Monday, June 30, 2008

Oh, the huge (ego of) Hannity

I'm watching the Colbert Report right now, and he just brought up Hannity's ultra-patriotism. I think the phrase was "America is the greatest best country god has given us on the face of the earth." He used iterations of that phrase a number of times. In response, I offer Mr. Hannity a super quote about America of my own.

"The best country in the world, they say. That may be, I haven't really lived anywhere else. But its not good enough as far as I'm concerned."

-Ella Baker

Liberals aren't about hating America, Mr. Hannity, we're about making it better. It's assholes like you that keep America from becoming/staying great.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Lock, Stock, and a Smokin' Supreme Court Decision

It is incredible how much controversy a single, badly constructed sentence can create. Take, for example, the Second Amendment.
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Just what the hell does that mean? Does it mean that the people have a right to bear arms individually? Or does it simply mean that the states may establish militias?
According to the majority of the Supreme Court, the first part ("A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State") doesn't mean anything, it just adds flavor. This seems unlikely.
The amendment was written when every capable man was expected to be a member of a militia, and furnish his own fire-arms. This is why the amendment says "the people" rather than "militia members", the two were then interchangeable. What the amendment states is that a man should have a gun so that he may be a member of a state militia.
One question is, why are we parsing these words, the whole thing seems pretty archaic. We no longer have universal militias, and we don't expect a man to bring his own gun to be in a state militia. Things were different then... for example, can you imagine a concealed fire-arm in the time of the founding fathers?
So, I think the Supreme Court majority is wrong. The Constitution does not permit an individual right to bear arms, not really. But the decision doesn't really bother me. Mark Kleiman's full post on the subject:
Now that the Supreme Court has struck down the DC gun ban, how much should we expect the Washington homicide rate to go up as a result?


There's simply no evidence that keeping guns out of the hands of those currently eligible to own them under Federal law (adults with no felony convictions, no domestic-violence misdemeanors or restraining orders, and no history of involuntary commitment for mental illness) reduces the level of criminal violence. Nor is there evidence that allowing anyone who can pass a background check and a gun-safety course to carry a concealed weapon increases the level of criminal violence. All that matters is keeping guns away from people who demonstrably shouldn't have them. Present law does that, but the gun lobby has done many things to make that law impossible to enforce.

With any luck, taking the "gun confiscation" card out of the political pack might actually reduce the fervor of the opposition the NRA can whip up to sensible measures such as requiring background checks for gun sales by private individuals (the current rule that requires them only for purchases from gun dealers), computerizing data on which dealers are selling the guns that get used in crimes, and developing and deploying technology that would allow police to identify, from a bullet or a shell casing found at a crime scene, when, to whom, and by whom the gun that produced that metal was lawfully transferred.

That won't satisfy the people who think that guns are icky and who want to inconvenience gun owners as much as possible. But that was never a legitimate object of public policy.

Footnote Even if local gun ordinances were useful, the Supreme Court decision leaves most of them in place. The DC ban made it a crime to have an unregistered firearm, and prohibited registration of any handgun. A DC resident could have a long gun at home, but only disassembled or with a trigger lock, and there was no exception for self-defense, though there were other enumerated exceptions: if the text were read literally, it was a crime under DC law to remove the trigger lock from your rifle to confront a home invader. No, I'm not making this up, though both the District and Justice Breyer assert that the statute should be read to include the self-defense exception that its text omits.

Justice Scalia went out of his way to say that anything less drastic might well pass muster.

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.

Justice Breyer, in his closely-reasoned dissent, purports to carry out an "interest-balancing" test between the citizen's interest in self-defense and the District's interest in crime control. But nowhere in his account does he cite a single study showing that a local ban on private handgun ownership actually prevents crime, for the excellent reason that no such study exists.

Basically, the problem is not that we don't have enough gun control, merely that it is not well-enforced. This seems right to me. the only suspect part is the idea that this ruling will defuse the gun issue for the next election. This could be partly true, at least of the more moderate gun enthusiasts. On the other hand, there are lots of people in America who think the UN is going to go door to door to confiscate guns. To loons like these, the ruling probably won't have an effect.
I have previously made clear my antipathy toward the conservatives of the court, but I'm not too angry about this call. They aren't the only ones who think that the constitution provides an individual right to bear arms. Barack Obama, a constitutional law professor before he was a senator, has said the same thing, and qualified it by saying this right must be regulated for reasons of safety. There's nothing in the Supreme Court's majority opinion that would contradict this position.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Debunking Creationism

My friend Patrick Julius has an opinion in the Ann Arbor News.
This is in response to Scott Nelson's June 13 Other Voices essay on evolution and creationism, which presented a very misleading view on the subject.

First and foremost: Evolution (more properly known as the Modern Synthesis) is a scientific theory so firmly established and so foundational to the life sciences that it is absolutely accepted by the whole of the mainstream scientific community. That National Academy of Sciences which Nelson keeps bashing? That's a professional organization representing thousands of the most prestigious scientists in the United States. Nelson appears to have absolutely no scientific credentials, and yet purports to tell the National Academy of Sciences what is and is not scientific.

