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War is Peace

[ 12 ] June 22, 2011 |

Military Industrial Complex

Report: 10,000 Troops Leaving Afghanistan This Year

Kerry and McCain United Behind the Mysteriously Urgent Libya Mission

Iraq Violence Intensifies as Talks Continue on U.S. Troop Presence

In principle it would be quite simple to waste the surplus labour of the world by building temples and pyramids, by digging holes and filling them up again, or even by producing vast quantities of goods and then setting fire to them. But this would provide only the economic and not the emotional basis for a hierarchical society. What is concerned here is not the morale of masses, whose attitude is unimportant so long as they are kept steadily at work, but the morale of the Party itself. Even the humblest Party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph. In other words it is necessary that he should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war. It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going well or badly. All that is needed is that a state of war should exist.

Even this doggerel that pours from my pen

[ 22 ] June 18, 2011 |

Has just been written by another twenty telepathic men.

A question that interests me is, how many of the 21 GOP representatives who signed this letter actually have doubts about the constitutionality of bills signed by a presidential auto pen? As a legal matter, the claim that such a practice is unconstitutional is frivolous, for at least three reasons. First, as this neurotically comprehensive treatment of the issue by the OLC demonstrates, there wasn’t even a common law requirement at the time of the Constitution’s drafting that “signing” a document meant “signing it personally.”

Second, as the OLC memo also points out, nobody has ever argued that bills have to “presented” to the president by literally handing them over to the POTUS, or that the president has to walk over to Congress to “return” a vetoed bill.

The OLC memo doesn’t mention the most ridiculous aspect of this issue, which is that presidents don’t even need to sign bills at all (if Congress is in session, a bill that isn’t affirmatively vetoed becomes law in ten days whether it has been signed or not).

My guess is that a few of the letter’s signatories are representatives of the kind of magical legal thinking one finds on the far right, where Militia Men argue that the federal income tax is unconstitutional because Ohio wasn’t “really” a state at the time the 16th amendment was ratified etc. etc.

Most of them, however, are probably indulging in yet another cynical de-legitimation ploy, giving their constituents just one more reason to believe that Obama is somehow not exactly a real president, doing real presidential things.

Did the Bush administration try to spy illegally on Juan Cole?

[ 29 ] June 16, 2011 |

This NYT story presents evidence strongly suggesting it did.

A few quick thoughts:

(1) I imagine it would surprise most people to discover that it’s still actually illegal for the CIA to spy on Americans inside the United States.

(2) Note that, if the accusations in the story are true, the Bush administration wasn’t attempting to determine if Cole was engaging in espionage, but rather was trying to silence a critic by gathering potentially embarrassing personal information about him of some sort.

(3) I assume that according to the Cheney/Addington/Yoo line of reasoning about inherent Article II presidential powers, the relevant statutes are unconstitutional anyway.

(4) It will be interesting to see if the Obama DOJ shows any interest in investigating this.

The most important rain trench coat you’ll ever own is a leather jackets with hoods for men. Our trench coat sale are generally less expensive than kids motorcycle jacket and leather racing jacket.

Health care and quality of death issues

[ 24 ] June 14, 2011 |

Over the past couple of years four people I’ve had some sort of relationship with were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, so I’ve gotten to know more than I ever wanted to know about this especially terrible disease. It’s estimated that about 43,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, and around 38,000 will die from it. The most common form of the illness remains almost incurable, with a five-year survival rate of less than 5%. Only 20% of cases are diagnosed soon enough to allow for anything other than palliative treatment; this “lucky” minority undergo a grueling operation (the so-called Whipple procedure) that produces a median increase in life expectancy of about a year. Pancreatic cancer is usually a disease of old age: the average age at diagnosis is 73, and America’s aging population has seen a steady increase in its incidence, to the point where it is now the fourth-leading cause of cancer death. (For similar demographic reasons it is beginning to become much more common in the developing world).

Recently I looked at the data from a couple of major academic medical centers who specialize in the Whipple procedure, and I was struck by, among other things, how many of these surgeries are done on patients in their 80s. The ethics and economics — or perhaps the economic ethics — of performing this surgery on very elderly patients in particular are troubling. For all patients, the median survival after the Whipple procedure is about 18 to 24 months (for patients who don’t receive the surgery because their cancer is too advanced it is around six to ten months). But these medians are age-adjusted rather than absolute. In other words, median survival is measured relative to the overall mortality rate in the patients’ age cohort. Since an 85-year-old man without pancreatic cancer has about a 50% chance of dying over the next five years, to say that the five-year survival rate for 85-year-olds undergoing the surgery is 20% means that 90% of these patients will be dead within five years. (And this is assuming that the mortality rate from the surgery and its aftermath will not be higher among the very elderly than among patients in general, which seems like a very optimistic assumption).

