2005 - %3, June

Flag Burning

| Thu Jun. 16, 2005 5:00 PM EDT

Never let it be said that Congress does nothing useful. Why, it looks like the Senate is within a vote or two of passing a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning. That ought to put an end to the rampant and widespread flag desecration going on in this country:

Scenes of foreigners burning American flags may be common on TV, but such desecration is rare in this country. The Citizens Flag Alliance, an advocacy group that supports a constitutional amendment, reports a decline in flag desecration incidents, with only one this year.

But it's one too many, no doubt! Here's a question though. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) says we need to put an end to flag-burning because it's "offensive conduct." Right you are, Mr. Hatch. As is, by the way, flying the Confederate flag. So how many Senators want to take up a ban on the ol' "Southern Cross," do you think? Oh, right. Thought so.

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Pension Funds and Ponzi Schemes

| Thu Jun. 16, 2005 4:04 PM EDT

Martha Paskoff Welsh of the Century Foundation has a valuable report on Congress' role in creating the current pension fund crisis. Here's what it comes down to:

Congress repeatedly has passed legislation that enables corporations to underfund their pensions, overstate their profits, and postpone to another day any action that would lead them to keep their promises to employees. At the same time, Congress has passed laws making it more difficult for struggling workers and retirees to file for bankruptcy protection. The pattern is consistent: give business the breaks they need to avoid responsibilities to their employees while cracking down on households in trouble.

Is there any way out of this? Well, a few months ago Michael Hudson wrote in Harper's that Bush's plan to privatize Social Security can be seen as a last-ditch attempt to bail out companies that have underfunded their pensions, primarily by giving stock prices a much-needed jolt. Perhaps. My sense is that the plot to phase-out Social Security has less to do with dastardly corporate bailout schemes—see William Greider for more along these lines—and more to do with simple ideology. Conservatives hate Social Security as a program; after all, it's the shining, popular symbol of the New Deal and the triumph of big-government liberalism, even though there's nothing all that "big government" about Social Security (all it does is take money in and pay money out; no labyrinthine bureaucracies here.) Still, it is rather convenient that privatization just happens to help Congress and large corporations patch over the pension-fund Ponzi scheme they've been running all these years, isn't it?

Exit Strategies

| Thu Jun. 16, 2005 2:05 PM EDT

Over at TPMCafe, Anne-Marie Slaughter lays out her "plan" for Iraq, which involves… internationalizing the situation. Hm, where have we heard that before? At any rate, her post is worth reading, and it's important to stress, as she does, that promoting democracy alone won't cut it—creating a liberal world order is also quite crucial.

That said, it does seem that bringing in international contractors, making the reconstruction process more transparent, fixing our interrogation practices, all of those things are laudable goals, but don't quite get at the fundamental problem in Iraq: namely, that there are a wide swath of Sunnis who aren't happy with the power and status they've lost, and believe they can recoup much of that beginning to fight; along with a wide swath of Shia who have no intention of weakening their newly-won majority. That's not the only problem of course; tensions in Kirkuk between Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomen certainly have the potential to erupt and explode and leave hundreds of thousands dead, but the main source of tension seems to be between the insurgents and the government.

What it would take to sort this out is beyond me. Perhaps "staying the course," meaning the military would continue to hunt insurgents down, continue to hope that the Sunnis can be drawn into the political process (this is a promising step), and continue to keep building Iraq where and when it can. Have patience, keep their fingers crossed, and hope not too many people die. Another option is a limited withdrawal. The problem is that once the U.S. starts down the path of withdrawing its troops, there's no turning back if it proves to be a mistake. So unless all the mounting pressure for an exit strategy coming out Congress turns into something significant, then, it looks like the status quo will pretty much be the strategy for a long while.

Baby-faced Biases

| Wed Jun. 15, 2005 7:02 PM EDT

The Times of London highlights some interesting research about voter preferences:

Psychologists in the United States have discovered that voters tend to judge politicians with more immature features as less competent, and thus tend to favour opponents with a more grown-up appearance.

Baby-faced politicians, it turns out, are out of luck. But hey, maybe voters "gut feelings" aren't entirely awry; maybe it's the case that leaders with immature features do tend to be, on average, less competent. After all, in Malcolm Gladwell's recent book, Blink, the author laments the fact that CEOs tend to be taller than the average person, and concludes that human "heuristics"—short-cuts used to make judgments about people—are leading us astray into groundless biases. But is the "tall CEO" bias necessarily a grave and mortal error? It's possible, after all, that taller people are, on average, more likely to have grown up being taller than their peers, and hence more confident, more assertive, etc. That's just a wild guess, but it's certainly possible.

So what about baby-faced politicians? Well, Alex Tabarrok notes an earlier set of studies by the same researchers showing that "babyfaced men are actually more intelligent, better educated, more assertive and apt to win more military medals than their mature-looking counterparts." In this case, then, it looks like our heuristics actually are leading us astray, perhaps leading us to choose less competent leaders. Needless to say, that's not a good thing.