And yes, evolution is as well-established as the theory of gravity; actually, a good bit better established, because the theory of gravity as we know it currently runs into problems at very small (subatomic) and very large (galactic) scales. Evolution as far as we can tell runs into no serious roadblocks, anywhere, ever. Everything it has ever been asked to explain, it has - and more.

Read the whole thing.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Myths of Porkbusting

John McCain has a cute computer game called Pork Invaders, which is space invaders rip-off (did I mention that came out in '78? John McCain is old!)
Listening to Republicans, they seem to think they are massively unpopular because they failed to reign in government spend. It's amazing how they manage to completely ignore the Iraq war in this narrative, and completely overlook their own culpability in the abuses of the Bush administration? What was their problem? Not cutting enough programs.
Could it be that this explanation is popular because it allows them to ignore that their movement is intellectually bankrupt, and worse, is dedicated to defending the corrupt, powerful pols who come from its ranks?
McCain insists he's different from Bush because he will cut "pork-barrel spending"... indeed, he says this will enable him to finance his own (massive) tax-cuts. Jon Chait shows how this is bullshit.
Actually, McCain is following the pattern of not just Bush but every Republican president since Ronald Reagan. Phase One is to enact tax cuts and promise that they'll cause revenues to rise, or will cause revenues to fall (leading to spending cuts), or somehow both at once, so, either way, there's no possibility that it will lead to deficits. Phase Two is deficits. Phase Three is to blame the deficits on big-spending congressional fat cats and to issue increasingly strident threats to cut expenditures, without going so far as to identify actual programs to cut.

One of the tropes of this phase is railing against the evils of pork-barrel spending. President Bush's position is that earmarks are really bad. ("The time has come to end this practice [of congressional earmarking]," he urges. "So let us work together to reform the budget process, expose every earmark to the light of day and to a vote in Congress.") McCain's position is that earmarks are really, really bad. He likes to hold up for ridicule a federal program to study bear DNA, and he has taken to using the same language to taunt congressional appropriators ("I'm their worst nightmare") that he otherwise reserves for Hamas.
McCain's crusade against domestic spending is a wild misdiagnosis of the problem. Most conservatives believe their main error has been to deviate from the true small-government faith, and McCain has embraced the narrative. "We were elected to reduce the size of government and enlarge the sphere of free and private initiative," he told the Republican group GOPAC. "Then we lavished money, in a time of war, on thousands of projects of dubious, if any, public value."

The audience is meant to take this to mean that the size of government has expanded under Bush largely because of pork-barrel spending or other domestic outlays. In fact, the growth of government under Bush is mostly due to higher spending on defense and homeland security, which have grown from 3.6 percent of the economy to 5.6 percent. Domestic discretionary spending (that is, programs other than entitlements) has fallen as a share of GDP, from 3.1 percent to 2.8 percent. (These numbers come from Richard Kogan of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.)

McCain is promising to cut taxes by $300 billion per year on top of the Bush tax cuts, which he would make permanent. In addition to this, he promises to balance the budget in his first term. When asked how he could possibly pull this off, McCain has asserted that he could eliminate all earmark spending, saving $100 billion per year.
I don't find this explanation persuasive. The first point I'd make is that $100 billion is, in fact, less than $300 billion. The second point I'd make is that McCain won't even cut $100 billion, or anywhere close. By conventional measures, earmarks only account for $18 billion per year. McCain gets his number by employing an unusually broad definition of what constitutes an earmark. McCain's definition includes things like aid to Israel and housing for members of the military that are not "pork" as the term is understood. When asked if he would eliminate those programs, he replied, "Of course not."

So we're left with a pot of money closer to $18 billion. And McCain surely won't eliminate even that. He has frequently found himself campaigning at places funded by federal earmarks and beloved by the local citizenry, and he keeps inadvertently showing how impossible it is to fulfill his promises. Last month, McCain visited a hospital in Pennsylvania and met an ovarian cancer patient who's being treated with a clinical trial program funded by an earmark. Asked if he would eliminate that program, he replied, "It's the process I object to. ... When you earmark in the middle of the night, you have no budgetary constraints."

Likewise, when pressed by NPR's Robert Siegel, McCain insisted he supports programs so long as "there's a need" and only wants "to do it through an open, honest, transparent process that is proceeded by hearings and authorization." A perfectly sound position. But, if you're merely shifting spending from earmarks to the regular budget process, then you're not saving any money.

In other words, McCain's budget is pure flim-flam.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Rove: Dipshit?

From the mouth of Karl Rove:
"Even if you never met him, you know this guy," Rove said, per Christianne Klein. "He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by."

Think about it: Karl is considered an political mastermind.
What country club? Where? Is it the same as Karl Rove's club? I'd be willing to bet not.
Here's a list of responses.
From what I understand of the Republican critique of Obama, it is that he is a Communist, Muslim, black-christian who hangs out at countries clubs.

Monday, June 23, 2008


The most usual response to expensive oil is to blame this on nefarious speculators. This might be political expedient. As Paul Krugman writes
Mr. McCain tried to touch all the bases. He talked about conservation. He denounced the evils of speculation: “While a few reckless speculators are counting their paper profits, most Americans are coming up on the short end.” A weird aspect of the current energy debate, incidentally, is the fact that many of the same market-worshipping conservatives who first denied that there was a dot-com bubble, then denied that there was a housing bubble, are utterly convinced that nasty speculators are responsible for high oil prices.

