2010 - %3, September

Jerry Brown's Stage of Life

| Sun Sep. 26, 2010 4:33 PM EDT

I'm curious. Jerry Brown has been running the ad on the right for the past week or so here in California. It ends with this line:

We've got to pull together not as Republicans or as Democrats, but as Californians first. At this stage in my life, I'm prepared to do exactly that.

Question: is this an effective way to blunt criticism that he's old and kind of tired looking? Would you buy the idea that Brown is now sort of an elder statesman who no longer has a career to worry about and only wants to do what's best for the state? It actually seems sort of clever and possibly effective to me, but what do I know? Comments?

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Is Diet Coke Dangerous?

| Sun Sep. 26, 2010 1:04 PM EDT

Adam Ozimek is perplexed that so many of his friends think that diet soda is dangerous or causes cancer. After reviewing the considerable evidence that they're all perfectly safe, he says:

You can’t really be suspicious of artificial sweeteners without taking a paranoid stance towards leading health and scientific organizations in this country, and towards science itself. Most educated people who hold suspicions about artificial flavorings nevertheless trust the conclusions of science and scientific institutions on other issues, like global warming and evolution. So how do these people decide when to trust scientific consensus and when not to? If you’re going to be a scientific nihilist, then you should do so consistently.

Generally speaking, I agree that laymen ought to have some kind of consistent attitude toward consensus in the scientific community. However, I think there's one reasonable way that people might hold what seem like inconsistent views on scientific matters like this: they don't trust results in which powerful private interests clearly have a lot of lobbying power. So you might believe that global warming is real because there's a scientific consensus in favor of it even though lots of money from the business community is fighting it. Conversely, you might be suspicious of aspartame for fear that the scientific results are skewed by tidal waves of money from the food industry sponsoring studies designed to find it safe. After all, it's happened before with cigarettes and asbestos and PCBs and lead and benzene and chromium 6 and beryllium and Vioxx and a million other things.

There are limits here, and people who cross them risk sliding into conspiracy theory territory. But you don't have to be anywhere near that territory to be (a) suspicious of results hawked by self-interested private corporations and (b) equally suspicious that these private interests have a lot of influence over government regulators. So it might make perfect sense to believe that cigarettes are dangerous and global warming is real but remain skeptical that aspartame is safe or that GM foods have been thoroughly tested.

(For the record: I believe that cigarettes are dangerous, global warming is real, aspartame is safe, and GM foods should be subjected to considerable scrutiny.)

Previewing the 112th Congress

| Sat Sep. 25, 2010 11:36 PM EDT

As you may be aware, a couple of years ago two members of the New Black Panther Party stood outside a polling place in Philadelphia dressed in dark jackets and berets and doing their best to look vaguely menacing. One of them carried a nightstick. They chose to do this in a majority-black precinct that always votes overwhelmingly Democratic, which doesn't seem like especially fertile ground for intimidation of white voters, but they were charged with intimidation anyway. In due course their case came up, they didn't bother defending themselves, judgment was rendered, the Department of Justice got an injunction against the nightstick guy, and then the Obama administration dropped further action. Conservatives went nuts and have since given the NBPP almost endless amounts of publicity, which, as it always is with the NBPP, is what they were after in the first place.

The free publicity continues to this day, with various folks testifying that DOJ dropped the case because Barack Obama refuses to prosecute cases of civil rights violations against white people. In other words, blah blah Kenya blah blah reparations blah blah etc. etc. The usual.

But wait! Today Andrew Breitbart raises the bar even higher for lunatic conservative conspiracy theorizing. The National Chairman of the NBPP is one Malik Shabazz, and in July 2009, just as the NBPP case was reaching a — well, reaching nothing actually. Some Republicans were "demanding answers" at the time, but that's about it. But still, just as these Republicans were demanding answers, "a man named Malik Shabazz visited the exclusive, private residence in the White House"! Breitbart wants an explanation:

The White House has assured the American people that the Malik Shabazz that visited the White House at that time is not the same Malik Shabazz at the center of the New Black Panther story. But, the White House has not provided any information to verify its contention or who this “other” Malik Shabazz is.

We call on the White House to act in the spirit of their transparency policy and provide further information, sufficient to independently verify the identity of the person named Malik Shabazz who visited the White House private residence in July of 2009.

Now, as Breitbart might or might not know, Malcolm X was also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. So it's not as odd as it might seem for there to be more than one African American in the country by that name. And the guy in the White House logs is Malik H. Shabazz, not Malik Zulu Shabazz, the nutcase who heads up the NBPP. And he was there as part of a group tour of the White House along with 310 other people.

