29 December 2004
It is heartening to see that the United States government has committed to $35 million in emergency assistance for the victims of the horrible tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. This amount will precede millions more in humanitarian aid and millions more in private donations. All that is good, even if the $35 million figure is, as Atrios noted yesterday, about equal to the planned spending for the upcoming presidential inauguration.
What is truly disheartening is the death toll—57,000 and counting—with thousands more at risk of dying from cholera and other diseases. Natural disasters like hurricanes and most floods offer people time to get to safety; time to stock provisions; and time to plan for mitigation and relief. And, alas, the rarity of tsunamis means that governments have more experience with other disasters. Those who perished in India and Sri Lanka had no warning, even though the huge earthquake that triggered the waves occurred over an hour earlier.
What is appalling about the death toll here, besides the deaths themselves, are two disturbing sets of facts. First, politicians in the United States would have Americans believe that the 11 September attacks of three years ago were unparalleled in their enormity. The murderous acts of a group of terrorists fundamentally altered American foreign and domestic policy. The war in Iraq, the billions of dollars spent on "homeland security," and the paranoid undercurrent of the last three years of American politics all depend on the publicized actions of 11 September 2001. But as Sunday should have showed the world, the enormity of nature can far transcend the enormity of human beings. Far more died in a few hours on Sunday than died in that horrible Tuesday, yet far less may be done in their memory.
Second, it is far more feasible, and far less expensive, to try to prevent another 26 December than to prevent another 11 September. The systems that would warn those in the path of a tsunami require serious investments in technology, but technology that exists today. By contrast, the United States has spent literally hundreds of billions of dollars in its purported war against terror, and to date it has failed even to apprehend the admitted mastermind behind the 11 September attacks. And ironically, South Asia, which would benefit enormously from a Western investment in a tsunami warning system, is where radical Islam gains a greater and greater foothold each year. Showing that the West really cares about Eastern lives would do a great deal to counter religious extremism.
An even greater irony is that the sector of the American electorate most supportive of President Bush and his stance against terrorists is also the sector most opposed to foreign aid. A truly just leader would do whatever was possible to ensure that the 26 December deaths were not in vain.
23 December 2004
McPaper Puts NYT and Washington Post to Shame
In an aptly titled column
, Plain Talk By Al Neuharth, the Founder of USA TODAY puts the editorial boards of our country's elite newspapers to shame. Nueuharth writes in today's paper:
“Support Our Troops" is a wonderful patriotic slogan. But the best way to support troops thrust by unwise commanders in chief into ill-advised adventures like Vietnam and Iraq is to bring them home. Sooner rather than later. That should be our New Year's resolution.
22 December 2004
Not So Safe After All
Sometime in the last 24 hours, Pfizer finally removed the content from its Celebrex-pushing website, which had portals at safepainrelief.com and whataretherisks.com. for now, both links direct one to a "temporarily unavailable" arthritis recourse site. But do check out—while you still can—the ironic and evil message that Pfizer was pushing on cable television viewers and radio listeners this fall. Pfizer continued to maintain these sites, even after its announcement on Monday that it was pulling all consumer advertising of Celebrex.
Pfizer's lawyers have surely encouraged the marketing staff not to resurrect these sites; with luck, enough will see them and remember just how underhanded Big Pharma can be.
Edit: The website in question is now safely mirrored for posterity.
Giuliani-This Space For Rent LLC
It would seem that Rudy Giuliani is finding his association with supposed hero Bernard Kerik to be minusungood.
At a news conference in Manhattan, Kerik said he had apologized to the former New York mayor for being a distraction because of his messy withdrawal as a Bush Cabinet candidate.
"After careful consideration, I have decided that it is in the best interests of my family, my colleagues and our clients that I resign my position with Giuliani Partners and (affiliate company) Giuliani-Kerik," Kerik said.