Now Obama is adopting the same message.
The only problem with this is that there's no evidence that there's an oil bubble, and that rising oil prices are probably very much demand-based.
So, how can we explain this in a way that might not be politically self-defeating? Peter Dorman has a cogent economic explanation that just might be on the right track.
So what’s the alternative? The problem is not that oil is expensive, since burning it is truly costly for the human race, whether we pay the monetary price or not. The problem is that the money ends up in the hands of governments and oil companies that get rich simply because they’ve captured the resource. In economic terms, it’s the problem of rents: vast sums of money are being transferred from us, the consumers, to those who control a commodity in high demand but limited supply. And the solution is to get the money back. This is another reason why we need a cap-and-rebate plan for carbon. Put a tight cap on carbon fuels. Auction all the permits. Give the money back to the people. By drastically lowering demand we also put a lid on the price of oil at the wellhead. In other words, rather than paying lots of money to Exxon and the Saudi royal family, we pay it back to ourselves. Either way, oil will be expensive, because it has to be. But the solution is to get the money back, so we can protect our standard of living in other ways that won’t imperil the planet.

More on Telecom Immunity

I don't care whether Americans make money suing telecoms. I think this is in the competence of a court to judge, but don't think it's terribly important. The telecoms were not the instigators of what happened (see Kevin Drum writes about why he symapthizes with the telecoms).
What is important is the administration got its way, preventing the disclosures these cases would bring. That is unfortunate. Telecoms are merely scapegoats, the people responsible for what happened have already been let completely off the hook. Josh Patashnik, like Kevin Drum, sympathizes with the telecoms.

It's worth emphasizing, though, that there was an ideal solution to this problem: the Specter–Whitehouse substitution amendment, which would have allowed lawsuits to go forward but would have substituted the United States as a defendant, letting the telecoms off the hook. But the administration, Senate Republicans, and a handful of Democrats conspired to kill this amendment. The primary reason the Bush administration wants immunity isn't to help out its telecom friends, but to prevent the details of the wiretapping program from being scrutinized--even confidentally--in a lawsuit, regardless of who the defendant is.

I don't really sympathize with the telecoms, but obviously they're not the really wrong-doers. The government giving them immunity was bad, but the real scandal is the government giving itself immunity.
You may recall Republican complaining the telecoms were ungrateful, in that they didn't give the Republicans enough contributions to compensate for what Republicans were doing on their behalf.It makes sense to me. Big businesses hedge their bets, and the telecoms were probably in no mood to be grateful, having been put in this uncomfortable position by the administration in the first place.
They knew the Republican would vote for immunity, simply to cover for the administration. If I were running one of those companies, I'd concentrate on the Democrats too.

RIP George Carlin

"Death is caused by swallowing small amounts of saliva over a long period of time."
-George Carlin
George Carlin is dead. We're going to miss George Carlin and his special brand of humor.
By our works shall you know us:
Religion is Bullshit (this may be my favorite)
The Ten Commandments
On America
There's lots more, too, but if you are interested, those are easy enough to find on Youtube (in fact, just check the side of these two).

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Pre-9/11 Mentality

Barack Obama, very much rightly, in my view, said that domestic terrorism seems to think domestic terrorism should be treated as a crime. The approach of the Bush administration is not compatible with the rule of law. Using the first bombing of the World Trade Center as an example, Obama said that terrorism can be successfully prosecuted in civilian courts, without recourse to Bush's Dirty War tactics.
The Republicans reply was characteristically flim-flam. Jon Chait:
And so, when Obama let pass from his lips a reference to trying terrorists in court, McCain's campaign pounced. Foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann warned, "Obama holds up the prosecution of the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 as a model for his administration, when in fact this failed approach of treating terrorism simply as a matter of law enforcement rather than a clear and present danger to the United States contributed to the tragedy of September eleventh." McCain's blog scoffed, "It's hardly surprising that a lawyer would think that the war on terror would be fought more effectively by lawyers than by the United States Marine Corps."

It doesn't matter that Obama never said, or even implied, that legal prosecution should be the sole method of preventing terrorism. The fact that he even mentioned prosecution apparently proves that he has what McCain's campaign called a "September 10th mindset."

Yet some logical flaws with this analysis present themselves. (And yes, I realize that the mere fact that I would intellectualize this issue, rather than understanding it in my gut, proves that I too have a September 10th mindset.) First, terrorists often operate in our country, or in friendly countries, which makes military action against them tricky. McCain (through his campaign blog) assailed Obama for favoring "prosecutors rather than predators." But, when the terrorists are holed up in New York City, as was the case with the 1993 bombers Obama referred to, simply arresting them strikes me as more efficient than leveling their apartment with a drone-fired missile.

Second, when terrorists can be found outside the reach of law enforcement, Obama has explicitly proposed to strike them militarily. Last summer, The New York Times reported that the Bush administration had actionable intelligence about high-level Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. It planned a snatch-and-grab operation but cancelled at the last minute. In a speech the following month, Obama called this "a terrible mistake," and promised, "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will." McCain criticized Obama for this, too, saying he "once suggested bombing our ally, Pakistan."

