A Titanic Observation

HBO, as they are wont to do with popular movies from time to time, has been showing Titanic almost every day lately.  One thing I enjoy doing is watching movies, especially those I've already seen, in non-linear bits and pieces over several days (After about 10-15 separate viewing, I finally managed to see all of “The Iron Giant.”  One of my favorite movies despite never seeing it start to finish.).  Anyway, after watching the last dramatic hour of Titanic the other night, I thought, “wow, that really was a great movie.”  I shared my thoughts with my wife, who disagreed that it was just too over the top sappy for her.  In another gender role reversal in our marriage, servers in restaurants often bring the Diet Coke I ordered to her and the regular Coke she ordered to me.  As for these gender role reversals, I am comfortable enough in my manliness to mention that I did score on the female side of things in the on-line “Gender Test.”  It is quite fun and interesting, give it a try.  Especially if you are a man who loved Titanic or a woman who did not :-).

Why Joe Lieberman should lose

Joe Lieberman, Democratic Senator from Connecticut and Al Gore's running mate in 2000 is in the political fight of his life right now to retain his Senate seat in the Democratic primary in Connecticut.  A lot of the media coverage has done a disservice to those who oppose him (including me) by pretending that it is simply the fact that he supports President Bush and the Iraq War that has led to the intense opposition and strong challenge from Ned Lamont.  Yesterday's New York Time's editorial nailed it just right– Lieberman is an enabler.  Some of the key quotes:

Citing national security, Mr. Bush continually tries to undermine
restraints on the executive branch: the system of checks and balances,
international accords on the treatment of prisoners, the nation?s
longtime principles of justice. His administration has depicted any
questions or criticism of his policies as giving aid and comfort to the
terrorists. And Mr. Lieberman has helped that effort. He once denounced
Democrats who were ?more focused on how President Bush took America
into the war in Iraq? than on supporting the war?s progress.

At this moment, with a Republican president intent on drastically
expanding his powers with the support of the Republican House and
Senate, it is critical that the minority party serve as a responsible,
but vigorous, watchdog. That does not require shrillness or absolutism.
But this is no time for a man with Mr. Lieberman?s ability to command
Republicans? attention to become their enabler, and embrace a role as
the president?s defender.

Mr. Lieberman prides himself on being a legal thinker and a champion of
civil liberties. But he appointed himself defender of Attorney General
Alberto Gonzales and the administration?s policy of holding hundreds of
foreign citizens in prison without any due process. He seconded Mr.
Gonzales?s sneering reference to the ?quaint? provisions of the Geneva
Conventions. He has shown no interest in prodding his Republican
friends into investigating how the administration misled the nation
about Iraq?s weapons. There is no use having a senator famous for
getting along with Republicans if he never challenges them on issues of
profound importance.

If you've been reading this blog, you know how I feel about issues of presidential power, which is why I really loved this editorial. 

Taxes

One of the things that consistently frustrates me the most in teaching is how many students have completely bought into this ridiculous conservative supply-side spin that somehow cutting tax rates actually leads to increased tax revenue through increased economic growth.  Every serious economist will tell you this is just not the case.  And as for this great increase in economic growth (even assuming lower tax receipts) it is most definitely not all that it is cracked up to be.  Maybe if our tax rates were 70-80%, but for top marginal tax rates less than 40%, cuts in the rates only lead to very marginal increases in economic growth at a rather significant cost to government income (which theses days means significant increases in the budget deficit). 

Kevin Drum explains the latest statistics from the Treasury department on this:  Here's the effect of making Bush's tax cuts permanent:

The CBPP has the answer:
it means that in about 20 years the economy would be 0.7% bigger than
it otherwise would be. In other words, instead of a GDP of $20 trillion
in a couple of decades, our GDP would be about $20.1 trillion. Yippee!

Now, you know that the Treasury guys were doing their level best to
make the boss's tax cuts look good. And yet, this was the best they
could come up with. What's more, they even admit that this is an
absolutely best case scenario that assumes massive spending cuts
starting in a few years, something that's plainly not going to happen.
Under more reasonable assumptions, the tax cuts would almost certainly
have either no effect or a negative effect, so the report doesn't
bother with those.”

