The Republican “budget” alternative

I meant to blog about this Republican "budget" fiasco last week, but never got around to it.  Now that the DNC has summed it all up in this nifty 1 minute ad, I've got no excuse.  Watch it:



Is your Congressman smarter than a 3rd Grader?

Not if he is Michigan's Don Shimkus.  Via Matt Yglesias, here are his recent erudite comments on global warming…

SHIMKUS: It’s plant food … So if we decrease the use of carbon dioxide, are we not taking away plant food from the atmosphere? … So all our good intentions could be for naught. In fact, we could be doing just the opposite of what the people who want to save the world are saying.

If my 3rd grader can understand that you can have too much of a good thing, you'd hope a member of Congress would.  Then again, intellectual rigor is not exactly a hallmark of the House Republican Caucus.


The fruits of torture

From today's Post:

When CIA officials subjected their first high-value captive, Abu
Zubaida, to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, they
were convinced that they had in their custody an al-Qaeda leader who
knew details of operations yet to be unleashed, and they were facing
increasing pressure from the White House to get those secrets out of

The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of
al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a
result of Abu Zubaida's tortured confessions, according to former
senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations.
Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly
evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida —
chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before
waterboarding was introduced, they said.

Get that?  Before torture, useful intelligence; after torture, bad intelligence that sent the CIA on multiple wild goose chases.



Sweden– the anti-Texas

It is a pretty well established fact that criminal justice is decidedly unbalanced against the accused in Texas.  They seem plenty willing to put people in prison on flimsy evidence and to keep them there too long.  That's bad.  On the other hand, I think Sweden definitely goes too far in the other direction.  There was a really interesting article in the Times this week about how Swedish medical schools are dealing with a convicted murderer who has enrolled in two separate medical schools.  It is really quite a fascinating look on who should be allowed to practice medicine, etc., but one particular part of the article struck me when it gave the example of another problem case:

And in still another case, a 24-year-old medical student at Lund
University was convicted last April of raping a 14-year-old boy while
he slept. A district court sentenced the student to two years in
prison, but a higher court reduced the sentence to two years’ probation
and medical therapy.

When the dean at Lund sought to expel the
student, a national board that reviews expulsions blocked the action,
saying that although the man had committed a serious crime, he was not
considered a threat to people or property. The decision was then
reversed by an administrative court, which upheld the expulsion; the
student did not appeal.

Who are these people that think a child-rapist belong in medical school, much less anywhere that is not prison?  Are Swedes crazy?  I'll take Texas justice over that.


Zero tolerance = zero intelligence

Very interesting article in the Times today about a 13-year old girl who was strip-searched by school authorities looking for Ibuprofen (aka Advil/Motrin).  After suing the district (quite rightly), the case has now made it to the Supreme Court.  I sure as hell hope that the Supreme Court sees the fundamental wrongness in strip-searching a 13-year old based on the flimsiest of evidence, but I somehow doubt Scalia and Thomas will come to this opinion.  I hope I'm wrong.

What is really pathetic is the way in which the school district and their lawyers justify such extreme measures in seeking out Ibuprofen..  My favorite line on this score comes from the dissenting judge in the Appeals court:

But, Judge Hawkins concluded, “I do not think it was unreasonable for
school officials, acting in good faith, to conduct the search in an
effort to obviate a potential threat to the health and safety of their
students.”  (I'm disappointed to discover that Hawkins is a Clinton appointee).

Right, Advil, that great threat to student safety.  If it wasn't for Advil, Evan would probably be crying as I type this (Alex is crying at the moment in existential angst– Advil won't help with that).   Not to say that a strip-search would be appropriate if the girl was suspected of hiding heroin, but for ibuprofen?  Please!  Zero tolerance is just so stupid.  Can we not leave any room for judgment?  Must we consider any banned substance equally harmful.  I used to take Vitamin C to school with me when I had a cold and take it throughout the day.  Under these absurd zero tolerance policies, I was be just as guilty as if I had taken crack to school. 

And by the way, school officials should never ever strip-search their students.  Talk about a betrayal of trust.  The details of the whole episode are just disgusting (apparently all it took was the fact that one of this girl's friends had gone goth and blamed her when caught with ibuprofen).  The whole article is definitely worth a read.