Giuliani announced that Giuliani-Kerik LLC, the partnership bewteen the two men that secured lucrative government contracts in a number of "security" fields, would be renamed "Giuliani Security and Safety." (Asking the new firm about how well it conducts background checks is only for the stout-hearted. They're a bit sensitive on that subject nowadays.)
Giuliani said he had not asked for Kerik’s resignation.
"He made the decision," the former mayor said at a later news conference. "The impetus came from Bernie. I think he made the right decision for himself and his family. No one or anyone can take away from him the incredible bravery."
What was incredible or even particularly brave about that man? Incredible I can believe if it accompanied words and phrases like "gall" or "propensity for dodginess" or "awful chices in friends." But "bravery"? it's the soft bigotry of low expectations rearing its nasty, and typically conservative, head.
19 December 2004
The whole Bernard Kerik debacle presents a familiar choice for Bush and his henchmen—do they admit incompetence or arrogance in nominating such a fellow? It seems that they have picked the latter option. Chief of staff Andrew Card, most famous for interrupting a reading of The Pet Goat, declared on television interview show that the White House knew of Kerik's checkered past but proposed his nomination anyway.
White House investigators knew of many of the flaws that have surfaced since Bernard Kerik withdrew as the nominee to lead the Homeland Security Department, President Bush's chief of staff said Sunday.
"Many of the questions that have been raised in the media were well understood by the White House when they considered Bernie Kerik," Andrew Card said.
Card's claim implies that Bush is willing to stand behind his designate for Attorney General, Alberto Gonzalez, whose attention to Kerik's faults seems to be as thorough as his respect for the Geneva Conventions.
Imagine, for just one minute, if Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton had proposed someone as tainted—by mob ties, financial shenanigans, infidelity, possible bigamy, and run-of-the-mill graft—as Kerik appears to be. The so-called liberal media would be calling for the head, not of the poor tainted slob, but of his would-be boss. And if anyone in the Kerry campaign were as slimy as Kerik—who was a public shill for Bush—Fox News would still be railing about it.
Potentially Mitigated Evil
Two months ago, I noted with severe displasure that in the immediate aftermath of the recall of Vioxx—a Cox-2 inhibiting anti-arthritis drug—by Merck, another company, Pfizer, was claiming that its version, Celebrex, was safe. Pfizer was not just implying that Celebrex was safe. It used the websites safepainrelief.com and whataretherisks.com in conjunction with radio advertisements to scare users of effective over-the-counter pain relievers into using its more expensive drug on the basis that Celebrex causes fewer ulcers and fewer liver problems. (I should note that heavy alcohol use can cause liver problems for users of acetaminophen; and over-the-counter pain relievers can cause ulcers, but other, generally cheap, medicines can counteract this nasty side effect.)
Sometimes the world works in mysterious ways. Sometimes Bernard Kerik gets the poltiical downfall that he so richly deserves. And sometimes Pfizer shows just how evil its marketing department can be. On Friday, the company announced that, lo and behold, the drug that it was touting as "safe pain relief" did, in fact, quadruple the risk of heart attacks in patients who took high dosages. (It seems that the problem with Cox-2 inhibitors may be that they tend to thicken the blood; aspirin and some similar drugs inhibit the Cox-1 enzyme as well as the Cox-2 enzyme and act as mild blood thinners.)
Amazingly enough, both safepainrelief.com and whataretherisks.com are up and running, waiting for new fish to take the Big Pharma bait. Last I checked, "relief" was not spelled "c-l-a-s-s a-c-t-i-o-n."
16 December 2004
Weakened at Bernie's
The more one knows about Bernard Kerik, indeed of any facet of his experience, the worse he looks. My personal favorite comes from an alert reader of Atrios's weblog—it seems that the provider of Kerik's Lower Manhattan love nest somehow avoided manslaughter charges in 2000 when his nearly three-ton monstrosity of a vehicle ran over and killed a homeless woman sleeping in a parking garage. Now that's some sort of quid and some sort of quo.
