Friday, December 31, 2010

Netflix Queue: My Favorite Streaming Movies of 2010

Turns out we watched a ton of Netflix Instant during 2010. What's great about the service is that it's easy to explore esoteric or classic movies at the touch of a mousepad. Here were my favorite streaming movies of 2010 -- the list doesn't include the fact that I watched the entire series run of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," and or other TV series, and I'm not including movies I'd already seen but re-watched during the year. This is just the most notable stuff I saw for the first time this year, thanks to streaming video:

• AFTER THE THIN MAN: The first movie we watched in 2010. I don't even remember what it was about. But Nick and Nora are always delightful and almost always drunk. A fine start to the year.

• DEAD SNOW: Watched this because it had the most awesome trailer ever. The movie is more of the same.

• TYSON: James Toback's largely sympathetic documentary about his friend, Mike Tyson. I came away with a bewildering mix of contempt and pity for the man.

• LET THE RIGHT ONE IN: One of the better vampire movies of recent years--possibly because of its Swedish provenance--remade in America this year as "Let Me In." This is a movie I still feel myself pondering from time to time.

• YOJIMBO: In which I discovered that Clint Eastwood stole his shtick from Toshiro Mifune.

• NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU: Is it great? No. But this anthology of short films set in NYC made me nostalgic for a city I never lived in. And an Eli Wallach sighting is always welcome.

• METROPOLIS: No, not the famous Fritz Lang film. The animé ripoff, which contained one of the most extraordinary climaxes to a movie I've seen this year. (Spoiler.)

• RED CLIFF: John Woo goes back to China to make a historical epic. Only the truncated version was available on Netflix Instant, but it still kicked ass.

• MOON: Nice, quiet Sam Rockwell movie that hearkens back to "2001."

• VON RYAN'S EXPRESS: Frank Sinatra escapes from the Nazis, buddy boy, and does it with panache.

• THE QUICK AND THE DEAD: Sam Raimi + Sharon Stone at her peak + Great Cast + Western = Surprisingly entertaining flick.

• THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW: No, I'd never seen it before. Let's do the Time Warp again.

• CASINO: It's as though Martin Scorcese was trying to make an homage to Martin Scorcese. A lesser work, but still fun and macho.

• IP MAN: The last movie of the year, a biopic about the real-life mentor to Bruce Lee, set in the 1930s as Ip Man kicks Japanese butt during the occupation of China. Great movie? Probably not. Lots of fun fight sequences, though.


Three habits I'd like to adopt in 2011

Here are three habits I'd like to adopt in 2011. I don't call them "resolutions," because that word implies the goal to me instead of the means. Here, I'm focusing on means. And instead of making grand pronouncements about weight or career that aren't really in my control, I'd like to focus on creating routines that help me be a better me.

Also: I won't cheat. I'm not going to try to make a resolution to read more or write more because, well, I do quite a bit of both already.

Without further adieu: My three goals:

• Walk two miles a day.

• Limit myself to meat at one meal per day.

• Commit 30 minutes a day to housecleaning.

Obviously, I won't be perfect on this. But they seem doable, and good habits to adopt on my way to a healthier life.

Endless war is ripping America apart from the inside

Devastating story in today's New York Times, about how military deployments affect the families left behind. Aside from the sad, sad anecdotes, we can see that a decade of war could end up producing real social problems:

Social scientists are just beginning to document the rippling effects of multiple combat deployments on families — effects that those families themselves have intimately understood for years. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in January found that wives of deployed soldiers sought mental health services more often than other Army wives.

They were also more likely to report mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and sleep disorder, the longer the deployments lasted.

And a paper published in the journal Pediatrics in late 2009 found that children in military families were more likely to report anxiety than children in civilian families. The longer a parent had been deployed in the previous three years, the researchers found, the more likely the children were to have had difficulties in school and at home.

Even though the military is composed of a relatively narrow swath of American society, the shear length and breadth of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq means that more than a million families have had to deal with long-term deployments abroad. Think about those problems described above, then mulitiply them by a million and then send them cascading down through the coming decades. We're creating a damaged generation.

This might be worth it -- if America were truly in some sort of civilizational peril. But it's not. 

It never was, in the case of Iraq. A better case can be made for Afghanistan -- the attacks of 9/11, frankly, disabused me of my complete pacifism though I remain very, very dovish. But a decade later we're still tied down in that country when all the available evidence tells us we can't create a satisfactory outcome there and we're probably not making ourselves safer by being there.

The damage we're doing ourself goes beyond wasted blood and treasure, goes beyond the America-in-decline inevitabilities that come from fighting wars on Chinese credit. We're treating the souls of a million families like they're cheap, trifling things. And as with the rest of it, we will pay the price for this. I don't see how the cost is justified.

Why I'm glad I no longer own a car

According to travel organization AAA, the average price of regular gasoline in the U.S. is $3.071, up from $2.854 one month ago and $2.623 one year ago. The data from the D.C. region closely mirror the national data, with prices here averaging $3.079. Both numbers are a long way from the record average price of $4.114, which was recorded in October 2008 during the height of the financial crisis. But still, the surge in recent weeks to average prices above $3 marks the first time prices have crossed that threshold since 2008.

And some experts are predicting those numbers will continue to tick upward. John Hofmeister, chief executive of the nonprofit organization Citizens for Affordable Energy and a former Shell executive, said in a recent interview with Platts Energy Week that he expects gas prices to hit $5 a gallon by 2012.

Now, there's an economic ripple effect to super-high gas prices that I'll no doubt feel, even though I don't own a car. We still take the bus and, occasionally, a taxi. But living in Center City Philadelphia and walking lots of places works pretty well too, and insulates us from the shock and pain that a lot of people will be feeling this year.

Can privatization save us from the TSA? (Probably not.)

Some of the nation's biggest airports are responding to recent public outrage over security screening by weighing whether they should hire private firms such as Covenant to replace the Transportation Security Administration. Sixteen airports, including San Francisco and Kansas City International Airport, have made the switch since 2002. One Orlando airport has approved the change but needs to select a contractor, and several others are seriously considering it.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which governs Dulles International and Reagan National airports, is studying the option, spokeswoman Tara Hamilton said.

For airports, the change isn't about money. At issue, airport managers and security experts say, is the unwieldy size and bureaucracy of the federal aviation security system. Private firms may be able to do the job more efficiently and with a personal touch, they argue.

Sounds good, but as the story later notes: "procedures in airport security lines do not change" if a private corporation takes over the screening process. There's still the see-through-your-clothes-scanning and junk-touching that the federal government peforms. So I'm not sure -- as a flier -- what the benefit would be. The government outsourcing its intrusions onto my person to a private company actually makes me feel worse about about those intrusions, not better.

Charles Ramsey on Philly's police corruption

A nice year-end police interview with Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey in today's Daily News. He says all the right things about battling corruption in the department, and I've no reason to disbelieve him. But the glimpses I've had of Philly police culture -- not just that there's corruption, but that it's routinely abusive of and alienated from the community in ways that don't always technically violate the law -- tell me he's battling something entrenched. And it's worth noting that the police union re-elected John McNesby as its president in 2010 -- a man whose main public accomplishment is to defend cops against charges of abuse, regardless of what the evidence says, and with few public words about the need for integrity on the force. (He's also very public, to be fair, when it comes to offering rewards to entice the public to help police solve crimes.) I suspect that he's closer to the heart of the Philly PD, and that doesn't give me much optimism about a renaissance in the ranks.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The ESPN anchor and journalism: Smart journalists know to paraphrase their stolen material

Will Selva, an ESPNews anchor, has been sidelined after apparently plagiarizing several sentences of an Orange County Register newspaper column on Tuesday night.