How much do these treatments cost? The standard treatment protocol includes post-surgery chemotherapy, and sometimes radiation treatment as well. Re-hospitalization is very common as most patients will suffer a recurrence of the disease within a year or two. In sum, treatment costs can easily exceed six figures. Indeed treatment costs are often high even in the context of the large majority of cases in which surgery is not an option: palliative chemotherapy regimens that have some value in lessening suffering but that generally extend life by no more than a few weeks can cost thousands of dollars a month.

All this raises difficult issues. On the one hand, any time anyone raises the question of whether the cost of keeping very sick people alive for a year or two longer via extremely expensive treatments should be socialized, someone is sure to start shouting about “death panels” and the like. On the other, it’s not as if there are easy answers to the dilemmas these situations raise. After all, a small minority of people live for several years, and on rare occasions even a decade or more, after undergoing the Whipple surgery. Furthermore even if purely palliative treatments are quite expensive, we’re (still) a rich country. As a society should we be less willing to spend money on lessening the suffering of the dying than we are on, for example, building yet more big beautiful bombs? Furthermore some of the money spent on pancreatic cancer ends up funding clinical trials, which at least hold out hope for developing better treatments.

Of course another issue is why these treatments, whether potentially curative or merely palliative, are so expensive. What do rich nations with more just and efficient health care systems than our own, i.e., all of them, do when confronted with the dilemmas that diseases like pancreatic cancer engender? (I have no idea).

In the end we can’t pay for everything, but our current health care “system” pays or doesn’t pay for things in ways that have little apparent relation to justice, efficiency, or any other value beyond the continuing enrichment of those who benefit from the present state of affairs.

Internet mystery

[ 116 ] May 13, 2011 |

Apparently Ann Althouse posted an item on her blog about the three finalists for the dean job at Wisconsin Law School, asking for comments regarding them. According to someone who saw the thread it didn’t turn out too well:

[A] quick thought on Althouse’s post on the Wisconsin Dean finalists: the comments not only were negative on the candidates (as you note), but degenerated into a cesspool of vile misogyny and homophobia (not only multiple calling Margaret Raymond a token “diversity” candidate, but multiple posts opining that she should get the job only if she has “big tits” and speculating that she’s a lesbian). Isn’t Althouse at risk of letting her blog turn into AutoAdmit? She has the free speech right to run whatever cesspool she wants, but is she prioritizing her desire for a widely read blog over her obligation to be a responsible member of academia? I’d prefer not to say this for attribution…only because I’m a prof at [another law school] where Margaret Raymond was named a Dean finalist too – but that’s part of why I’m so offended on her behalf; she’s a fantastic and impressive woman who deserves far better than a professor (Althouse) at a school where she’s a finalist (Wisconsin) hosting this sort of festival of misogyny and homophobia.


Now Blogger claims that Althouse (the site) no longer exists.

I have a certain personal interest in this incident because we’re currently trying to hire Margaret Raymond at CU, so if readers could hold off on the temptation to post a festival of misogyny and homophobia in the comments here that would be super helpful.

Update: Curiouser and curiouser.

The politics of killing bin Laden

[ 184 ] May 7, 2011 |

Leaving aside all legal considerations, a mission that reflected a rational anti-terrorism policy — at least in a country not in the grip of continual hysteria — would have aimed to capture him alive.

Instead, the White House opted for justice the catharsis of sudden violent revenge and the advantages of cheap political theater. That as a matter of practical domestic politics it probably had no choice is ironic testimony to how far bin Laden actually succeeded in his crusade against the United States.

Update: Speaking of strawmen, I’ve written nothing that criticizes the SEAL team for their actions, since those actions are most reasonably interpreted as a precisely calibrated carrying out of their orders. Unlike the commentators who seem to think the SEALs shot bin Laden because they were frightened by the possibility that he might set off a booby trap of some sort, I have no doubt that the SEAL team would have captured bin Laden rather than shot him if their mission had been in fact to capture him, whatever concerns they might have had about danger to themselves.

Anyway the whole “booby trap” line of thinking is rather absurd — if OBL had booby trapped his bedroom then attempting to kill him rather than capture him would only slightly reduce the risk to the team, if at all. If OBL was going to set off a bomb he had several minutes to get himself ready to do so, and I doubt he would have given the team a chance to shoot him first. It’s just a bald rationalization to make the mission look more ambiguous than it was (it’s instructive that I haven’t seen a single right-winger argue that this was anything other than a kill mission, even though in their eyes that interpretation actually makes Obama look better).

