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Archive for July, 2007

Democracy for Me, But Not for Thee

[ 0 ] July 31, 2007 |


Maybe the emphasis on getting more people to vote has dumbed-down our democracy by pushing participation onto people uninterested in such things. Maybe our society would be healthier if politicians aimed higher than the lowest common denominator. Maybe the opinions of people who don’t know the first thing about how our system works aren’t the folks who should be driving our politics, just as people who don’t know how to drive shouldn’t have a driver’s license.

Instead of making it easier to vote, maybe we should be making it harder. Why not test people about the basic functions of government? Immigrants have to pass a test to vote; why not all citizens?

A voting test would point the arrow of civic engagement up, instead of down, sending the signal that becoming an informed citizen is a valued accomplishment. And if that’s not a good enough reason, maybe this is: If you threaten to take the vote away from the certifiably uninformed, voter turnout will almost certainly get a boost.

As luck would have it, Jonah is going to be in Juneau tomorrow. I suspect I’ll find him at one of the two delicious fudge shops located conveniently along the dock. Perhaps he and I can have a stimulating conversation about the merits and demerits of universal suffrage. Perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to remind the Doughy One that instituting “a voting test” would require amending the 1965 Voting Rights Act (unless, of course, Goldberg wants to have fifty different “voting tests”). And since Goldberg clearly understands that a proposal like that would generate a massive “boost” in voter turnout, perhaps he can think of a few Republican friends of his who might take his asinine, contrarian notions seriously enough to propose them in Congress or on the presidential campaign trail.

In fact, here’s a model. I’m pretty sure it’s in the public domain, so borrow as much as you want!

. . . more from Tom Hilton, who always manages to find these things several hours before I do….


On a Lighter Note (In One Sense of the Word)

[ 0 ] July 31, 2007 |

Yesterday was sharks. Today, the world’s only domesticated hippo. The last scene is priceless.

Liberals On My Teevee!

[ 0 ] July 31, 2007 |

Ann says what needs to be said about the latest obsession over meaningless trivia.

This is Predictable…

[ 0 ] July 31, 2007 |

The Times:

The death of a marine in western Iraq brought the American military death toll to 74 so far in July, on course to be the lowest monthly figure this year. The reduction follows a record 331 fatalities between April and June during intensive military operations in Baghdad and Diyala Province, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a Web site that tracks military and civilian casualties based on Defense Department figures. That was the deadliest quarter of the war thus far.

The United States military said the marine was killed Monday while conducting combat operations in Anbar Province, west of the capital. Estimates of the death toll varied, but Iraq Coalition Casualty Count put the July total so far at 74, down from 101 in June and the lowest number since November 2006.

It would be nice if the article had noted that July has, over the course of the conflict, had the second lowest monthly casualty rate of the war (February had a slightly lower rate before this year). The rate this month was 2.77, a 63% increase over the July rate in previous years. This does represent an improvement over June (86% increase), and May (79% increase), but is rather worse than April (32% increase) or March (29%). Now, call it a positive impact of the Surge if you want, but I find it a touch troubling to celebrate the fact that we’ve just had the worst July in the history of the Occupation. July is the hottest month of the year in Iraq, and I suspect that the relationship isn’t random, although I haven’t run a regression to make sure.

Now, if casualty rates continue to decline in August and September, we might have something to talk about. Incidentally, what’s the deal with this? I can’t find a full transcript, but if Yglesias is relating accurately it’s odd to see O’Hanlon apparently backing off so quickly. I also have to wonder about Jonathan Chait; it somehow escaped his notice that Pollack and O’Hanlon argue entirely by anecdote, that the only statistics they can provide are demonstrably wrong, and that even the anecdotes they provide (shopkeepers happy about the American presence) run against the statistical data we have? And this is what passes for “a strong case”? Indeed, that is rather the point of Greg Sargeant’s argument regarding the Brookings Index. The anecdotes that O’Hanlon and Pollack provide run directly counter to the statistical evidence that O’Hanlon’s organization is providing. Far be it from me to claim that anecdotes have no value, but in this case the scales of evidence seem to fall heavily against the contentions that Pollack and O’Hanlon are making.

Just so we’re clear about Uncle Ted . . .

[ 0 ] July 31, 2007 |

. . they lift[ed] the house on stilts and add[ed] a first floor.

That’s really, really hard core.

I may have mentioned this already, but my state is chock full o’ nuts.

