2009 - %3, April

How to Read Poll Results

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 12:01 PM EDT
Consider the poll question below, from a CNN survey emailed to me this morning.  If it is to be believed, 95% of all Americans have an opinion about Turkey.  Question: Is it to be believed?  Do you think 95% of Americans could even find Turkey on a map?

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Breaking News: Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Crazytown) Still Crazy

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 12:00 PM EDT

In a move that shocked absolutely no one, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), said another crazy thing this weekend. This time, the Minnesota Independent reports, she warned that the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, an expansion of AmeriCorps program that has already passed Congress, would lead to "re-education camps for young people, where young people have to go and get trained in a philosophy that the government puts forward and then they have to go to work in some of these politically correct forums." Any non-crazy people who want to get a sense of how non-controversial this bill is should note that it has been praised by David Broder and passed the Senate 79-19.

The far-right blogosphere is having none of that bipartisan nonsense. Steve Benen rounded up some of the reactions here (one blogger compared it to the "Hitler youth"). Of course, the simple fact that the legislation is not, in fact, a plan for a Hitler youth corps or re-education camps is lost on people who are crazy. And while it may be impolitic to point it out, Michele Bachmann, who not only believes in this insane conspiracy theory but also believes that the US is moving towards a unified global currency, thinks that people should be "armed and dangerous" opposing cap-and-trade legislation, and supports a McCarthyite investigation of "anti-American" liberals, is clearly crazy. She's also a member of Congress, which means we unfortunately have to pay more attention to her than your average kook on the street corner (or your average crazy rightwing blogger or talk radio host, for that matter). Sorry.

What To Do About that North Korean Missile Launch

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 11:50 AM EDT

North Korea wants some attention. So on Sunday it launched a missile that failed to place a satellite in orbit but did travel about 2000 miles, twice as far as previous Korean missiles. President Barack Obama decried this "provocative act." At the United Nations, members of the Security Council met but could not put together a response. So what should be done? New America Foundation think-tanker Steve Clemons has some solid thoughts:

Barack Obama in a well-crafted speech in Prague calling for a return to serious work on constraining the spread of weapons of mass destruction has ratcheted up the decibel level of his protest of the North Korea launch -- saying that their must be consequences.

The problem is that China and Russia, which actually deployed warships and fighters to the region of the launch, believe that the world must not overreact to North Korea's provocation. These two countries have thus far blocked the issuance of any statement from the United Nations Security Council, which met last evening (Sunday) for an emergency session.

North Korea seems to be demanding that it not fall too far down the Obama priority list -- and it has engineered one of the first of many probable global crises designed to test the resolve and strategic course of the Obama administration....

North Korea is already the target of some of the world's most stringent sanctions. And maintaining them -- and even adding some categories of sanctions -- does send a signal, but it is a soft one that the North Koreans may not care about or respect.

If this provocation was designed primarily "to get attention," then the Obama administration should be asking what can be done to give North Korea "more" attention. Attention itself is not a strategic commodity -- or something that a great nation should withhold if there is a chance of securing strategically significant successes over the ability of North Korea to further enhance its nuclear weapon systems capacity.

Giving North Korea more attention will be pilloried as appeasement by voices such as John Bolton and Frank Gaffney who think that there is little else but expedited regime change and military collision that will change North Korea's course.

But what I have learned watching North Korea's engagement with the US over the years is that North Korea does not move behaviorally in straight lines. But after all is said and done, when one looks back, one sees that North Korea is moving generally in a direction that the West may eventually be able to accept.

Clemons suggests that Obama not "put himself into a box" by talking too tough about this particular provocation. He advises Obama to throw some "attention" at North Korea, while keeping the ongoing negotiations (involving China and Russia) alive and while craftily devising ways to embolden and strengthen those interests within North Korea--be they robber barons or so-called progressives who want better relations (or some relations with the outside world)--that might possibly be at odds with Kim Jong Il's regime.

Clemons, a realist-minded expert on Asia, adds:

Bluster [from the United States and other nations] will not work and is not respected. Force actually is respected by the North Koreans but can easily escalate beyond control.

North Korea is not monolithic. It would be prudent to try to generate some leverage on the competing factions around Kim Jong Il.

But hitting North Korea hard now may undermine any chance of teasing out these factions and of generating other more promising scenarios.

In politics, it certainly is difficult to respond to a potential threat (even an exaggerated one) by saying, "We're going to tease out a more promising scenario." And in this instance, neocons and other hawks will be eager to deride and attack any approach that is not a full-throated roar of aggression. For his part, Obama will have to be careful about the rhetoric he uses--so as to not decrease his own options and undermine a policy that might have to depend more on nuance than swagger. That certainly is easier said than done.