Mr. Selva said in a statement that he had made a “horrible mistake” by copy-and-pasting the text of the story and forgetting to then write a script in his own words.

Television networks often rely on newspapers for reporting, but using the same words without attribution is a violation of journalistic standards. The words were originally written by Kevin Ding, who covers the Los Angeles Lakers for the Register.

I don't ever expect this to change, but: I'm still not sure why it's ok to steal reporting but not writing. Often, radios and TV networks at least attribute the report they're stealing -- but not always. And that's a bit of a breach of decorum, but nobody ever really gets fired for it. Steal a phrase or a few sentences, though, and your career is over. Smart journalists know that they can stay employed if they paraphrase somebody else's work.

Why does Sarah Palin want our soldiers to be fat, slow and vulnerable?

The soda machines in mess halls have been removed and replaced with milk and juice. Drill sergeants are encouraging new soldiers to choose a serving of fruits instead of coffee and a candy bar for energy. White bread and pasta is being replaced with whole grains, sunflower seeds, yogurt, and salsa.

"This is not (just) an Army problem," said Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command. "This is a civilian problem that we're receiving and fixing."

I'm joking with my headline, but Palin's much-publicized critique of Michele Obama's anti-obesity initiative, um, objectively puts her on the side of fat-assery*. And fat-assery isn't good for the nation! It's not good for our soldiers, nor our health, nor our medical bills! If Mrs. Obama was spearheading a BMI requirement that would require Americans to hit their optimum bodyweight or else face fines or some other santion, I'd understand Palin's objections. Instead, it looks like she's being churlish in the face of a real problem.

* Which, granted, puts her on the side of ... me.

(Hat-tip: PhillyGrrl)

Gridlock or bipartisanship in 2011?

Those seem to be the choices facing our representatives in Washington during this coming year of divided government. Ben and I contemplate the possibilities in our Scripps Howard column this week. My take:


During Obama's first two years in office, it became apparent that each party had its own definition of "bipartisanship." For Democrats, it meant trying to adjust their governing priorities to address Republican concerns -- which is why the stimulus was smaller than proposed, the health reform bill included no "public option," and why the recent tax bill included unnecessary tax cuts for the rich.

For Republicans, however, "bipartisanship" has clearly meant that Democrats should completely abandon their projects and principles and adopt the GOP platform as their own. Even when that has happened, though, Republicans have abandoned their previously held positions in order to deny Obama a political victory of any sort -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was an ardent proponent of a deficit-reduction commission right up to the moment the president backed the proposal. Then he became an opponent.

Such attitudes are a recipe for gridlock. Any sane definition of the word "bipartisanship" includes some mention of compromise. But it's clear that Republicans intend to continue their "Party of No" strategy.

On election night, incoming House Speaker John Boehner told supporters that "it is the president who sets the agenda for our government." That's not exactly true -- Congress, after all, is a co-equal branch of government. Constitutional illiteracy aside, the goal is clear: Republicans plan to prevent government from getting anything done for two more years, then hope the voters blame Obama in 2012.

Gridlock, it is clear, is the last refuge of the cynical and power-hungry.

Americans should hope for some bipartisanship, if only because the challenges facing the nation are so huge that they won't be met by only one party working to craft solutions. Unfortunately, it's probably more realistic to expect gridlock.

Ben, meanwhile, praises the possibilities of "gridlock, sweet gridlock."


It's possible I've become too techy

It's possible I've become too techy

Tobias lines up traffic.

Today in inequality reading: Risks and rewards

The book "Winner-Take-All Politics" is on my list of must-reads for my year of reading about income inequality. The other day, I expressed concern that growing inequality was proof that the U.S. economic system isn't properly distributing its rewards. But today's Foreign Affairs review of "WTAP" crystalizes my concerns further: It's not just that the rewards aren't properly distributed -- neither are the risks:

The wealthiest Americans, among them presumably the very titans of global finance whose misadventures brought about the financial meltdown, got richer. And not just a little bit richer; a lot richer. In 2009, the average income of the top five percent of earners went up, while on average everyone else's income went down. This was not an anomaly but rather a continuation of a 40-year trend of ballooning incomes at the very top and stagnant incomes in the middle and at the bottom. The share of total income going to the top one percent has increased from roughly eight percent in the 1960s to more than 20 percent today.

This is what the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson call the "winner-take-all economy." It is not a picture of a healthy society. Such a level of economic inequality, not seen in the United States since the eve of the Great Depression, bespeaks a political economy in which the financial rewards are increasingly concentrated among a tiny elite and whose risks are borne by an increasingly exposed and unprotected middle class.

There's more to the review and the book to wrestle with, but this is the point I'm pondering for now.

Undocumented workers, illegal immigrants and AP style

Leave it to Fox News to make an opinion I hold seem utterly distasteful to me:
Plenty of conservatives are pretty upset over a campaign by the Society of Professional Journalists to convince reporters to stop using the terms "illegal aliens" and "illegal immigrants" in favor of "undocumented immigrant." But none are as livid as perpetually outraged Fox News host Megyn Kelly, who on Wednesday afternoon asked if journalists were going to start calling rapists "non-consensual sex partners" next.
"You could say that a burglar is an unauthorized visitor. You know, you could say that a rapist is a non-consensual sex partner which, obviously, would be considered offensive to the victims of those crimes," Kelly said. "So how far could you take this?"
As it happens, I discussed this issue back in July in response to a post at the Feministing blog. What I said then bears repeating now:
I get it: There's a desire to use language to create dignity for people by separating humanity's inherent characteristics from the conditions that afflict them and the actions they take. So there's no more "disabled person." It's now "person with disabilities." The emphasis is on personhood. And that's nice. Laudable. But it does clutter the language: Two words become three. (Similarly, I know from painful experience that there's any number of neutered-but-nice terms for "homeless people.") Pile up enough similar examples, and over time, the cluttering of language tends to obscure more than it reveals. 
Which is the case with Feministing's snit: "Undocumented" reduces the issues at play to nothing more than a paperwork problem. (And it's not necessarily more accurate as shorthand; surely many if not most of these folks have, say, birth certificates or driver's licenses or whatnot in their home countries. What kind of documentation are we talking about?) "Illegal" more immediately conveys the sum and substance of the controversy -- and references to illegal immigration are almost always a reference to the controversy -- many people (and their American employers) have chosen to break the laws of this country by crossing the borders to work here. I think those laws should change; I don't think playing games with the language is the way to do it.
As I suggested, any kind of shorthand -- whether it's "undocumented immigrant" or "illegal immigrant" -- is always going to be overly reductive and, in the end, at leastsomewhat imprecise. Some shorthand phrases, though, are more imprecise and convey less information than others. And those phrases should generally be avoided.

Republicans don't really care about the deficit

Under pay-as-you-go rules adopted by Democratic majorities in the House and Senate in 2007, tax cuts or increases in entitlement spending must be offset by tax increases or entitlement cuts. Entitlements include big health programs like Medicare and Medicaid, for which spending is on autopilot, as well as some other programs for veterans and low-income Americans. (Discretionary spending, which includes defense, is approved separately by Congress annually.)

The new Republican rules will gut pay-as-you-go because they require offsets only for entitlement increases, not for tax cuts. In effect, the new rules will codify the Republican fantasy that tax cuts do not deepen the deficit.

I think I'd admire the Republican rules if they required that a tax cut be accompanied by an equivalent reduction in spending. I wouldn't like it, but I'd respect it. As it stands, the rules let the GOP cut taxes to their heart's content without making sure those cuts don't deepen the deficit somehow.

We'll see how this plays out. But there's no evidence to support the idea that Republicans are fiscally responsible. At all.

