Global Warming

In the aggregate the American public can sure be stupid, but this is ridiculous.  From the Monkey Cage (which I really ought to link to more often).

 

 This is one of the coolest — I mean, hottest — findings I’ve seen in a while:

For each three degrees that local temperature rises
above normal, Americans become one percentage point more likely to
agree that there is “solid evidence” that the earth is getting warmer.

The paper is by Patrick Egan and Megan Mullin,
and their money graph is above. They linked Pew survey data to the
local temperatures in each respondent’s zip code in the week before the
survey.

That's right.  When thinking about global warming, apparently some people just think about the recent temperature.  I wonder if it makes any difference whether you ask in winter or summer.

Obama = “Stalin without the bloodshed”

Just your typical commentary from Fox News.  Nicely compiled by Media Matters.  Enjoy.

Gun Control

In his rehabilitation as a Slate.com columnist, Elliot Spitzer has been contributing interesting pieces about improving various public policies.  His latest on gun control makes a lot of sense and may actually be politically feasible since it does not require Congressional action.  The details:

Political reality makes even a modest gun law a difficult legislative
sell. But if the Obama administration really cares about limiting gun
violence, it could pursue a different strategy, one that doesn't
involve Congress and isn't likely to provoke a storm of opposition…

Modern government is not only a lawmaker. Indeed, the most effective
executive powers may not derive from statutes at all. The government
that President Obama oversees is also a gigantic, well-funded
procurement agent. And it can—and should—use that power to change
American gun policies. Specifically, the government buys lots of guns,
for sheriffs, patrol officers, and detectives; for FBI agents, DEA
agents, IRS agents, Postal Inspectors, immigration agents, and park
rangers; and for soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and spies. The
government buys guns by the crate.

What is striking is that the government buys guns from manufacturers
who also sell them to criminals—either knowingly or by willfully
overlooking the behavior of the retail outlets that the gun companies
use as their distribution system…

If we can use a capital infusion to a bank as an opportunity to
control executive compensation and to limit use of private planes, why
can't the government use its weight as the largest purchaser of guns
from major manufacturers to reward companies that work to keep their
products out of criminals' hands? Put another way, if it is too
difficult to outlaw bad conduct through statutes, why not pay for good
conduct? Why not require vendors to change their behavior if they want
our tax dollars?

Just as we now "purchase" good corporate behavior in the financial industry, let it be so with guns…

More fundamentally, companies could be told to stop selling certain
types of weapons to the general public. If a manufacturer did not
comply with any of the limitations, then it would be excluded from the
list of companies with which the government would do business…

If President Obama wants to devise a creative way to limit gun
violence, he will use his power as the world's largest consumer to
require the cooperation of gun manufacturers. If government cannot
legislate the conduct it wants, then it can use market power to buy it.
For the money we are spending, we should buy not only guns but some
peace from gun violence.

Sounds like a great plan to me.  Not that that means much for its chances of becoming policy.

 

The Specter switch

I was going to write a post explaining the logic of Specter's switch to the Dems.  Turns out TPM's Eric Kleefeld has already done the job for me.

So why exactly has Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA D-PA) switched parties?

It really comes down to electability — specifically electability as a Republican. Specter's own statement acknowledged that his support for the stimulus bill has made his position untenable with the GOP…

Probably the most important point is here is the demographic changes
going on in Specter's home state. Pennsylvania is a closed-primary
state, and the ranks of registered Republicans, the folks eligible to
vote in the GOP primary, shrunk last year.
In 2008, between 150,000 and 200,000 registered GOPers switched to the
Democratic Party in order to vote in the contentious primary between
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama…

Those people tended to be moderate voters — Specter's people
— and without them he cannot win a primary. But with them staying as
Democrats, he could actually start with a leg-up as a Democrat, just in
case any liberal challenger might try to take him on in the Dem primary.

And the other side of this coin is that the folks who remain as
registered Republicans are now proportionally much more conservative
than the state GOP was before.

Remember that Specter only won his 2004 primary against conservative
challenger Toomey by a 51%-49% margin — and that was with the full
backing of the Bush White House. So if we just made that demographic
adjustment, Pat Toomey would have probably won the 2004 primary with
all other issues being the same. And the stimulus is the final nail.
The stimulus vote, and the lack of a powerful Republican establishment
these days, made a defeat in the primary seemingly inevitable.