Righteous killers

[ 132 ] May 2, 2011 |

(1) Was the killing of Osama bin Laden an execution, or would the military team have taken OBL alive if he hadn’t resisted or had been rendered harmless? Government officials have made contradictory statements on this point, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever know the truth with certainty. (Update: A senior administration official is now saying that OBL did not have a weapon when he was shot). Note that from a legal perspective, if the team had orders to kill OBL in any event, it wouldn’t make any legal difference if OBL shot back, any more than it would for police officers in a similar situation. The laws of war don’t allow you to kill combatants under any and all circumstances. Of course the situation could be ambiguous in a number of ways — for instance it’s quite possible that the commanders of the military operation weren’t given explicit orders to kill their target, but that it was made clear to them what a successful operation would entail. Certainly there’s little to no evidence that attempting to capture OBL alive was a priority.

(2) Leaving aside whatever the actual orders were, would capturing OBL have been a more desirable outcome, without regard to questions regarding the legal status of the operation? On this question I agree with Glenn Greenwald’s take.

(3) Progressives should take note that enthusiastic celebrations of the violence of the state, whether it manifests itself in strictly legal or extra-legal ways, tend to reinforce certain attitudes about authority and authoritarianism. See, for example, this passage from a Commentary essay on the execution-style killing of a couple of famous American outlaws, which ponders why there isn’t a movie about the Texas Ranger who ambushed them:

That movie, however, certainly could not have been made in 1967 and it certainly can’t be made in 2009: Hamer is too straight, too commanding, too uncompromising for such a treatment. The irony is that Hamer is forgotten while Clyde and Bonnie live on. Hamer stood for something: the idea of right and the guts to make it stick. Clyde and Bonnie stood for nothing, except perhaps infantile nihilism, unformed, incoherent, vicious. If they were ambushed without warning, it’s because each had weapons at hand, and so they wouldn’t widow and orphan other police families. If they were shot to pieces, it’s because the old-time law enforcement guys knew you shot them, and then you shot them some more.

Hamer stands for your grandfather’s authority, annoyance at fools, and the willingness to kill in the belief that he was saving the weak by eliminating their predator. He was a righteous killer, a dinosaur whose time has passed. He’s what Barack Obama swears he’ll change about America.

Can we declare victory now?

[ 49 ] May 2, 2011 |

Or at least start being a little less hysterical?

See also Yglesias and Fallows.

Update: This kind of thing was inevitable, and no doubt we’ll be hearing from lots of anonymous officials to the same effect in the days to come:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Officials say CIA interrogators in secret overseas prisons developed the first strands of information that ultimately led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Current and former U.S. officials say that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, provided the nom de guerre of one of bin Laden’s most trusted aides. The CIA got similar information from Mohammed’s successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi. Both were subjected to harsh interrogation tactics inside CIA prisons in Poland and Romania.

The news is sure to reignite debate over whether the now-closed interrogation and detention program was successful. Former president George W. Bush authorized the CIA to use the harshest interrogation tactics in U.S. history. President Barack Obama closed the prison system.

It sounds as if Bin Laden may have been executed

[ 171 ] May 2, 2011 |

This ABC News story indicates that the only other people killed in the “firefight” in which OBL was supposedly killed were his son, two “couriers,” and a woman who one of the others used as a human shield. This strongly suggests that OBL didn’t even have a security detail of any kind within the compound, which in turn makes it natural to speculate on why a Navy SEAL team with an overwhelming force advantage didn’t take him alive. (I wouldn’t be surprised if OBL himself was unarmed during the live fire part of the operation, which probably only lasted a few seconds). The further fact that he was shot once in the head, and then another time “to make sure he was dead” only highlights that question. My guess is that, for politically understandable reasons, taking him alive was at the least not a mission priority, and indeed the team may have been under orders to terminate OBL’s command with extreme prejudice.

It’s unclear whether this sentence . . .

Remarkably, Bin Laden was hiding almost under the nose of the Pakistani military, which has a major garrison in Abbottabad and the Pakistani version of West Point.

. . . is intended ironically.

Update: Reuters is quoting a U.S. official to the effect that the team was under orders to kill rather than capture OBL.

More on law school shenanigans

[ 5 ] May 1, 2011 |

There’s a good piece in the NYT this morning on how law schools hand out merit scholarships to significantly more students than will end up being able to retain them, given traditional law school grading practices (Paul Caron has a useful summary of the article here). This practice, which is quite new — a generation ago law schools handed out almost no merit scholarships — is driven, like so many other questionable things law schools do, by the rankings game. The GPA and test scores of entering students account for nearly a quarter of a school’s ranking, so, just as in the case of graduate employment figures, there’s a powerful incentive to game the numbers.