The stimulus was good for Philadelphia

The federal reporting rules make an exact stimulus-created jobs figure for city residents very difficult to calculate, but a conservative estimate would be in the thousands. A recent report from the Keystone Research Center estimates that Philadelphia's unemployment rate would have shot to 20 percent without the stimulus. Instead, the rate at the end of October was 11.5 percent.

The money hasn't always been spent efficiently -- or, as the story notes, spent at all. But I'd take an 8.5 percent drop in unemployment any day.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Me at Metropolis: On the rootlessness of our Webified world

I'm published today at the Metropolis, pondering the ways that Internet culture can make it difficult to connect to your local community:

So when it came time to move to Philadelphia, we got rid of everything that would help us connect with the world immediately around us: the radio and the television and the newspaper subscription. Our computers would work for all those things. Right?

What I found out is this: The miracle of the Internet is that it can bring you news, music and video from anywhere on the planet. The curse of the Internet, it turns out, is that it can bring you news, music and video from anywhere on the planet. It's easy to avoid the local culture. In my eagerness to abandon the provincialism of my youth, I forgot that you can only live where you live.

This might seem a strange essay coming from me, since I've built my (ahem) career over the last decade by jumping with both feet into what is still sometimes called "New Media." That's served me well, as has my ability to connect to the broader culture in the ways I describe. I wouldn't take it back. But those benefits don't -- haven't -- come entirely without costs, even to me personally. I'm trying to figure out how to find the best balance my life -- and my parenting -- so that I can embrace the best of what Internet Culture has created without untethering myself entirely from the analog world. I don't want to become a Luddite, reading dusty texts by candlelight, but I don't want to live inside a Tron video game either. It's a daily struggle. 

But please, follow the link. Give it a thumbs-up and comment, so Tom Ferrick will be inclined to run my stuff again in the future. 

Tucker Carlson's talent: We'd rather be on Michael Vick's side

Carlson differentiated between Vick and others because Vick "killed a heartless and cruel way." This is true. But what Carlson believed to be the proper punishment for Vick is sure to get some attention:

"I think, personally, he should have been executed for that."

Christopher Beam is wrong to say libertarians own the heritage of the Founders

In his much-discussed and mostly pretty-good overview of libertarianism for New York Magazine, Christopher Beam makes a statement I think is just flat-out wrong:

Every political group claims the Founders as its own, but libertarians have more purchase than most. The American Revolution was a libertarian movement, rejecting overweening government power. The Constitution was a libertarian document that limited the role of the state to society’s most basic needs, like a legislature to pass laws, a court system to interpret them, and a military to protect them. 

Beam might be right, as far as the Revolution goes. But the people who created and advocated for the adoption of the Constitution weren't really the libertarians of their day. They were trying to consolidate power for a national government, and even gave it unlimited power of taxation! The libertarians of the day were the Antifederalists, who thought that the power of taxation and the ability to create a standing army -- powers granted the government by the new Constitution -- were a dangerous threat to their hard-won liberty. Heck, the reason I even know of the Antifederalists is due to the proddings of a libertarian friend of mine. The Constitution might've restrained the powers of government compared to, say, the British monarchy -- but it was a lot more than limited-government types of the era felt entirely comfortable with. Granting libertarians a stronger purchase on the history of the Founders is simply incorrect.

Even Stanley Kurtz doesn't buy Jonah Goldberg's defense of red-baiting Stanley Kurtz

Remember last week, when Jonah Goldberg said that Stanley Kurtz's new book calling Obama a socialist isn't the same thing as calling him a communist -- and it's those oversensitive liberals who are conflating communism and socialism? Remember that?

For example, I’ve just been dipping in and out of Stan’s book, but nowhere I’ve seen does he call Obama a Communist. I’m sure Dave understands the distinction and he might have simply found the word-play irresistible, but it’s worth noting that the Hammer and Sickle are not symbols of socialism but of Communism.

Who is seeing Hammer and Sickles everywhere now?

I responded by noting that the cover of Kurtz's book actually features Obama's face superimposed on a red star. But it turns out you don't need to read into the cover symbolism to believe that Kurtz is doing a bit of red-baiting here. Here's Kurtz himself, today

There’s no doubt that Radical-in-Chief’s cover art draws the reader’s eye with a spectacular symbol of classic Marxist socialism. It would have been tough to put a picture of the Midwest Academy on the book, since no-one’s ever heard of it, and since the Midwest Academy keeps its socialism secret in any case. I get at the stealthy, pragmatic, and incremental Midwest Academy-style socialism the reader will learn about inside through the book’s subtitle.

But the fact is that a lot of Radical-in-Chief is about good old fashioned Marxism. There’s the story of Reverend Wright’s adventures in Cuba, for example, which drew Obama to Wright’s church, I claim. And Obama himself was a revolutionary Marxist at Occidental College. Also, many of the Swedish-style socialist organizers who trained and sponsored Obama supported Marxist regimes like Cuba and Nicaragua. Alice Palmer, who chose Obama to be her successor in the Illinois State Senate, was a fan of the Soviet Union. Bill Ayers often wears the red star. Despite their democratic professions, many of Obama’s stealth-socialist community organizer colleagues believed that a violent socialist revolution would be necessary in the future. And some of Obama’s mentors favored Swedish social experiments that skirted the boundary between democratic socialism and outright authoritarianism. Even Obama’s most gradualist mentors saw their ideological stealth as a modern version of Communist Party strategy during the Popular Front period.

So while American socialism definitely changed during its turn to community organizing in the eighties and nineties, the hard-core Marxist past was never entirely shed. The book grapples with that complexity. The Swedish alternative is real, but the links to the bad old Marxist days remain. That’s part of what makes even reformed socialism a matter of legitimate concern to those who love liberty.

Now, maybe this isn't directly calling Obama a communist. But he's certainly making a direct case that at one point, at least, Obama was a Marxist. (Can we agree that word is a synonym for Communist, or is more parsing called for?) And he's certainly making the case that Obama is so tied to and enmeshed with Marxists that his presidency endangers our country. I'm not sure that Goldberg's effort at pedantry -- communism is different from socialism, and Democrats are getting their feelings hurt because of their own inability to make distinctions -- really stands up at all in light of Kurtz's own words.

In any case, if Obama's a socialist, he's a damned lousy one. Tax cuts for the rich? Putting GM back on the market after saving it? Passing health reform by keeping insurance entirely in the hands of private companies? No doubt Kurtz and others will view this as Alinskyite go-slow subversion of free markets, but most of the rest of us don't see a president who looks all that radical. 

I buy a lottery ticket twice a year. This week is one of those times.

The Mega Millions lottery annuity jackpot jumped to $237 million ($150.8 million cash) today after Tuesday night's drawing produced no top prize winner.

The jackpot is the biggest on offer since June in either the Mega Millions of Powerball games when one ticket had all the numbers in $261.6 million Powerball drawing.

I know and fully agree with all the arguments against the existence of a lottery -- it amounts to a tax on the poor, one that encourages them to spend money on hopeless dreams instead of productive purposes here and now. And I know the odds against winning the lottery: I'm almost certainly not the person who will win it if I play.

On the other hand: *Somebody's* going to win this money. $1 won't make my son go without a meal. So -- completely irrationally -- I will buy a single Mega Millions ticket this week.

About those Predator drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan

These attacks by unmanned aircraft may have succeeded in eliminating hundreds of dangerous militants, but the truth is that they also kill innocent civilians indiscriminately and in large numbers. According to the New America Foundation, one in four of those killed by drones since 2004 has been an innocent. The Brookings Institute, however, has calculated a much higher civilian-to-militant ratio of 10:1. Meanwhile, figures compiled by the Pakistani authorities suggest US strikes killed 701 people between January 2006 and April 2009, of which 14 were al-Qaida militants and 687 were civilians. That produces a hit rate of just 2% – or 50 civilians dead for every militant killed.