Rudy Giuliani now finds his political career grinding to a halt. Feel for the man—he is almost single-handedly responsible for Kerik's high profile. Giuliani appointed Kerik Police Commissioner of New York City. And Giuliani and Kerik are close enough in private life that they formed Giuliani-Kerik LLC to pursue their myriad business interests inthe United States and abroad.
His association with Kerik makes Giuliani appear gullible at best and complicit at worst. And his role in "vetting" Kerik hardly inspires confidence in the analytical abilities of the attorney general-designate, Alberto Gonzales
. We have seen how poorly he operates when only a cabinet post is at stake; imagine his ability when important tasks actually come this way. Apparently, the man who decried the "soft bigotry of low expectations
" was not paying attention when that discussed Irony in Freshman Composition at Yale.
Perhaps the utter ridiculousness of Kerik's nomination will finally end the mainstream American media's bizarre acceptance of the most ludicrous of President Bush's decisions. How can Donald Rumsfeld really be doing a "superb" job as Secretary of Defense when his pet project, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, is proving vastly more expensive, vastly more deadly, and vastly more unstable than even us leftists dared predict in 2001? How can his insistent patter about being a fiscal conservative be taken at all seriously? When will the press finally realize that the grownups left Washington with the Clinton administration?
The Buck Stops There
The president is washing his hands of another Bush administration failure. The president is being presented as the victim of Bernie Kerik's failure to tell the vetters in the administration the truth. Kerik failed him. His vetters failed him. Bush did not fail. The truth, of course, is that the president wanted Kerik in his Cabinet as a symbol of September 11, 2001. Who better to hand the reins of Homeland Security than the man who swears he told Rudy Guiliani on that day that will live in infamy: "Thank God George Bush is president."
Who's next in line for the nomination, Bo Diddle or Tony Soprano?
New Found Perceptions
Now that Bush has been enshrined for four more years have you noticed that the major media have discovered the shortcomings of the Iraq War? There are pictures of amputees, senators and former generals questioning the Bush Administration, Republican icons of 9-11 patriotism being thrown under the train, and a few sensible questions being asked. I caught an earnest (well, he plays one on TV) Tim Russert on Imus this week actually questioning Rumsfeld's job performance. How many of these people will turn their new found perception on themselves and question their motives for supporting Bush and the war through the election?
Eric Alterman writes this week in Altercation about anti-semitism. His comments got me to thinking, who do you think is worse, the anti-Semitic Catholics of the 1930s (e.g., Father Coughlin) or the anti-Semitic Catholics of 2004 (e.g., William Donahue of the Catholic League) who are on a campaign against the "secular Jews" of Hollywood? How sad that the question can even be asked. Alterman makes an interesting distinction in the anti-Semitism of the Left and the Right and their relative risks. I recommend that you check out his blog.
If you have read the premier work of Bertram Gross, Friendly Fascism, you may recognized much of what we see in the United States today politically and socially. It has been thirty years since I read Gross' book. It's time I pulled it down off the shelf and reminded myself how ugly our future could be.
13 December 2004
Anything But Abstinence
The Christian fundamentalists who control so much of today's Republican Party love to talk about the success of abstinence-only sexual education programs. In reality, these programs do not work, and there is no reason to expect that they will work without a concomitant program of emasculation. (One of the world's largest and most famous abstinence-only programs is the Roman Catholic priesthood. And we all know how well that prigram has turned out.)
But the Republicans still claim to believe in abstinence-only programs—after all, only abstaining from sex can guarantee prevention of pregnancy of sexually transmitted diseases. Yet they will not use the same logic in Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld can stammer and prevaricate all he wants about protecting troops. But abstaining from ill-planned foreign wars is the only sure way to prevent the deaths of dozens of soldiers every month, and Bush and his war planners won't even consider it.
Go for the Gusto
Now that Bernard Kerik has decided not to seek the position of Secretary of Homeland Security after all—he may, of course, still be remembered as the worst cabinet choice in American history—the Bush administration needs to find a replacement for Tom Ridge, the man who singlehandedly turned duct tape into a national joke and transformed color coding from a harmless practice of dentists' offices into a transparent and ludicrious political tool.
