2012 - %3, January

New Frontiers in Nasty Book Reviews

| Tue Mar. 6, 2012 12:54 PM EST

I see that the hounds have been let loose on Amazon today. Matt Yglesias has a new eBook out, The Rent is Too Damn High, and according to the chart accompanying the Amazon page it's already garnered 24 one-star reviews. Not bad! This reviewer explains what's up:

If you purchase this book, you'll be putting money in the pocked of a ghoul who revels in the deaths of people he disagrees with politically. Of course, if this is your intention, you're no better than he.

A few days ago Matt tweeted something nasty about Andrew Breitbart after his death, so now Breitbart's fans — who obviously haven't read the book and don't care about it — are surging into Amazon to take their revenge. Isn't the internet wonderful?

I haven't read the book myself because I'm swamped with other stuff, so I can't say anything in particular about it. However, I'm familiar with Matt's general argument that the high price of city living is an obvious sign that there's high demand for housing in cities, which means that we ought to loosen up zoning and construction regulations and allow more housing to be built. Since cities are engines of economic growth, and bigger cities are even bigger engines, this would be good for everyone. If you want to read his full argument, which I imagine is pretty cogent, it will only set you back $3.99 thanks to the marvel of the Kindle eBook publishing model.

But none of this matters at Amazon itself. Their review section is merely a place to piss on your political enemies. I suppose that's nothing new, but this is certainly a starker example than usual. Caveat lector.

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Driverless Cars Will Be a Boon to Pedestrians

| Tue Mar. 6, 2012 12:26 PM EST

Atrios:

My prediction is that a whole lot of public money will be spent setting up a "driverless car" system that will never actually work.

...adding, I'm sure such a thing would be quite possible (near future if not now) if we built up such a system from scratch. That's not going to happen.

I'll take that bet! The link goes to an odd piece in the Atlantic worrying that in an era of driverless cars everything will be optimized for cars, not people. But that makes no sense. One of the core functions of any driver, human or otherwise, is to avoid running over pedestrians. A driverless car that couldn't do that would be worthless.

My guess is that a big part of the disagreement over the future of driverless cars boils down to a disagreement over how smart computers can get. I think they're going to get pretty smart, and that within a decade or two operating a car will be child's play for them. There will be a transition period that's likely to be messy — though probably no messier than today's all-human traffic nightmare — but eventually you won't even be allowed to drive a car. Every car on the road will be automated, and our grandchildren will be gobsmacked to learn that anything as unreliable as a human being was ever allowed to pilot a two-ton metal box traveling 60 miles an hour.

When that happens, it will be a golden age for pedestrians. Sure, cars won't need signals at intersections, but neither will people. If you want to cross a road, you'll just cross. The cars will slow down and avoid you. You could cross blindfolded and be perfectly safe. You'll be able to cross freeways. You'll be able to walk diagonally across intersections. You'll be able to do anything you want, and the cars will be responsible for avoiding you. Your biggest danger will come from cyclists and other pedestrians, not cars.

That's my guess, anyway.

What Do Rush Limbaugh, Mark Twain, and Sacajawea Have in Common?

| Tue Mar. 6, 2012 12:21 PM EST
Rush Limbaugh

The "Hall of Famous Missourians," a series of busts in the rotunda of the Missouri state capitol, honors the state's history makers, among them native sons and daughters, from Florida, Mo.-born writer Mark Twain to St. Louis Cardinals ace Stan Musial, from Walt Disney to Sacajawea. Now, in a feat of exquisite timing, comes news of the latest addition to the Missouri citizenry's hall of fame: Rush Limbaugh.

This is not a hoax. The foul-mouthed, Viagra-popping, blowhard par excellence of the conservative airwaves will be added to the Hall of Famous Missourians in Jefferson City later this spring, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

But wait—there's more:

House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, confirmed Monday that Limbaugh, who, like Tilley, hails from southeast Missouri, will be honored with a place in the Hall of Famous Missourians, a circle of busts in the Capitol rotunda recognizing prominent Missouri citizens.