Larry's Problems

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 11:48 AM EDT
Ezra Klein comments on the recent disclosures of Larry Summers' Croesus-like wealth, garnered in the years before he went to work for the White House:

We now know that in 2008, Summers received more than $5 million from the hedge fund D.E Shaw and more than $2.7 million in speaking fees from other Wall Street firms — including $135,000 for a single appearance before Goldman Sachs. These are sums that would make Tom Daschle positively blush, and they likely would have posed a serious threat had Summers been named Secretary of the Treasury.

Really?  Robert Rubin ran Goldman Sachs.  Paul O'Neill was CEO of Alcoa.  John Snow was CEO and chairman of CSX.  Henry Paulson was another Goldman CEO.

Every one of these gentlemen make Larry Summers look like a pauper.  So why would petty cash levels of consulting and speaking fees have caused him any headaches?  I thought his problem wasn't money, but his deeply held belief that girls can't do long division and we should ship all our toxic waste to Chad.  In the face of that, who cares about a lousy few million bucks?

Voice Mail

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 11:15 AM EDT
Responding to a recent New York Times piece about the demise of voice mail, Matt Yglesias says, "If you leave a message on my office voicemail, forget about it. I’m not even entirely sure I know how to check it." James Joyner agrees: "I often forget to check my voice mail for days on end and my wife simply won’t check a message, preferring to return any missed calls that show up on her mobile."  And Andrew Sullivan warns us: "I check my voice mail once a week. Just so you know."

I've never had quite the aversion to voice mail that these folks do1, but still, I understand.  Death to voice mail.  One thing, though: I hope everyone who hates voice mail at least records an outgoing message warning callers that a callback is unlikely and providing some other way of getting in touch.  It's one thing not to like voice mail, but it's quite another to have it on your phone and then just leave people hanging wondering why they never heard back from you.

1True story: I once wrote a remarkably full-featured piece of Windows software solely to keep track of voice mail at work.  It started out as a project to teach myself SQL programming and sort of mushroomed from there.  What a waste.  But it was fun at the time.

What's Wrong with Independent Bookstores

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 11:01 AM EDT

Courtesy of Tim Dickinson

So we recently lost our local bookstore. MoJo really tried to support Stacey's on Market St,* our research team went there before Amazon, we bought lots of gift certificates, we are sad to see them go. Well, mostly. I know this is sacrilege, but I actually thought the store was frustrating and found it a struggle to shop there. And Stacey's isn't the only guilty party. I have seen other indy bookstores follow these troubling trends that lead customers to, gasp, Amazon. I'm not under any illusions that my piddly gripes are why Stacey's closed, or why Cody's did before them (and the list in each city goes on), but they sure didn't help matters.

Lots of floors/sections, not lots of signs
The trend in most independent bookstores seems to be to steer the reader to the customer service kiosk. Which is great, to talk to a live human with knowledge, but not great if they are on the phone, or nowhere to be found, or just plain huffy that they need to tell the hundreth person where to find Atlas Shrugged. People need to be instantly gratified and they don't like to get lost, so make it easy, or at least easier.

I know you know more than I do
So it's shocking and all kinds of wrong that the guy behind the counter at Barnes & Noble has to look up who Toni Morrison is (?!) but lots of bookish folks go the other way at mom-and-pop shops. How can I not know the complete works of Dostoyevsky? Sorry, I am not as smart as you, and sometimes I don't even know the title or the author of the book I am looking for, and certainly not how to find it according to your store's Dewey Decimal code. Cut me some slack, or I might go back to Barnes & Noble where I feel smart.

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Fun With Phosphates

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 10:46 AM EDT
The blogosphere had a few laughs last week at the expense of RedState head honcho Eric Erickson, who warned that revolution was coming and told residents of Washington state, "I’d be cleaning my gun right about now waiting to protect my property from the coming riots or the government apparatchiks coming to enforce nonsensical legislation."  The subject was.....phosphate-free dishwasher detergent.

Seriously.  But guess what?  This story isn't quite the stuff of populist wrath Erickson thinks.  Yes, Spokane has banned the dishwasher detergent with phosphates and Washington state will follow suit next year.  And yes, residents of Spokane have been sneaking into Idaho to buy boxes of Cascade and Electrasol.  But check this out, from today's LA Times:

For those inclined to chuckle at the travails of distant, desperate people with dirty dishes, consider this: The detergent industry has pledged to make every automatic dishwashing soap sold in the U.S. and Canada nearly phosphate-free by mid-2010.

With 12 states — including Washington — phasing in low-phosphate laws by the end of next year and four others considering them, industry officials say they are gearing up to produce a new generation of products that will clean dishes while not harming lakes and streams. (The California Legislature passed a phosphate law last year, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.)

The pledge marks a significant turnaround for an industry that until recently not only opposed such laws but also warned that many phosphate-free dishwashing detergents didn't work the way consumers expected them to.