One of the possible candidates is the Senator who first championed the formation of a Department of Homeland Security in the first place, one Joe Lieberman.
Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican and the chairwoman of the Government Affairs Committee, said that among the possible candidates to succeed Mr. Kerik, at least in her mind, would be Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, or Asa Hutchinson, the assistant secretary at Homeland Security. Other names mentioned on Saturday included Frances Fragos Townsend, the domestic security adviser; Joe Allbaugh, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who now runs his own Washington-based consulting firm; and Michael O. Leavitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Those options had apparently also been considered before Mr. Kerik was nominated.
Democrats are surely torn by the thought of Lieberman joining the Bush cabinet. On one hand, if he resigns his Senate seat, the Republican governor of Connecticut, Jodi Rell, will appoint a Republican in his stead. Unless that Republican would be Lowell Weicker—and it won't—the Republicans would gain a Senate vote on many domestic issues. (But what poetic justice it would be, for Lieberman won his Senate seat from Weicker by running as the more conservative candidate!) On the other hand, Lieberman is a hawk on foreign policy, and Democrats may well be done with senators who outflank their opponents from the right. And Bush might not want Lieberman, whose politics are liberal on many domestic issues, to be in charge of a department suffused with political decisions.
Fortunately, an alternative who suits everyone's purpose is available. Zell Miller is leaving the Senate in January, so he's available. He's both a Democrat, so Bush can claim he has a truly bipartisan cabinet, and a right-winger, so Bush won't face any ideological guff. And the Democrats will have the pleasure of having Zell Miller be the public face of the terror alert system. There's a man to inspire calm!
Warp and Piece
The New York Times reports in tomorrow's edition that the Pentagon is considering rehashing another dumb idea from the Cold War—a massive disinformation campaign to influence foreign news outlets.
The Pentagon is engaged in bitter, high-level debate over how far it can and should go in managing or manipulating information to influence opinion abroad, senior Defense Department civilians and military officers say.
Such missions, if approved, could take the deceptive techniques endorsed for use on the battlefield to confuse an adversary and adopt them for covert propaganda campaigns aimed at neutral and even allied nations.
Critics of the proposals say such deceptive missions could shatter the Pentagon's credibility, leaving the American public and a world audience skeptical of anything the Defense Department and military say—a repeat of the credibility gap that roiled America during the Vietnam War.
While the idea is knackered because it's intellectually dishonest—you cannot fool everyone all the time—it is troubling because the last several years have proven that massive disinformation campaigns can have widespread influence.
Last month, President Bush held a valedictory press conference shortly after John Kerry conceded that he had lost the presidential election. Bush explained to the assembled press that he had earned "political capital":
You asked, do I feel free. Let me put it to you this way: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style. That's what happened in the—after the 2000 election, I earned some capital. I've earned capital in this election—and I'm going to spend it for what I told the people I'd spend it on, which is—you've heard the agenda: Social Security and tax reform, moving this economy forward, education, fighting and winning the war on terror.
When I heard this explanation of his soi-disant, it lacked the ring of truth.
And I now know why. Apparently Chris Suellentrop had a similar hollow feeling.
"Political capital" is not strictly defined in academics the way that "money supply" and "Einstein-Bose condensate" and "syncope" are. But it generally refers to the personal and institutional influence built up over time. Logrolling—doing political favors for lawmakers—builds political capital. Winning re-election just means that you have the support of a majority of the voters (in 2004, among the populace; in 2000, among the Supreme Court).
Perhaps, just perhaps, Americans and their representatives will realize that just because Caesar says something, it is not necessarily true.
09 December 2004
In November, the well-meaning souls at the Catalogue of Philanthropy issued their annual Generosity Index, and, yet again, the good people of New England look like skinflints.
