Friday, April 30, 2010

Our victory in Iraq

Here are Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan -- Iraq war boosters if there ever were -- reporting on current goings-on there. I'll skip to the important part, about the unresolved Iraqi election:
If upheld, these decisions would give Maliki's bloc more seats than Allawi's. If Maliki's list gained four seats, it could potentially form a government with the other major Shiite bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance, excluding both the Kurds and Sunnis. That result -- surely disastrous for U.S. interests -- would position Maliki as a potential authoritarian ruler, empower the anti-American Sadrists and their Iranian-backed militias and alienate Sunnis while marginalizing the Kurds. If Sunni seats are transferred to Maliki's Shiite list this way, Sunni Arabs would justifiably feel that Shiites had stolen the election.
No WMDs in Iraq, remember. But at least we planted the seeds of democracy in the Middle East!


What I got in my first issue of the Philadelphia Daily News

As expected, my first issue of the Philadelphia Daily News landed with a startle-me-out-of-my-sleep SMACK on the front steps this morning. After checking my e-mail on my iPhone, I decided to forgo electronic stimulation for a little while and spend some time with my new newspaper.

And time I spent. It takes me five-to-10 minutes most mornings to blaze through Philly headlines on my Google Reader. But that's only the "local news" headlines. There's a lot more stuff in the paper, obviously, but there's something about the physical medium of paper that slows. you. down.

Or maybe that's just me.

In any case, I spent about an hour with the Daily News this morning -- probably aided by the fact that the Friday edition is a little fatter with weekend "things to do around town" news than its sister issues the rest of the week. Here's what I found:

* CRIME: Actually, I was always getting the crime news on my RSS feed from, but I usually raced past it. For whatever reason, I spent more time with it. There's a lot of crime in Philly! But you knew that.

* ADS: You forget how relatively ad-free most news websites are -- how the hell are they making money, anyway? -- until you dip back into a print newspaper and face an onslaught of commerce. Oh yeah, that's why news organizations are still printing newspapers. Ads for cars, ads for services, ads for apartments, ads for nudie bars. I, uh, won't make use of the last one.

* COMICS: Garfield still sucks. Still, it was the comics page that started my newspaper addiction when I was five years old. I wonder how -- or if -- today's young people might find their first connection to their local news organizations. Maybe through...

* SPORTS: Philly's a huge sports town. I've kind of not engaged that directly. But I know today that Eagles QB Kevin Kolb signed a one-year contract extension, and that Brad Lidge is coming off the DL for the Phillies series with the (boooo!) Mets. So I know way more about that kind of stuff than I did yesterday. Which means I might be able to have coherent conversations with other dudes around town.

* ATTYTOOD: No, not Will Bunch. (Though he was there, with an article about the new CEO of the Daily News, Inky and I mean a tabloid sensibility to its news coverage that the staid and stuffy folks at broadsheets around the country would surely disdain. Maybe I'm staid and stuffy: I have to read past that stuff to get to the news. But a little verve probably doesn't hurt your engagement with readers.

* LETTERS TO THE EDITOR: It's like online comments. Only culled for the best ones. And with real names attached! It's actually kind of nice.

* USA WEEKEND: I didn't really need that, actually. But maybe that's just me.

It was, overall, a good time. Not perfect: There were some questionable typographic and layout choices -- but weirdly, that was also part of the charm. It's hard to screw up a web page, because most news sites are formatted to give you the same design for every single story. Trying to make the news fit around ads is a somewhat more complicated endeavor, with increased chances to screw up the look of things. It's a little more ... human.

Print newspapers aren't going to replace online news in my media diet. I'll spend some time with the New York Times and Washington Post later this morning, completely contained in the land of pixels. Maybe, though, there's still room for a bit of print in my life. Certainly, the best way for me to financially support local newsgathering is to buy a subscription to the print newspaper. And as you can see, there are benefits and charms to doing so.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Arizona immigration law

Ben Boychuk and I debate the issue in our Scripps Howard column this week. My take:

When immigration is outlawed, only outlaws will be immigrants.

That's the real problem in Arizona. There's obviously a great demand for the services of immigrant workers, or the supply wouldn't keep pouring over U.S. borders. If America would allow more legal immigration -- and more guest worker visas -- more of those workers could come in through the country's front door instead of over the back fence. There would be less need for the coyotes and traffickers who bring them into the country, and less opportunity for American employers to exploit their legal, documented employees.