The statues are paid for with private funds raised by the speaker.

The unveiling is not expected until closer to the end of the legislative session in May, but, last month, a Kansas City artist published an announcement on his website indicating he was working on sculptures of Limbaugh and Dred Scott, whose landmark slavery case was heard at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis.

Rush Limbaugh and Dred Scott. Talk about a bizarre Class of 2012.

The timing, of course, couldn't be worse for state house speaker Tilley. Limbaugh ignited a national controversy when he branded Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" for testifying in support of the Obama administration's mandate (which includes a religious exemption) that health insurers and employers cover birth control. Twenty of Limbaugh's advertisers (and counting) have ditched his hugely popular radio show. Limbaugh mustered several weak apologies in recent days, but they've done little to quell the furor over his comments while doing much to show Limbaugh's ignorance of the basic facts of how birth control works.

Perhaps Limbaugh should have heeded the sly wisdom of Twain, a fellow Hall of Famous Missourians inductee, who once said, "Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." In the case of Sandra Fluke, Rush Limbaugh failed to do even that much.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 6, 2012

Tue Mar. 6, 2012 11:55 AM EST

US soldiers from 2nd Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment perform maintenance on their tank on Fort Irwin, Calif., February 20, 2012. Photo by US Army Sgt. Zachary A. Gardner, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment Public Affairs Office.

Raw Data: Romney Gaining Ground With Conservatives

| Tue Mar. 6, 2012 11:40 AM EST

The latest ABC/Washington Post poll is in, and it demonstrates an eternal truth: maybe money can't buy you happiness, but it can buy you the Republican nomination for president. Compared to a week ago, Mitt Romney has made huge strides among conservatives of all stripes, including those who describe themselves as very conservative. His favorability ratings are up about ten points among conservatives, compared to no change for Santorum and no change for Gingrich except among the very conservative.

Oddly, although Romney's favorables are up a lot among conservatives, and flat among moderates, this hasn't translated into much improvement among Republicans. I'm not sure how the math works out there. Maybe there's a mistake in the calculations somewhere.

Bloggingheads: Birth Control Edition

| Tue Mar. 6, 2012 11:12 AM EST

Michael Brendan Dougherty of Business Insider and I hold an all-male panel on birth control, whether Obama has the 2012 election locked up, and whether right-wing supporters of Israel are making it harder for Israel to be Zionists by insisting Israel never be criticized. 

 

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Review: "Orpheo Looks Back," by Andrew Bird

| Tue Mar. 6, 2012 7:00 AM EST

TRACK 10

"Orpheo Looks Back"

From Andrew Bird's Break It Yourself

Liner notes: Hitching his wistful voice and elegant violin to a jaunty tempo suggesting an Appalachian hoedown, Andrew Bird evokes a sense of restless longing on this album, his 12th.

Behind the music: The Chicagoan employed his classical violin skills on collaborations with the throwback Southern combo Squirrel Nut Zippers during the '90s. More experimental in his own work, Bird recently appeared on the soundtrack for The Muppets performing "The Whistling Caruso" and scored the indie film Norman.

Check it out if you like: Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Sam Beam (Iron and Wine), and David Byrne—smart, sensitive eccentrics all.

Front page image: Guus Krol/Flickr

Holder: Oversight is a Good Idea if You're Killing U.S. Citizens, But That Doesn't Mean We're Going to Allow Any

| Tue Mar. 6, 2012 1:37 AM EST

Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech today that, among other things, explained at length why the Obama administration believes it has the authority to unilaterally order the killing of a U.S. citizen abroad. Adam Serwer has a good summary here, but I want to focus narrowly on the questions of due process and oversight raised in the speech. Here's Holder:

Let me be clear: an operation using lethal force in a foreign country, targeted against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces, and who is actively engaged in planning to kill Americans, would be lawful at least in the following circumstances: First, the U.S. government has determined, after a thorough and careful review, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; second, capture is not feasible; and third, the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.