Obviously, the numbers are all over the place. But if the United States really is killing civilians in significant numbers in Afghanistan and Iraq, it could hardly do more to spread the ideologies of terrorism.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Wall Street Journal has its death panel cake, eats it too

Here's the WSJ headline on its editorial about the revival of government-sponsored, voluntary end-of-life counseling sessions for seniors:

headline.png.png  on Aviaryheadline.png.png on Aviary.

Remember Sarah Palin's point? It was that the government was going to set up a bureaucracy that forced seniors to commit suicide so they wouldn't spend our precious health care resources. That was never, ever, ever true. It was either a lie or a gross misunderstanding on Palin's part, but it was never, ever true.

And the Wall Street Journal, once you get past the inflammatory headline, admits this!

Certain quarters on the political right are following the media's imagination and blasting Dr. Berwick's decision as the tangible institution of death panels. But the rule-making is not coercive and gives seniors more autonomy, not less.

In this case, fully a fifth of the U.S. population will be over age 65 inside of two decades, and whatever the other marvels of modern medicine, the mortality rate remains 100%. Advance care planning lays out the options and allows patients, in consultation with their providers and family members, to ensure that their future treatment is consistent with their wishes and moral values should they become too sick to decide for themselves.

So, wait: If end-of-life counseling sessions aren't anything like death panels, then how does can the WSJ headline say Palin "had a point"?

We wrote at the time that Sarah Palin's coinage was sensationalistic, but it was meant to illustrate a larger truth about a world of finite resources and infinite entitlement wants.

Hmm. I'm not sure that "larger truths" can be well-illustrated by fat, whopping mistruths compounded by sensationalistic headlines contradicted by the articles they lead. But maybe that's how the WSJ editorial board does business. 

Income inequality: Rein in the rich or lift up the poor?

In his post on income inequality, Mickey Kaus gets at another question that I want to get answered during my year of immersion reading: Is it better to restrain the income of the rich or to lift the incomes of the poor:

The question is then what makes Brazil Brazil. Is it wild riches at the top, or extreme poverty at the bottom? It seems pretty obvious, from what little I know of Brazil, that the problem is the bottom, not the top. We worry about Brazil because of the favelas, the huge impoverished shantytowns, and the crime coming out of them. 

I think Kaus is mostly right about this: I don't feel class-envy need to keep Bill Gates from earning another billion dollars or so. 


The evidence suggests that -- recent circumstances notwithstanding -- the amount of actual wealth in America grew during the last 30 years. And that the people who were already rich did pretty much all of the accumulating of that wealth, while incomes for the rest of us stagnated during that time. But I have a hard time believing that the people in the Top 1 Percent who accumulated all that additional wealth did all the creating of all that additional wealth. I suspect that additional wealth was created, in part, on the labor and ideas and sweat of people further down the food chain who might not've shared proportionately in the rewards. (Although perhaps I'll be disabused of that notion as I keep up my reading.)

Assuming they're not simply shills for rich business interests, that should concern lovers of the free market: If hard work and productivity don't actually bring you additional income -- and that seems to be the case under the prevailing ideologies of the last 30 years -- then where's the incentive to hard work and increase productivity? 

Preserving the free market aside, though, I think this is one of my concerns about growing income inequality: It suggests that most of us aren't being rewarded for our part in creating wealth for others. So I'm concerned about the runaway wealth accumulation of the Top 1 Percent because it suggests that the system is badly broken in its distribution of the wealth it creates, not because I don't want people to make more money.

Denis Dutton, Arts & Letters Daily founder, RIP

Denis Dutton in 1998 created the well-read Arts & Letters Daily, which the New Yorker's Blake Eskin today calls "the first and foremost aggregator of well-written and well-argued book reviews, essays, and other articles in the realm of ideas. Denis was the intellectual’s Matt Drudge." Dutton, a philosophy professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, has died after having cancer. He was the brother of the former Los Angeles booksellers Doug and Davis Dutton. The Chronicle of Higher Education, which bought Arts & Letters Daily in 2002, announced that the site will attempt to continue.

I've not much to add, except that Dutton's website was one of those places that made a guy from Kansas feel liberated by the Internet -- regular exposure to the world of ideas made my world bigger. I'm grateful to Dutton for his work. Rest in peace.

Kaus, Obama, income inequality and immigration

I think I've mentioned before that 2011 will be my year of reading about income inequality and the welfare state. I've already got a running head start with the Christmastime purchase of Paul Krugman's "The Conscience of a Liberal." My plan is to read a serious of books along the political spectrum -- William Voegeli's "Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State" is next on the list.

But the national discussion is currently outracing my attempts to build a foundation for my own contributions to the debate. Today, Mickey Kaus weighs in with his own suggestion about what President Obama can really do if he wants to address income inequality: Put a clamp on illegal immigration:
 A major enemy of tight labor markets at the bottom is also fairly clear: unchecked immigration by undocumented low-skilled workers. It's hard for a day laborer to command $18 an hour in the market if there are illegals hanging out on the corner willing to work for $7. Even experts who claim illlegal immigration is good for Americans overall admit that it's not good for Americans at the bottom. In other words, it's not good for income equality.
I suspect that there's something to this, but not in the way that Kaus thinks. Part of the reason that illegal immigrant labor is so cheap -- and thus contributes so mightily to income inequality -- is that employers hold pretty much all the power in the employer-employee relationship. They're generally content to overlook a worker's immigrant status as long as they provide cheap labor. But if those workers started agitating for higher pay or tried to unionize (options available to their naturalized colleagues), well, it's not too difficult to imagine a manager making a call to the authorities to get rid of the rabble-rouser, is it? So illegal workers keep their heads low and their hands busy, because the pay is still far better than what they'd make back at home. Otherwise, why would they be here?

Cracking down on illegal immigration might solve the supply-demand problem that affects income inequality, I suppose, but it seems to me also possible that a smart, always-talked-about-but-never-implemented guest worker program might do quite a bit to affect the dynamic as well. If illegal workers knew that they could fairly bargain their labor for pay without worrying about deportation or prison, the result might be higher pay. That would bring up the incomes of the lowest-earning workers, yes, but it might also give illegal workers less of a workplace advantage over similarly skilled American citizens who might require a bit more money to do the work. You don't have to build a high fence to address income inequality, in other words: Just make the immigration system make more sense.

Shmoogy Noir

Taken at Almaz Cafe

About Vick, Obama and prisoner rehabilitation

Dave Weigel onPresident Obama's praise of Michael Vick

The Vick/Obama is only interesting at the level Obama meant it to be interesting -- as the start of a discussion on prisoner rehabilitation. Vick will be fine, because he has several years left to play football better than almost anybody in the country. He gets a comeback, on national television, with an array of writers eager to chronicle it. How useful is the Vick situation for starting a discussion about prison reform, or the rights of felons? Does it make a discussion of felon re-enfranchisement any less toxic? It can, and it's really the only way that Democrats -- especially Barack Obama -- can start a discussion on this without coming out of the gate as soft-on-crime wimps.

I suspect that this discussion won't get too far with Vick as its leading example. "Rehaibilitation" is relatively easy to come by when A) you're likely to secure a multi-million dollar contract upon your release from prison and B) employers are motivated to give you that contract because of the possibility you'll help them generate millions of dollars more in ticket sales, team paraphernalia (if, as is happening with Vick right now, you take a team to the playoffs) and other opportunities. But Michael Vick is the only recent felon to whom those conditions apply. There are incentives out there for employers who hire recently released convicts, but lots of companies remain skittish about those prospects. I'm not sure how Michael Vick's example serves as a good starting point to fixing those problems.