As for the Democratic primary, my strong suspicion is that the DSCC and the national Democratic forces will do their very best to clear the field of strong opposition so long as Specter is a reasonably reliable vote for Obama's policies.  That's his only hope of staying in the Senate past 2010, which he clearly wants to do, and was just not going to happen as a Republican.

 

We executed Japanese soldiers for waterboarding

I just came across this post from Paul Begala that explains that we actually hanged Japanese soldiers for waterboarding following WWII.  

On November 29, 2007, Sen. McCain, while campaigning in St.
Petersburg, Florida, said, "Following World War II war crime trials
were convened. The Japanese were tried and convicted and hung for war
crimes committed against American POWs. Among those charges for which
they were convicted was waterboarding."

Sen. McCain was right and the National Review Online is wrong. Politifact, the St. Petersburg Times'
truth-testing project (which this week was awarded a Pulitzer Prize),
scrutinized Sen. McCain's statement and found it to be true. Here's the
money quote from Politifact:

"McCain is referencing the Tokyo Trials,
officially known as the International Military Tribunal for the Far
East. After World War II, an international coalition convened to
prosecute Japanese soldiers charged with torture. At the top of the
list of techniques was water-based interrogation, known variously then
as 'water cure,' 'water torture' and 'waterboarding,' according to the
charging documents. It simulates drowning." Politifact went on to
report, "A number of the Japanese soldiers convicted by American judges
were hanged, while others received lengthy prison sentences or time in
labor camps."

This is such an amazing powerful argument.  I just don't see how people can go around defending waterboarding as not torture when we executed people for doing it.  Case closed.  The fact that so many Republicans (admittedly not all, but far too many) are defending waterboarding is both intellectually and morally indefensible.  The Republican party has so lost its way.

 

Teenage virginity and social psychology

How about a little break from torture with a quick look at the social psychology of teenage virginity.  From Balkinization:

Here’s
why I’m concerned (and what it means for public service messages with
regard not only to abstinence but a host of other issues).

In my last post, I argued that (the truly excellent show) Friday Night Lights
might unwittingly be exacerbating the mistaken idea that the vast
majority of high-schoolers have sex. I worried that this discrepancy
between what adolescents believe (virgins are rare) and the truth
(high-school virgins are the norm) is a dangerous combination…

Robert Cialdini has shown time and again that people like to conform their behavior to that of others. His new book, Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, is chock full of examples. Want to get hotel guests to forego daily towel cleaning? Include a message telling them that most other guests reuse their towels. Want them to recycle even more? Tell them that most people using their very room recycle…

I’m not calling for the writers of Friday Night Lights
to change the story arc. But Cialdini’s simple idea is that public
service messages would do well to implicitly tell high-schoolers: “Be
like most of your peers — don’t have sex while you’re in high school.”…

Indeed, Cialdini has me thinking that all those “Above the Influence” commercials are seriously off base:

These commercials
implicitly suggest that most of your peers are going to be using drugs
and that you have to gird yourself to be above their influence. They
are too close to the signs in the Petrified Forest. Instead of saying
“Don’t do what most kids your age do,” they might say “Do what most
kids your age do: just say no.”

 You should read the whole post for some great examples of Cialdini's experiments.

The elite consensus on torture

Yes, I am a little torture-focused lately, and I think the last post explained exactly why I think this is such an important issue. One of the most disturbing features of all this is how the elite Washington press is all into the "just move on" angle.  Naturally, Glenn Greenwald hits this hard.  I'm just going to copy the end of his long post on the subject (which is basically from some others):

The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates posts video of the Peggy Noonan comments and writes

The
job of journalists is to challenge the government and to challenge
their readers and viewers. What sort of journalist tells his readers
that some things must be mysterious?  What sort of writer tells her
readers, and viewers, essentially, to not ask too many questions? We
have a fine era, when otherwise respected, intelligent, and well-read
people step on a national stage and endorse national ignorance.

