2005 - %3, August

Oil and Terrorism

| Fri Aug. 5, 2005 3:43 PM EDT

Weaning the United States off oil certainly sounds like a worthy goal, but today's Tom Friedman column on the subject—a column he's recycled on several occasions—gets a bit off track when he tries to make the national security case for energy independence: "[W]e are in a war. It is a war against open societies mounted by Islamo-fascists, who are nurtured by mosques, charities and madrasas preaching an intolerant brand of Islam and financed by medieval regimes sustained by our oil purchases." Well, regardless of what you think of all this, we're simply not going to drain the Saudi coffers and bleed terrorism dry by driving our hybrids to work: the extra oil we don't use will just get slurped up by China or India or any number of other developing countries with a growing demand for energy.

Perhaps a better way to think about energy independence and national security, as Joseph Braude pointed out several months ago, would involve weaning other Middle Eastern countries off oil. Most countries in the region, after all, are quickly depleting their own reserves, which means that they'll need to rely, increasingly, on good old Saudi crude. But an increasing reliance on Saudi crude comes with strings attached: oil-needy countries like Jordan and Lebanon often feel the pressure to turn a blind eye to the Saudi-financed Wahhabi mosques that proliferate within their own borders, which simply helps spread that "intolerant brand of Islam" that Friedman's concerned about. Ending this cycle of dependency seems much more feasible, and perhaps more effective from a national security standpoint.

On the other hand, let's not kid ourselves; Saudi Arabia will be getting rich off oil sales for a long, long time, regardless of what we do, so pretending that some "geo-green" strategy can end the flow of funds to radical mosques, charities, and medrasas, is a bit wishful. At the same time, though, if Friedman really wants to insist on making a bad argument in pursuit of a worthy goal, well, he can go right ahead.

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Open Caskets?

| Fri Aug. 5, 2005 2:28 PM EDT

Yesterday the Pentagon agreed to continue releasing official photos of the stateside arrival of dead soldier's coffins. The legal settlement comes more that a year after a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Memory Hole's Russ Kick resulted in the release of about three hundred such photos taken at Dover Air Force base, the country's only military mortuary.

But the agreement still doesn't allow the media to come onto the bases and film or photograph the arrival of coffins. So it seems that if the Army is still worried about passing the "Dover test"—the point at which the populations stomach for the war is over taken by the sight of flag-draped bodies—all it would have to do is stop taking its own pictures, right?

Pass the Pork!

| Thu Aug. 4, 2005 6:47 PM EDT

One of the supposed "downsides" to term limits for members of Congress has always been that the never-ending supply of "newbie" representatives on the Hill would get eaten alive by their more-experienced lobbyist counterparts. Indeed, some folks have claimed this has happened here in California, where various special interest groups—businesses, primarily, but let's not forget the ever-present correctional officers union—supposedly know the terrain in Sacramento better than the term-limited elected officials do, and rarely fail to get their way.

That line of reasoning seems dubious, though. Wouldn't special interests prefer to have stable and predictable pathways of access? If you're a lobbyist or other interest group, isn't it better to have a longtime ally installed in the Speaker of the House slot, say, than constantly have to worm your way into the hearts of incoming freshmen, most of whom have hardly learned how to get you things? And doesn't the fact that "special interests" of all stripes raised millions of dollars in 1990 to block the term limit initiative in California suggest that they've always known this? Yeah, probably.

Anyway, one clear upside to term limits for members of Congress is that, while it wouldn't lead to fiscal responsibility—it sure hasn't in California—at the very least, the constant rotation of representatives would ensure that the billions of dollars in pork each year gets spread around the country more evenly. Frankly, if Republicans don't care about pork-barrel spending, than neither should we—surely it must create jobs somewhere, right? good ol' Keynesian spending? Still, when a lifelong House member, Don Young (R-AK), can haul down nearly $1 billion in highway spending for his little wasteland of state, well, then it's time to start sharing the wealth. (Yes, yes, just kidding about the "wasteland" bit. I heart Alaska.)

An Air America Cover-Up?

| Thu Aug. 4, 2005 5:11 PM EDT

Supposedly there's some sort of potential scandal in the making that concerns Air America and shady financing. I haven't followed the story because, frankly, I don't care. If wrongdoing took place, then let the wrong-doers hang. We'll find out when the investigation wraps up, won't we? Nevertheless, Hugh Hewitt wants to make a point about media bias:

We know a lot about the medications Rush Limbaugh has taken.

We know a great deal about Bill O'Reilly's troubles.

But thus far we don't know much about how Al Franken got paid the big bucks last year, when all of the mainstream media seemed to be cheering his debut.

Well gee whiz folks. The media was all over a celebrity drug scandal, all over a celebrity sex scandal, but just hasn't perked its ears at a scandal involving complex financial transactions and potentially shady-record keeping. If you can think of any reasons why this might be the case, do let Hugh Hewitt know about your very interesting theory.

Okay, that's a bit glib. If Air America really did steal money from poor kids, or whatever they supposedly did, the media should follow up. On the other hand, Hewitt's being naïve as usual: the media's always slow to investigate this sort of scandal. According to a Lexis-Nexis search, the New York Times didn't start running stories about Tom Noe's coin scandal in Ohio until May 21, 2005—about a month after the Toledo Blade first broke the story. All in all, the Times has only run one piece on the subject that exceeded 500 words, apart from a Paul Krugman op-ed. And by any standard, Coingate matters far more than Al Franken. Some sort of liberal bias might be factoring into the Times' silence on Air America, but my money's on rather different, and far more deeply-entrenched, factors at work here.

