2010 - %3, June

On Appointing Celebrity Generals

| Mon Jun. 28, 2010 12:14 PM PDT

Much of the time, our wars may hardly exist for us, but in the age of celebrity, our generals do—exactly because they become celebrities. When Barack Obama picked Stanley McChrystal as his Afghan war commander, the general was greeted by the media as little short of a savior. He was, we were told, superhumanly fit, utterly austere (eating only one meal a day), and—strangely for the man who was to oversee a protect-the-people counterinsurgency war—had spent his professional life in the deepest shadows of counter-terror warfare at the head of groups of hunter-killer special operations forces. His was the darkest of legacies, but he was greeted like Superman.

Reading the Michael Hastings Rolling Stone piece that unseated him, you can sense in the contempt that McChrystal and his aides (many former special ops officers) express for the Obama administration and its civilian representatives in Afghanistan just what a blunt instrument the man was. No leader or group speaking that way, or that crudely, in private could help but exude similar feelings in public. McChrystal was, in fact, always a divided man, caught between his counter-terror past—he significantly increased special operations units in Afghanistan and sent them out to hunt Taliban mid-level leaders (and in the process kill civilians)—and his newer fealty to counterinsurgency which led him to institute rules of "courageous restraint" that left American ground troops grumbling.

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Bloggers are the New Columnists

| Mon Jun. 28, 2010 12:11 PM PDT

L'Affaire Weigel, which I followed only lightly since I was away when it unfolded, has apparently now morphed into a question of whether partisan bloggers are "real" reporters or, as several anonymous Washington Post workers put it, just embarrassments waiting to happen. Greg Sargent weighs in:

The cowardly hiding behind anonymonity is pathetic enough. But let's take on the substance of this. I submit that someone can be a "real" reporter if he or she is accurate on the facts and fairly represents the positions of subjects; if he or she has a decent sense of what's newsworthy and important to readers; and if readers come away from his or her stuff feeling more informed than they were before.

There's simply no reason why caring what happens in politics — prefering one outcome to another — should inherently interfere with this mission. By publicly advertising a point of view, bloggers are simply being forthcoming about their filter: They are letting readers in on what guides their editorial choices. This allows readers to pick and choose communities where they can expect discussions about topics that interest them with other, generally like-minded readers.

[Etc. etc.]

Look: this is ridiculous. There's just nothing new here. The Post, along with other newspapers, has long had opinionated reporters. They were and are called "columnists." Robert Novak was a columnist with a conservative inclination. David Broder is a columnist with a centrist inclination.  E.J. Dionne is a columnist with a liberal inclination. All three are also good reporters, and no one at the Post has ever suggested they're a disgrace to the good name of journalism.

Whether Weigel was wise to make the comments he did about the people he covers is one thing — though I'll bet there are few reporters alive who haven't done the same. They just haven't been outed by someone with an axe to grind. But broadly speaking, being a blogger is the same thing as being a columnist except in pixels instead of ink. It's a long and well-accepted position. Why the hell do so many mainstream reporters still have a problem with this?

(VIDEO) Tea Party Candidate Outdoes Himself

| Mon Jun. 28, 2010 11:53 AM PDT

Not content to rest on his laurels, tea partier Rick Barber decided he could make a TV commercial far, far worse than his first "Worst Tea Party Ad of All Time." The long-shot candidate for Alabama's 2nd congressional district is still jammin' with the founding fathers, but this time, there's a twist: Abe Lincoln is there to confirm Barber's hunch that paying taxes is "....Ssssslavery!" Before you get a chance to let that sink in, a montage cues up: MTV-style rough cuts between shots of black slaves, Jewish concentration camp prisoners, and the front gates of Auschwitz—you know, the ones that say, "Arbeit Macht Frei."

This, after a long and winding explication of whiskey regulations with the ghost of George Washington, wherein Barber draws a distinction between the first president's "legitimate" whiskey excise tax and "this tyrannical health care bill." Ur-Washington nods agreement across a table replete with the prop gun, Bible, and Gadsden "Don't Tread on Me" flag. (Takeaway: Taxes are good when they finance military revolutions, but bad when they pay for social ones. FACT CHECK! Can somebody get me the ghost of Daniel Boorstin or Arthur Schlesinger?)

Also, watch the background of the video closely, and you'll also see Dale Peterson, this guy in his cowboy hat, with his lever-action rifle slung on a shoulder. Did you know he lost his primary for Alabama agricultural commissioner? Pity. Hope the gun's not loaded.

At this point, you may well wonder: How come all of that has happened, and there's still two and a half minutes left to the commercial? Because that's almost how long it takes an ostensible Barber supporter in the background to sing every stanza of the national anthem, including those ones you know exist but have lyrics you'll never remember. Lyrics like: "Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just," with superimposed video of Marines shooting and being shot on the Pacific islands in the Second World War. The entire hymn to our flag is sung to a montage of martial imagery: jihadis, tombs of unknowns, Civil War statuary, the Iwo Jima flag.

What can possibly follow this sweet solemnity, on the last 20 seconds of the ad? I'll spot you three guesses, because none of them will be right: Rick Barber belittling the theatrics of Glenn Beck.

