Raw Power

In a speech today in Russia, Barack Obama said  that "the pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game."  Dan Drezner isn't so sure:

If he had said, "The pursuit of prosperity is no longer a zero-sum game," I'd be fine with the passage.  I still think power is a zero-sum concept, however.  The two ideas are linked but hardly the same. 

I suppose that's true.  Even in a Thomas Barnett-ish world where all the big players gang up to police the world, it's prosperity and security that are positive sum, not raw power.  Anyone care to try and come up with a counterexample?

After several concerted weeks of trying, congressional Republicans so far have failed to find any good reason why Sonia Sotomayor should not be confirmed as the next Supreme Court justice. Apparently, though, they just think they need more time to find a smoking gun. CQ Politics reports today that Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) may use some procedural rules to delay the confirmation hearings scheduled to start Monday. He told CQ that the Judiciary Committee needed more time to pour over documents from the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, where Sotomayor had long served on the board. He also added that several members of the committee would be tied up with the concurrent health care reform hearings next week. One of Session's colleagues, though, suggested another motivation for the delay: air time.

With both [hearings] “on television at the same time,” said Charles E. Grassley , R-Iowa, who sits on both panels, “What senator wants to be absent from either one of them?”

 

Sarah Palin, decked out in fishing gear and hauling in the salmon, talks to ABC's Kate Snow about why she quit as governor of Alaska:

Palin conceded many people are still confused about why she made the decision to leave office. "You know why they're confused? I guess they cannot take something nowadays at face value," Palin said.

But she said a major factor in the decision was the mounting legal bills she and the state have had to incur to fight ethics charges from her political adversaries. None of the accusations has been proven but, she said, the costs of fighting them have been enormous.

"You know conditions have really changed in Alaska in the political arena since Aug. 29, since I was tapped to run for VP. When that opposition research — those researchers really bombarded Alaska — started digging for dirt and have not let up. They're not gonna find any dirt," she said. "We keep proving that every time we win an ethics violation lawsuit and we've won every one of them. But it has been costing our state millions of dollars. It's cost Todd and me. You know the adversaries would love to see us put on the path of personal bankruptcy so that we can't afford to run."

I'm actually more willing than most to take Palin's explanation at face value.  The constant stream of piddling and frivolous ethics charges probably did get hard to put up with and probably did cost her a lot of money.  But don't most politicians in similar circumstances set up a legal defense fund of some kind?  The attacks would still be annoying, but dealing with them doesn't necessarily have to be either a huge time sink or a huge personal cost, especially when you have the fundraising power she does.

Very mysterious.  But my guess is that the other half of her explanation should be taken at face value too.  (Well, face value plus a little bit extra.)  Namely that she doesn't want to be a lame duck.  Not because she doesn't want to milk the good citizens of Alaska for lots of overseas junkets, but because the entire legislature hates her guts these days and the whole thing has become a slog.  "We won't get anything done," she told Snow, and just that's no fun.  Giving speeches to adoring throngs is way more satisfying.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday attended a meeting of civil society NGOs in Moscow at the Metropol Hotel. He continued his call for a thaw in US-Russian relations:

We not only need a "reset" button between the American and Russian government, but we need a fresh start between our societies -- more dialogue, more listening, more cooperation in confronting common challenges.

He, of course, praised the work of the activists before him. But he did so in a unique fashion: 

Oftentimes politicians get the credit for changing laws, but in fact you've created the environment in which those new laws can occur. I learned this myself when I worked as a community organizer in Chicago....I was working in communities that were devastated by steel plant closings, and so I went door to door, I worked with churches, trying to learn what people needed.

And we had a lot of setbacks -- in fact, we had more failures than successes. But we kept on listening to the people, we learned from them, we got them involved. And over time they chose projects to work on -- whether it was building a new play lot or improving a neighborhood park or improving the local school or improving housing in the community -- and slowly, block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, you started to see change happen: more jobs, better housing, more opportunities for young people. And I learned a lesson -- that if you want to bring change, it's not enough just to be an advocate; it's not enough to just wait for the government to act. You have to step up and deliver results, real impact on people's lives.