....Some have argued that the President is required to get permission from a federal court before taking action against a United States citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces. This is simply not accurate. “Due process” and “judicial process” are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security. The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.

This is, as far as I know, legally correct. "Due process" doesn't always mean a traditional trial. However, the "balancing approach" toward due process that Holder mentions earlier in the speech is generally meant to keep full-blown trials from being required even for fairly minor offenses, something that could grind the criminal justice system to a halt. It's not meant to demean the due process required for something as serious as targeting someone for killing. As Holder acknowledges, "An individual’s interest in making sure that the government does not target him erroneously could not be more significant." Clearly, then, whatever procedure is used here, even if it's not a conventional jury trial, needs to be of the most careful and serious sort. And Holder recognizes this, saying that there should be "robust oversight" of the executive branch in cases like this. So what does that mean?

Which is why, in keeping with the law and our constitutional system of checks and balances, the Executive Branch regularly informs the appropriate members of Congress about our counterterrorism activities, including the legal framework, and would of course follow the same practice where lethal force is used against United States citizens....These circumstances are sufficient under the Constitution for the United States to use lethal force against a U.S. citizen abroad.

That's it! The executive branch "informs" Congress. That's the robust oversight Holder agrees is necessary for cases like this.

I'm glad Holder gave this speech. I'm glad that he expanded (a bit) on the three circumstances that govern the Obama administration's decisions to kill U.S. citizens abroad. I'm glad he agrees that these decisions are "extraordinarily weighty" and "among the gravest that government leaders can face."

Nonetheless, even more than a thousand words of throat clearing can't hide the fact that Holder simply provided no evidence that the rigor of the executive branch's due process procedures matches his rhetoric; no evidence that these procedures are consistently followed; and negative evidence that there's any reasonable oversight of the process. Merely informing Congress is the farthest thing imaginable from rigorous, independent oversight.

Holder's job, of course, was an impossible one. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has made a deliberate decision that actions like this are authorized by a combination of the 2001 AUMF and the president's inherent commander-in-chief powers. By definition, this means that any oversight which limits his actions, even potentially, is unacceptable. And yet, a significant chunk of the public thinks oversight of the executive branch is a good idea. This means that lip service must be paid.

It's a circle that can't be squared. Publicly, Holder has to say that oversight is essential, but in private the actual procedures themselves have to remain toothless. There was never any way to camouflage that, and Holder didn't even really try. If he truly thinks, as he said, that this is "not a departure from our laws and our values," he has a funny idea of what our laws and values are.

POSTSCRIPT: This post wasn't about my own position on this topic, but here it is. I agree that we're at war. Like it or not, the AUMF is an extremely broad grant of authority. I agree that stateless terrorists pose unique challenges. I agree that targeting them for killing is sometimes necessary, even if they're U.S. citizens. I agree that Holder's three principles form a good starting point for deciding when a targeted killing is justified.

But it's simply not tolerable to take the view that the entire world is now a battlefield, and therefore battlefield rules of engagement apply everywhere. If you want to kill a U.S. citizen outside of a traditional hot battlefield, there needs to be independent oversight. The FISA court performs this function for surveillance, and we know from experience that it rarely gets in the government's way. But at least it's technically independent and forces the executive branch to follow its own rules. It's the absolute minimum that we should require for targeted killings too.

Breaking: Demand Curves Slope Downward, Even in Healthcare

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 7:49 PM EST

This is supposedly a surprising result:

Doctors who have easy computer access to results of X-rays, CT scans and MRIs are 40 to 70 percent more likely to order those kinds of tests than doctors without electronic access, according to a study to be published in the March issue of the journal Health Affairs.

