Thursday, July 29, 2010

Suffering in Silence

 The NYTimes has an article on a new report from the Pentagon on the rising rate of suicides in the military. This is an issue that really deserves more time than I have to give it right now, but I want to point to a few great reports on the PTSD problems plaguing veterans.

Tom Ricks gave a forum to Blake Hall to write a very necessary but tough to read column on suicides among veterans. It is very aptly titled "What every American needs to know." He followed that up by posting a comment from a veteran about his own struggles with PTSD that really delves into what makes it so tough to deal with.

Frontline did a story called "the wounded platoon" about a single platoon's struggles with PTSD that ultimately landed several of them in jail for sentences lasting decades.

Lastly, I just want to point to IAVA, which is doing great work on behalf of veterans of OIF and OEF. Their "Community of Veterans" project is targeted at exactly the sort of thing the guys posting on Ricks' blog were talking about. They are also tireless advocates for veterans' issues on Capitol Hill. I'm sure they can use any help you can give them.

Thought-Provoking Commentary

The mission of Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller:

The Daily Caller is a 24-hour news site providing original reporting from an experienced team of professional reporters, thought-provoking commentary and breaking news.

What's today's fare?

The website iowntheworld.com is posting pictures of the Men of Journolist, the listserv where “journalists” got together to hammer out talking points to help liberal politicians. The Journolist has been called corrupt. A disgrace. Something that will never be lived down. But it’s also the ugliest group of life forms this side of a National Geographic special. When do these orcs march on Helm’s Deep?

Great stuff, Tucker. I'm sure your site is improving the level of discourse on the right.

Comic of the Day

I think Joey Comeau is a Lewis deep down inside.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Baby Steps

Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act today. This law reduced the disparity between mandatory minimums for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Previously, it took 100 times as much powder cocaine as crack to hit the same mandatory minimum sentence. That ratio has now dropped to 18:1. Why is that disparity important? The vast majority of crack cocaine users are black, while the vast majority of powder cocaine users are white. The mandatory minimums amounted to lawful sentencing discrimination against blacks. It's heartening to hear how bipartisan the support for this bill was. In the midst of all the bad news emanating from DC, news like this gives hope.

Double Dip Me!

The recently passed unemployment benefit extension was widely hailed as a hard-fought success. And for that small slice of policy, it was. Unfortunately, that extension was intended to be part of a much larger "mini-stimulus" that included aid to states and local governments, intended to forestall expected mass layoffs of teachers, policemen, firemen, and other public employees as well as keep state Medicaid programs in the black.

That money isn't coming. Now states, already deep in the red, are looking at an even bigger funding shortfall. CNN is reporting that up to 500,000 city employees could be laid off in the coming months. (There are some odder consequences, as well.) It's not just the spike in unemployment that would result from those layoffs, but another stake through the ailing heart of the aggregate demand in this country. It may not actually drive us into a double-dip recession, but it sure won't help the recovery.

Once again, I think its worth pointing out that this is an insane and stupid way to deal with state aid. We need better automatic stabilizers, probably pegged to unemployment. This round of layoffs underlines how this is as important now as when I wrote that back in April. We'll have recessions in the future, and something has to be done to take the politics out of the recovery.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Darrell Issa

If the GOP takes back the House in November, that is a name you're going to be hearing a LOT. Rep. Issa (R-CA) is the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Issa has been making a nuisance of himself even in his place in the minority. If he becomes Chairman of the committee, he will have the power to subpoena members of the Obama administration, as Chris Matthews has been pointing out nearly daily on Hardball. The GOP-led House spent a bunch of time on trumped up scandals and other stuff during the Clinton administration, and I can only imagine it will be worse this time around. Silly season is officially upon us, and it will not be pretty.

In case you think this is all conjecture, I present Michelle Bachmann, of my fair state:

I think all we should do is issue subpoenas and have one hearing after another and expose all the nonsense that has gone on.

Yep, it's going to be fun.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Wikileaks dumped some 90,000 classified documents that it obtained however it obtains these things. The New York Times and The Guardian from across the pond were given early access. Now I'm all for increased transparency, and there are certainly plenty of these documents that I don't have a problem with them publishing. But Wikileaks (or Julian Assange, to be more precise) doesn't seem to have any sense of responsibility.