That's not something that any other modern American president could say--speaking from experience about community organizing. What would be the George W. Bush equivalent: "I know growing a small business is tough. When I was trying to do that, I had to go to one friend of Dad's after another"?

Obama, yet again, was bringing personal credibility to a message he was selling overseas. He's done this effectively in his high-profile speeches in Turkey and Cairo. 

In this address, he recognized that the task of advocacy and organizing is different from that of governing:

Make no mistake: Civil society -- civil groups hold their governments to high standards. And I know -- because this audience includes Americans who've been critical of me for not moving fast enough on issues that are of great importance. They've said it to my face. In the Oval Office. While I was President. (Laughter.) They told me I was wrong. And in some cases they changed my mind; in some cases they didn't. And that's okay, because we're not going to agree on everything -- but I know this: Their voices and their views and their criticism ultimately will make my decisions better, they will make me ask tougher questions and ask my staff tougher questions.

So when human rights advocates criticize the White House for not being more transparent about past abuses or when champions of single-payer health care push the administration to develop the best public option available, they can point to Obama's speech and say, "We're just trying to help you." No doubt Rahm Emanuel will say thank you.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Al Franken, formerly of Saturday Night Live and the author of Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, will be sworn in as a US Senator from the state of Minnesota later this morning. It's been a long journey for Al from late night comedian to CSPAN celebrity, and Mother Jones has been watching all the way.

Franken sat down for an interview with us way back in 1996, right after Big Fat Idiot soared to the top of best-seller lists. In 2004, he wrote an article for us about his USO tours. We reviewed a movie about Franken in 2006. In 2007, as Franken was gearing up for the Senate campaign, Jonathan Stein profiled him for the magazine. And we've covered the election and the recount battle exhaustively: we covered the initial vote count, noted his Mick Jagger stylings after the results came out, and watched as public opinion turned against Norm Coleman's court fight. Later, I predicted (correctly) when Franken would be seated and reminded you what to call him when he won. And then Norm Coleman conceded, clearing the way for Al to get sworn in today.

You can safely assume that we'll keep you posted.

This week's cute endangered animal is the aptly-named Slow Loris. The Slow Loris is a sympathetic little guy. He's got anime-huge eyes, and moves so slowly that he's an easy target for poachers in his native Southeast Asia. The nocturnal Slow Loris's only natural defenses are 1) holding onto a branch really tight; 2) a semi-toxic bite; 3) emitting an unpleasant smell; and 4) curling up into a protective ball-like shape. Pretty sad. One cool thing about the bite is that the Loris will nibble on his inner elbow to get toxins, then mixes the toxins in his mouth so that when he bites, it will sting more. Unfortunately, the toxin isn't fatal or debilitating for humans, though it will cause some pain, swelling, and redness.

The Slow Loris is a case of an animal being too cute for its own good. Besides having a babyish set of huge eyes, the Loris is furry, small, quiet, and apparently enjoys being tickled. The animal is prized as a pet, and shipments (often to Japan) of hundreds of Lorises have been intercepted. The fact that the Loris's instinct, upon stress, is to curl up into a ball makes it easy to transport, though often poachers will remove the Loris's teeth as a precaution. When not sold as pets, Lorises are hunted for use in traditional Asian medicines and like many other arboreal species, are threatened with habitat loss due to agriculture and logging. 

Currently, the Loris's endangered status varies by country but the 2007 CITES conference banned all international transport. The CITES conference also called for more research, as population data is often old or unreliable. To see one researcher's pics of his adorable subjects (don't worry, it's very humane research), click here.

 

Follow Jen Phillips on Twitter.

 

Your Tuesday dose of environment, health, and science stories from around our blogs:

Straight wonks on dope: Kevin Drum has never smoked weed. He's only seen a joint once. Here’s why he wants pot decriminalized. Plus: Government lies about pot revealed.

