to let the UN inspections proceed to an outcome that might have avoided war. (This is pretty much what I believe.)

So, for those still inclined to use the word "lie" anyway, I'd say it's outrageous (also fallacious, also disengenuous, also provocative, tendentious, contentious, maddening, and, of course, itself mendacious).

It's an Outrage (but it's not Maddening)

I think mostly in popular parlance people view the word "outrageous" and "maddening" as roughly interchangeable: that's outrageous, or it's simply maddening...

But in fact outrage and maddening have different meanings, and mostly outrageous is superior to maddening in contexts where people (erroneously) use them interchangeably. Here goes.

For one, outrage carries a moral component. You mean, specifically, that something outrageous doesn't just cause YOU to be outraged, but that it's in fact not decent, and therefore outrage is the natural reaction by people in general. By contrast, maddening is much more psychological; if something is maddening, it just makes you mad. You might make the further case that others ought to be mad too, and you might even imbue maddening with the universal quality of causing madness generally. Fine.

But this brings me to my second reason why outrageous is superior to maddening in any context where people will view them as interchangeable. Namely, though "outrage" is, technically speaking, polysemous, it isn't likely to be confused in the linguistic contexts in which it's uttered. Not so maddening, which can be ambiguous, and (as I'll explain) problematic, in the context in which it's uttered.

To see why, consider: "it's just maddening what John does...", when uttered by Mary, might mean that Mary is driven to irrational states of mind by John and his behavior. On the other hand, it might just mean that Mary gets really mad at John. But this is a difference that makes a difference. What if Mary's mad; not angry, I mean, but freakin' crazy? I might want to know. Maybe you might want to know. John might like the info, too.

Now, use of the outrageous adjective brings none of this type of ambiguity. And this is the key to its lexical superiority. "It's outrageous what John does" might be spoken by his teacher, or his friend, or his political opponent. But in any case there's no ambiguity that attaches to our interpretation of the state of mind of the outraged. They're just outraged. They may in fact be mad, too, but that's a separate issue, and there will be no reason for us to be concerned about this within the context of their utterance of outrageousness.

And that's why, in cases where the two adjectives are commonly thought to be interchangeable, it's better to use "outrageous". QED.

Flu Virus on the Move

This is a bit of a scary factoid:


Monday, January 12, 2009

He's Krugmaaan, The One Trick Ponyyy!

Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winner, Princeton economics professor, and New York Times luminary has a theme for writing columns lately in the NYT, and I would hope that most people with a reasonable IQ can ascertain it by now: make Obama's fiscal stimulus package larger. Yes, that's it. And today he re-iterated his reiterations by adding this "meat" on the thematic bone: drop the tax cuts, increase benefits for the unemployed, and ramp up the Keynesian "infastructure" projects. More, more, more. Otherwise, he warns, we might not get the benefit from the fiscal stimulus (just like FDR, he assures us, who didn't go far enough with the New Deal).

To my lights, Paul Krugman has the flavor of a guy who wants to see his academic work tested in the field of battle. He's an ideologue. And what Krugman wants, ideologically, is to see a really, really big Keynsian project make all the difference. He wants to be exonerated for being (more and more it seems) entrenched in his academic position, a position which it's fair to say is decidedly unlike the recent pragmatism shown by President-elect Obama. Krugman wants to see pure theory played out in practice. And the Credit Crisis is his BIG CHANCE. Well, he might after all be right. But I have to confess that I've been systematically unconvinced by his slew of same-sounding columns in the Times. It might behoove Mr. Krugman, even with that Nobel Prize, to dig a little deeper to help us understand why, exactly, spending trillions right now is exactly what we need to do. Convince us. I mean, don't assert it, give us reasons. Why, for instance, should we jettison Mr. Obama's proposal to cut taxes on small businesses and instead pump massive amounts of tax payer money into selected government projects? Why, for instance, should we crank out tax payer dollars for causes like "enhanced unemployment benefits" with the aim of getting the economy moving again? How does this happen?

To be sure, Mr. Krugman's assertions thus far all sound grand, from a "social justice" point of view. No argument here. But -- talking about stimulating the actual economy -- I'm a little less clear how the types of spending packages promulgated by Krugman translate into getting the Business Engine started again in America. Confusing, perhaps, since stimulating the economy is precisely what he claims to be discussing. Maybe Mr. Krugman's next column will reveal all. (On second thought, don't count on it. But do count on another column making exactly the same point.)

At any rate I won't stop reading Mr. Krugman, no way. It's a great deal: editorial after editorial with the same message, and hardly a detailed argument in any of them (suggests a little argumentum ad verecundiam perhaps), along with a full-stop endorsement of any and all government spending projects. Well, he makes me a True Believer, in a sceptical non-believing sort of way. The Nobel Prize must be worth something.