There's nothing unusual about Noonan's mentality; it's the dominant mindset of our political and media class.  The American Prospect's Adam Serwer notes a column from The New York Times' Roger Cohen today arguing against prosecutions (of course) and observes:

Cohen's argument simply reflects the consensus among certain journalistic and political elites that the powerful simply shouldn't be held accountable
when they make mistakes, because, after all, we all make mistakes. This
compassionate attitude naturally doesn't extend beyond this small
group. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, fully 1
percent of the population. I'm sure there are millions of people
currently incarcerated who would like it if Cohen's policy of
absolution for crimes was extended to them.

That
elite-protecting consensus is the central affliction of America's
political culture.  It explains not only how we continuously shield our
elites from the consequences of their crimes, but also explains the
reason such crimes keep happening.  If you constantly announce to a
small group of people that they will be able to break the law with
impunity, you are rendering inevitable future rampant criminality.
That's just obvious.

I actually had to make this argument in class the other day.  Its pretty obviously the case with my 3-year old and even more so with grown-ups.  You tell people they cannot do something, you watch them do it and then just say, oh well, it's alright, you can be pretty sure what will happen in the future.

 

 

This is not a hard question!

I reject the entire premise of today's Times story:

Last week’s release of long-secret Justice Department interrogation
memorandums has given rise to starkly opposing narratives about what,
if anything, was gained by the C.I.A.’s use of waterboarding, wall-slamming and other physical pressure to shock and intimidate Qaeda operatives.

Senior Bush administration officials, led by Vice President Dick Cheney
and cheered by many Congressional Republicans, are fighting a
rear-guard action in defense of their record. Only by using the
harshest methods, they insist, did the intelligence agency get the
information it needed to round up Qaeda killers and save thousands of
American lives…

By contrast, Mr. Obama and most of his top aides have argued that the
use of those methods betrayed American values — and anyway, produced
unreliable information. Those are a convenient pair of opinions, of
course: the moral balancing would be far trickier if the C.I.A. methods
were demonstrated to have been crucial in disrupting major plots.

Damn it, we could always keep the country safer from external threats if we chose to live in a militarized state that nullified individual liberties.  The point is that is inimical to the values of democracy.  Could we have way less crime if police did not have to respect the Bill of Rights, especially the 4th amendment?  Of course!  But that's not the country we want to live in.  You don't see a lot of people moving to China so that they can be safer from crime by sacrificing essential liberties.  Thus, even if the torture did make us safer, that is simply not a justification in a democracy.  A hugely ignored point in almost all these "analyses" as well, is the fact that just because torture produced certain actual intelligence is no proof at all that morally appropriate interrogation methods would not have produced the same good intelligence without bringing all the false information that is part and parcel with torture.  It is a well-known fact that torture victims tell their torturers whatever they think will make the torture stop, whether true or not. 

Now, as for why we don't torture in a democracy, Andrew Sullivan had a brilliant post on this recently.  Please read the whole thing.  Nonetheless, my favorite part (actually, most of the post):

The assertion of total power through unchecked violence – outside
the Constitution, beyond the reach of the law (apart from legal memos
from hired hacks instructed to retroactively redefine torture into
'legality') – will be seen in retrospect as the key defining theory of
Bush conservatism. It ended with torture. Why? Because reality may
differ from ideology; and when it does, it is vital to create reality to support ideology. And so torture creates reality by coercing "facts" from broken bodies and minds.

This
is how torture is always a fantastic temptation for those in power,
even if they first use it out of what they think is necessity or good
intentions: it provides a way for them to coerce reality into
the shape they desire. This is also why it is so uniquely dangerous.
Because it creates a closed circle of untruth, which is then used to
justify more torture, which generates more "truth." This is the Imaginationland some of us have been so concerned about.

The Western anathema on torture began as a way to ensure the survival of truth.

And that is the root of the West's entire legal and constitutional
system. Remove a secure way to discover the truth – or create a system
that can manufacture it or render it indistinguishable from lies – and
the entire system unravels. That's why in the West suspects are
innocent before being found guilty; and that's why in the West even
those captured in wartime have long been accorded protection from
forced confessions. Because it creates a world where truth is always
the last priority and power is always the first.

This is not a policy difference. It is a foundational element of Western civilization.

As long as Republicans continue to defend torture they shame themselves and place themselves on the wrong side of history.