And if you've got any thoughts/comments on this one, drop me an email.  (I've concluded that readers are much more willing to send me an email than to post a comment for all to see).

Phone Call to the 14th Century

Heard this on This American Life this week— absolutely hilarious (or at least it was to me, since I love medieval history):



Kasper Hauser: Phone Call to the 14th Century

John Yoo: war criminal and idiot

In a recent WSJ Op-Ed, John Yoo, creator of U.S. torture policy and unrepentant war criminal invited his critiques to actually read the memos he wrote.  Salon's Gary Kamiya takes him on the challenge and absolutely eviscerates Yoo's reasoning.  Actually, an intelligent High Schooler could probably see through Yoo's facile and fallacious attempts to legally justify torture.  Anyway, some of Kamiya's highlights:

Yoo and co-author Robert J. Delahunty advised the U.S. that the
Posse Comitatus Act, which forbids the Army to be used for law
enforcement, and the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable
searches and seizures, do not apply to domestic military operations
undertaken during a "war on terror."

In other words, bye-bye,
Bill of Rights. This is a prescription for a police state, where not
just the police but the Army can kick your door down without a warrant
or probable cause, as long as the president says he's fighting
"terror." If Barack Obama had solicited such an opinion from an
obliging Justice Department lawyer because he wanted to sic the U.S.
Army on a group of domestic terrorists, the right would be screaming
about jackbooted federal thugs descending from black helicopters to
haul off American citizens. Strangely, no conservatives have taken to
the streets to warn us of the Big Government danger posed by this
radical doctrine. Perhaps they are too busy mobilizing against the
unspeakable socialist menace represented by Obama's 3 percent increase
in taxes on millionaires…

Portraying himself as a dedicated public servant whose legal
opinions were simply part of a "prudent and responsible … careful
contingency planning" for "a worst-case scenario," Yoo sarcastically
writes that to judge from the media coverage of the memos, "this
careful contingency planning amounted to a secret plot to overthrow the
Constitution and strip Americans of their rights … According to these
critics, the overthrow of constitutional government in the United
States began with a 37-page memo, confidentially issued on Oct. 23,
2001." Yoo warns that if the Obama administration fails to do the same
kind of "planning" — more to the point, if it continues to "seriously
pursue" officials like him who did that "planning" — it will endanger
America. Melodramatically conjuring up a Mumbai-like urban massacre,
Yoo says that holding him and other Bush administration officials
accountable will "restore risk aversion as the guiding principle of our
counterterrorism strategy."

Gosh, how could anyone think that an
opinion voiding the Fourth Amendment might endanger the Constitution?
How could anyone worry that legalizing torture might endanger human
rights? Strip away Yoo's sophomoric sarcasm and his "argument" is that
his legal opinions, which gave the Bush administration license to
undercut some of the cornerstones of American law — separation of
powers, the forbidding of unreasonable searches and seizures, habeas
corpus, the right to a fair, speedy trial, and the prohibition against
using the military to enforce the law — were merely "contingency

Of course, the whole thing is worth reading.  I know Obama's got a lot on his plate, but I really don't think that when it comes to U.S. government officials implementing an offiicial policy of torture, we can just say "bygones."





Sarah Palin: too attractive for her own good?

Some interesting research recently published:

In a Sept. 4, 2008 column,
just after Sarah Palin accepted the Republican nomination for
vice-president, Will Wilkinson wrote admiringly of her “sexual power,”
adding: “I think she is a tremendously sexy woman. How this will affect
the race, I have no idea, but it’s just got to.” …

In a paper just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, psychologists Nathan Heflick and Jamie Goldenberg
of the University of South Florida describe an experiment they
conducted shortly after Wilkinson wrote those words. Building upon
1980s research suggesting attractive women in high-status jobs are
perceived as less competent (a finding that has been challenged
in recent years), they examined whether Palin’s sex appeal — the
subject of endless media chatter in the weeks after she joined the
ticket — hindered her ability to make the case she was up for the job.

“It wasn’t her appearance per se” that soured people on Palin,
Heflick said in an interview. “It was the effect her appearance had on
their perception of her competence and humanity. Those variables made
people less likely to vote for her.” 