Sellout on Telecom Immunity

If you recall, the issue of telecom immunity was the first War on Terror related issue that the Democratic congress stood up to Bush on. Alas, the Democratic congress has caved to the our lame-duck president and his lackeys. From the Obsidian Wings:
[T]he telcos are getting immunity and everyone knows it. They literally only have to show that the Bush administration sent them a letter. That’s it. Show the letter, and you’re immune — no discovery, no nuthin'. (As I've said, I don’t care that much about punishing telcos, I care about generating information through discovery).

However, instead of just admitting that they caved, the Dem leaders are pretending like they’ve instituted tough new standards by requiring a district court to make the final decision. Thus, they’re essentially doing two things: (1) lying about what they’re doing, and (2) shifting blame to a politically unaccountable branch of government.

So... telecoms are given immunity for having broken the law, just so long as they can prove the executive of the US asked them to do it. In short, corporate lawbreaking is ok, so long as it is in the service of the imperial executive.
What is most disheartening is how successfully the President has shielded the massive spying program from being brought to light. It couldn't have been done without Bush's Republican henchmen and the support from much of the "opposition" party. More from the Obsidian Wings:
To recap: there are some minor fixes to the FISA law that everyone agrees should be adopted. The sticking point is whether companies that helped the government engage in surveillance that broke the law should receive immunity for their actions. It seems to me clear that the answer is 'no'. First, people who break the law should be held accountable. Second, we're not talking about some private citizen who might understandably have been inclined to give the government the benefit of the doubt on questions of law, but about large companies with serious legal departments. Third, since our government does not seem inclined to tell us exactly what it has been doing, discovery in these lawsuits has been about the only way in which we have found out anything at all. Shutting down these lawsuits might prevent us from ever finding out.

Most importantly, though, when the government asks someone to break the law, they hold a lot of the cards: the prestige of the Presidency, the power to exclude companies from federal contracts, and so on. Just about the only reason someone might have to say no, other than conscience, is the fear of legal liability. By immunizing these companies, we make it much more likely that the next time some President who thinks he has dictatorial powers asks a company to break the law, it will do so. And that's just wrong.

Why has Democratic leadership sided with the Whitehouse? I can only speculate. Is it telecom money? Both parties are easily influenced by money, so perhaps, the telecoms, seeing the way the wind is blowing, hedged their bets. Perhaps it was sheer political cowardice... the Dems still afraid of looking weak on the question of terror. Or maybe, the Democratic leadership has been complicit in Bush's spying program, and believes that the courts bringing out such information would be politically damaging. Whatever the reason, this "compromise" is shameful.
One of my greatest hopes for the Obama administration is that they will be able to investigate the abuses of the last four years (unlike a McCain administration, which would sweep all of this under the rug). Unfortunately, Obama supported the cave-in on this issue. This does not bode well.

The Ramen Review

My friend has a blog where she reviews Ramen noodles (as Dave Berry says, I swear I am not making this up). Worth checking out hear.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

the gays and their marriage

I'm sure everyone already knows that gays can get married in California, since at least a few hours ago. I may be a straight man, but this makes me so happy, and proud for our country that we've come at least this far. I remember when my home state of Kentucky banned gay marriage, the next day I saw a gay friend looking like some of the spark of life had been taken out of him. I mean, you try to be cheerful when your fellow citizens tell you that you're not allowed to legally express your particular love for someone else. Imagine if we next banned infertile women from being married, or fat people, or even just people who engage in heterosexual S&M with their spouses or partners?
Marriage is an important partnership to a lot of people, and one thing that will make that partnership more meaningful to me - if I ever get married - is if everyone can share in that experience, not just straight people.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Wes Clark on MSNBC.
My friend made the case to me that Wes Clark would be a good VP candidate. I think this may be right. Clark can't run a campaign, but he seems like a good surrogate. Jim Webb has the same advantage. They are good choices, not because they balance out Obama's lack of "toughness", but because either of them would help challenge the Republican narrative on national security. Webb showed he could do this in his thumping response to Bush's State of Union, though he may be a chancy pick: usually, people go for someone who won't rock the boat.

Friday, June 13, 2008

More on US Beef

Paul Krugman writes about implications of the South Korean reaction. I recommend the op-ed.
He basically argues that free-market ideology and crony capitalism has led to a deplorable state at the FDA,which in part led to the crisis.
Thus, when mad cow disease was detected in the U.S. in 2003, the Department of Agriculture was headed by Ann M. Veneman, a former food-industry lobbyist. And the department’s response to the crisis — which amounted to consistently downplaying the threat and rejecting calls for more extensive testing — seemed driven by the industry’s agenda.

One amazing decision came in 2004, when a Kansas producer asked for permission to test its own cows, so that it could resume exports to Japan. You might have expected the Bush administration to applaud this example of self-regulation. But permission was denied, because other beef producers feared consumer demands that they follow suit.

When push comes to shove, it seems, the imperatives of crony capitalism trump professed faith in free markets.

Eventually, the department did expand its testing, and at this point most countries that initially banned U.S. beef have allowed it back into their markets. But the South Koreans still don’t trust us. And while some of that distrust may be irrational — the beef issue has become entangled with questions of Korean national pride, which has been insulted by clumsy American diplomacy — it’s hard to blame them.