Sunday morning, 24 January 1965

I finished yesterday Roy Jenkins' biography of Winston Churchill, all 912 pages. I was planning on writing some summary thoughts but have completely run out of steam today. Most of the day, I've been (somewhat uncharacteristically) depressed. The transience of life, existential angst, that kind of thing.

I can offer at least this, for now: I was research assistant and (increasingly) caretaker for George Kozmetsky before his death in April 2003. I was with George the day before he died, when his face turned grey from his sickness and my eyes grew big like saucers, thinking he was dying (he was, it turns out). His eyes grew big too, looking at me. What a thing death is. The only other time my eyes grew big like this, looking at another person, was when my daughter Brooke was born. The nurses originally suggested that I perform the medical procedure of cutting the cord. It was too much, seeing her born like that. I wasn't ready. In either case I wasn't ready.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Gore Apology Accepted

I stumbled upon this gem, improbably, while perusing the liberal Huffington Post. It's a fairly sweeping criticism of Gore-style Global Warming claims; I found the discussion about the absorptive capacity of Co2 most interesting, and germane, to the present Global Warming discussion.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Friedman Op-Ed

Here's what I consider to be a balanced look at the latest Palestine Israel conflagration, from Tom Friedman writing for the New York Times. Comments anyone?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Hamas Charter

For those who are Middle East curious, here are some highlights from the Hamas Charter (it's like their Constitution...). Following I'll post the link to the full charter. Read up!

"Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it."

"The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgement Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up. "

"There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors."

"After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. When they will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying."

Full Charter:


Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Infidels

I forgot to mention previously that the Jews are not Muslims. This explains a lot. If the Jews converted to Islam we could get this friggin' thing to go away.

We're off to the Middle Ages! There's gold in them there Middle Ages!

2 + 2 = 5

Good God. The Breaking News on CNN. Israel is going into Gaza to root out Hamas.

Here's a smattering of thoughts:

1. The media keeps pointing out that it'll be "very difficult" to separate Hamas from the civilian population in Gaza. Right. That's the point, isn't it? After lobbing rockets into Israel, start the PR campaign for sympathy when Israel retaliates. If Hamas is smart, they'll put their military installations right next to the Grade Schools. That shows the cruelty of Israel, not Hamas, right? Dumb asses.

2. Why does Hamas keep talking about "ending aggression"? Are they on LSD? What about the damn rockets they're launching every day into Northern Israel? What is that? Diplomacy? I don't get it. I really don't get it. Suppose Mexico started firing off missiles into Tucson, or El Paso, or wherever. Sure, that's aggression. Then the U.S. (after scratching its collective head for a while), has some response, maybe with the aim of stopping missiles from hitting American cities. The whole "protect our citizens" thing.

But then Calderon gets on the loud speaker, and goes on CNN, and starts talking about the American aggression, as if Mexico hadn't launched any missiles. Just bald faced starts talking like that. (Why? Because screw um', that's why!).

Are you serious? This is a scenario that, literally, my eight year old daughter could sort out. What a freakin' farce. Won't someone just say it?

3. It seems obvious to me that anyone, without prior political machinations, would conclude that Hamas is convinced that Israel, as a country, as a nation state, should not be in the Middle East (and maybe should die horribly, too). Apparently, they feel justified in creating all manner of mayhem to drive them away. Fine (I guess fine, not really fine). But it would be great for the rest of us if Hamas would stop the "save us from the aggression of the Israelis!" speak. Just say you hate the Jews, and you want to kill them. There would be more dignity in it.

Anyway, I'm sure someone can sensitize me to the issue, no doubt at the expense of common sense. (Now that's progress! Talking out your rear is progress!)

The Strangers

I watched The Strangers last night, an unfortunate movie, if only because its sole aim is to scare the dickens out of you, but (at least in my case) fails miserably. (Actually, I should say that I re-watched The Strangers, this time at the offices, in the dark, and completely alone, hoping for that jolt of fear. Nothin'.) Let me explain.

First, if you haven't seen it, it's essentially the Manson Family idea: two women and a man in creepy masks descend on a house in the country to harrass a hapless couple, who're staying at the house for the night (the house of the young man's parents, who aren't there). That's the basic idea.

As for the couple, Liv Tyler plays Kristen McCay, who has recently rejected a marriage proposal from the now-frustrated James Hoyt, played by Scott Speedman. I thought the chemistry between the main characters was fine; the problem creeps in (no pun) when the bad guys show up. This is made known by the obligatory eery knock on the door, at four in the morning (which terminates the unfolding love scene-- thanks a lot!), resulting in a peculiar exchange with a young woman at the doorstep, dead of night in the country, asking for someone in a dead pan I'm-in-a-horror-movie voice.

But Hoyt blows this off, and shortly after goes to get cigarettes for McCay, leaving her in the house by herself (yeah, right). Of course, you guessed it, the creeps from outside are soon inside, and the cat and mouse game begins.