 

Lessons learned while cleaning out my mom’s attic

During my kids' pre-Easter spring break, I spent the better part of a couple of days placing the contents of my mom's attic in a 15 cubic yard dumpster (11 x 8 x 6).  I came to a number of conclusions sweating up their in the attic going through boxes of mildewy, insect-ridden junk.  To wit:

1) Do not put books in the attic.  Either leave them on shelves or give them away to someone who will appreciate them.  It is not pretty what happens to books after decades in an attic.

2) Don't save bunches of copies of things when a single copy will do.  I could have done without throwing away an entire box of pamphlets promoting my dad's failed real estate venture (good plan, bad economic timing).  A couple make a nice souvenir, a thousand make a pain in the ass (actually, the back).

3) Do not save children's clothes in the attic for some indefinite future.  Short-term this works fine, as we have done it with out own kids clothes, but long-term, bad idea.  Even if they are put away properly and preserved (unlike the clothes that had clearly been home to a family of mice), they will likely be hopelessly out of style.  

4) Save things with a genuine personal relevance.  The aerospace memos that my dad wrote in the 1960's about how to program a satellite to orbit earth– very cool.  Aerospace memos by people not my dad– heavy.

5) If you think you might want to see it again some day and it exists in libraries, don't put it in the attic.  I'm sure the old editions of Sky & Telescope magazines and Aerospace journals that my dad kept can still be found archived in places other than my mom's attic, with the added advantage of not being literally rotting away.  

6) Save letters.  Most all the coolest finds were letters (even cooler than the $2000 in cash, but that wasn't in the attic anyway).  Especially as more and more of our correspondence disappears forever into the on-line aether, letters take on added importance.  Finding the box of love letters my mom wrote to my dad was pretty amazing.

7) Not all letters are created equal.  Letters tell you all about the writer, little about the recipient.  The letters from my mom to my dad gave me a wonderful portrait of the 22-year old Hilde Kopf.  The letters from my dad's girlfriends before my mom told me a lot about a sweet 18-year girl from Lynchburg named Gayle.  Not much better than reading anybody's random letters from the 1950's, though.  Into the dumpster.  Likewise, cards– into the dumpster.  What Hallmark had to say about a baby being born in 1961 was just not that interesting.  

8) Don't save the college notebooks.  You'll never use them again and they really aren't that interesting.  Basically, the transcription of what some long-gone professor said.  Papers– maybe.  I ended up tossing all my own notebooks into the dumpster, but a number of those papers said pretty interesting things about who I was from the ages of 18-22.

9) Which leads me to my final conclusion on the matter.  I emptied out the attic before going through all my own old personal belongings in my bedroom.  Definitely the right order.  I simply asked myself, "would the boys think it was pretty cool finding this 40 years from now or be cursing me for making them carry it out of an attic?"  That proved to be a good decision rule and helped me get rid of a lot of stuff.

10) And lastly, get your parents to clean out their attic while they are still alive!

Giving the torturers a pass

Andrew Sullivan nicely explains that not only is it morally wrong for President Obama to give Bush administration torturers a pass, it is actually legally wrong:

Now fast-forward to February 2007 when the International Committee
of the Red Cross notifies the president of the United States that it
believes that his administration has engaged in what was unequivocally
torture of prisoners. At that point, the president is required, by law and by treaty,
to open an investigation and prosecution of the guilty parties. The
president failed to do that, another breach of the law. Moreover, any
president privy to that information is required to initiate an
investigation and prosecution – or violate the law and the Geneva
Conventions.

And so Obama's refusal to investigate war crimes is
itself against the law. And so torture's cancerous route through the
legal and constitutional system continues, contaminating the future as
well as the past, rendering the US incapable of upholding Geneva
against other nations, because it has violated Geneva itself, and
giving to every tyrant on the planet a justification for the torture of
prisoners.

In this scenario, America becomes a city on a hill,
where the rule of law is optional and torture acceptable if parsed into
legal memos that do not pass the most basic professional sniff-test.