Worst American Birthdays, vol. 23

[ 0 ] July 31, 2007 |

“I’ve gambled all my life and it’s never been a moral issue with me. I liked church bingo when I was growing up.” [1]

Erected upon a sturdy moral pedestal of church-sponsored wagering, the massively-sculpted William John Bennett — who celebrates his 64th year of abject hypocrisy today — slowly ascended the ranks of the world’s least successful gamblers. As he spent his life exhuming nearly every form of human iniquity, scolding his fellow citizens in print and over the airwaves for their collective departure from the virtuous path, Bennett devoted greater and greater sums of his annual income to the pursuit of fleeting, empty joy. Pissing away literally millions of dollars at the Bellagio and Caesar’s Boardwalk Regency among other sinkholes for the less-rich and less-famous, Bennett’s magnificent appetite for the slot machines and video poker terminals caused him no evident shame as he commanded $50,000 speaker’s fees and earned stupefying royalties on books he most likely did not write. In doing so, Bennett ignored the sage advice of the Proverbs, from which he might have learned that “dishonest money dwindles away.”

Bennett’s obscene gambling habit, of course, only accentuates the narrow scope of his commitment to “virtue.” Throughout his career, Bennett has advocated or helped implement policies — especially the so-called “war on drugs” — that are even more wasteful than his private vices and which, moreover, lack even the rudimentary elements of justice. As well, his vision of righteousness seems not to include factual accuracy, as Bennett has demonstrated when erroneously claiming, for instance, that the average lifespan of a gay man in America is only 43, or that crime rates might be reduced by higher abortion rates within the black community. Nor can Bill Bennett find room in his mighty, virtuous heart for journalists who expose the legal and moral transgressions of their own government (at least when the government is dominated by his co-religionists in the Republican party). These sorts, he believes, should be tossed into prison — along with the minor drug offenders and carriers of AIDS whose detention Bennett has also advocated from time to time.

When Your Failed Pregnancy Makes You A Murderer.

[ 0 ] July 31, 2007 |

The title of this post sounds crazy, huh? Unfortunately, for some women around the country who are mourning their stillbirths or miscarriages it’s all too applicable.

There’s news today that a Maryland woman is being charged with homicide after she gave birth at home recently to a stillborn baby and then went to the hospital to seek emergency medical care for complications associated with a stillbirth or miscarriage (such as bleeding). Not just homicide — first degree murder (on top of second degree murder and manslaughter). Charges based on a now-confirmed stillbirth. The child was never born alive, and yet its mother-to-be is now charged with its murder (and not under a state unborn victims of violence act, mind you. Most UVVA’s exempt the pregnant woman herself from any liability, specifically to prevent prosecution in situations like this).

There are some grisly details of the situation — including the fact that police found the fetus and three other dead fetuses at the woman’s home. So of course the media is going nuts. But this case is not about only this woman – Christy Freeman – and the chain of events that led to her arrest and murder charges. Other women are sitting in jail around the country facing murder charges for giving birth to stillborn infants.

Theresa Hernandez, for example, is facing murder charges in Oklahoma for giving birth to a stillborn. The state argues that Hernandez caused the death of her fetus. She is addicted to methamphetamine. She carried the child to term despite her addiction. But there’s no indication — other than the prosecutor’s yelling — that the meth caused the fetal demise. Especially when there is ample evidence that poverty is much more closely associated with fetal harm than any illicit drug. This link between poverty and problems with fetal and child health can be decreased when prenatal care is available and accessible. But prosecutions like the one Ms. Hernandez is facing (and has been waiting in jail for 3 years to reach trial on) only deter pregnant women who are addicted to drugs from seeking prenatal care.

Hernandez shouldn’t be sitting in jail facing life in prison for an unintentional stillbirth. And, focusing on this recent stillbirth alone, neither should Freeman, the Maryland woman (that is, putting aside the other fetuses found in her home, which, admittedly complicate things). It may be that officials can never figure out what “caused” Ms. Hernandez’s or Ms. Freeman’s stillbirth. In the 15-20% of pregnancies that end in miscarriage or stillbirth, the cause often goes unresolved. Many women who suffer stillbirths agonize over what they could have done better or what they did wrong. Are we to say that any woman who has a stillbirth should be investigated for potential criminality?

Such a solution makes no sense. Especially given that the rationale for prosecuting pregnant woman who are addicted to drugs or who are otherwise blamed for their imperfect birth outcomes is to protect the fetus. But drugs are often more widely available in prison than they are on the streets, and time and again women who give birth in jails do so under inhumane conditions — without medical treatment, and even being monitored by camera while being refused assistance. If we really care about pregnancy outcomes, why arent we talking about expanding healthcare (as opposed to cutting SCHIP) or to real community-based family-appropriate drug treatment? But more and more in this country, the logic or lack thereof behind a policy is of no import so long as the policy punishes women for not fulfilling some version of the ideal: virginal, devoted to motherhood when not a virgin, and subservient to men.