Dennis Prager answers the question: What do women want?

I'm on record as having a fair amount of contempt for the relationship writings of conservative radio host Dennis Prager, so I braced myself when he started writing a series of columns -- posted at National Review -- about what men and women most want in the world. His column today on the second part of that question (what women want) turned out to be not as awful as I feared, but still off-target. 

What a woman most wants is to be loved by a man she admires.

The notion that a woman most wants a man, admirable or not, has been scoffed at. This was encapsulated by the famous feminist slogan, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” Even feminism that did not agree with the fish-bicycle metaphor communicated to young women that an “authentic” woman would not have as her greatest desire to bond with a man.

It is problematic enough to say that a woman most wants a man. But that pales compared to the claim that she most wants man whom she admires. That seems to affirm gender inequality. The image it conjures up is of a woman looking up to her man as if he were some sort of lord and she his serf.

Yet any woman who believes that she is married to an admirable man would laugh at such a dismissal. Admiring one’s husband doesn’t render a woman a serf. It renders her fortunate.

I have no doubt that some women, many women, want most to be loved by a man they admire. Furthermore, I have little doubt that in the conservative circles Prager runs in, there are many, many women who profess as much. (I went to an evangelical Mennonite college in the Midwest where women regularly said they were seeking a husband who could provide "Christian leadership." I know that lots of folks like this exist.) Where Prager goes wrong, I think, is in his apparent implication that he could pluck any woman out of a crowd and know that's what she wants most -- or if she doesn't, she's clearly been brainwashed by feminism.

First of all: Not every women wants to be loved by a man

Second: Love isn't necessarily the highest goal of every remaining straight woman. Different people prioritize things differently.

Third: Prager is right that the word "admires" does conjure some of the cognitive trouble he expected. If he'd used the word "respects" -- and I think it would've covered many the aspects he intends by the word -- I might not quibble. Much. 

But all of this, as I said, is incidental to Prager's foundational problem: His belief that he knows what women want. Modern conservatism, as a political tradition, tends to very strongly emphasize individual rights and responsibilities -- rhetorically, at least, it recognizes that different people want different things, and wants them to be free to pursue those different things in their own way. Prager doesn't seem to really belong to this tradition, though. Instead -- whether he realizes it or not -- he's the reason that feminism came into being in the first place: Because some women wanted the freedom to make and pursue different choices than the ones expected of them in a male-dominated society.

It may be that many women want what Prager believes they want; but his framing doesn't allow for the possibility that healthy women may make other choices, may want other things. Indeed, he pretty clearly holds such differing ideas in contempt. So while some of his advice might seem sound -- dudes, work hard to improve your lot in life! -- it's founded in a worldview that seems to deny women their individuality. Because of that, I'm not really interested in taking his relationship advice.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Netflix Queue: 'Restrepo'

Three thoughts about 'Restrepo,' coming up after the trailer:

• This movie is a documentary about the life of an American Army platoon stationed in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley in 2007. Americans weren't paying as much attention to Afghanistan at that point: Iraq was consuming most of our attention. But the war there was every bit as real and intense for these soldiers; the combat footage is some of the most harrowing I've ever seen -- not unflinching, exactly, because we're not shown much of actual death or wounds, but it does walk right up to the line of what American viewers will find acceptable in depicting combat deaths. It is devastating.

• Watching 'Restrepo,' though, I realized how much of my understanding of war is generally shaped by war movies, and because of that by the language of Hollywood generally. There were several moments throughout the documentary that I thought were foreshadowing an imminent violent death -- because that's how those moments would've been used in a Hollywood production. 'Restrepo' eschewed such tricks, for the most part: If violent death was coming, it used its narrators -- soldiers from the unit, reflecting on their experiences months later in studio interviews, from the relative safety of an Army base in Italy -- to tell us precisely what was coming. Only then were we shown. 

• The movie's most emblematic character is Capt. Dan Kearney, leader of the squad that we follow. He arrives in Afghanistan looking a bit dim but well-intentioned -- he tells viewers he read nothing about the Korengal Valley before deploying there, because he wanted to approach the problems there "with an open mind" -- intending to do the "nice guy" work of counterinsurgency: meeting weekly with local elders, promising jobs and building projects in exchange for their help. By the end, though, the intentions have gone awry: He tells the gathering of elders he doesn't give a fuck about their protests of the arrest of a local man they say is innocent of anti-American activity. He can't claim any real victories during his time in Afghanistan, so he talks about "changing the dynamics" of what is clearly still a deadly place for American troops.

And one can't help feel, as Kearney makes regular promises of future "progress" to Afghan elders, that the elders aren't all that interested in the kind of progress he clearly intends to be an enticement to their cooperation. There's a memorable line in "Full Metal Jacket" -- there's Hollywood war again -- that inside every enemy fighter is an American trying to scratch its way out. Forty years have passed since the war depicted in that movie, but there are moments in 'Restrepo' that suggest American hubris hasn't been tempered too much in the decades since. That's not what 'Restrepo' is about, though: It's about the daily horror experienced by the men who serve that hubris. Perhaps fittingly, the movie's happy ending is when our soldiers finally get to leave Afghanistan.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A note about Mitch McConnell's last-ditch effort to block the DADT repeal

A last-ditch effort by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to complicate the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was blocked Tuesday night after Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) objected, Senate aides said.

McConnell attempted to add an amendment to the so-called stripped-down defense authorization bill that would have required the consent of the military service chiefs to proceed with "don't ask" repeal. Under legislation passed by the Senate last week, certifications are required from the president, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. All the incumbents in those positions support repeal.

"It was a McConnell proposal," a GOP aide confirmed. "There was an attempted to get unanimous consent for it to be included in the defense bill and someone objected."

Perhaps I'm missing something here, but it appears Sen. McConnell tried to amend the law to give the military service chiefs veto power over the decisions of their civilian superiors. He lost this round, but isn't the effort itself Constitutionally suspect?

America is a little more American today

President Obama signed the landmark repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy Wednesday morning, handing a major victory to advocates of gay rights and fulfilling a campaign promise to do away with a practice that he has called discriminatory.

Casting the repeal in terms of past civil rights struggles, Obama said he was proud to sign a law that "will strengthen our national security and uphold the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend."

He added: "No longer will our country be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans who are forced to leave the military - regardless of their skills, no matter their bravery or their zeal, no matter their years of exemplary performance - because they happen to be gay. No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder in order to serve the country that they love."

Howard Kurtz is really wrong about Haley Barbour

At the Daily Beast, Howard Kurtz seems to think that the blowup about Haley Barbour's comments about the Concerned Citizens Councils represents unwarranted digging into Barbour's attitudes from 1962, saying the brouhaha is the press getting "worked into a lather over what Barbour did and thought when he was a teenager."

When you contemplate running for president, your life becomes an open book. Barbour should certainly be held accountable for the insensitive way he talked about the bad old days of officially sanctioned racial prejudice. His statement today is an acknowledgement of how badly he bobbled the question. But at some point you have to ask: Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations on this stuff?

But nobody's getting mad at Barbour for being a Mississippian in 1962. They're getting mad at his contemporary adult understanding and presentation of what that era was like. He suggested in December 2010 -- despite decades of historical research based on accounts of the time -- that the CCCs were benign community groups when, in reallity, they were working in the service of white supremacy. I don't blame Barbour for his youth. I do blame him for whitewashing racism as an adult. The statute of limitations has barely even started on that stuff. 