New at Mother Jones

| Wed Jun. 15, 2005 4:30 PM EDT

Trade Imbalance
By Bradford Plumer
Free trade is a perfectly good idea. That's why CAFTA needs to be junked.

Children of a Lesser Prefrontalasaurus
By Bill Santiago
Intelligent design -- my favorite impulse buy.

The Scalping Party
By Mike Davis
A tolerance for atrocity is now enshrined at every level of American culture.

Underground Man: An Interview with Pedro Luis Ferrer.
By Lygia Navarro
He's famous in Cuba as a musical innovator and sharp social critic. Fidel Castro is not a fan.

We Heart Abstinence

| Wed Jun. 15, 2005 3:46 PM EDT

Let's play dueling press releases. Here's the Department of Health and Human Services:

HHS today announced first-year findings showing that students participating in abstinence education programs have a more positive view toward abstinence than students not participating.

Here's Advocates for Youth:

Evaluation of these 11 [abstinence-only] programs showed few short-term benefits and no lasting, positive impact. A few programs showed mild success at improving attitudes and intentions to abstain. No program was able to demonstrate a positive impact on sexual behavior over time. A description follows of short- and long-term impacts, by indicator.

But at least these kids have a "more positive view" of abstinence.

Update: More here.

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The Future of Darfur

| Wed Jun. 15, 2005 3:41 PM EDT

In the American Prospect today, Rob Garver has a very good bit of reporting on liberal evangelicals and their push for legislation to help Darfur.

Meanwhile, Eugene Oregon is right: Darfur is all set to turn into decade-long, intractable conflict where millions die and no one pays attention. Much like the Congo today (where 3.5 million have died since 1998, and there are fears that war could start up again), or Uganda. Although I'd note a key difference: Sudan has oil, and Islamic terrorists. Hm... oil wealth plus massive instability plus Islamic terrorists. Nope, doesn't seem like the sort of thing we should be paying attention to. Hey, didn't that Michael Jackson guy just get off...

Utterly Discredited, Media Circus Edition

| Wed Jun. 15, 2005 3:17 PM EDT

I can't think of any topic I'd rather talk about less than Terry Schiavo. The whole ordeal was sick beyond belief and deeply offensive. But now that they've released the results of her autopsy, it's important to go back and emphasize that the Republicans who engineered the whole fiasco—Bill Frist, Tom DeLay, Jeb Bush, others—were wholly, utterly wrong about everything. They were liars. Frauds. Slanderers. Here's Andrew Sullivan:

In her final days, Terri Schiavo was blind and her brain was about half its expected size. She wasn't in a PVS? Please. Bill Frist needs to acknowledge his reckless political opportunism at the time. The attempts of the fringe, theocon right to allege that her husband abused her have also been exposed as malicious falsehoods. Remember the lies that were told, the junk science that the theocons came up with, the endless slanders and misrepresentations? It's rare that we get an objective resolution of a fiercely disputed matter. We have now. And it ain't pretty.

Well, it's a bit quaint for Sullivan to think that Frist is going to "acknowledge his reckless political opportunism," but the rest is absolutely right. The party of junk science does not deserve to have its claims taken seriously by the media, not now, not ever.

Utterly discredited? You've got the job.

| Wed Jun. 15, 2005 12:39 AM EDT

OK, now we've seen everything. Philip A. Cooney, the White House staffer who last week got busted for "revising" government scientific reports to minimize the link between human activity and global warming, is going to work for ... ExxonMobil!

Just posted at the New York Times:

An Exxon spokesman, Tom Cirigliano, declined to describe Mr. Cooney's new job. Associates of Mr. Cooney said he planned to move to Dallas. Mr. Cooney did not return e-mail or phone messages.ExxonMobil has long financed advertising and lobbying efforts that question whether human-caused warming poses sufficiently serious risks to justify curbing carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas emitted by smokestacks and tailpipes.

Today, Mr. Cirigliano said the oil company was committed to acting responsibly on the issue. ...

Some climate scientists and environmental campaigners said Mr. Cooney's quick shift from the White House to Exxon was evidence of a near-seamless relationship between the Bush administration and the oil industry.

"Perhaps he won't even notice he has changed jobs," said David G. Hawkins, who directs the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private environmental group.

No matter how cynical you get, you just can't keep up with these guys.

More Underinsurance

| Tue Jun. 14, 2005 8:12 PM EDT

On the subject of health care, the uninsured, and the underinsured, Matthew Holt makes a good point about the Health Affairs study mentioned below. Stating the total number of un- or underinsured in a given year misses the scope of the problem: "[I]t's the flow of people through un- and under- insurance that's such a big issue, with more than 80m uninsured for at least 3 months in a 4 year period." Very true.

UPDATE: Also, here's "another good reason to choose your income level, (and by extension that of your parents) carefully."