Going Backwards

[ 0 ] July 31, 2007 |

When one team in a division acquires Mark Texieira, and another acquires a 2B with no power, just-OK on base skills, and rapidly diminishing speed and range who probably isn’t even an upgrade over the second baseman you’re already playing…this is a problem.

I’ve generally liked Minaya, but it must be said that he made two horrendous trades this offseason, trading a decent young starter and a reliever who predictably turned his high K rates into high-grade performance when left alone for a $25 K-Mart gift card, and while this trade doesn’t really hurt the team it doesn’t help it while one of their chief rivals got a lot better. With Beltran hurt, the Braves could win this division.

"I Suspect Michael Bay"

[ 0 ] July 31, 2007 |

Post of the day goes to Dan Drezner:

First Ingmar Bergmann dies.

Now it’s Michelangelo Antonioni.

Clearly, someone or something is killing Europe’s great film directors.

Anyone seen Michael Bay recently? How about Brett Ratner?

The Solution to Flawed Executions? More Secrecy!

[ 0 ] July 31, 2007 |

I may have found the answer to the question I posed to you all over the weekend about what kind of weekly fill-in-the-blank blogging you’d like to see. The answer might be weekly Liptak love blogging. Because Adam Liptak’s Monday columns in the NY Times deserve that kind of praise (if only they were not behind the Times Select iron curtain).

Why does Liptak deserve the love this week? For his column yesterday exposing yet another thing that is wrong with the American criminal justice system and with the way that we go about putting people to death. Liptak’s not pulling any punches.

A Missouri doctor who had supervised more than 50 executions by lethal injection testified last year that he sometimes gave condemned inmates smaller doses of a sedative than the state’s protocol called for, explaining that he is dyslexic. “So it’s not unusual for me to make mistakes,” said the doctor, who was referred to in court papers as John Doe I.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch identified him last July as Dr. Alan R. Doerhoff, revealing that he had been a magnet for malpractice suits arising from his day job as a surgeon and that two hospitals had revoked his privileges. In September, a federal judge barred Dr. Doerhoff from participating “in any manner, at any level, in the State of Missouri’s lethal injection process.”

Naturally, state lawmakers took action to address the issue.

A new law, signed this month by Gov. Matt Blunt, makes it unlawful to reveal “the identity of a current or former member of an execution team,” and it allows executioners to sue anyone who names them.

Ah, Matt Blunt. The same governor who recently signed a law making it exponentially more difficult for planned parenthood to operate in Missouri from a cross shaped lectern. Because when someone is messing up executions (perhaps in violation of the 8th Amendment banning cruel and unusual punishment), the answer is not to prevent future mistakes but just to make sure that no one knows about those future mistakes. Better to protect the identity of the executioners than the final minutes of the condemned.

And it’s not only Missouri that appears unconcerned with ensuring that executioners are qualified. According to Liptak, Florida law fixing the qualification requirements for executioners demands only that they are 18 years old and and selected by the warden. This, of course, leads to deaths like that of Angel N. Diaz, the convicted murderer who was executed by the state last year and who, because of mistakes made during the lethal injection, took 34 minutes to die and who was almost undoubtedly in great pain at various points.

So why the secrecy? Liptak — and others — are not convinced that its benefits outweigh the costs.

A forceful and persuasive article published in the Fordham Law Review in April argued for “a right to know who is hiding behind the hood.”

Its author, Ellyde Roko, who will start her third year of law school at Fordham in the fall [blogger note: an acquaintance of mine], said in an interview that society’s interest in knowing how the death penalty is administered should outweigh the relatively flimsy interests supporting secrecy. “Not knowing who the executioners are takes away a huge check on the system,” she said.

Having your identity revealed seems to me a small price to pay for the “privilege” of taking another’s life, sanctioned by the state.

Book Review: Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying

[ 0 ] July 31, 2007 |

This is the seventh of a nine part series on the Patterson School Summer Reading List.

1. China’s Trapped Transition, Minxin Pei
2. The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs
3. Illicit, Moises Naim
4. In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce
5. The Utility of Force, Rupert Smith
6. The Box, Marc Levinson
7. Fair Play, James M. Olson

James M. Olson worked for the CIA for most of his adult life, serving as chief of counterintelligence at Langley, and on station in Moscow, Vienna, and Mexico City. He’s written a book called Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying which examines how we think about morality in intelligence work. He divides the work into three sections; a survey of moral thought applied to intelligence, a set of scenarios which we may evaluate for moral content, and a long series of endnotes that detail, in haphazard fashion, much of his own career and the intelligence history of the Cold War.