But there's a catch. The Catalogue uses the best available data on itemized deductions, from the Internal Revenue Service's Statistics of Income (they used the 2002 data, which are the latest available). The Statistics of Income data are always aggregated into fairly broad income categories, to avoid any possibility of divulging data on individual taxpayers.
The Generosity Index ranks states according to their average adjusted gross income and according to their average charitable deductions; the difference between the two ranks is then compared across states. Lo and behold, the top states this year were Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Alabama—all in the bottom 15 in inmcome but the top 10 in giving—. And the bottom states this year were Wisconsin, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire—all in the top 20 in income but the bottom 20 in giving.
The Catalogue's web site tries to dismiss one problem with the data:
Costs of living are difficult to take into account because there is no statewide data on costs of living—that data is around metropolitan areas.
Furthermore, costs of living only kick in as a factor as you go down the income scale; at the upper reaches of income, costs of living are not an inhibiting factor, and the majority of charitable giving is done by those at the top of the income scales.
Certainly the cost of living affects the poor more than the rich, but some aspects of the cost of living affect many but not all. For example, high housing costs have wide-ranging effects: it is hard to qualify for a mortgage on any housing in Boston or San Francisco on even the median income for a family of four in those metropolitan areas ($80,000 or so). In Baton Rouge or Little Rock, housing is much cheaper, and a much wider range of the populace can afford the housing that is available. In other words, a good salary goes a lot further in some parts of the country than others.
And there are bigger problems with the data than this. (The Catalogue is kidn enough to provide spreadsheets with the underlying data.) The first, which is unavoidable given the data available, has to do with how itemized deductions vary by state. In order for the IRS to know about charitable contributions, they have to be reported on Schedule A of a Form 1040. About 90% of itemized deductions, which appear on this schedule, comprise charitable contributions; home mortgage interest expense; and property, excise, and income taxes paid to state and local governments. States with low taxes tend to have more taxpayers claiming the standard deduction because it outstrips what their itemized deductions would total. Furthermore, in states with low taxes those who claim itemized deductions will tend to have higher charitable contributions—because the cheapskates didn't have to file a Schedule A. In Statistics 101, this is called selection bias. In published reports about the Catalogue, this is called unreported.
Indeed, interesting correlations pop up in the overall dataset. Almost 44 percent of the variation in the Generosity Index is explained by comparing the percentage of returns with charitable deductions. The top 8 Generosity Index states include 5 of the 10 states with the lowest percentage of returns with charitable deductions. The the bottom 8 Generosity Index states include 5 of the 10 states with the highest percentage of returns with charitable deductions.
Another problem is that restricting the data to the highest income group (over $200,000 in Adjusted Gross Income)—the group that the Catalogue wants to prod into giving more—results in skewed results. Now the top five states are South Carolina, Oregon, Iowa, Mississippi, and Utah; and the bottom five states are Wisconson, Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Six of the states at either extreme are new.
A third problem is that the Index always uses the average contribution made, and average contributions can be wildly skewed by contributions made by a few, even a very few, big contributors. For example, Wyoming taxpayers with incomes of over $200,00 per year made average charitable contributions of over $75,000 in 2002—well above the average for every other state, but it is not clear whether this average results from a deep-seated love of philanthropy from all affluent Wyomingans or just from a very few, very generous, donors.
So, yes, praise the Catalogue of Philanthropy for showing how states measure up in terms of charitable giving. But don't expect that their data are the alpha and omega of where the true philanthropists live.
07 December 2004
Bush and Musharraf Sitting in a Tree
George Bush met recently with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whose retains his position some five years after the military coup that deposed a democratically elected government. Bush was eager to praise the bold steps that Pakistan has taken toward that elusive thing called democracy.
It's my honor to welcome a friend, a leader, President Musharraf of Pakistan. He is a person with whom I've worked very closely over the past four years, a person with whom I look forward to working closely over the next four years....
Q Mr. President, it's determined that you have a long vision, long-term vision between Pakistan and the United States. How would you define it and how do you see it in the days to come?