First, the main things we learned from the leaks aren't really news to anyone who's been following the war in Afghanistan. Yes, civilians have died, sometimes killed by coalition forces. Yes, the Pakistani ISI is working with insurgents. No, Predator drones are not infallible. There are some nice tidbits about handheld SAMs and updates on Bin Laden. But that's about it.

The problem is the way Assange and the Wikileaks team went about releasing the info. I am not at all confident that these documents were carefully combed over for things like the names of informants or interpreters who could be targeted for retribution if their identities became known. Such things could be redacted without affecting the bottom-line mission of Wikileaks: transparency. Transparency is something we certainly could use more of. There's no real reason for many of these documents to be classified, so Wikileaks is doing the public a service in that way.

To their credit, the NYT is redacting names in the documents they publish. But it took me about 3 minutes to find the same document on Wikileaks and view the original. As expected, names were not redacted.

On a larger point, Assange and his organization claim to be about transparency, but they also have a very clear agenda. There's nothing wrong with having an agenda, but I think it clashes with the stated goal of transparency. "Collateral Murder" was a disturbing video when viewed in full, but Assange felt the need to edit it down and give it that provocative title when he released it. They blur the line between advocating transparency and advocating for policies. I think their mission would be better served by just leaking, and doing it responsibly.

EDIT: Andrew Exum's Op-Ed in today's NYT says what I was trying to, but more eloquently.

Quote of the Day

From The Awl, via Ezra (emphasis mine):

There's a thread that runs through most of the calls I listen to: Demand is weak; we are responding by cutting the fat and becoming leaner and meaner; when demand picks up, we'll be in good shape.
[...]
Most CEOs and CFOs on earnings calls are not taking the big-picture view. They're focused on the details of their own particular business. Still, I often ask myself if they see the connection that's staring you right in the face: when is "the consumer" going to start spending again? Well, maybe when you stop firing him.

Good(ish) Climate News

Politico reports that President Obama will veto any attempt to block the EPA from regulating carbon. Good news for environmentalists, bad news for Lisa Murkowski.

Am I grasping at straws? Probably. But right now they're all I've got.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Lock 'em Up

If you read one thing this weekend, read the Economist's Briefing on justice in America.

Justice is harsher in America than in any other rich country. Between 2.3m and 2.4m Americans are behind bars, roughly one in every 100 adults. If those on parole or probation are included, one adult in 31 is under “correctional” supervision. As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan. Overcrowding is the norm. Federal prisons house 60% more inmates than they were designed for. State lock-ups are only slightly less stuffed.  

Part of the article focuses on the obvious craziness of our drug laws. Not a surprise. But the part that was eye-opening to me was the criminalization of so many mundane offenses.

“You’re (probably) a federal criminal,” declares Alex Kozinski, an appeals-court judge, in a provocative essay of that title. Making a false statement to a federal official is an offence. So is lying to someone who then repeats your lie to a federal official. Failing to prevent your employees from breaking regulations you have never heard of can be a crime. A boss got six months in prison because one of his workers accidentally broke a pipe, causing oil to spill into a river. “It didn’t matter that he had no reason to learn about the [Clean Water Act’s] labyrinth of regulations, since he was merely a railroad-construction supervisor,” laments Judge Kozinski. 

How many of these offenses would be better served by levying a fine? Locking people up is incredibly expensive and totally unnecessary for many crimes. This is another area that libertarians and "small government" conservatives should be paying more attention to than they are. What's more of a threat to individual freedom, providing health care to millions of people or locking up a larger portion of our population than anyone else in the western world?

It's yet another issue that is crying out for comprehensive reform, but the rhetoric and politics of the issue are so unhinged that it's unlikely that anything substantive can be done. Anything proposed will be caricatured by opponents as being "soft on crime." Nobody wants to be soft on crime! But the current system is inhumane and unsustainable. It needs to change.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

M&Ms and Externalized Costs

Theres's a great piece over at The Atlantic on how messed up food prices are:

Years ago a food scientist told me that M+M's cost less per calorie than almost anything else.  Given our natural biological propensity evolution toward maximizing caloric intake while minimizing exersion, M+M's are hard for many of us to pass up, particularly given their relatively low cost.  Of course, the true cost of consuming large quantities of such calorie dense treats are enormous--but these largely health related costs are abstracted and externalized while the more immediate costs of buying the food is not.