The ironic thing is that the Agriculture Department’s deference to the beef industry actually ended up backfiring: because potential foreign buyers didn’t trust our safety measures, beef producers spent years excluded from their most important overseas markets.

To go even deeper into the problems our world food system, might I recommend this article from the New Yorker as a start.


I've probably given the most thought to the foreign-policy views of the two presumptive nominees, but the nature of our terrible economy seems to dictate that the economy will play just as big a role, which is good news for Obama and the Democrats (actually, at this point practically any issue is good news for Obama and the Democrats).
At any rate, McCain claims that he will offset tax-cuts with spending cuts, something that Republicans have claimed every election for a long time. He talks a good game about cutting earmarks from the budget, but the truth is they only amount to $20 billion (which will not be easy to get rid of), while his tax-cuts amount to $300 billion. One gets a better idea of his plan from the fact he hired Phil Gramm, who played a role in paving the way for the foreclosure crisis.
Obama's economics seem pretty much center left, even Clintonian. This is evidenced by his recent appointment of Jason Furman. This article in the New York Review of Books talks pretty extensively about Obamanomics.
As this post argues, I wouldn't worry to much about Obama's economic centrism.
One thing I wish Obama would talk more about is regulating financial markets. It's good politics (Obama can further tie McCain to failed Republican policies by pointing out Phil "Foreclosure" Gramm's role in the financial crisis) and good policy: it can be done without to much more spending, and could help head-off future financial crises.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

I'm Voting Republican!

It's the cool thing to do. How about you?

Cheney in a McCain Administration? "Hell Yeah!"

From the Politico
n an interview he gave to the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes in 2006 for Hayes’ biography, “Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President,” McCain said: “I will strongly assert to you that he has been of enormous help to this president of the United States.”

Going further, McCain even told Hayes in comments heretofore unpublished that he’d consider Cheney for an administration post.

Asked whether he’d be interested in Cheney had the vice president not already have served under Bush for two terms, McCain said: “I don’t know if I would want him as vice president. He and I have the same strengths. But to serve in other capacities? Hell, yeah.”

This is why I'm not particularly worried about very many Dems who back Clinton defecting to John McCain. Though McCain sells himself as a different kind of conservative, but he is ready to put Cheney in his administration. It is hard for me to believe that anyone voting for McCain over Obama out of spite had much loyalty to progressive causes anyway.
In what capacity might Cheney serve? He was Bush I's Secretary of Defense. Might he reprise this role, or serve as National Security Advisor? Perhaps.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

More Beef-Crisis

Josh Patashnik thinks that this is a weird form of economic nationalism.
Upwards of 80,000 people turned out in the streets of Seoul to protest President Lee Myung-bak's decision to resume imports of American beef. The backlash against the move brought the government to its knees, threatens seriously to damage Korean–American relations, and prompted the entire cabinet to offer to resign. Having visited South Korea briefly last summer, I'm not surprised: Beef is, for whatever reason, a major symbol of national pride--upon introducing myself as an American, on several occasions I was promptly asked my opinion of Korean beef. (It's really good, but still.) Beyond that, the entire country is gripped by a fervent, almost eerie strain of economic nationalism. You can walk around Seoul for hours without seeing a non-Korean car. And this from a country that has benefited beyond belief from globalization!

It does seem to me just a little but bizarre. On the other hand, I think there are perfectly good reasons to oppose the US food system (more discussion of this later), but I don't think this is one of them.

The politics of trade and vengeance

So, I would like to write a counter-argument to Ewan's last post. I can understand why the South Koreans have bigger fish to fry, but as someone who spends about a month or two every year in Canada visiting family, I hear a lot more about US trade policies from the outside world's point of view. In the case of Canada, there are two instances where US trade policy has been detrimental, that I feel knowledgeable to talk about.

First, the beef problem.
I can remember a few summers ago, a Canadian farmer had discovered a possible case of mad cow. He followed the strict government guidelines, quarantined, killed, burned, etc. The Canadian government saw no problem. However, the pure hearted and public safety minded United States Government felt the heat from the public (cattle farmer/ agribusiness lobbyists) and banned the beef. I can understand how the US might be worried about tainted beef, if not for the fact that the Canadian government had stricter standards for dealing with cases of mad cow, that the US still forced US cattle across the border, and that Canada happened to be a country that put few to no forces on the ground in Iraq. I know, I know, our government wouldn't be so vengeful, would it? Of course they would.
The twist to this story is that later in the summer, or the next year, a possible case of mad cow was discovered in the US, US Cattle was banned in Japan, and the US farm lobby worked its ass off to force those ungrateful Japanese to accept our meat. I guess it was either miss out on Kobe beef or wait an eternity for the corrupt FDA regulators to make agribusiness clean up their cow farms and you know, make them stop feeding cows cow brains.

Second, in my mother's home province of Prince Edward Island, a few summers ago a potato farmer discovered a fungus. He quickly quarantined the bad plants and did everything that you're supposed to do, and the government said everything was cool. But the United States - which still is fighting a war that Canada doesn't like, and has potato farmers of its own - decides to go ahead and ban PEI potatoes for a while, just because. Up in PEI, that's pretty much the best answer anyone could seem to come up with. By the governments' pretty reasonable standard of agricultural safety, everything was kosher - I certainly still ate the fresh new PEI potatoes coming into my uncle's general store every week. But for some reason or another, the US had to ban those potatoes.