Jonah Goldberg does that thing where he pretends that words don't have plain meanings so that he can pretend liberals are confusing things

Jonah Goldberg defends Stanley Kurtz's new book about President Obama's socialism-drenched past. A couple of paragraphs need some attention:

Here’s my problem. Socialism isn’t the scare word Weigel and others (David Frum comes to mind) say it is. I will be honest and admit that I wish it was more of a scare word than it is, but it’s really not one. I don’t think Americans think of gulags, bread lines and Red Dawn when they hear the word “socialist.”  They think of those things when they hear the word “Communist,” which is a different thing than socialism (or at least that’s what every book on the subject and every sincere democratic socialist I’ve ever spoken to says).

This is an example of Goldberg being hyperliteral when he chooses to be. Yes, socialism is different from communism -- even if the two are related. But as used by much of the right, the "socialist" charge against Obama is clearly, unambiguous effort to conflate the two concepts and paint the president as a bit of a stealth Stalinist. That's why if you do a Google image search for "Obama socialism" you end up with lots and lots and lots of pictures like this. It's not liberals who are making those pictures, so Goldberg is being either A) naive to the point of stupidity or B) willfully disingenuous when he suggests that the conflation of socialism and communism, with regard to Obama, is because of liberal misunderstandings.

But now things are a bit mixed up. So even though leading liberals have talked openly about the possibility that Obama is a “liberal socialist” or might usher in a socialist era, when conservatives take these arguments at face value or make similar ones themselves, it isliberals like Weigel who insist that socialism must be seen as synonymous with Communism, the gulag, Red Dawn etc.

Er... which leading liberals have talked openly about the possibility of Obama being a "liberal socialist"? I'm open to the possibility it's happened, though I'd be surprised. I just want to know Goldberg's documentation for that assertion. But here's the capper:

For example, I’ve just been dipping in and out of Stan’s book, but nowhere I’ve seen does he call Obama a Communist. I’m sure Dave understands the distinction and he might have simply found the word-play irresistible, but it’s worth noting that the Hammer and Sickle are not symbols of socialism but of Communism.

Who is seeing Hammer and Sickles everywhere now?

Ladies and gentlemen: I give you the cover of Stanley Kurtz's book:

Right. Now, granted, there's no "hammer and sickle" on the front of Kurtz's book, but a red star is generally accepted as the next-best symbol of Soviet-style communism.  And granted, a book cover isn't a book's argument. What's more, I understand this book is well-researched, even if its arguments fall flat. But for Goldberg to suggest that there's no red-baiting going on by conservatives who charge Obama with socialism, well, that's literally unbelievable.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Deep Thought

Dems have been (finally) moving major legislation so well during the lame duck session that perhaps we'd all benefit if they lost by historic margins in every election. Losing is apparently the only way to motivate them. Health care wasn't passed until Scott Brown won Kennedy's seat, after all.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Coffee and an ebook

Taken at Almaz Cafe

More on Haley Barbour and race revisionism

Like I said, Barbour is not dumb. If he's being a revisionist about race in Mississippi, he's not alone, and he's fighting back against a media standard that all conservatives hate -- this idea that Southerners and conservatives can never stop atoning for Jim Crow. Why should he have to apologize for this, after all? He wasn't in a Citizens Council. With the exception of some people, like Howell Raines -- who covered Barbour's 1986 Senate bid -- how many of these reporters know what they're talking about, anyway? And there are few things conservative voters hate more than being told they were on the wrong side of the Civil Rights movement.

Dave Weigel, via

I for one don't need Southerners to continually atone for Jim Crow. If Haley Barbour doesn't want to have to apologize for Citizens Councils because he wasn't in one, then the best thing he can do is ... keep quiet about Citizens Councils. Publicly reimagining them as a race-neutral instrument of civic stability keeps culture wars alive, because it tells minorities and white liberals that *Southern Whites* haven't moved beyond fighting the battles of the Civil Rights era.

But I think Weigel, in his last sentence, gets at what's going on. "There are few things conservative voters hate more than being told they were on the wrong side of the Civil Rights movement." But they were! Barbour's way of telling the Citizens Council story, though, lets them feel like *they're* the real (and misunderstood) victims of racism in America -- and that's a lie.

If Republicans don't want to be tagged as racist, they shouldn't praise racist stuff

I know a number of conservatives and Republicans who get -- I think -- genuinely angry when Republicans and conservatives get smeared as racists. They tend to chalk it up as "race hustling" -- as though anybody who still complains about racism and its ongoing pernicious effects in our society is another Al Sharpton trying to make fresh hay over yesterday's grievances.

There's possibly an element of truth to that, on occasion. But if Republicans don't want to be tagged as racists, maybe a former RNC chairman, current Mississippi governor and possible presidential candidate like Haley Barbour shouldn't praise stuff that everybody knows was racist:

As Barbour recalls it in a new profile in The Weekly Standard, things weren't so bad in his hometown of Yazoo City, which took until 1970 to integrate its schools (though the final event itself is said to have gone on peacefully). For example, Barbour says that there was no problem of Ku Klux Klan activity in the town -- thanks to the Citizens Council movement, an organization that was founded on the basis of resistance to integration and the promotion of white supremacy.

"You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK," said Barbour. "Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you'd lose it. If you had a store, they'd see nobody shopped there. We didn't have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City."

The White Citizens Council movement was founded in Mississippi in 1954, shortly after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregated public schools, and was dedicated to political activities opposing civil rights -- notably boycotts of pro-civil rights individuals in Barbour's hometown, as opposed to Barbour's recollection of actions against the Klan. It was distinguished from the Klan by the public self-identification of its members, and its image of suits and ties as opposed to white robes and nooses.

Maybe there's an upside to Barbour's, er, whitewashing of history. Nobody wants to have been on the side of racists, so the racist aspects of their actions -- and their forebears' actions -- are recast into something more benign so that everybody gets to be on the side of history's winners. That reinforces our modern societal norm that racism is wrong. So that's good. 

But maybe it's also bad, because it's a lie, and everybody knows it. Mississippi didn't burn because white businessmen were running the KKK out of town during the 1950s and 1960s. The violence and anger that consumed the state came about because black people wanted civil rights and white people didn't want black people to have them. The white people who worked against those civil rights are the villain of the story, period. It doesn't matter that, perhaps, they were well-meaning community leaders who loved their families and were simply raised and indoctrinated in a different era -- because they were wrong, and in their wrongness show us how banal evil really can be. There's nothing complicated about this. 

Joe Manchin is already America's worst senator

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin was missing in action when the Senate took two of its highest-profile votes on Saturday.

Manchin, who has been at odds with national Democrats several times since he was sworn in last month, was not present for votes on the DREAM Act and the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell".

A spokesperson for Manchin told the Charleston Gazette that the senator and his wife had "planned a holiday gathering over a year ago with all their children and grandchildren as they will not all be together on Christmas Day."

"While he regrets missing the votes, it was a family obligation that he just could not break," spokesperson Sara Payne Scarbro said. "However, he has been clear on where he stands on the issues."

Manchin did issue statements on Saturday making clear his opposition to both the DREAM Act and the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell"; his position on the latter bill made him the only Democrat to oppose repeal -- just as he was when the Senate voted on repeal last week.

The fact that Manchin was absent from the chamber while another Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), made it in to vote despite being recently diagnosed with prostate cancer doesn't bode well for Manchin's relationship with his caucus.

This, after last week's first vote against the DADT repeal, which he explained by saying that he'd only been in office three weeks and didn't know what West Virginians wanted on the issue. It's starting to look like Manchin is completely unprepared for and unserious about the responsibilities of his office. Good choice, West Virginia!

The political indoctrination of America's police forces

Ramon Montijo has taught classes on terrorism and Islam to law enforcement officers all over the country.