And yes, I'm going to keep beating this drum until something happens to change it.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Lame Complaints about Lame Ducks

Charles Krauthammer's piece fearing a lame-duck session that passes all kinds of crazy socialist legislation has been thoroughly panned. But there's one thing I want to take issue with. Folks on the right are acting as if it would be beyond the pale to hold a lame duck session and do anything substantive. One thing: does anyone remember that a lame-duck session in 1998 impeached the president?!

Seriously.

The Death of Cap and Trade



The blame game has already begun regarding the death of meaningful climate change legislation. The one complaint that I want to address is that Obama should have prioritized cap and trade over health care. Ok, I'll grant the (in my opinion not necessarily correct) premise that Obama going after climate instead of health care last summer would have resulted in something resembling ACES passing the Senate. Now what? The political climate has deteriorated to the point where health care is a non-starter. Suddenly the left is howling that Obama should have prioritized health care over climate change. Remember that health care has been a cornerstone of the Democratic party for literally decades. There's just no way Obama could win with this sort of argument.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Depressing

From David Leonhart:

According to NASA, 2010 is on course to be the planet’s hottest year since records started in 1880. The current top 10, in descending order, are: 2005, 2007, 2009, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2004, 2001 and 2008.

From TPM's Brian Beutler:

Light it on fire, and let its carbon pollution soar into the sky unrestricted: climate change legislation is dead.

Politics vs Policy, not just a problem in the media (II)

Policy wonk Ezra Klein looks at why there are so few policy wonks in Congress:

When I've asked Hill staff and elected officials about this, I've gotten an interesting answer: Think about what you need to do to become a politician, they say. Rise up in your local party leadership. Raise a lot of money. Get yourself quoted in the media. Campaign effectively. You don't really need to know that much about policy. And so a lot of elected officials simply don't know much about policy. Even if they wanted to become known as problem solvers and thinkers, they don't have the chops for it, and the pace of modern campaigning means they never have time to develop those chops, either. It's a depressing thought.

Tolerance

For an absolutely stunning example of intolerance, ignorance, jingoism, and general hatred, please read Newt Gingrich's screed against the proposed Muslim community center in Manhattan's financial district. (Ground Zero Mosque is an inaccurate and misleading term, but that certainly won't stop Palin and Gingrich from using it.)

There's so much wrong with the piece that I don't even know where to start. The piece is classic Gingrich, layering history into his argument, trying to make right-wing bigotry sound intelligent. Why he wants us to adopt Saudi standards of religious tolerance, I don't know. Perhaps he should go back and read the first amendment. Or maybe the history of this country as a haven for religions oppressed in other countries.

Once again, conservatives are stoking fear and hatred instead of embracing what makes this country great. Our tolerance and pluralism are our greatest weapons against those forces of hate that Newt and Sarah pretend to be so worried about. And for the record, those forces of hate are extremists of all kinds, and those who perpetrate violence in the name of their perverted version of Islam. Islam itself is NOT the enemy. Even George W Bush knew that Islam was not the enemy, extremists were. From his speech to a joint session after 9/11:


I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them. 

The other day, Sen John Cornyn (R-TX) said that Bush's stock is going up since Obama came to office. He's flat wrong, but there's a grain of truth to it now. The current GOP has gone so far off the deep end that Bush would seem like a breath of fresh air.

ETA: Marc Lynch has a sobering look at the sorry state of American engagement with the Muslim world.

ETA 2: Conor Friedersdorf has a wonderful take-down of the hysterical righties who are propagating this meme.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What's a Liberal, Mommy?

Jon Chait takes issue with analysis based on ideological identification polls:

First, ideological self-identification is a very poor tool for describing voter beliefs. Elites understand the bucket of issue positions that fall into categories like "liberal" and "conservative," but research shows that most people don't. And the relative numbers of self-identified liberals and conservatives often bounces up and down in ways that don't seem to reflect actual changes in the public opinion landscape.