But no matter. We want answers! Maybe the middle initial is a feint. Maybe Shabazz broke off from the group and surreptitiously headed over to the Oval Office for a secret meeting. Maybe he and Obama cut a deal to.....do something. That part isn't clear, since the case had already been dropped by then. But something! Maybe plans for a vast wave of white voter intimidation in the midterm elections that Obama promised would get winked at by the authorities. Or a promise that a billion dollars worth of stimulus money would somehow find its way to the party's coffers. Something!

This is what we have to look forward to if Republicans win control of the House in November. I'm sure Darrell Issa has an investigation of the NBPP already teed up and raring to go. Doesn't that sound like fun? Sure it does! If you're not sure, be sure to check out the comments to the Breitbart post.

Quote of the Day #2: Obama's Hit List

| Sat Sep. 25, 2010 7:52 PM EDT

From Glenn Greenwald, upon hearing that even a guy who makes David Addington look dovish is having second thoughts about President Obama's unilateral declaration of authority in the war on terror:

Having debated him before, I genuinely didn't think it was possible for any President to concoct an assertion of executive power and secrecy that would be excessive and alarming to David Rivkin, but Barack Obama managed to do that, too.

The subject is the administration's claim that it not only has the power to assassinate American citizens without due process, but that its list of targets is a state secret unreviewable by any court. More here.

Obama, Bush, and the Judicious Use of Hellfire Missiles

| Sat Sep. 25, 2010 7:00 PM EDT

This article has been updated since it was originally published.

When it comes to vaporizing Americans with Hellfire missiles, what's the difference between the Bush administration and the Obama administration? The Bush administration fretted about the legal implications.

More accurate.

One major revelation to come out of Bob Woodward's new book, "The Obama Wars," is the news that "many Westerners, including some U.S. passport holders," were killed by a CIA-operated drone strike in Pakistan in November 2008. It remains unclear whether the victims were specifically targeted or collateral damage. (See the Washington Post's Jeff Stein for more.) 

If Bush was having Americans killed in Pakistan in 2008, then it's not surprising that President Barack Obama is ordering the CIA to kill American cleric and accused terrorist Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2010, right? Not really—the cases are pretty different. From Woodward's account, it seems clear that the Bush administration was sincerely worried about the potential legal ramifications of killing Americans abroad—"the CIA would not reveal the particulars [of the attack] due to the implications under American law."

Much has changed since the Bush administration left office. Two years ago, the CIA was worrying about legal issues surrounding the killing of Americans at an alleged terrorist training camp in Pakistan. Now the Obama administration has apparently put American citizens on a "targeted killing" list. 

The drone strikes described in Woodward's book aren't even the first example of the Bush administration worrying about the propriety of something the Obama administration seems comfortable with. Kamal Derwish (aka Ahmed Hijazi), a US citizen and alleged terrorist, was killed by a missile strike in Yemen in November 2002. At the time, US officials were quick to emphasize to reporters that Derwish was not the target of the attack.

By contrast, the Obama administration makes no bones about targeting Al-Awlaki or other US citizens. Dennis Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence, admitted that citizens are targeted for killing in a public congressional hearing in January. On Friday, the government responded to a lawsuit intended to obtain an injunction against killing Al-Awlaki without due process. The lawsuit, which was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of Al-Awlaki's father, Nasser, has little chance of success.

Prosopagnosia in Literature

| Sat Sep. 25, 2010 12:37 PM EDT

Via Andrew Sullivan, Jessa Crispin complains about the inescapable pressure to read certain books every year:

Once you get done with the Musts — the Franzens, Mitchells, Vollmanns, Roths, Shteyngarts — and then get through the Booker long list, and the same half-dozen memoirs everyone else is reading this year (crack addiction and face blindness seem incredibly important this year), you have time for maybe two quirky choices, if you are a hardcore reader.

Wait a second. Back up. Face blindness is big in novels this year? Seriously? Are any of them any good? I have a hell of a time recognizing faces, a problem that makes movie viewing a real pain the ass. I spent the entire first half hour of The Prestige, for example, getting Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale mixed up. A different hair color makes someone a new person to me. Photograph the same person from two different angles and I have to stare hard to convince myself that it's not two different people.

(On the other hand, I had a boss once who had supervised one of my coworkers for two years. She came in one day with a different hairstyle and he passed her in the hallway without recognizing her. I don't think I'm quite that bad off.)

Anyway, combine this with my lousy memory for names1 and it makes social occasions pretty onerous affairs. But it might be fun to read a novel where this plays a key part, as long as it's not just an excuse for an extended whining session. Any recommendations?

1And voices. For God's sake, if you ever call me on the phone, identify yourself. I won't recognize your voice if you don't.