Glenn Greenwald adds:

Needless to say, I vehemently disagree with anyone — including Obama
— who believes that prosecutions are unwarranted.  These memos
describe grotesque war crimes — legalized by classic banality-of-evil
criminals and ordered by pure criminals — that must be prosecuted if
the rule of law is to have any meaning.  But the decision of whether to
prosecute is not Obama's to make; ultimately, it is Holder's and/or a
Special Prosecutor's.  More importantly, Obama can only do so much by
himself.  The Obama administration should, on its own, initiate
criminal proceedings, but the citizenry also has responsibilities
here.  These acts were carried out by our Government, and if we are
really as repulsed by them as we claim, then the burden is on us to
demand that something be done. 

Obama failing to see to the prosecution of Bush officials for these heinous acts is clearly not as wrong as the actions of the Bush officials, but it nonetheless diminishes the rule of law, which is never a good thing.

Impeach Jay Bybee

So, I was just about to write a post linking to the Slate article making the argument in the title.  The fact that Bybee, the author of morally and legally odious torture memos is serving as a federal appeals court judge is a national disgrace.  Now, I see that the NY Times in on the case on the editorial page.  Maybe something will actually happen (I doubt it, but I'd love it).  From the Times:

To read the four newly released memos on prisoner interrogation written by George W. Bush’s Justice Department is to take a journey into depravity.

Their language is the precise bureaucratese favored by dungeon
masters throughout history. They detail how to fashion a collar for
slamming a prisoner against a wall, exactly how many days he can be
kept without sleep (11), and what, specifically, he should be told
before being locked in a box with an insect — all to stop just short of
having a jury decide that these acts violate the laws against torture
and abusive treatment of prisoners.

In one of the more nauseating
passages, Jay Bybee, then an assistant attorney general and now a
federal judge, wrote admiringly about a contraption for waterboarding
that would lurch a prisoner upright if he stopped breathing while water
was poured over his face. He praised the Central Intelligence Agency
for having doctors ready to perform an emergency tracheotomy if
necessary.

These memos are not an honest attempt to set the legal
limits on interrogations, which was the authors’ statutory obligation.
They were written to provide legal immunity for acts that are clearly
illegal, immoral and a violation of this country’s most basic values…

After all, as far as Mr. Bush’s lawyers were concerned, it was not
really torture unless it involved breaking bones, burning flesh or
pulling teeth. That, Mr. Bybee kept noting, was what the Libyan secret
police did to one prisoner. The standard for American behavior should
be a lot higher than that of the Libyan secret police…

At least Mr. Obama is not following Mr. Bush’s example of showy
trials for the small fry — like Lynndie England of Abu Ghraib
notoriety. But he has an obligation to pursue what is clear evidence of
a government policy sanctioning the torture and abuse of prisoners — in
violation of international law and the Constitution.

That
investigation should start with the lawyers who wrote these sickening
memos, including John Yoo, who now teaches law in California; Steven
Bradbury, who was job-hunting when we last heard; and Mr. Bybee, who
holds the lifetime seat on the federal appeals court that Mr. Bush
rewarded him with.

These memos make it clear that Mr. Bybee is
unfit for a job that requires legal judgment and a respect for the
Constitution. Congress should impeach him.

The whole editorial is great and makes a much stronger case against Bybee and his fellow war criminals than any legal case for torture Bybee ever made.  

 

Ending Piracy: the Yglesias Plan

I have to say, this proposal for dealing with Somali piracy from Matt Yglesias makes a lot of sense to me:

A different idea would be to go “Anbar Awakening” on the whole
situation. Suppose there were a group of armed Somali possessing
maritime skills and a spirit of derring-do. The international community
could find leaders of these Somalis and provide funds to assist them in
their brave effort to battle the pirates who’ve been plaguing their
community. It’s true that to some this would look like paying
protection money to extortionists. But if you call the protection money
“aid” and call the pirates you’re paying off “former pirates” and call
the process by which the pirates you’re paying try to kill their rivals
“anti-piracy operations” then I think it looks perfectly legitimate to
recruit some former pirates to conduct anti-piracy operations that are
financed by international aid.

This is a less morally tidy approach, but it’d almost certainly be
cheaper. You could call ‘em the Somalia Coast Guard, reach an agreement
with them about fishing rights and so forth, and they’d be national
heroes.

My guess is that pretty much every plan I've heard for solving piracy, it's got significant flaws, but I've yet to hear anything more likely to succeed.

 

 

 

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