To help us think about what kinds of acts may be moral, Olson gives a brief survey of what he calls “moral” theories of intelligence action. Included are the Bible, Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Kant, something called Realpolitik that is not notably different than Machiavelli, and Utilitarianism. The treatments are extremely shallow and quite weak, but as he’s not a professional political theorist, I’ll cut him just a bit of a break. The Bible discussion is singularly unilluminating, as I’ll discuss below. It’s unclear why Cicero makes the cut, as he was more of a practical politician and lawyer than moral theorist. In any case, the “lessons” of these theorists are not applied in any systematic way in the rest of the book, so I have to wonder why Olson bothered including them at all.

Perhaps most frustrating, Olson’s gives few clues as to his own moral compass. From his biography, he is clearly a devout prostestant Christian with a strong sense of patriotism. That foundation, however, doesn’t lead to specific moral precepts as to intelligence action. I get the sense that, since he understood most of his work as being in opposition to the Soviet Union, he found himself in few moral conundra. However, this opens as many questions as it answers. Aquinas wrote at a time in which the state and the church were virtually indistinguishable; it’s not clear to me how his precepts are relevant to how a modern protestant Christian in the United States should think about unsavory intelligence activity. Olson was fighting for God and country, but what if he’d been fighting against Czarist Russia, with an Orthodox Christian monarch, or Kaiserine Germany, with a Protestant monarch? In other words, what happens when it cannot conclusively be argued that God and country are on the same side? Olson makes no effort to answer these questions, and it’s unclear that he’s even thought very much about them. I suspect that American protestants in general would fall back on the argument that the United States is uniquely favored by God, a problematic position for obvious reasons.

Olson wants to think about morality, but sometime stumbles into ethical and practical considerations. Practical concerns, of course, touch on moral considerations; it’s immoral to engage in costly behavior that’s impractical, for example. Apart from occasional declaring a scenario impractical, however, Olson doesn’t make much of this connection. I would also have liked some systematic consideration of what might be called the professional ethics of spying. Like all professional communities, spys have a series of ethical (not necessarily moral) rules of dealing with their friendly, neutral, and hostile counterparts. These concerns occasional crop up in the scenarios, but they’re not sufficiently detached or detailed apart from their “moral” content, which is often non-existent or indeterminate.

Olson includes fifty specific cases to help us think about morality in intelligence action. Many of these are quite familiar; how far would you go to torture someone for info, would you kill innocents for the greater good, etc. In each case, Olson asks a selection of people whether the proposed action would be “moral” or not. Included are military personnel, former intelligence operatives, a rabbi, and college undergraduates, among others. The responses are interesting enough; one Texas A&M college undergraduate refused to condone a consensual sexual relationship between a case officer and an agent on the grounds that premarital sex was ungodly. In a couple of cases, I went strongly against the grain of opinion; no one, for example, thought that paying an agent in cocaine was morally acceptable, but I had no problem with it. Surprisingly, I also had no difficulty with a proposal to finish a Chinese computer science graduate student’s dissertation for him in return for future considerations. Maybe it just paled in comparison with the torture and murder in the other scenarios. Anyway, this section of the book was entertaining enough, if still not terribly illuminating. Without a strong sense of what Olson meant by moral, the respondents drifted into practical and even aesthetic concerns in making their judgments.

Fair Play is interesting enough for a quick read, but it’s not very insightful, and didn’t reveal much that anyone having a basic familiarity with intelligence operations didn’t already know. I strongly advise skipping the theoretical section and heading straight for the scenarios, which have the advantage of being fun and occasionally appalling. The endnotes, which make up about 35 pages, are very informative and interesting, especially since Olson has left the redactions in.

The Schumer Rule

[ 0 ] July 31, 2007 |

I don’t think that it will be relevant, as Chief Justice Roberts’s seizure thankfully doesn’t seem serious, but I wonder if LB is right to worry that the Senate would have trouble stalling his appointment would be problematic. Schumer has announced, I think, that they won’t confirm another SC justice under Bush, and I have no doubt that this would hold even if Ginsburg or Stevens retired tomorrow — when you control the judiciary committee there are a lot of ways to bottle up appointments. Replacing a conservative justice, however, would make the political dynamic a lot trickier. I would hope that they would wait it out, but who knows.

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