By the time Hoyt arrives with the smokes, McCay is freaked. He's still got the dismissive must-be-okay attitude, but after seeing one of the antagonists standing menacingly in the shadows outside one of the windows, he digs out the family shotgun. Now, with two women and a man wearing Halloween masks in the country, in the early hours of the morning, with no phone access (the hard line's dead, and the one cell phone got chucked into the fireplace by the bad guys, who seem to be making excursions into the house to perform particular missions, only to go back outside to stand around and look scary), it would seem that there are two reasonable moves for our antagonized lovers.

One, get in the car and drive off. Two, retreat to a room of your choice (with no windows behind you, etc.), and sit there with the 12 guage and the several dozen shells Hoyt pocketed, and wait for daylight. Bad guys with Halloween masks disappear when the sun comes up (same goes with the audience's fear). Then, simple equation: bad guy shows up with knife, shoot bad guy. That's easy enough.

Neither option happens until it's too late, though Hoyt and McCay do, eventually, attempt to drive off (what a concept!), but get rammed by the creeps in their creepy pickup and end up back at the house.

So, move one failed, proceed to move two. Sit there with the shotgun and wait it out. This was too boring, apparently; better to run around, finding creepy places, exposing yourself to danger. Be the victim! Feel the victim! Oh well.

Incidentally, one thing I did find interesting: a menacing knock on one's door (with no peephole... that's cheating) in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, does present a dilemma. Open it up, might be bad. Yell through the door? I guess, but then if it seems harmless, you're obliged to open it ("What the hell do you want?" "Uh, my car broke down, I'm cold, and lost..."). Doing nothing seems a little too cautious (maybe even a little pusillanimous), and shooting through the door without understanding the situation is obviously absurd. Assuming there's no phone access, what would you do? Unfortunately, entertaining this mildly insipid question is the closest The Strangers came to pulling me into the Creep Zone.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Here Comes the Judge

I've argued previously (though not on this blog) that the Second Amendment makes no sense if it's not construed as granting an individual right to bear arms. Opponents of this view typically invoke a strand of Constitutional originalism: the Second Amendment says you have a right to form militias, not have a gun for self-defense. (Politics makes strange bed-fellows; progressives who suddenly discover the value of Constitutional originalism.)

My argument for the individual right to bear arms is grounded in the absurdity of granting folks the right to band together to form militias but denying the right in the case of a solitary individual. If gun toting militias are protected by the Second Amendment, a fortiori should individuals.

But my argument has a flaw, which I've recently come to realize; namely, that the "militia" language in the Second Amendment is interpreted as a statement about federalism: the states, under the "militia" reading, have the right to form militias. This makes more sense. And, alas, it leaves unanswered the separate question about whether the right to bear arms extends to individuals for the purposes of self defense (the right in both cases -- individual or state -- is essentially intended as protection against tyranny).

Anyway, the Heller decision last year upheld the individual rights interpretation of the Second Amendment. As might be expected it was cheered by opponents of Gun Control. Interesting, however, that conservatives like George Will have questioned the Heller decision. Will points to 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Wilkinson's argument that Heller, like, over three decades ago, Roe v. Wade, uses the ambiguous wording of the Constitution as license for judicial subjectivity. With Heller, we get an individual gun right from the ambiguous language of the Second Amendment. With Roe v. Wade, we get a right to privacy that exists somehow in the due process clause of the 14th Amendment ("under the penumbra" is I think the famous phrase).

Wilkinson argues that judicial subjectivity is not the bromide for Constitutional ambiguity; rather, the matter should shift to legislation:

"...when a right's definition is debatable, generous judicial deference should be accorded to legislative judgments -- particularly those of the states, which should enjoy constitutional space to function as laboratories for testing policy variations."

I hate to admit it, but I tend to agree.

Happy New Year

I probably shouldn't post this, but...

Happy New Year! The most uneventful New Year celebration ever. I tried to be festive but had no enthusiasm for it, and ended up snoozing and watching bad T.V. By way of contrast, the best New Year celebration I had was in Seattle in 1995 (to be 1996).

I was in Pioneer Square for the countdown, which was packed with the merriest of folks, cheering beyond all reasonableness. I remember lifting the champaign to the sky and counting down with hundreds of my suddenly closest friends. What fun, that night.

Later I lost my leather jacket in a bar, and ended up staying with a woman named "Gretchen" details about which I'll omit. In the morning I awoke to a new year, in a new bed, and by noon was walking in rare sunlight (I remember it was sunny in Seattle) back to my apartment, which was across town and I guess at least three miles away. Gretchen didn't have a car. It was, I think, a New Year to remember, loosely stated.

In my old age and married with kids now, I just sort of nod off, watching Andersen Cooper in ear muffs and a bunch of now silly looking revelers cheering and whooping and hollering. Many have Gretchen stories, by now, too. They will, some day, many of them, recall with great fondness the first moments of 2009.