"Alabama, Colorado, Vermont," said Montijo, a former Army Special Forces sergeant and Los Angeles Police Department investigator who is now a private security consultant. "California, Texas and Missouri," he continued.

What he tells them is always the same, he said: Most Muslims in the United States want to impose sharia law here.

"They want to make this world Islamic. The Islamic flag will fly over the White House - not on my watch!" he said. "My job is to wake up the public, and first, the first responders."

With so many local agencies around the country being asked to help catch terrorists, it often falls to sheriffs or state troopers to try to understand the world of terrorism. They aren't FBI agents, who have years of on-the-job and classroom training.

Instead, they are often people like Lacy Craig, who was a police dispatcher before she became an intelligence analyst at Idaho's fusion center, or the detectives in Minnesota, Michigan and Arkansas who can talk at length about the lineage of gangs or the signs of a crystal meth addict.

Now each of them is a go-to person on terrorism as well.

That's more from the WaPo story about the rise of the police state. Apparently, taxpayers are paying half-assed "experts" in Islam to train police to be ready for the coming struggle against the Arabs for supremacy over America. This feels like a sick joke.

Big Brother has arrived. You just didn't notice it.

Suspicious Activity Report N03821 says a local law enforcement officer observed "a suspicious subject . . . taking photographs of the Orange County Sheriff Department Fire Boat and the Balboa Ferry with a cellular phone camera." The confidential report, marked "For Official Use Only," noted that the subject next made a phone call, walked to his car and returned five minutes later to take more pictures. He was then met by another person, both of whom stood and "observed the boat traffic in the harbor." Next another adult with two small children joined them, and then they all boarded the ferry and crossed the channel.

All of this information was forwarded to the Los Angeles fusion center for further investigation after the local officer ran information about the vehicle and its owner through several crime databases and found nothing.

Authorities would not say what happened to it from there, but there are several paths a suspicious activity report can take:

At the fusion center, an officer would decide to either dismiss the suspicious activity as harmless or forward the report to the nearest FBI terrorism unit for further investigation.

At that unit, it would immediately be entered into the Guardian database, at which point one of three things could happen:

The FBI could collect more information, find no connection to terrorism and mark the file closed, though leaving it in the database.

It could find a possible connection and turn it into a full-fledged case.

Or, as most often happens, it could make no specific determination, which would mean that Suspicious Activity Report N03821 would sit in limbo for as long as five years, during which time many other pieces of information about the man photographing a boat on a Sunday morning could be added to his file: employment, financial and residential histories; multiple phone numbers; audio files; video from the dashboard-mounted camera in the police cruiser at the harbor where he took pictures; and anything else in government or commercial databases "that adds value," as the FBI agent in charge of the database described it.

That's from the Washington Post's blockbuster story this morning about the rise of a national security state that collects ever-more information about even the innocuous activities of its citizens.

I wonder what the Tea Party response will be to this. They shout a Iot about tyranny when it comes to marginal tax rates and helping poor people access health care, so -- to me, anyway -- it would be consistent of them to raise alarms about a burgeoning police state. I don't expect that to actually happen, though.

But for what it's worth, I don't think this means that Barack Obama himself is a tyrant. I just think the system itself is increasingly intrusive -- disproportionate to the gains in safety that we'll get. We'll be a free market society with a citizenry tightly under wraps. Welcome to Singapore.

I don't think this guy likes me at all!

Fan mail from Billy Eger:
Dear Joel, I'm having trouble understanding you commies,(liberals), they changed there names to liberals cause noone was voting for them. That's another story tho, what o don't understand is u hate this country Moooooo much an want socialist ideas implemented here ,why don't you move to China, where they kill every 4th women born ,I guess  ud rather destroy the only free country in the world ,to me your a disgrace too all the ww2 soldiers that died so you can write n say  your assinine comments that has NO COMMON SENSE,you truly are a moron an I hope sum1 destroys your family the way you stupid, ego fed,morons are trying too take this country down ,you would probably laugh at concentration camps,I hope you haven't reprodu,ced cause the world has enough stupid assholes in've got 2 brain cells an 1 is looking for the other. To me u r UNAMERICAN,AN I NEVER WISH BAD ON SOMEONE BUT I REALLY HOPE PEOPLE LIKE U DIE,LIKE NOW,GO TO CHINA AN GET THEM TOO CHANGE THERE WAYS, NOW THAT'S A HERO, ANY1 CAN RUN THERE MOUTH IN A FREE SOCIETY,I COULD SEE U CRYING ON NORMANDY BEACHES FOR UR MOTHER,YOUR NOTHING MORE THAN A PUSSY.BIG PUSSY. PLAIN AN SIMPLE, U MUST'VE BEEN THE LITTLE BOY WHO CRIED AN STOMPED HIS FEET UNTIL HE GOT WHAT HE WANTED FROM MOMMY ,YOU MAKE ME SICK TOO MY STOMACH,SAME THING W GAYS,GO START UR OWN COUNTRY,U ARE GAY RIGHT?WELL U LOOK IT,OH AN IT'S MY RIGHT TO HATE THEM.ALL OF THEM . I CAN GO ON AN ON TOO YOUR BRAINWASHED SOUL BUT YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH, UD RATHER MAKE IT UP. U WANNA FIX R PROBLEMS,CLOSE THE FEDERAL RESERVE,AN GET UN OUT OF ARE COUNTRY,BET U CAN'T PASS LAWS IN CHINA.
The remarkable thing about this is I have no idea what Billy is responding to. But I agree with him on one thing in the letter. I'll let you figure out what it is.

The DREAM Act, and justice

I didn't write about the DREAM Act before its death Saturday in the Senate, and I regret that now -- in part because, being a bleeding heart liberal, this photo made my heart bleed a little extra.

The bill would have created a path to citizenship for the children of illegal aliens -- young people who aren't legally citizens, but who are in most other respects what you'd reasonably call "American." They have been raised here. They have friends here. They speak English. They've been educated here. They didn't commit the crime that brought them here, their parents did; it's something they can't help, but they wouldn't necessarily be more more at "home" in their home countries. The path to citizenship would require them to demonstrate their willingness to contribute to American society, either by serving two years in the military or two years at a four-year college.

And it was defeated -- in one of those increasingly frustrating displays of Senate impotence, where "only" a majority of 55 senators supported the bill in a procedural vote.

I gather that many of those who opposed the DREAM Act did so largely because they don't want to somehow incentivize illegal immigrants into bringing their children to this country. It's a fair concern. But it doesn't really help us do anything about the situation that we face.

Right now, an estimated 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from American high schools each year. We are not going to deport all, or even most of them. We just aren't, because we lack the kind of heavy bureaucratic machinery needed to do so. So those kids are here. But they can't go to college, and they can't get legitimate, on-the-books employment. So they're forced somewhat permanently into the underclass. And not for nothing: These kids end up having kids -- only this third generation, born in America, actually is composed entirely of citizens.

Like I said, they're here. For the most part, we're not getting rid of them. Offering them a path to citizenship isn't a perfect solution, obviously, because there is no perfect solution to the situation. But the status quo condemns many of these young people to economic servitude and actually alienates them from the country they live in. The DREAM Act could've helped make the best of a bad situation. Now we're just stuck with a bad situation. It's a tragedy.

The permanence of temporary workers

Despite a surge this year in short-term hiring, many American businesses are still skittish about making those jobs permanent, raising concerns among workers and some labor experts that temporary employees will become a larger, more entrenched part of the work force.

This is bad news for the nation’s workers, who are already facing one of the bleakest labor markets in recent history. Temporary employees generally receive fewer benefits or none at all, and have virtually no job security. It is harder for them to save. And it is much more difficult for them to develop a career arc while hopping from boss to boss.