I'm sure there are other cases of US economic bullying, but these are two that come to mind.
To go back to the original reason I posted, the US does not follow World Health Organization mad cow guidelines. So while the Korean's fears may be slightly unwarranted and overreacting, their fears are also slightly warranted.

South Koreans Fear American Beef

Thousands of South Koreans protest the reintroduction of US beef, believing US beef could contain mad cow disease (never mind that no one in America has died of mad cow disease).
If the South Koreans are going to worry about something, why not worry about North Korea, a fanatic state armed to the teeth, which is currently aiming chemical weapons at Seoul?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Obama's Post-Primary Bump

Having clinched the nomination, Barack Obama enjoys a statistically significant lead over Arizona Republican John McCain in the major general election tracking polls:

Gallup -- PRINCETON, NJ -- Barack Obama has a 48% to 41% lead in the latest Gallup Poll Daily tracking presidential election trial heat, based on June 7-9 polling.

and Rasmussen -- The Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll for Tuesday shows Barack Obama attracts 48% of the vote while John McCain earns 40%. When “leaners” are included, Obama leads 50% to 43%. Those figures represent a modest one-week bounce for Obama. Last Tuesday, just before the Illinois Senator clinched the nomination, the candidates were tied at 46%....

We can only expect Obama's lead to inch up 2 or 3 more points as Clinton supporters join the Party. These numbers, of course, are bound to change before November, but are a good staring point, as McCain has been free to campaign for 3 months. Obama just started last week, and major voter registration and turnout drives and paid media campaigns will only bolster his numbers. Don't forget, Obama will have a substantial fundraising advantage.

Of course, attacks will be thrown and Republican nastiness unfurled. John Kerry enjoyed a similar lead in some polls during the spring of 2004. What's different? First, Obama is a much better politician than Kerry. Second, Republicans (and their economic policy) are much less popular than they were then. Combine those with ever-more-favorable demographic trends and a unique fund raising advantage (which Kerry did not have), and you can almost see Barack Obama being inaugurated now.

The UN and its Discontents

This review of Samantha Power's new book in the Nation is really excellent.
Samantha Power became one of my favorite public intellectuals for her first book A Problem from Hell, which is a brilliant indictment of US inaction and callousness in the face of genocide. It has lengthy chapters on Kurdistan, Cambodia, and especially the former Yugoslavia, of which Power has first-hand experience (Bangladesh, perhaps the most egregious and little-know example, is briefly mentioned).
Even when the book was written, there were some problems. She demonstrated that our current policies are callous and unjust, but when is it right to invade? Can the US police the world?
In the aftermath of Iraq, it seems increasingly unlikely that the US can be the world's policeman. So Samantha Power has turned to the UN, and has profile someone who she sees as an international statesman: Vieira de Mello, who eventually met a tragic demise in the Baghdad UN headquarters .
Power first met Vieira de Mello in 1994, when she was a young freelance journalist covering the former Yugoslavia and he was a senior adviser to the UN peacekeeping force there. "A cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy" is how one of her colleagues described him, and over dinner at a seafood restaurant in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, she was immediately smitten--with his intellect, his charm and his dedication to the principles for which the UN stands. In Chasing the Flame, Power casts Vieira de Mello as a model internationalist whose career is rich in lessons for our conflict-ridden world.

However, as one reads the reveal, one realizes how morally ambiguous Mello is. He has cozied up to authoritarian leaders, and has been complicit in the very crimes that were denounced in A Problem from Hell.
She is less equivocal in describing Vieira de Mello's next posting, to Bosnia. When he arrived in Sarajevo in 1993, the city was under siege from Serb snipers and shells. Eager to persuade the Serbs to let relief supplies through, Vieira de Mello set out to engage Serb leaders, especially Radovan Karadzic, an architect of the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims. Before the war, Vieira de Mello knew, Karadzic had worked as a psychiatrist. Before one of their meetings, Vieira de Mello picked up a copy of The New York Review of Books that had a long article in it about psychiatry; at the meeting, he presented it to Karadzic as a gift. In their discussions, Karadzic would go on endlessly about Serb grievances dating back to the fourteenth century. With his friends, Vieira de Mello vented his irritation, but with the man himself he remained studiously silent lest he lose his confidence.