The thin line of parental happiness

I was just really enjoying my time with all 3 boys today and I stopped to ponder why I should be in a particularly good mood this morning.  Then I realized– Evan slept past 7am and David and Alex (miraculously) both slept till 8am.  A well-rested parent is a happy parent.  Had Alex or Evan woken around 6, as they are often both prone to do, it would have been a much less happy morning.  For some reason, regardless of when I go to bed, about 6:45 is the key time for determining whether I'm going to be a happy parent in the morning.  

Hooray! Estate tax cuts are back!

Hopefully, you picked up the sarcasm there.  The House finally figured out a way to try and get the estate tax cut for the ultra-wealthy– pair it with legislation to raise the minimum wage.  You gotta love it:  a couple bucks an hour for poor working folks offset by billions in tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.  And, at a cost to the federal treasury of $268 billion.  And who ends up on the hook for those extra billions?  My kids.  This is so not right.  Some good quotations from the Washington Post story:

“This is beyond cynical. This is disgraceful,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).

Senate
Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) signaled he would try to scuttle
the tax bill next week. “Republicans have made perfectly clear who they
stand with and who they are willing to fight for: the privileged few,”
he said.

To sweeten the deal for balking Democrats, especially in the Senate,
GOP leaders larded the tax bill with special-interest breaks. Over the
strenuous objections of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Mike Enzi
(R-Wyo.), they stripped a package of popular business tax extensions
from the pension bill and added them to the estate tax cut.

Against the wishes of Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg
(R-N.H.), they included a measure that would shift costs of health care
and environmental reclamation from coal companies to the federal
government at a cost of nearly $4 billion over the next decade. Another
measure, aimed at Washington state's two Democratic senators, would
give timber companies a tax break worth $428 million over five years.

In total, the tax package would cost the Treasury nearly $310 billion through 2016.

Republican “family values” in action.

Ask, Don’t Tell

Say what you will about “Don't ask, don't tell,” but regardless, the military should at least follow the policy they have, and not “ask.”  They should especially not be asking personnel with invaluable Arabic language skills.  According to the article in the link, 800 soldiers dismissed under this policy had “critical skills” and 55 had Arabic language skills.  Seems like if we want some sort of decent outcome in Iraq, we need every good soldier we've got.

Tom Reynolds: Person for Congress

Apparently, in the current political climate, many Republicans are not exactly anxious to announce their political affiliation in their reelection campaign.  This article mentions some of the more prominent Republicans who are running away from their party in their bid to get reelected in a bad political year for Republicans.  Amusingly enough, Tom Reynolds, the focus of the article, is the Republican Congressman who is supposedly in charge of seeing to it that the Republicans maintain their majority in the House.  

Public Opinion on Iraq

Yesterday's New York Times reported on a poll about public attitudes towards Iraq.  What was most interesting was some of the findings they did not report (courtesy of Greg Sargent at American Prospect). 

Do you think the United States should or shouldn't set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq?
Should: 56
Should not: 40

Do you think it is worth the loss of life and other costs for the
United States to remain in Iraq until there's a stable democracy there,
or is it not worth the loss of life and other costs, or are you unsure?
Worth it: 25
Not worth it: 42
Unsure: 32

How do you think the war with Iraq is affecting the United States'
image in the world? Is the war making the U.S. image in the world
better, making it worse, or is the war having no effect on the U.S.
image in the world?
Better: 10
Worse: 72
No effect: 12

Do you think the U.S. presence in Iraq is leading to greater
stability in the Middle East, less stability, or won't it have any
effect on the stability of the Middle East?
Greater: 25
Less: 41
No effect: 25

If the U.S. stays in Iraq for several more years, do you think that
will eventuallly make the United States more safe from terrorism, less
safe, or won't it make any difference?
More safe: 27
Less safe: 21
No effect: 50

Regardless of how you usually vote, do you think the Republican Party
or the Democratic Party is more likely to make the right decisions
about the war in Iraq?

Republican: 36

Democrat: 42

And yet Republicans are still planning to run on this issue in the Fall.  Either this is a huge miscalculation or the Democrats are truly hopeless.  I'm hoping for the former. 