Conservative pot, meet conservative kettle. Play nice.

Deficit Hawks vs. Deficit Posers

| Mon Jun. 28, 2010 11:20 AM PDT

Should we spend more to stimulate the economy? Or spend less because runaway debt is threatening our fiscal health? Ezra Klein comments:

Few economists, I think, would argue against the combination of short-term spending and longer-term deficit reduction if they believed the deficit reduction was certain. But the American political system has a lot of trouble making unpopular choices and some trouble sticking to those choices once they're made.

This is where you might expect a bloc of deficit hawks to step into the middle of the legislative debate with a proposal pairing spending in 2011 with savings beginning in 2014, but we've seen no such thing.

I think I'd put this differently: there is no bloc of deficit hawks. End of story. There are a few individuals here and there who are sincere about cutting the deficit, but a bloc? Not even close. They're almost all posers.

But Kevin, you say, how can you know this? Can you read the minds of men and women three thousand miles away? Actually, no — though it would be pretty cool if I could. But in this case I can do something almost as good: I can look at the public evidence. And that evidence is crystal clear: there are lots of members of Congress who are willing to talk endlessly about deficits, but there are very, very few who are willing to publicly support specific cuts. There are fewer still who are willing to publicly support cuts that might affect any of their own constituents. And there are fewer still who have shown any inclination to actually vote for serious cuts when they've had the power to do so. So: no bloc of deficit hawks.

Still not convinced? Well, Ezra is right that America's political system (like every other democracy's) has a lot of trouble making unpopular choices, but it's not entirely impossible to stick to spending cuts and tax increases once they've been made. It's true that anything one Congress does, another can undo. But the fact is that tax increases have been phased in over time in the past, and the phase-ins have taken effect. Likewise, entitlement cuts have been phased in over time, and those cuts have taken effect. Not always, but a lot of the time. If Congress actually had the will to legislate Medicare and Social Security cuts that phased in over ten years starting in, say, 2013, there's a very strong likelihood that the cuts would happen. The 1983 Social Security compromise, for example, gradually raised the retirement age over a span of two decades starting in 2003, and that has taken place exactly on schedule.

Really, the only serious issue is actually doing it, not having faith that the cuts will actually happen. Discretionary cuts are very difficult to promise credibly, but entitlements have always worked largely on autopilot once the rules are set. If there were genuinely a bloc of deficit hawks in Congress, they'd be willing to vote for both Medicare cuts and tax increases that phase in over a period of years. But almost none of the supposed deficit hawks are willing to do either of these things, let alone both. They're posers.

Drug Pushers in Academia

| Mon Jun. 28, 2010 11:03 AM PDT

The pharmaceutical industry has wormed its way into the hearts and minds of the medical professions in any number of ways—wining and dining doctors, sending them off to vacation in splendid spas, and even buying their names to put on industry-written articles promoting different drugs.

One little known facet of this drugster-doctor relationship is Big Pharma's role in continuing medical education (CME) programs, which are important in keeping medical professionals informed and up to date on the fast developing profession. Of the $2 billion or so spent on these programs every year, nearly half comes from the drug business, which not-so-subtly uses the education programs to push new drugs.

Last week, a conference at Georgetown University called "Prescription for Conflict" pulled together experts from academia, government, and industry to discuss the question: Should industry fund continuing medical education? The main instigator here is a former colleague of mine named Adriane Fugh-Berman, a doctor and teacher at Georgetown University Medical School. Fugh-Berman long ago became the nemesis of Big Pharma with a stream of articles and talks questioning the different aspects of liaison between the drugsters and the medical profession. I worked with her helping to set up PharmedOut.org, a website that seeks to educate the public on these liaisons, in part through exposes, both written and on video.

The conference at Georgetown included few critics as candid as Fugh-Berman. Those gathered included polite academics with hedged criticism of industry funding, and regulators like Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner at the FDA, and Julie Taitsman, chief medical officer at the Department of Health and Human Services, who presented a list of the different laws protecting the public. By the time they finished, I was so frustrated with government bureaucrats that I was about ready to join the tea party (except that they, of course, would want to do even less to control the greedmeisters at Big Pharma).

Kagan Confirmation Hearings: Live Coverage

| Mon Jun. 28, 2010 9:58 AM PDT

Elena Kagan is appearing before the Senate Judiciary committee today for the first of many hearings supposedly designed to assess her suitability for the Supreme Court. I'm covering the action on Twitter. For a primer on what to expect from Kagan's GOP inquisitors, see my preview here.

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The Bilski Business Method Patent Decision

| Mon Jun. 28, 2010 9:42 AM PDT

On Monday, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court ruling that struck down Bernard Bilski and Rand Warsaw's "business method" patent for hedging energy prices against the weather. Some observers had hoped that the court would issue a broad ruling rejecting many "business method" patents—such as Amazon.com's "one-click" purchasing—entirely. (Critics of business method patents argue that you shouldn't be able to get patent protection for something as supposedly "obvious" and vague as one-click ordering.) Instead, the court ruled narrowly, rejecting Bilski and Warsaw's patent but holding open the possibility that other, similar patents might be granted in the future—even if they, like Bilski and Warsaw's patent, didn't meet the generally accepted test of involving a "machine or transformation." Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court, explains:

[I]n a series of cases that extend back over a century, the Court has stated that "[t]ransformation and reduction of an article to a different state or thing is the clue to the patentability of a process claim that does not include particular machines." Application of this test, the so-called "machine-or-transformation test," has thus repeatedly helped the Court to determine what is "a patentable 'process.'" 

