The paradox of David Vitter

I’m not big moralist, but is it wrong of me to think that a US Senator who ends up embroiled in a prostitution scandal should not be cruising to re-election?  Especially when he is a “family values” conservative.   It’s just kind of depressing.  Then again, maybe standards of personal conduct are just different for politicians in Louisiana.

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Tax cuts

Really don’t quite get why Democrats are not pushing harder on extending the tax cuts only for those making less than a quarter million.  As Chait says, the politics seem pretty obvious:

1. Voters in general are in favor of pretty much any measure that takes money from the rich. And they specifically support, by wide margins, repealing the Bush tax cuts for the rich…

3. Democrats are caught in the dilemma of having promised to extend all the tax cuts that have any benefit for taxpayers earning less than $250,000, despite the near-imposibility of reconciling that pledge with sustainable fiscal policy. So why not let the Republicans do their work for them? Put up a popular bill to extend tax cuts on income below $250,000. Let Republicans block it. Then you get to attack them as so loyal to George W. Bush’s economic agenda of aiding the rich at all costs that they’re blocking a middle class tax cut. And then either they give in, or the deficit picture starts looking better. In the meantime you keep running on a middle-class tax cut, over and over, make that the theme of the elections and 2011.

I mean, really — what is the hang-up here?

Of course, what’s really frustrating is the “moderate” (i.e., not too bright fiscal posers) Democrats who seem to buy into the Republican silliness that raising the marginal rate on rich people from 35% to 39% will somehow bring the economy to a crashing halt.

Is alcohol good for you?

Most people have probably long known the research that finds a couple glasses a day of wine seem to be beneficial to a person’s health.  I was a bit surprised last week when a friend told me about the latest research that drinking alcohol, period, is supposed to be good for you.  I get the cool phytochemicals and what not in wine, but what exactly is there in beer or rum that would be helping.  My best guess– nothing.  Rather, there’s got to be some confound.  So, I was just doing a period check on Jonah Lehrer’s awesome blog today (I really should check more often,though, it’s not as if I don’t read enough blogs), and he basically explains what’s going on:

But drinking isn’t just about de-stressing. In fact, the cultural traditions surrounding alcohol tend to emphasize a second, and perhaps even more important, function: socializing. For as long people have been fermenting things, they’ve been transforming the yeasty run-off into excuses for big parties. From Babylonian harvest festivals to the bacchanalias of Ancient Greece, alcohol has always been entangled with our get-togethers. This is for obvious reasons: Alcohol is a delightful social lubricant, a liquid drug that is particularly good at erasing our interpersonal anxieties. And this might help explain why, according to the new study, moderate drinkers have more friends and higher quality “friend support” than abstainers. They’re also more likely to be married.

What does this have to do with longevity? In recent years, sociologists and epidemiologists have begun studying the long-term effects (.pdf) of loneliness. It turns out to be really dangerous. We are social primates, and when we’re cut off from the social network, we are more likely to die from just about everything (but especially heart disease). At this point, the link between abstinence and social isolation is merely hypothetical. But given the extensive history of group drinking – it’s what we do when we come together – it seems likely that drinking in moderation makes it easier for us develop and nurture relationships. And it’s these relationships that help keep us alive.

Of course, relationships have their own chemistry, a language of dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, etc. But I think that in the rush to decipher the bodily molecules, we are missing the essential lesson, which is that some of the most valuable health benefits don’t come from compounds that can be bottled, or condensed into a gel capsule. Instead, they come from other people, from those lovely conversations we share over a glass or three of wine.

That sounds about right to me.  I suspect that if you plugged me into some statistical model, I’d come out looking like a moderate drinker.  I enjoy socializing over drinks  and often do, but I simply prefer the taste of diet coke (and I really do not need alcohol to lower my already too-low inhibitions) while my friends have their beers.

State Secrets

So, you’ve been waiting for me to say something negative about Obama?  How about this, his administration’s pursuit of the amoral and deplorable Bush secrecy policies with regards to torture is horribly amoral and deplorable.  Perhaps even more so, as I honestly have higher expectations out of Obama and know that he knows better, whereas I’m not sure I could say that about GWB.  Of course, Obama made his mistake a while back in deciding to double-down on the Bush “state secrets” policy.  On Tuesday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals just made it worse.  The NYT editorial on the matter sums up this sorry state of affairs as well as anything:

Five men who say the Bush administration sent them to other countries to be tortured had a chance to be the first ones to have torture claims heard in court. But because the Obama administration decided to adopt the Bush administration’s claim that hearing the case would divulge state secrets, the men’s lawsuit was tossed out on Wednesday by the full United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The decision diminishes any hope that this odious practice will finally receive the legal label it deserves: a violation of international law…

The Ninth Circuit was sharply divided, voting 6 to 5 to dismiss the case and overturn a decision to let it proceed that was made by a panel of three circuit judges last year. The majority said it reached its decision reluctantly and was not trying to send a signal that secrecy could be used regularly to dismiss lawsuits. But even though it is public knowledgethat Jeppesen arranged the torture flights, the majority said any effort by the company to defend itself would pose “an unacceptable risk of disclosure of state secrets.”

That notion was demolished by the five-judge minority that dissented from the ruling, pointing out that the plaintiffs were never even given a chance to make their case in court using nonsecret evidence, including a sworn statement by a former Jeppesen employee about the company’s role in what he called “the torture flights.” The case should have been sent back to the district court to examine which evidence was truly secret; now it will have to be appealed to a Supreme Court that is unlikely to be sympathetic to the plaintiffs.

And, the key point for me:

All too often in the past, the judges pointed out, secrecy privileges have been used to avoid embarrassing the government, not to protect real secrets. In this case, the embarrassment and the shame to America’s reputation are already too well known.

In fact, not until decades after the wrong-headed decision in US v. Reynolds, did we learn that the government invoked “state secrets” simply to CYA rather than because any matter of secrecy was at stake.  The whole thing really just disgusts me.  What disgusts me most, is how few people actually understand and give a damn.

Oh, and if the Tea Partiers actually cared about preventing the extension of federal government power, rather than being angry, mis-informed blowhards, they’d be out in the streets for this.

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