“Waiting to get blown up”

In today's Washington Post, a story that takes a look at troop morale.  Some of the more interesting quotes from soldiers:

“Think of what you hate most about your job. Then think of doing what
you hate most for five straight hours, every single day, sometimes
twice a day, in 120-degree heat,” he said. “Then ask how morale is.”

“It sucks. Honestly, it just feels like we're driving around waiting to
get blown up. That's the most honest answer I could give you,”

“No one wants to be here, you know, no one is truly enthused about what
we do,” said Sgt. Christopher Dugger, the squad leader. “We were
excited, but then it just wears on you — there's only so much you can
take.”

I find the following war on drugs analogy quite interesting:

“At this point, it seems like the war on drugs in America,” added Spec.
David Fulcher, 22, a medic from Lynchburg, Va., who sat alongside
Steffey. “It's like this never-ending battle, like, we find one IED, if
we do find it before it hits us, so what? You know it's just like if
the cops make a big bust, next week the next higher-up puts more back
out there.”

For me, being pro-troops is trying harder to bring these poor guys home.

How to drive a person insane

Penology is one of my favorite topics, but I haven't gotten around to writing anything on it yet.  Now I've been inspired by a current NPR series on  the use of solitary confinement in prisons.  (You can even read the full text of the story).  As you may or may not know, solitary confinement is a great way to drive human beings (as well as many zoo animals) insane.  Of course, we've known this since we first experimented with the concept at Eastern State Penitentiary  in Philadelphia (from which I have a t-shirt and is worth a visit if you are in Philly) almost 200 years ago.  (NPR has a nice timeline).  The Quakers had the idea that by silently focusing on penitence, prisoners would be rehabilitated.  Alas, not so, rather large numbers of them went insane. 

You make think that driving prisoners insane is an appropriate form of punishment.  But ask yourself this, do you want people driven insane before they are released back into the general public?  Unfortunately, many of the prisoners who experience these conditions are not there for life, but will be reintroduced into society.   Presumably, this is not exactly what we want for persons who will be rejoining the general public.

On a quasi-related note, one of my favorite books of recent years is Newjack which is the first-hand account of a journalist who decides to spend a year working as a prison guard in Sing-Sing.  Well worth reading if you have any interest at all in the topic. 

Breeding pet foxes

I found this story about the power of selective breeding in domesticating animals to be hugely fascinating.   Scientists now theorize that a variety of animals were domesticated solely by selecting for the trait of tameness, i.e., tolerating human company.   In just 40 years of breeding pet foxes, Russian scientists managed to create animals as friendly as your average dog.  In another experiment with rats, they managed to create one group of super friendly rats and another group of rats that would happily tear your head off.   Interestingly, selecting for tameness brings along other qualities we associate with friendly animals:

“Belyaev?s hypothesis was that all domesticated species had been
selected for a single criterion: tameness. This quality, in his view,
had dragged along with it most of the other features that distinguish
domestic animals from their wild forebears, like droopy ears, patches
of white in the fur and changes in skull shape….”

“One possibility is that a handful of genes ? perhaps even just one ?
underlie all the changes seen in domestication. A structure in the
embryo of all vertebrates, known as the neural crest, is the source of
cells that constitute much of the face, skull and pigment cells, and
many parts of the peripheral nervous system and endocrine system.”

I saw a documentary once that suggested what we had done with domestication was create animals that are essentially frozen in a state of perpetual adolescence.  Anyway, pretty interesting stuff.  I just wish more effort had gone into selecting for tameness in the lineage of my late hamster, Avery.  That guy would just not let you pick him up.  He died in a tragic overheated bathroom accident. 

Equal time

The idea of “the liberal media” is largely a crock and mostly serves as a conservative version of “working the refs.”  But when I saw the headline: “Senate Removes Abortion Option for Young Girls” in today's New York Times in regard to new legislation that makes it illegal for a non-family member to transport a minor across state lines to receive an abortion, I was a little surprised.  To summarize the law in this way for the headline strikes me as misleading.  Of course, I could also find you plenty of headlines that would seem to help the conservative cause.  But I do enough complaining about conservatives.  

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