The Serbs did let some supplies through, but their gunners kept pounding the city. Some UN officials wanted the peacekeepers to take a firmer stand and challenge the Serbs militarily. Vieira de Mello adamantly opposed such a course, maintaining that it would violate the UN's neutrality and thus harm its broader humanitarian goals. "Impartiality was so central to his understanding of the essence of UN peacekeeping," Power writes, "that he refused journalists' requests to state which party bore the greatest responsibility for the carnage." In the face of such passivity, The Economist labeled the UN "an armour-plated meals-on-wheels service"; others accused it of "passing out sandwiches at the gates of Auschwitz."
Power's chapter on Vieira de Mello's time in Bosnia (which is based on her eyewitness research) is devastating, and after reading it I fully expected her to draw the obvious conclusion--that his vaunted pragmatism too often degenerated into simple amorality. But this she refuses to do. Clinging to her image of him as an exemplar of diplomacy and multilateralism, she instead chooses to stress how much he learned from his and the UN's mistakes in Bosnia. Upon hearing of the slaughter at Srebrenica, she notes, Vieira de Mello expressed shock and--finally seeing the light--embraced NATO intervention (outside the UN structure) as the only way out of the morass.
One of the most revealing moments in Chasing the Flame comes in the introduction, where Power describes that initial meeting with Vieira de Mello at the restaurant in Zagreb. Toward the end of the meal, Vieira de Mello reaches into the breast pocket of his elegantly tailored blazer and pulls out a battered piece of paper. It contains the section of the Security Council resolution on the Balkans that set up the six "safe areas" in the region, the only formal instructions that Vieira de Mello and his fellow peacekeepers ever received. Vieira de Mello directs Power's attention to a set of commas in the text. "Look at this," he says heatedly. "The resolution says we should 'comma--acting in self-defense--comma--take the necessary measures--comma--including the use of force' to respond to attacks against civilians!" The vagueness of this infuriated him: "What are the commas supposed to mean? Does it mean the UN should only use force in self-defense? Or does it mean we should use force in self-defense and also to protect the Bosnians?" To devote so much energy and attention to a few ambiguous marks of punctuation while defenseless civilians were being slaughtered all around him seems the height of bureaucratic futility.

The career of Sergio de Mello is and the failure of the UN in Bosnia is a microcosm of the larger problems in the UN. From the start, the UN was hamstrung, held back by the European powers and America, who squabbled amongst themselves and generally didn't want to be involved. The worst moment was when, after declaring Srebrenica a safe-zone, could only watch as the Army of the Republika Sprska murdered 8,000 Bosniaks.
In America, we critique the UN as being "unresponsive" and to likely to endanger US sovereignty. The truth is the opposite. I serious critique can be made of the UN, but it should be critiqued as not willing to stand up to oppressors and to submissive to great powers such as the US. This critique is little heard in the silly discourse of our country, so the review is especially refreshing.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Race in America

Paul Krugman has a fairly interesting column today on the changes that have paved the way for a black man to have a shot at being president.
For Americans have never disliked Big Government in general. In fact, they love Social Security and Medicare, and strongly approve of Medicaid — which means that the three big programs that dominate domestic spending have overwhelming public support.

If Ronald Reagan and other politicians succeeded, for a time, in convincing voters that government spending was bad, it was by suggesting that bureaucrats were taking away workers’ hard-earned money and giving it to you-know-who: the “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy T-bone steaks, the welfare queen driving her Cadillac. Take away the racial element, and Americans like government spending just fine.

But why has racial division become so much less important in American politics?

Part of the credit surely goes to Bill Clinton, who ended welfare as we knew it. I’m not saying that the end of Aid to Families With Dependent Children was an unalloyed good thing; it created a great deal of hardship. But the “bums on welfare” played a role in political discourse vastly disproportionate to the actual expense of A.F.D.C., and welfare reform took that issue off the table.

Another large factor has been the decline in urban violence.

As the historian Rick Perlstein documents in his terrific new book “Nixonland,” America’s hard right turn really began in 1966, when the Democrats suffered a severe setback in Congress — and Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California.

The cause of that right turn, as Mr. Perlstein shows, was white fear of urban disorder — and the associated fear that fair housing laws would let dangerous blacks move into white neighborhoods. “Law and order” became the rallying cry of right-wing politicians, above all Richard Nixon, who rode that fear right into the White House.

But during the Clinton years, for reasons nobody fully understands, the wave of urban violence receded, and with it the ability of politicians to exploit Americans’ fear.

Krugman is correct that a lot of evidence show the limited American welfare state is due to racial diversity (people thought think there money is going to black people).
Today, thanks to the changes Krugman outlines, our society is less racist, and the conservative movement has run out of steam for this reason (as well as their utter inability to run the country). Does that mean we can now forge a more compassionate society?
I don't know, but I do know that electing a black president would be amazing, the most amazing thing since the Berlin Wall fell.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Roger Stone

Roger Stone is really interesting. Stone Nixon-style dirty-trickster who has a colorful personal life (among other things, he enjoys attending swingers clubs). Here's an example of him talking to a call-girl.
“She was sitting right over there,” Stone told me, pointing to a seat at the bar, as we sipped vodka from plastic cups. (Miami Velvet is B.Y.O.B., to avoid the trouble of securing a liquor license, so Stone had brought along a bottle of the brand p.i.n.k.) “We were just having a casual conversation, and I told her I was a dentist,” Stone said. “She told me she was a call girl, but she wasn’t working that night.” Miami Velvet prohibits prostitution on the premises, a point that is emphasized in the four-page single-spaced legal waiver that everyone must sign to be admitted. (Another house rule, which is reinforced by signs on the wall, is “No means no.”) “She told me she had a very high-end clientele—she kept using the word ‘high-end’—athletes, international businessmen, politicians,” Stone said.
“ ‘Like who?’ I asked her,” Stone went on. “She named a couple of sports guys, some car dealers I’d heard of because of their commercials, and then she said, ‘I almost had a date with Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New Jersey.’ ”
“ ‘Like who?’ I asked her,” Stone went on. “She named a couple of sports guys, some car dealers I’d heard of because of their commercials, and then she said, ‘I almost had a date with Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New Jersey.’ ” Stone laughed. “She didn’t know much about politics. So I asked her, ‘Did this guy have a beard?’ ” (Jon Corzine, the governor of New Jersey, has a beard.) No, the woman said, he was a skinny bald guy—a description that fit Spitzer. According to Stone, the woman told him that Spitzer had reached her through her escort service, which listed her as a brunette, but she had dyed her hair blond. So the agency referred the governor to a dark-haired colleague, the woman said, who met up with Spitzer in Miami.