PRESIDENT BUSH: I think the long-term vision is one that is a relationship which is very mature in this sense: that there is a commercial relationship which is fair and balanced, mutually beneficial to both people; a defense relationship which is one in which there is close collaboration and complementary efforts based upon the true threats of the 21st century. And thirdly, there's a relationship in which I can call upon my friend to help deal with international issues, such as the development of a Palestinian state, one in which the aspirations of the Palestinian people are met and listened to, because democracy has taken hold.
One of the interesting lessons that the world can look at is Pakistan. You see, there are some in the world who do not believe that a Muslim society can self-govern. Some believe that the only solution for government in parts of the world is for there to be tyranny or despotism. I don't believe that. The Pakistan people have proven that those cynics are wrong. And where President Musharraf can help in world peace is to help remind people what is possible.
Yes, despotism, that form of government featuring a ruler with absolute power and authority, is closest to the true state of affairs in which of Palestine or Pakistan? Sorry, the answer is not Palestine, where there is neither real power nor autocratic rule, but Pakistan!
Strangely enough, Bush has remembered his four years of working with Musharraf, who has visited Bush now three times since undemocratizing his native land, but has not remembered even the low expectations that he set forth in March 2003.
In our meeting we discussed the need to address extremism and cross-border infiltration, and I assured the President that the United States will do all we can to promote peace. President Musharraf has set out on an important mission. He's working to build a modern Pakistan that is tolerant and prosperous. Achieving this vision of moderation and progress will require movement toward democracy in Pakistan.
Bush and his administration of knavish fools talk a great game about democracy but have failed to deliver a scintilla of political freedom to the Pakistani people. Indeed, they have given aid and comfort to the men who made that country an undemocratic country. They have winked and nodded as it trafficked in nuclear weapons, the only true weapon of mass destruction. What better example to those in the Arab world yearning for change to see Musharraf and Bush together yet again, offering empty words about democracy?
04 December 2004
A Protestant Mystery
Riddle me this, Batman. The Left Behind series—an impressive amalgam of novels, videos, audiotapes, devotionals, and even software—stems from a Protestant evengelical reading of the Book of Revelation.
Yet Martin Luther, the father or stepfather of every Protestant denomination, did not think that book was worthy of inclusion in the New Testament.
It's good for todays' conservatives that they don't look too closely at first principles.
Irony is Lost on the Ironed
Date: 23 November 2004, 1:19:45 PM. Comes now Andrew Sullivan, who clearly thinks that "historical parallel" means "isomorphism."
"What does the new Bush team remind you of? Funny you should ask. To me, the closest historical parallel would be the Soviet politburo under Brezhnev, where loyalty to the faultless was placed above competence and ideological fealty to a discredited belief system held trump over reality... How long can we expect this Soviet style regime to continue to stumble onward, normative failure after normative failure? I have no idea. The Brezhnevites eventually gave way to Gorby, but it took the humiliation of Afghanistan to drive the point home."—Eric Alterman, equating a duly elected president with a Communist dictator.
As Alterman pointed out last week, he wasn't saying that Brezhnev was Bush. Anyway, being compared to Brezhnev is a whole lot better than some of the alternatives (and the predilection of this administration to demean Darwin resembles nothing less than Stalin's embrace of Lysenkoism.)
What makes this funny is that less than 12 hours earlier, the same Andrew Sullivan gleefully linked to a parody of Picasso's "Guernica" that had NBA basketball players in the stead of Picasso's abstract images of the Spanish Fascists. Yes, that's Andrew Sullivan, really equating a few hotheads with the army of a fascist dictator. Nice!
01 December 2004
The Social Security Spaghetti Western
Max Sawicky, star of print, radio, and weblog, has read the white papers, downloaded the websites, and listened to all of the arguments. And that's just during his day job. Go forth and examine his handy guide to the good, bad, and ugly in Social Security reform. Know who your friendly think-tanks are; we're all going to need them in (at least) the next four years.