[...]

[But] while the machine-or-transformation test has always been a "useful and important clue," it has never been the "sole test" for determining patentability.... The machine-or-transformation test is thus an important example of how a court can determine patentability..., but the Federal Circuit erred in this case by treating it as the exclusive test.

The Bilski/Warsaw patent failed because it involved an "abstract idea," not necessarily because it failed the "machine or transformation" test. That leaves the door open for the Patent Office to continue granting recognition to things like Amazon's one-click. The full decision is here (PDF).

Will Byrd's Passing Sink Wall St. Reform?

| Mon Jun. 28, 2010 9:40 AM PDT

Early this morning, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), a longtime veteran of Congress who fought hard to combat poverty in his home state, died at the age of 92. The longest serving Senator before his death, Byrd's legacy is a mixed one, and his personal and political views has undergone a startling evolution over his 67 years in the House and Senate.

For his former Senate colleagues, Byrd's passing significantly complicates the political calculus on the biggest legislative item now in play: financial reform. Indeed, this morning's news possibly imperils the Senate's passage of the bill agreed to by House and Senate lawmakers last week. When the Senate passed its own version of Wall Street reform in late May, Byrd didn't vote and didn't need to; with four Republicans—Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), and the Maine senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins—joining the Democratic majority, the bill passed, 59-39. (Pennysylvania Democrat Arlen Specter also didn't vote.)

Now, however, Scott Brown is threatening (again) to defect and switch his vote to "no," which he's been doing for weeks. During the conference process, Democrats slipped in a loophole to keep Brown happy, allowing big banks to invest a small percentage of their money in risky hedge funds and private equity funds. (The bill had previously called for banning these kind of investments.) But now Brown is crying foul about a $19 billion tax on banks to pay for the implementation of the bill—and he's mulling whether to vote against the bill when a vote occurs as early as this week.

That's trouble for Democrats. If the other three Republicans vote "yes" again, Democrats still need another vote to make up for Brown's loss. Before this morning, Byrd could've cast that deciding vote, and it's unclear how soon someone will replace Byrd in the Senate. That means Reid, Durbin, and the Dems must either win back Scott Brown, bring Arlen Specter into the fold and get him to vote "yes," or, in the unlikeliest of scenarios, convince some other GOPer to switch his or her vote. And this presumes that all three GOPers who supported the bill in May stick with the Dems—far from a given.

The bill's passage is far from assured. It's going to be a nailbiting week or two for the Democrats.

Have We Won the War on Terror?

| Mon Jun. 28, 2010 8:51 AM PDT

After hearing Leon Panetta estimate al-Qaeda's strength in Afghanistan at about 60-100 members, Dan Drezner wonders if maybe it's time to reassess our national security priorities:

The fact is, Al Qaeda's abilities to execute Grand Guignol-kind of attacks appears to be nil. There have been plenty of opportunities over the past five years for AQ to launch the kind of attack that would put fear into the heart of the West — the USA-England World Cup match, most recently — and there's been nothing.

....Isn't it time that some rational cost-benefit analysis was applied to counter-terrorism policies? In a world where "The [defense budget] gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time," isn't it time for political leaders to argue in favor of resource retrenchment, even if it increases the probability of a successful attack just a smidgen?

Now, Panetta also said that "the main location of Al Qaida is in tribal areas of Pakistan," and ABC's Jake Tapper, for some reason, failed to follow up on that. Still, their overall numbers are probably pretty small even with Pakistan included, which suggests that we've basically won our war against al-Qaeda. So why not continue harrassing them in the various tribal areas with drones and special ops, but otherwise cut back substantially on counterterrorism and use the money on other things? Good answers welcome.

I Miss Chicago Already

| Mon Jun. 28, 2010 8:29 AM PDT

Well, I now have a big mystery on my hands. For several years I've suffered from a chronically sore right shoulder. About six months ago, my left shoulder joined the crowd, and a few months later my neck did too. My entire upper back is now perpetually in pain, especially at night.

But guess what? During my stay in Chicago the pain largely abated. Not completely, but it wasn't nearly as bad as before. I figured this was because I wasn't tapping away at the keyboard all day, but that's not it. Last night, the pain was back as bad as ever, and after getting home from the airport I hadn't done anything more than spend a few minutes clearing out email.

Thus the mystery: what was different about Chicago? The mattress at the hotel? It's the obvious candidate, but it didn't really feel very different from the one we have at home, which is new and seems pretty nice. The pillow? I didn't notice anything special there either. Something in the air? The fact that I took a sleeping pill the first couple of nights? What what what? I sure felt better in the morning there than I do here, though. It's really very annoying to come so close to an answer but still not really have any clue what's going on.