Palin's last hurrah: Possibly a requirement that Alaska girls under 18 to get parental consent for abortions, despite scientific evidence that such policies result in more late-term abortions.

Does not compute: Conservatives' bizarro healthcare arguments are sounding less and less convincing.

When I reviewed Jon Cohn's Sick a couple of years ago for CJR, I concluded with this:

The format of Sick almost begs for narratives about overseas health care systems. The book is basically a tour around America, with each of its eight chapters named after the place in which its story unfolds. So why not include chapters on Manchester, Malmö, and Marseilles, each of them highlighting in narrative form both the good and bad points of the British, Swedish, and French systems?

Naturally, then, I'm delighted that Jon found someone to fund exactly that:

Last year, I had the opportunity to spend time researching two [] countries: France and the Netherlands. Neither country gets the attention that Canada and England do. That might be because English isn’t their language. Or it might be because they don’t fit the negative stereotypes of life in countries where government is more directly involved in medical care.

....In the course of a few dozen lengthy interviews, not once did I encounter an interview subject who wanted to trade places with an American. And it was easy enough to see why. People in these countries were getting precisely what most Americans say they want: Timely, quality care. Physicians felt free to practice medicine the way they wanted; companies got to concentrate on their lines of business, rather than develop expertise in managing health benefits. But, in contrast with the US, everybody had insurance. The papers weren’t filled with stories of people going bankrupt or skipping medical care because they couldn’t afford to pay their bills. And they did all this while paying substantially less, overall, than we do.

Forget Canada and Britain.  Neither one is even remotely close to the kind of system we'd ever put in place in the U.S.  France's system, however, is surprisingly American in its basic underpinnings.  And while no system comes out tops in every single metric, French healthcare, as Jon says, is better than ours on almost all of them and does it for close to half the cost.

Now, the fact that the French spend about half what we do doesn't mean that we'd cut our costs in half if we adopted a French-style system.  We wouldn't.  There's too much path dependence and too many cultural differences for that.  But what it does mean is that if we adopted something close to their system, we could certainly achieve high-quality 100% basic coverage — with the ability to purchase extra coverage for anyone who wants it — for no more than we spend now and possibly a bit less.

We won't, of course, because too many people are still convinced that healthcare in the United States is better than it is in France — or anywhere else.  It's not.  It's worse and more expensive.  Somebody tell Max Baucus.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias says that Max already knows.  I figured as much.

Quote of the Day

From Jaci Woods, a real estate broker in Irvine, California, explaining the charm of our little planned community:

"The people that don't like following rules say they can't stand it. I saw a man on a ladder starting to paint the side of his house lavender," she said, noting the color was banned by the homeowners association. "It's the ones like that that we guard against."

True that.  You can't be too careful in these parts.  In fact, my neighbor's air conditioner has been on the fritz for the past few weeks and its racket has become really annoying.  I'm thinking about having him deported with extreme prejudice.

I'm not quite sure why I looked this up — I think I was verifying the spelling of Daniel Keyes' name — but this afternoon I checked out the Wikipedia entry for "Flowers for Algernon" and learned this:

In 1958, Keyes was approached by Galaxy Science Fiction magazine to write a story, at which point the different elements of Flowers for Algernon fell into place. On submitting the finished story to Galaxy, however, the editor suggested changing the ending so that Charlie retained his intelligence, married Alice, and lived happily ever after. Keyes refused to make the change and sold the story to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction instead.

Keyes worked on the expanded novel between 1962 and 1965 and first tried to sell it to Doubleday, but they also wanted to change the ending. Again, Keyes refused and gave Doubleday back their advance. Five different publishers rejected the story over the course of a year until it was taken on and published by Harcourt in 1966.

Seriously?  Did these guys also tell Shakespeare that Romeo and Juliet was kind of a bummer and he really ought to have Juliet wake up just as Romeo was about to take the poison — followed by a backslapping reconciliation between the Montague and Capulet clans and a joyous wedding between the star-bless'd lovers?

Jeebus.  What the hell kind of story is it if you give it a happy ending?  What was up with these guys?