But plenty soon will be available, said Dennis Griesing, vice president of government affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Soap and Detergent Assn.

So here's the deal.  Phosphates really are a danger, creating runoff that kills fish and plants.  And Spokane has a uniquely bad problem with phosphates.  And apparently it's entirely possible to create phosphate-free detergents.  The industry just didn't feel like doing it.

But now their hands are being forced.  And guess what?  It turns out they can do it after all.  Imagine that.

Big Pharma Psychs Out the Shrinks

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 3:36 AM EDT

Just about everyone by now knows how the drug industry works to poison the minds of American doctors—not that many of them have resisted drinking the Kool-Aid, which comes in the form of ego-tripping awards, junkets, dinners, research funding, and cash in exchange for endorsing or prescribing the most lucrative drugs. But even against this backdrop of sleaze, the latest news on the ties between Big Pharma and Big Psych could take your breath away.

It turns out that not just some, but most of the shrinks who wrote the American Psychiatric Association’s most recent clinical guidelines for treating depression, bipolar disorders, and schizophrenia—which together account for $25 billion in prescription drug sales annually—had financial ties to drug companies, according a study to be published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, as reported in the Boston Globe.

Summarizing the findings, which were compiled by researchers largely from public records, the Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report states:

According to the study, 18 of the 20 authors of the guidelines had at least one financial tie to drug companies. Twelve authors had ties in at least three categories, such as consulting, research grants, speaking fees or stock ownership, the study found. In addition, the study found that all of the authors of schizophrenia and bipolar guidelines had relationships with the drug industry, while 60% of the authors of the depression guidelines had such connections. According to the study, more than 75% of the authors received funding for research from drug companies. In addition, one-third of the authors served on the speakers’ bureaus of drug companies, the study shows.

Poverty and Stress

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 12:11 AM EDT
The Washington Post reports today on a research project headed by Gary Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University.  Evans decided to investigate the influence of stress levels on cognitive impairment in children:

"We know low-socioeconomic-status families are under a lot of stress — all kinds of stress. When you are poor, when it rains it pours. You may have housing problems. You may have more conflict in the family. There's a lot more pressure in paying the bills. You'll probably end up moving more often. There's a lot more demands on low-income families. We know that produces stress in families, including on the children," Evans said.

For the new study, Evans and a colleague rated the level of stress each child experienced using a scale known as "allostatic load." The score was based on the results of tests the children were given when they were ages 9 and 13 to measure their levels of the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine, as well as their blood pressure and body mass index....The subjects also underwent tests at age 17 to measure their working memory, which is the ability to remember information in the short term. Working memory is crucial for everyday activities as well as for forming long-term memories.

"It's critical for learning," Evans said. "If you don't have good working memory, you can't do things like hold a phone number in your head or develop a vocabulary."

When the researchers analyzed the relationships among how long the children lived in poverty, their allostatic load and their later working memory, they found a clear relationship: The longer they lived in poverty, the higher their allostatic load and the lower they tended to score on working-memory tests. Those who spent their entire childhood in poverty scored about 20 percent lower on working memory than those who were never poor, Evans said.

This is, in a sense, discouraging news.  You can't solve problems unless you first understand the objective reality underlying them, so if Evans's results are confirmed it will be good in that sense.  But stress?  What would it take to make the lives of poor children substantially less stressful?  The resources to tackle that could be harder to marshal than the resources to eradicate poverty itself.  If stress really turns out to be a significant factor in the cognitive development of poor children, addressing the problem may have just gotten harder, not easier.

Sean Hannity Is Right Yet Again

| Sun Apr. 5, 2009 6:02 PM EDT
On Friday, in Strasbourg, President Obama said:

I know that there have been honest disagreements over policy, but we also know that there's something more that has crept into our relationship.

In America, there's a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world. Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America's shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.

But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious. Instead of recognizing the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what's bad.

Ali Frick, who, like Obama, has a foreign sounding name and obviously hates America, notes with a sneer that Sean Hannity chose to highlight only the second paragraph of this before declaring that "the liberal tradition of 'blame America first,' well, that's still alive."  Nice try, Ali.  But Hannity is right: Obama may have blamed Europe second, but he blamed America first, didn't he?  What's the problem?

Also worth noting: Mike Huckabee fulsomely agreed with Hannity, and everyone knows that he's the friendly, cuddly version of right-wing nutcasery.  Since Huckabee didn't object, that must mean Hannity was being fair and balanced, as usual.

(But seriously: Sean Hannity is still obsessing over Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright?  Jeebus. Can't he come up with some slightly fresher canard to hurl into the insane-o-sphere five nights a week?  Like maybe Obama is a golem or something?  He's not going to keep this up for eight years, is he?)