I don't think he actually emphasizes this enough. It's pretty obvious that outside the folks who pay a lot of attention to these issues, people don't know much about what these labels mean. For example, "Libertarians" were more popular among Democrats than Republicans, in a recent Pew Research survey. Now, is that because Democrats like the small government, free market ideology of libertarianism and Republicans aren't so hot about it? Or is that "libertarian" sounds a bit like "liberal"? I'm gonna go with the latter.

This also glosses over the fact that even among politicians, the meanings can be pretty fungible. Certainly in the international sense, David Cameron may be closer to an American "liberal" than an American "conservative," even though he's the leader of the Conservative Party! But even here at home, there are many flavors of liberal and many flavors of conservative. Ideological labels are like music genres, good for vast generalizations but flawed when examined closely.

His other points are excellent, however. The piece is well worth reading.

Chill Out!



Via the Dish, Jonah Lehrer points out some scary effects of stress:

Here's one example of how stress destroys the body. Elissa Epel, a former grad student of Sapolsky's and a professor of psychiatry at UCSF, has demonstrated that mothers caring for chronically ill report much higher levels of stress. That's not surprising. What is surprising is that these women also have dramatically shortened telomeres, those caps on the end of chromosomes that keep our DNA from disintegrating. (Women with the highest levels of stress had telomere shortening equal "to at least one decade of additional aging.") When our telomeres run out, our cells stop dividing; we've run out of life. Stress makes us run out of life faster.

Next time you start stressing about work, romance, drama, or life in general, take a deep breath and relax. It's not worth shortening your life. Or as the very relaxed ER doc says, "Chill out, biddie."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Politics vs Policy, not just a problem in the media

Chris Cilizza profiles Mitt Romney's inner circle of advisers. Ezra Klein pointed something out: all politics guys, no policy guys.

Flashback to Sunday on Meet the Press: John Cornyn and Pete Sessions, heads of the NRSC and the NRCC, respectively, failed utterly to come up with a single specific policy that a Republican majority would enact. This comes on the heels of silliness from Marco Rubio, Tim Pawlenty, Eric Cantor, and countless other "conservative thinkers" when attempting to lay out policies. This is a party not at all interested in an actual debate on policy.

On the other hand, it's hard to argue with the success of their political strategy: make government look ineffectual and do nothing to help the economy. It will undoubtedly pay dividends in November. Unfortunately, the only policy ideas on the radar are tax cuts, tax cuts, and more tax cuts.

They're the party of Politico!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

So There's That

Via Ezra Klein:

Yep.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Know what you don't know

-"Yossarian? What the hell kind of name is Yossarian?"
-"It's Yossarian's name, sir."
I just finished reading Matt Gallagher's excellent Iraq War memoir Kaboom. Every book in this genre says that it's the next Catch 22 on the dust jacket. Of the ones I've read (Chasing Ghosts, Joker One, Kaboom, watched Generation Kill), Kaboom is the closest to actually fulfilling that prophecy. The absurdities of war and the mental toll it takes are on full display.

While I certainly recommend the book, the real reason for the post is something Gallagher wrote on the last page:

After dedicating myself to the counterinsurgency effort for a full fifteen months, I knew only enough to know that anyone who said he or she definitely knew the answer to the Iraqi impasse was full of shit.

When I'm writing depressingly pessimistic posts about Afghanistan, I try to come up with some alternative to offer, and I can't think of one. Nobody really has an answer to what to do about Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent, Iraq. All the options seem to suck. I happen to cautiously think that our current course sucks the least, but I'm far from certain about that. Gallagher's warning is certainly something to keep in mind whenever someone is advocating for a certain solution to our two counterinsurgencies.

Spreading the Wealth Around

Ross Douthat takes aim at a different kind of welfare, corporate welfare:

This policy is typical of the way the federal government does business. In case after case, Washington’s web of subsidies and tax breaks effectively takes money from the middle class and hands it out to speculators and have-mores. We subsidize drug companies, oil companies, agribusinesses disguised as “family farms” and “clean energy” firms that aren’t energy-efficient at all. We give tax breaks to immensely profitable corporations that don’t need the money and boondoggles that wouldn’t exist without government favoritism. 

I agree completely. (I mentioned much of this in this post.) Unfortunately, few people in Washington think this way. Instead of taking aim at this sort of wasteful spending, our politicians would rather cut spending on the poor and middle class than close the loopholes that cost the government billions every year and benefit only the very well-off.