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Who Will Speak for the Rich?

| Sat Sep. 25, 2010 11:58 AM EDT

Paul Krugman on the recent outbreak of arguments that America's unemployment problem is structural and can't be fixed anytime soon:

Claims that there has been a huge jump in structural unemployment — that is, unemployment that can’t be cured by increasing aggregate demand — are playing a large role in the argument that we should basically do nothing in the face of a terrible economy. No need for the Fed to do more; no need for more fiscal stimulus — hey, it’s all about defective labor markets, and we should work on structural reform, one of these days. And don’t expect improvement for years to come. Structural unemployment is invoked by Fed presidents who want to raise rates, not cut them, by economists who want austerity now now now, and in general by almost everyone in the pain caucus.

....I really don’t think there’s any way to make sense of the fuss about structural unemployment unless you posit that a lot of influential people are looking for reasons not to act. Based on everything we know, this just shouldn’t be an issue. What the economy needs is more demand; provide that, and you’ll be amazed at how many willing, productive workers there are, currently sitting idle.

Italics mine. And yes, of course lots of influential people are looking for reasons not to act. Our economic discourse of the past 30 years has been almost exclusively defined by an endless succession of shiny new arguments from conservatives that provide an intellectual superstructure for policies that favor business interests and the rich. Arguments on trade, arguments on taxes, arguments on unions, arguments on the minimum wage, arguments on financial deregulation, arguments on income inequality, and arguments on environmental rules. Lately, it's mostly been arguments on deficits and unemployment. And always couched in technical terms of capital formation, liquidity, credit allocation, globalization, comparative advantage, crowding out, multipliers, solar forcing levels, Gaussian copulas, labor market rigidities, alternative measures of inflation, deadweight losses, default premia, and hedonic adjustments.

That's for the chattering classes, of course. For the rubes it's socialism and arrogant elites and death panels.

After all, except on rare occasions when their tongues slip, they can hardly come right out and say that what they really care about is making sure that rich people continue to grab an ever bigger share of the economic pie, can they? And the fact that all of their arguments just happen to promote exactly that? Just a coincidence, my friends, just a coincidence.

Quote of the Day: John Boehner is Orange

| Sat Sep. 25, 2010 11:16 AM EDT

From James Joyner, responding to complaints that photos in the Republican "Pledge To America" pamphlet are exclusively of white people:

This isn’t strictly true. First off, John Boehner is prominently featured. He’s orange.

Plus it turns out that if you look closely there's a black woman in one of the photos. Diversity!

The View From My Windshield: November

| Sat Sep. 25, 2010 1:14 AM EDT

Denver, Colorado: (Photo: Tim Murphy)Denver, Colorado: (Photo: Tim Murphy)

Before Colbert, There was Twain

| Fri Sep. 24, 2010 5:47 PM EDT

Long before Stephen Colbert added congressional witness to his resumé, Samuel L. Clemens—better known as Mark Twain—testified before a congressional committee. He did so in 1906 not within character, but as an author, for the topic at hand was copyright legislation. And as one of the most successful best-sellers of his day, he (and his heirs) had a direct interest in this bill. Clemens played it straight, noting his fondness for copyright and contending that ideas are property. But he could not help but be witty and amusing, and the lawmakers reportedly roared with laughter when he veered from the serious to the comic. Here are his  remarks. By the way, congressional testimony is not covered by copyright laws.

I have read this bill. At least I have read such portions as I could understand. Nobody but a practised legislator can read the bill and thoroughly understand it, and I am not a practised legislator.

I am interested particularly and especially in the part of the bill which concerns my trade. I like that extension of copyright life to the author's life and fifty years afterward. I think that would satisfy any reasonable author, because it would take care of his children. Let the grand-children take care of themselves. That would take care of my daughters, and after that I am not particular. I shall then have long been out of this struggle, independent of it, indifferent to it.

It isn't objectionable to me that all the trades and professions in the United States are protected by the bill. I like that. They are all important and worthy, and if we can take care of them under the Copyright law I should like to see it done. I should like to see oyster culture added, and anything else.

I am aware that copyright must have a limit, because that is required by the Constitution of the United States, which sets aside the earlier Constitution, which we call the decalogue. The decalogue says you shall not take away from any man his profit. I don't like to be obliged to use the harsh term. What the decalogue really says is, "Thou shalt not steal," but I am trying to use more polite language.

The laws of England and America do take it away, do select but one class, the people who create the literature of the land. They always talk handsomely about the literature of the land, always what a fine, great, monumental thing a great literature is, and in the midst of their enthusiasm they turn around and do what they can to discourage it.

I know we must have a limit, but forty-two years is too much of a limit. I am quite unable to guess why there should be a limit at all to the possession of the product of a man's labor. There is no limit to real estate.

Doctor Hale has suggested that a man might just as well, after discovering a coal-mine and working it forty-two years, have the Government step in and take it away.