Of course, the gender and politics scholar (and feminist) in me is disturbed by these findings, but not at all surprised.


The “war on the rich”

I was watching a very entertaining Bill Maher last night and some ridiculous CNBC poppet was talking about Obama "soaking the rich."  It really is a ridiculous meme being pushed by the plutocrats and their apologists.  Daniel Gross has a terrific deconstruction of what is actually happeneing in Slate:

To hear conservatives tell it, you'd think mobs of shiftless welfare
moms were marauding through the streets of Greenwich and Palm Springs,
lynching bankers and hedge-fund managers, stringing up shopkeepers, and
herding lawyers into internment camps. President Obama and his
budgeteers, they say, have declared war on the rich…

It's hard to overstate how absurd these claims are. First, let's talk
about the "massive increase in progressivity" that Gerson deplores. It
consists largely (but not exclusively) of returning marginal tax rates
to their levels of 2001, before Gerson and the epically incompetent
Bush administration of which he was a part got their hands on the reins
of power. Obama wants to let marginal rates for families with taxable
income (not total income, but taxable income) of more than $250,000
revert from 33 percent to 36 percent, and to let the top rate—currently
35 percent on family income above $357,000—revert to 39 percent. (Here
are the current tax tables.) There's also talk of capping—not eliminating, but capping—deductions on charitable giving and mortgage interest.

Obama's proposals don't mean the government would steal every penny
you make above the $250,000 threshold, or that making more than
$250,000 would somehow subject all of your income to higher taxes.
Rather, you'd pay 36 cents to the government in income taxes on every
dollar over the threshold, rather than 33 cents.

Second, this
return to 2001's tax rates was actually part of the Bush tax plan. The
Republicans who controlled the White House and the Republicans who
controlled the Congress earlier this decade decreed that all the tax
cuts they passed would sunset in 2010. They put in this sunset
provision to hide the long-term fiscal costs of the cuts…

Fourth, we also know from recent experience that lower marginal rates
on income taxes, and lower rates on capital gains and dividends, aren't
necessarily wealth producers. The Bush years, which had lower marginal
rates and capital gains taxes, were a fiasco. In fact, if you tally up
the vast destruction of wealth in the late Bush years—caused by foolish
hedge funds, investment banks, and other financial services companies,
it seems like the wealthy have in fact been waging war on one another.

The whole thing is great.  Read it.  And on the Bill Maher note, he had a great defense of government last night in his "New Rules."



What liberal bias?

I'm not entirely sold by this, but there's an interesting new study from some Communications professors at Indiana that argues that, at least in terms of visual presentation, there's a bias against liberals in network newscasts.  

A visual analysis of television presidential campaign coverage from
1992 to 2004 suggests that the three television broadcast networks —
ABC, CBS and NBC — favored Republicans in each election, according to
two Indiana University professors in a new book…

"We don't think this is journalists conspiring to favor Republicans. We
think they're just so beat up and tired of being accused of a liberal
bias that they unknowingly give Republicans the benefit in coverage,"
said Grabe, who also is a research associate in political science at
the University of Pretoria in South Africa. "It's self-censorship that
journalists might be imposing on themselves."…

They examined 62 hours of broadcast network news coverage — a total of
178 newscasts — between Labor Day and Election Day over four U.S.
presidential elections between 1992 and 2004. Cable news outlets,
including CNN and Fox News, were not included in their research. The
professors are now looking at 2008 election coverage…

The news release goes on to describe a number of subtle ways in which visual coverage can be biased (useful stuff to know).  The end result is that almost all of these seem to work to the detriment of Democrats.

 "Visuals are underappreciated in news coverage," Bucy added. "You can
have a negative report. You can have the journalist being opinionated
against the candidate. But if you're showing favorable visuals, that
out-weighs the net effect on the viewer almost every single time."

Of course, this is only the visual aspect, but visuals are hugely important in shaping citizens' emotional response to candidates.  I'm not going to draw too many conclusions from one study, but this is definitely a line of research that deserves some more thoughtful scholarship.


Sticking it to CNBC

I had the pleasure of seeing two of this blog's readers in person at lunch today, so I've inspired to try and get at least one or two posts out. 