Of course in AynRandLand none of this is necessarily a problem:

The ABA seems unaware of the issues raised by merit grants. Its annual survey of law schools is granular enough to ask for the number of hours the library is open, but it doesn’t ask how many students lose their scholarships each year.

The schools already know that number. Why not publish it?

“That is a good question, a legitimate question,” said Bucky Askew, who directs the ABA division that accredits schools. “It hasn’t been an issue brought to our attention. Nobody has written us, contacted us, to say, ‘This needs to be on the table.’ ”

Why is merit scholarship retention not part of the U.S. News data haul? “The main reason is that we haven’t thought about it,” said Robert Morse, who oversees the rankings. “It’s not a great answer, but it’s an honest answer.”

Then Mr. Morse thought about it. “This isn’t meant to be sarcastic,” he said, “but these students are going to law school and they need to learn to read the fine print.”

In other words, caveat emptor, as they say in first year contracts.

On a related note, it’s good to see that a less laissez faire attitude taken by students at one Top Ten law school has successfully shaken some money out of the pockets of not only the school’s administration, but also from some of the faculty.

White House releases photo of birth certificate

[ 99 ] April 27, 2011 |

This is interesting.

Apparently Obama is holding a PC later this morning to address the “issue.” My off the cuff reaction is that this is a mistake. From a political standpoint I think it’s great that Donald Trump is out there saying crazy stuff on Anderson Cooper about how the real birth certificate is missing. What’s the percentage in even giving a hint of legitimacy to the combination of pure paranoia and even purer cynicism that fuels the birther nonsense? I suppose the angle the Obama people have decided to play is to present their man straightforwardly as a victim of slanderous accusations from Trump types, and/or coy non-denial denials from prominent Republicans who purport to remain birther curious. Going even more meta, the idea may be to whip up even more “controversy” over this, since it goes without saying that this “birth certificate” is typed in a font that didn’t exist in 1961 on paper synthesized from chemicals that were never combined before 1977 etc etc.

Update: White House statement

The President believed the distraction over his birth certificate wasn’t good for the country. It may have been good politics and good TV, but it was bad for the American people and distracting from the many challenges we face as a country. Therefore, the President directed his counsel to review the legal authority for seeking access to the long form certificate and to request on that basis that the Hawaii State Department of Health make an exception to release a copy of his long form birth certificate. They granted that exception in part because of the tremendous volume of requests they had been getting. President Barack Obama’s long form birth certificate can be seen here (PDF). Correspondence with the Hawaii State Department of Health can be seen here (PDF).

Trump is holding a press conference. Quotes:

“Today I’m very proud of myself, because I’ve accomplished something that nobody else has been able to accomplish.” ..

“Our president has finally released a certificate. I want to look at it, but I hope it’s true.”

“I am really honored, frankly, to have played such a big role…”

“I’m taking great credit.”

Somehow I doubt all this is what James Madison had in mind.

The triumph of Mr. Pink?

[ 63 ] April 25, 2011 |

Goodbye waiters?

Well not exactly. Somebody still has to bring you your food:

Suri stresses that the console is not designed to replace waiters. “You still need people to bring the food, to fill up the glasses, for customers to [interact with] if they want to make, like, a really complicated burger order. It’s up to the restaurant to decide how to use it,” he says.

The Presto aspires to be the food-services version of the airline check-in kiosk or the ATM or the self-checkout at your local pharmacy. It makes a person’s job a computer’s job, and that cuts costs. Each console goes for $100 per month. If a restaurant serves meals eight hours a day, seven days a week, it works out to 42 cents per hour per table—making the Presto cheaper than even the very cheapest waiter.

The story goes on to speculate that one reason these types of things are not yet in wide use, even though the technology is pretty simple by contemporary standards, is that when restaurants use traditional waiters “labor costs are not 42 cents per table per hour, but they actually aren’t much more than that. Many waiters earn as little as $2 or $3 an hour, making the rest of their living in tips.”
I’m not following the economic logic here: given the standard structure of waitstaff compensation, surely tips are part of the restaurant’s labor costs as much as anything else?

Which makes me wonder how well the tipping structure works in general. I assume this the kind of thing enterprising social scientists have studied in detail. What percentage of customers tip at a sit-down restaurant? How much do they leave? How much does this vary depending on factors like actual quality of service, swankiness or lack thereof, type of food, region of the country, age of clientele etc etc? What about buffets? And what ramifications does all this have for systems like this, where the waiters will still be doing much of the work they’ve always done?

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