“I asked her what her friend said about Spitzer,” Stone told me. “She said he was nice enough, but the only odd thing was that he kept his socks on. They were the kind that went to the middle of the calf, and one of them kept falling down.”

Stone said that he decided, after hearing the story, to keep the conversation with the woman to himself for the moment. But there was never any doubt that he would eventually deploy it.

This is perhaps the most amusing article on politics I've read since this review of Alistair Campbell's biography.
By the way, the McCain campaign is chock full of former Stone associates.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

VP for HRC?

In a word, no. Or so says long-time HRC supporter Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, in an interview today with NY-1:

"You know, normally politicians don’t want to be outshone. Well you know you’ve got Bill Clinton lurking in the background. But Hillary Clinton, a very charismatic figure for many Americans — generally a lot of politicians don’t like to put somebody like that on the ticket. You know rule one for the vice president is make sure you never upstage the president, right? It’s rule one. You know, Hillary Clinton in some ways couldn’t help but upstage, even if she was trying not to." (Courtesy of Halperin)

I think this is mostly accurate. Rendell was always the best of her surrogates--straight-forward, honest, constantly off message, and funny. He is a decent political observer (stuck in the past and in some incorrect/flawed narratives about "swing" voters, but competent enough to realize now that Obama will win PA whether Rendell--and the old school Dem establishment--supports him or not). That he is also an HRC supporter who she probably has a certain amount of respect for (it has been argued that Rendell's visible support handed her the Philadelphia suburbs, terrain many had figured would be Obama country) makes this a noteworthy interview. I would think this is the kind of guy who really has influence on her and her thinkers, and he provides, at the least, a relatively solid opening for Obama to not choose HRC as VP.

Which comes back to the original question: who should he choose, and, in the interest of placating HRC's army of supporters, does he have to choose her?

Roger Simon at Politico argues that no, it simply doesn't work for Obama to be seen as so hamstrung that he can't choose his own VP. So while he might originally have considered (maybe) choosing her, I think HRC's failure to concede and her supporters' vocal near-threats about how she MUST be chosen actually damage her prospects more than they help. Obama's camp (like Pelosi's when those HRC fundraisers tried to leverage the threat of not supporting the DCCC to get her to change her mind about who superdelegates ought to support) doesn't like threats. They won't buckle.

So this won't be the first time the Clintonistas have used threats and fear-mongering to try and get what they want. That last case with Pelosi didn't turn out so well, and I don't think this one will, either.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Obama Wins; Hillary Keeps FIghting

Obama has emerged victorious.
The bell has dinged, signaling the match is over, but one fighter shows no sign of stopping.
I started out this race with a certain amount of respect for Hillary Clinton, though I favored Obama. But as he grew throughout the campaign she has shriveled until all that is left is grit and mad ambition. These are the features of a Democratic Richard Nixon. It's no wonder Republicans are finally seeing something to like in Hillary.
This primary has been limping along, it's high time we put it out of its misery. Bill Clinton said “I want to say also that this may be the last day I’m ever involved in a campaign of this kind,”
All the Clinton campaign managers were summoned for a big meeting. You just know they're preparing the cool-aid right now.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Burma's Sorrow

I have been meaning for a while now to post on Burma in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.
The regime handled the crisis with its characteristic criminality and callousness, first blocking food aid, then seizing it themselves. The government of Burma is far more concerned with maintaining control of the country than it is with the welfare of its people. Compare the brutal effectiveness of the response to "Saffron Revolution" to the muted response to Nargis. This is part of a wider pattern: the government of Burma (like that of Zimbabwe) is only adapt at repression, and is useless in any helpful functions of government.
The Burmese junta has ruled since 1962, and is among the worst governments in the world. The country has been at war since World War II, and the war goes a long way toward explaining the hold the junta has been able to have.
It is odd that their is no word for a crime against humanity caused by criminal neglect. Such things have occurred, the "Great Leap Foward" comes to mind. Burma's policy toward foreign aid is another.
To understand the response, we have to understand the xenophobic, isolationist and paranoid nature of the junta. Their strategy of staying in power has involved utterly isolating the country, seeing foreigners as possible agents of foreign powers. Recently, the government moved their capital from Yangon to tiny, isolated Pyinmana, possibly because they believed it more defensible in the event of a US invasion.
Pundits have argued whether we should intervene. George Packer and The New Republic say yes, David Reiff says no.
I have mixed feelings. I would love to see the butchers of Burma humiliated, even brought before an international tribunal to answer for their crimes. However, I don't see an invasion being successful in bringing an end to Burma's catastrophe, or being effective enough to help get aid to people who need it, and I would therefore not advocate it.