Tell me who are you?

| Thu Aug. 4, 2005 3:47 PM EDT

When parts of the Washington press corps got egg on their faces for circulating suggestions from "sources close to the White House" that Judge Edith Clement would get Bush's Supreme Court nod, some wondered who exactly these oft-quoted, and off-the-mark, leakers were. Now Ryan Lizza has a handy guide to the dozen or so folks who will talk when the White House won't. Keep it bookmarked for the next time their names pop (or don't pop) up.

Roberts Bait-and-Switch

| Thu Aug. 4, 2005 2:41 PM EDT

The front page of the Los Angeles Times breathlessly reports: "Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. worked behind the scenes for gay rights activists, and his legal expertise helped them persuade the Supreme Court to issue a landmark 1996 ruling protecting people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation."

Oh my, so maybe Roberts isn't such a run-of-the-mill right-winger after all, eh?

Wrong.

Reading the story closely, it becomes clear that Roberts himself didn't take up this case, nor did he act as chief litigator. His firm, Hogan & Hartson, took up the case pro bono, and the firm "expected" its employees to pitch in from time to time. A colleague in need of assistance approached Roberts, because he was the guy who knew what sort of arguments would best appeal to a relatively conservative Supreme Court. And Roberts, quite naturally, helped out, and did a very professional job of it, because he's an extremely smart lawyer. Nor does it seem so unlikely that he would have forgotten to mention a decade-old case for which he provided incidental help. The whole ordeal seems perfectly ordinary, and doesn't provide any indication that Roberts might somehow cast a friendly eye on gay rights as a sitting justice on the Supreme Court. In all likelihood, he won't. So to answer Kevin Drum's question, some liberal muckraker probably floated this story to the Times to roil up a bit of discontent with Roberts among the religious right. If they take the bait, good, but liberal opponents of Roberts really shouldn't get their hopes up.

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Anti-Marriage Futility

| Thu Aug. 4, 2005 2:10 PM EDT

In this month's Reason, Julian Sanchez tracks the ongoing battle over gay parenting. One quote, I think, nicely captures the bizarreness of the anti-gay-adoption position: "many policies don't prevent gay couples from raising children; they just make life more difficult for gay parents and their children." Indeed, barring serious intrusions by the state into the American household—intrusions that no doubt the James Dobson crowd is mulling over right this very second—it's virtually impossible to prevent gay couples from raising children. So the net effect of the crusade against gay marriage will be that gay couples end up raising kids out of wedlock, and many will become, as Jonathan Rauch once put it, "walking billboards for the joys of co-habitation." Now this is just a guess, but it seems that that trend will end up undermining the "institution of marriage" far more than equality for all couples ever would.

Uninsured Kids

| Thu Aug. 4, 2005 1:35 PM EDT

According to a new study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, upwards of 8.4 million children went uninsured in the United States last year, and as one would expect, many of those go without medical care or fail to go see a doctor when they need one. That's appalling, sure, but what really stands out here is that over 70 percent of these children could enroll in public health care programs—such as Medicaid or SCHiP—but don't, likely because their parents don't even know that their children are eligible.

Part of the blame here rests with state governments, which don't exactly walk the extra mile to alert people to these programs, or else make the requirements bewildering, in order to keep costs down. But setting that aside, this also highlights the fact that, very often, improving health care for the poor depends less on expanding insurance and more on making health care more convenient. In his book, The Escape From Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100, Robert Fogel notes:

Keep in mind that the poor are already entitled to health care under Medicaid and that the near poor often receive free health care through county or city hospitals and emergency rooms. Most proposals for extending health insurance involve taxing their wages for services they already receive. Such insurance may relieve the pressure on the public purse, but it will not guarantee better health care. I believe that screening in schools and community clinics has a better chance at success than unexercised theoretical entitlements.

As an argument against universal health care, this seems a bit tendentious. But as an argument that policymakers need to think less about the bewildering world of health insurance and more about making health care accessible—say, improving prenatal care, or free screening at schools, or community health centers—Fogel's on the right path.

Rein in the Advertising

| Wed Aug. 3, 2005 8:25 PM EDT

Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post reports today that drug company executives have "acknowledged that they had gone overboard in advertising some products and laid out a set of voluntary guidelines for doing better in the future." That sounds nice, but what are the guidelines? Here:

They require companies to provide doctors with more timely information about a drug before touting it on the evening news. They should result in ads that give consumers more useful information and present a better balance between medical risks and benefits. And they may even reduce the risk that you'd have to interrupt the Super Bowl to explain erectile dysfunction to your inquiring 8-year-old.

Better than nothing, I suppose, but this doesn't begin to scrape at the problem, not so long as drug companies increasingly find ways to market new and controversial diseases—diseases that usually just so happen to require drug therapy—and not so long as doctors, many of whom have an overly cozy relationship with the pharmaceutical industry, tend to offer pills for nearly any ailment you can think of. Meanwhile, the new guidelines don't restrict advertising for the many brand-name drugs that offer little or no benefit over cheaper generics. Pearlstein is right on when he notes that most drug advertising is aimed at "artificially creat[ing] the impression in the minds of consumers that such a need exists," even when such a need doesn't exist. And so long as the industry is able to peddle that impression, Americans will continue to spend more and more on drugs they may not even need or benefit from, while premiums and public spending continue to skyrocket.

Sudan on Edge

| Wed Aug. 3, 2005 3:59 PM EDT

In the Lebanon Daily Star, Julie Flint writes on the dire consequences of the death of Sudanese leader John Garang: "For all Garang's flaws, his vision of a 'new Sudan' was a noble one from which he never deviated for an instant, even though a majority of southerners, even within the SPLA and SPLM, reject the unity for which he fought. They want separation. Garang's death puts the new Sudan in jeopardy." See also Eric Reeves' essay on how Garang's death could accelerate the Darfur genocide.