I think you have to be delusional to not attribute a lot of this to the pernicious effect of wealthy interest groups. I'm sure Citizens United will help ameliorate this.

EDIT TO ADD: Douthat follows up with a very interesting blog post on the tension between the conservative desires for small government and to support the rich.Worth reading.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Surrender Pronto, Or We'll Level Toronto!



Just back from Toronto. I have no substantive thoughts to offer, other than that I didn't feel all that oppressed by the socialist overlords. Also, there were a lot fewer vacant store-fronts than I'm used to seeing. Very cool city, though I couldn't help cracking jokes from Canadian Bacon the whole time. A bit less American (or more Euro, I guess) than I expected. And TSN (the local version of ESPN) is hilarious. "Sportscentre" was running an eight part series titled "Why not Canada?" Seriously. 

View from the hotel:
View from the CN Tower:
How I watched the last few minutes of the World Cup Final:

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I Promise!



"The rich can afford to pay their fair share, they should be paying their fair share, and if I'm governor, they WILL pay their fair share."

I've written about this before, but candidates should really stop promising things in such certain terms. If Mark Dayton wins his primary (he's not the DFL-endorsed candidate) and if he then wins the general against waiter-hater Tom Emmer, he'll have a bicameral legislature to deal with that likely won't want to raise $4-5bn in new taxes. Candidates set themselves up for failure when they promise big and fail to deliver. All three DFL candidates have talked about raising taxes, but Dayton's plan is easily the biggest hike. He can't wish it to happen. He shouldn't make it sound like he will in his ads.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

WaPo's Op-Ed Page is a Joke

Mitt Romney takes to the WaPo op-ed page to criticize the new START treaty. For a couple reactions to just how vapid and devoid of any sort of factual basis the Op-Ed was, look here and here. For a sample, Romney thinks the specter of Russia pulling its ICBMs out of silos and mounting them on bombers is a serious problem with the treaty. Right. I hope President Romney has better advisers than Presidential Candidate Romney.

UPDATE: Fred Kaplan takes Romney behind the woodshed in Slate.

UPDATE 2: At least WaPo had the sense to run Kerry's rebuttal:

I have nothing against Massachusetts politicians running for president. But the world's most important elected office carries responsibilities, including the duty to check your facts even if you're in a footrace to the right against Sarah Palin. More than that, you need to understand that when it comes to nuclear danger, the nation's security is more important than scoring cheap political points. 

Monday, July 5, 2010

Confidence!

Krugman brought up something that has been bothering me for a while. In short, fans of more stimulus (Keynsians/liberals) make their argument in the terms of "people aren't spending money in large part because they don't have any. The Feds can step in and inject money into the economy to make up for a lack in private demand, helping companies recover and start hiring again." The people who are in favor of austerity coach their arguments in terms of what policies will increase or decrease confidence among consumers. I have a dim view of the economic intelligence/rationality of the average American, so unsurprisingly, these arguments don't do much for me.

The argument "give people who are struggling a job/unemployment benefits and they will spend more money" makes more sense to me than "stimulus now creates a specter of higher taxes in the future and people will hoard cash in anticipation of that nebulous date." So I guess you can call me a Keynsian. It's aggregate demand, stupid.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

So THAT'S why the economy is screwed

Bob Stein lets us know why companies aren't hiring over at The Corner:

As a result, the economy can grow at close to a 4 percent annual rate for 2010 despite a subdued willingness to hire that likely has roots in the expansion of the size of government and the looming new health-care entitlement that starts in 2013.  


And here I thought it was depressed demand caused by the crash in housing prices and a credit crunch. In fact, a survey of businesses found that their biggest problem was... lack of sales. But sure, let's just twist any data point to fit our personal (often incoherent) ideological viewpoint.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Do Your Job.

From WaPo, via Wonkbook: 

Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), said the senator thinks it is simply the wrong moment for [immigration] reform. "There really is not the political landscape to proceed with it at this time," he said.

What the hell does that even mean? To me, it means that Lugar is looking for an excuse to not do his job. If he supports immigration reform, which he has in the past, he should try to work on it. If he doesn't support it, say so. If he can't support it because Mitch McConnell will give him a noogie, then say that. This is just a dodge.