....Researchers found that doctors who did not have computerized access ordered imaging tests in 12.9 percent of visits, while doctors with electronic access ordered imaging in 18 percent of visits, a 40 percent greater likelihood. Doctors with computerized access were even more likely — about 70 percent more likely — to order advanced imaging tests, such as PET scans, which experts said are most commonly used to detect cancer, heart problems, brain disorders and other central nervous system disorders.

Hmmm. This is.....exactly what I would have predicted if I'd ever actually thought about this. Computerized access to imaging results does two things: it lowers the cost (in time and hassle) of using the results and it makes the results a lot more useful. I use a thesaurus way more than I used to for exactly the same reason: an electronic thesaurus is less hassle and it's more useful thanks to hyperlinks that allow me to quickly trace through a word tree to find what I'm looking for. So of course I use it more than I ever used my paper copies.

Anyway, it's the next step that's more counterintuitive anyway. The authors suggest that although electronic records are supposed to lower healthcare costs in general, they might not. Although some costs will go down, others — thanks to things like wider use of imaging results — will go up. So it might be a wash.

Which is fine with me. I never bought the notion that electronic records would really restrain costs much anyway. I just think they're a good idea because they'll reduce medical errors and make life more convenient. I've been with Kaiser Permanente for the past few years, and their extensive computerization of everything really does streamline the whole process of dealing with the healthcare system. I'm totally sold, regardless of whether they're saving any money by doing it.

Mandatory Transvaginal Ultrasounds: Coming Soon to a State Near You

| Mon Mar. 5, 2012 6:16 PM EST

As my colleague Maya Dusenbery noted a few days ago, Virginia's new law requiring every woman to undergo an ultrasound before she can get an abortion is still terrible, even if women can opt-out of the transvaginal probe portion.

Most abortions take place within 12 weeks after a woman becomes pregnant. And if the woman has been pregnant for eight weeks or less, conducting an ultrasound generally requires the doctor to insert a probe in a woman's vagina in order to actually see or hear anything. Virginia is not alone in its desire to subject women to invasive probes before they are allowed to get an abortion, a legally protected medical procedure. Twenty states already have laws dictating rules for ultrasounds, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Here are seven other states that have advanced similar measures in the last year:

Alabama: State Sen. Clay Scofield offered his own ultrasound measure a few weeks ago, which included a penalty of up to 10 years in jail and a $15,000 fine if doctors don't carry out the procedure. But Schofield backed off component of the bill that would have required doctors to stick a probe in women's vaginas, instead offering that a woman could undergo the "method of ultrasound that she would be more comfortable with."

Idaho: State Sen. Chuck Winder (R-Boise) has introduced yet another bill requiring an ultrasound before an abortion, expanding upon a law already in place in the state that requires doctors to offer an ultrasound by forcing them to do it and to show the woman the image. As one anti-abortion advocate in the state described it to the local press, the idea behind the law is to make women undergo the procedure because it "gives her a window into her womb."

Illinois: The House Agriculture Committee advanced a bill on February 22 that would require doctors to carry out an ultrasound and show it to the woman, unless she declines to view it in writing. And yes, you read that correctly: the "Ultrasound Opportunity Act" came from the agriculture committee. This prompted opponents to show up at the hearing wearing "Women are not livestock" T-shirts.

Kentucky: The state Senate approved a new bill requiring that a woman undergo an ultrasound before she can get an abortion, and instituting criminal penalties if the ultrasound isn't carried out. The bill is is not expected to advance in the House.

North Carolina: This law passed in 2011 was pretty much exactly like Virginia's, but as the local press pointed out, it didn't get nearly as much attention because people weren't talking about the "transvaginal" aspect. A federal judge ruled last October that doctors don't have to show women the ultrasound image, at least.

Pennsylvania: A pair of Republican state representatives introduced the "Women’s Right to Know Act," which passed out of committee last month before the uproar in Virginia prompted the majority leader to shelve it.

Texas: The Lone Star State was ahead of the curve on transvaginal ultrasounds, passing its bill in May 2011 under "emergency" status. A legal challenge to the law failed last month, and it became effective immediately.