I don't watch a lot (okay, any) of CNBC, but from what I've gathered, it is generally pretty useless stock-market and big business boosterism.  John Stewart does a brilliant takedown as only he can (h/t Ezra Klein).

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And, to add some minimal value beyond linking to a video that Ezra Klein already did, I'm going to combine this post with a recent post from Matt Yglesias about the "irresponsible homeowners" or "losers" as Rick Santelli calls them.  I think it makes some really great points.

When someone applies for a mortgage, there are two parties to the
transaction. On one side of it is a teacher or a blogger or an
electrician or a lawyer or a nurse or a guy who manages a Home Depot.
On the side is a guy who, for a living, as a professional, works in the
“deciding on what terms to offer people mortgages” business who works,
for a living, at a financial services business. Businesses like that
got in the habit of making loans with little regard to actual prospects
for long-term payment on the theory that since house prices were
rising, the borrower could always sell or refinance. That, to repeat,
wasn’t the judgment of electricians and store managers; it was the
judgment of people who were professional mortgage-offerers….

There really is plenty of blame to go around here. But I just don’t
see how more than a tiny fraction of it could possible adhere to our
electrician or teacher or secretary who’s decided, basically, that the
financial services professionals and government regulators know what
they’re doing…

Think back to 2006. It’s not as if CNBC and your paper’s real estate section were rigorously probing this question.

I think that's a great point– lots of ordinary people made unwise financial decisions that have them in trouble now, but these were not financial professionals making these decisions.  Their biggest mistake was trusting the financial professionals who were acting like morons (giving out loans with no proof of income or assets?  Seriously?).  It is pretty clear where the vast majority of the blame lies and it is not on ordinary folks who are in over their heads on their mortgages.



Why you need to pay more taxes

The Times' Dave Leondardt had an extraordinarily enlightening column this week on why pretty much all of us need to pay more taxes and the abstract and concrete reasons behind this.  It as an amazing amount of information packed into a brief article– read the whole thing.  In case you are too lazy, though, here's the gist:

Your taxes are going up.

They will probably go up in the coming decade, and the increase will be permanent. For a half-century, federal taxes have remained
fairly constant relative to the size of the American economy — equal to
about 18 percent of gross domestic product. But the 18 percent era has
to end soon.

It won’t end because President Obama is some radical tax and spender, either. It will end because of a basic economic reality.

Americans have made it clear that they want a certain kind of
government, one that can field a strong military and also maintain
popular programs like Medicare.
Yet we are not paying nearly enough taxes to maintain those programs.
Even major changes to the health care system — the single most
important step for closing the budget gap — will not close it entirely.
Taxes must rise, too…

“As people grew more affluent,” writes Mr. Miller, a journalist and a consultant for McKinsey
& Company, “they’d want more of what only government could provide
— a strong military, public order, good schools and assorted welfare
benefits, services that private citizens would have trouble arranging
for on their own.”

The tax increases to pay for these
activities do bring a cost: they reduce people’s incentive to work. But
history has shown that this cost isn’t enormous. Taxes rose sharply in
the first half of the 20th century, starting from just a few percentage
points of the G.D.P., and the country still prospered. So long as the
government spends the money well, the benefits from taxes — security,
education, health — can far outweigh the costs…

Think of it this way: A tax increase isn’t so much a barrier to a society becoming richer as it is a result of a society becoming richer.

To the extent that Mr. Obama has talked about raising taxes, he has
focused on households that make at least $250,000 a year. And their
taxes will certainly need to go up. In the last three decades, as the
pretax income of the top 1 percent of earners has soared, their total
federal tax rate has fallen to 31 percent, from 37 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

But the problem can’t be solved just by taxing the rich. That top 1
percent pays only about one-quarter of federal taxes. Once the
recession ends, taxes on the not-so-rich will need to rise, too.

Just as rich people can afford to pay more in their taxes and feel less pain, so too, can rich societies (i.e. us).  What is increasingly untenable is our desire as a society to live well beyond our means.  As a country, we are financing a lifestyle richer than we deserve off of credit.  If we want government to provide all the many things it does– and the evidence is overwhelming that as a society we do– we've simply got to pay for it instead of borrowing money from the Chinese to do so (and for an person reading this who thinks we just need to cut welfare, get an education).





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