“We’re in a period where uncertainty seems to be going on forever,” said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “So this period of temporary employment seems to be going on forever.”

What worries me is that I have no idea what incentives employers have to actually return to fully employing their work force. With temporary workers, they get all the production -- but without the same levels of pay, and certainly without having to pay so much for benefits. Temp workers -- even if they should turn out to be permanent -- end up being an economic plus for corporations.

The downside of that, of course, is that the economy won't get moving again until people start wanting to consume again. If you're in a "temp" job, what will be your capacity -- or inclination -- to spend? This might be bad all the way around.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

E-books and holiday gift-giving

A Twitter friend of mine recently lamented that e-books suck as gifts. I can see how that might be the case for the gift-giver, who doesn't get to see a physical object unwrapped and then enrapturing. But I've been given my first Christmas present of the season by a dear friend - The Autobiography of Mark Teain, on my Kindle for iPad - and I can tell you that it is very pleasing to receive an e-book gift.

Misinformation and Fox News: The customer is always right (wing)!

According to the study, which can be reviewed online, in most cases, the more a person watched and read the news, the less likely they were to have been misled about the facts. But “there were however a number of cases where greater exposure to a news source increased misinformation on a specific issue,” the study’s authors wrote. In particular, they found that regular viewers of the Fox News Channel, which tilts to the right in prime time, were significantly more likely to believe untruths about the Democratic health care overhaul, climate change and other subjects.

Lots of blogospheric chatter about this study over the weekend. Some of my liberal-slash-journalistic friends asked: What can we do to counter Fox News' misinformation machine?

My answer: Probably nothing. The people who go to Fox News don't go to Fox News because they want to be informed, by and large. They go there to hear what they want to hear. The fact that Fox News' viewers believe a lot of factually incorrect things may not be entirely because Fox News misinforms them, but because they believe those incorrect things and Fox News reinforces that. You can deliver a better truth-delivery machine than Fox News has, certainly, but you can't make Fox News' audience want to hear stuff they don't want to hear.

On 'working hard,' taxes, and wealth

One of the arguments against taxing the wealthy more heavily than we do is that they "work hard" for the money they've made and thus deserve full access to the rewards of their labor. This sounds extremely fair, really, but it seems that the wealthy people at the top of the business pyramid don't really follow that logic when it comes to the people further down the pyramid. Via Matt Yglesias, Alan Binder does the numbers:

When it comes to wages, the basic story of recent decades is redolent of Scrooge. Real average hourly earnings (excluding fringe benefits) now stand roughly at 1974 levels. Yes, that’s right, no real increase in over 35 years. That is an astounding, dismaying and profoundly ahistorical development. The American story for two centuries was one of real wages advancing more or less in line with productivity. But not lately. Since 1978, productivity in the nonfarm business sector is up 86%, but real compensation per hour (which includes fringe benefits) is up just 37%. Does that seem fair?

Emphasis in the original. No, it doesn't seem fair. 

I'm not sure off all the forces at play. I do know the bottom line: America's wealthiest are consuming an ever-larger slice of the economic pie. America's middle-class -- the people who make the stuff -- have been stagnating, economically, for more than a generation. I understand the liberty-based arguments against a government that redistributes wealth and regulates businesses. But my gut tells me that if we gut the government out of the equation, we merely hand control over our liberties and livelihoods to big corporations that have little interest in defending either. That's not really an acceptable outcome, I don't think.

But like I say: There's a lot I realize I don't understand about the forces at play. My plan is to spend 2011 reading about wealth, income inequality and the welfare state -- the better to understand those forces, and the better to be able to articulate and advocate for a version of society that gives entrepreneurs the freedom to create wealth for themselves and for their countrymen, but without all the ugly plutocracy.

On DADT: Perhaps President Obama is more capable than I thought

Liberals will no doubt celebrate Obama's victory with the same passion they brought to bitching about his compromises. Yes?

Er, maybe not the SAME passion, Dave Roberts, but yes: One should give credit where it's due. And I've criticized President Obama quite a bit this last year for moving with something-less-than-alacrity regarding gay-rights issues, so it's only fair for me to acknowledge that his strategy worked.

Unlike Bill Clinton who rushed -- and faltered through -- the issue of gays in the military, President Obama took his time, marshaled support from *enough* of the military's top leadership to be convincing, and went through a process that showed the appearance (at least) of listening to the troops. And when surveys showed that the troops were a lot less bigoted towards gays than they'd been a generation ago, opponents of a DADT repeal had very little rational ground to hold.

Still, I'm not sure how much of this is due to Obama's strategy, how much is due to the passage of time and the liberalizing of opinions about gays in America, and how much is due to the legislative savvy of Joe Lieberman. (No, really!) But it's a victory -- an important and historic one -- and it's one that will be credited in large part to President Obama. So ... good job, Mr. President. Keep it up.

Now, if we can just get you to start picking up the pace of judicial appointments....

Why Mitch McConnell can't suport the START treaty

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky voiced opposition Sunday to the New START - a nuclear arms treaty with Russia - saying that members of his party need more time to consider the legislation.

"I've decided I cannot support the treaty," McConnell said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” "I think if they'd taken more time with this, rushing it right before Christmas strikes me as trying to jam us."

Of course, the treaty was signed back in April. There's been no rush -- unless you count the GOP's "rush" to obstructionism. Which is just plain wearying.

Me @Macworld: Hands on with Google Chrome OS

Like at least half the nerds in America, I applied to be part of Chrome OS beta testing program as soon as it was announced last week. On the surface, at least, I figured myself to be an ideal Chrome user—to a sometimes-scary extent, my life is already lived in Google’s cloud. Even on a Mac I default to the Chrome browser, where I write in Google Docs, check my feeds in Google Reader, and even sync Google Calendar and Contacts to my iPhone and iPad instead of paying for MobileMe. The company’s cloud-based operating system seemed the next logical step.

Click the link to read the rest of my review of the Chrome, and what it says about the state of cloud-based computing.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Ben and Joel Podcast: The Gift That Keeps on Giving Edition

Ben and Joel are joined by a stellar panel to discuss the books they would give as gifts this Christmas. Guests in this episode include Rick Henderson, editor of the John Locke Foundation's Carolina Journal; Pia Lopez, editorial writer for the Sacramento Bee (and Ben's weekly sparring partner in the Bee's "Head to Head" column, where they discussed books on Dec. 8); and Sam Karnick, editor of The American Culture and director of research at The Heartland Institute.

Music heard in this podcast:

• "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," Joseph Spence
• "Gabriel's Message," Sting
• "Little Drummer Boy," Los Straitjackets
• "O Little Town of Bethlehem," Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra
• "Must Be Santa," Bob Dylan
• "A Holly Jolly Christmas," Burl Ives

Friday, December 17, 2010

PolitiFact calls 'government takeover of health care' its lie of the year

"Government takeover" conjures a European approach where the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are public employees. But the law Congress passed, parts of which have already gone into effect, relies largely on the free market:

Employers will continue to provide health insurance to the majority of Americans through private insurance companies.

• Contrary to the claim, more people will get private health coverage. The law sets up "exchanges" where private insurers will compete to provide coverage to people who don't have it.

• The government will not seize control of hospitals or nationalize doctors.

• The law does not include the public option, a government-run insurance plan that would have competed with private insurers.

• The law gives tax credits to people who have difficulty affording insurance, so they can buy their coverage from private providers on the exchange. But here too, the approach relies on a free market with regulations, not socialized medicine.

PolitiFact reporters have studied the 906-page bill and interviewed independent health care experts. We have concluded it is inaccurate to call the plan a government takeover because it relies largely on the existing system of health coverage provided by employers.