Many of the ills we associate with illegal immigration would be reduced if only we had a sane immigration policy.

But that's Washington's job to solve. It's not doing that job. So you can't blame Arizonans for wanting to do everything in their power to fix their own problems. You can, however, blame them for the approach they've decided to take.

Sure, Americans are asked every day to produce identification. But we don't ask only Hispanic residents to provide their ID when boarding a plane, buying booze, applying for a job or for government benefits. Police enforcing the new law will surely single out Latinos -- legal or not, born here or not -- for such treatment. It's a demeaning, hostile act that will alienate and intimidate many Latino citizens, folks as American as you or I. It's treatment that the white majority would never stand for, but is willing to inflict on others.

Yes, America's immigration policy is a mess. Trying to fix its ills with a bad law will only make things worse. Doing so in a racially divisive and demeaning manner is unconscionable. The Republican Party that passed this law will pay the price as Hispanics become a larger part of the electorate. And Arizona will have to live with the self-inflicted smear on the state's good name.

Ben's got a cautious defense of the law. Read the whole thing!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Why I subscribed to the Philadelphia Daily News today

We moved to Philadelphia nearly two years ago, and for the first time in my adult life I've gone without a subscription to a local daily newspaper. Why? Easy: It's the 21st century! Why spend money on getting a printed product when you can just go to and select the RSS feeds you want to follow?

Today, however, that changed. Money's still tight in the Mathis household -- full-time employment sure would be nice! -- but it seemed like a declaration of values is needed. I subscribed to the Philadelphia Daily News. Our first issue should arrive on Friday or Saturday.

Again, why? Again: Easy. The Daily News has new owners. And I want them to know how important Philadelphia journalism is to me.

To be clear, this isn't passive-aggressive gotcha with Brian Tierney, the would-be media mogul who lost control of the Daily News -- and the Inquirer, and -- today. I've been critical of Tierney's seeming cynicism and hucksterism -- but if Tierney possessed those qualities in abundance, one has to give him props for continuing to support good journalism in a challenging era. The Daily News won -- and deserved -- a Pulitzer Prize this year.

Now that he's out, and a group of creditors is taking over, the question will almost certainly be raised: Can the Daily News survive?

Since I've been in town -- and, so I'm told, for years before that -- the tabloid has been spoken of as the weak sister in the city's daily paper constellation. Since the Inquirer is owned by the same company, the thinking went, what were the benefits of having two daily newspapers that robbed each other of circulation? Why not poor all that money into one paper and reap the benefits.

I have my own answer. For me, the Daily News is a real Philadelphia newspaper.

Oh, I could do without its annual "sexiest singles" roundup, and it's self-conscious "People Paper" conceit. But the paper is aggressively local: It covers Philadelphia closely and aggressively. Its Pulitzer was won for a series of articles that exposed corruption on the Philly police force, a good and necessary example of local accountability journalism.

The Inquirer, meanwhile, still seems stuck in an identity crisis. Look at the front page on any given day and you'll see that it's still ruled by the idea that it can be a "paper of record" for events beyond Philly and its environs -- lots of national and international stories, most days, culled from wire services. News that you can (and probably are getting) from other, online sources. It's a pale imitation of the days, 20 and 30 years ago, when the Inky had its own bureaus out around the world.

And even the local news isn't always so local. The Inky's audience -- and thus a huge chunk of its newshole -- is largely out in the suburbs. That's fine. Except I don't really need to read as much about New Jersey politics as the Inquirer wants to sell me. The Daily News, meanwhile, is Philly, Philly and Philly some more.

But the Inky has a bigger circulation. Probably a more lucrative audience base. And so if the decision comes to cut back to one newspaper in this town, well, it's probably the Inky that will survive.

So today I subscribed to the Daily News. It's a statement to the new owners -- small and unconvincing though it might be -- that the DN's journalism is important to me, and (I think) to the community. Even with new ownership in place, it's likely that rough times are still ahead for Philly newspapers, and the industry as a whole. (Don't be surprised if we start hearing about layoffs at both papers, and soon.) If my 30 dollars can keep the Daily News rolling a little bit longer, it's a price I'm happy to pay.

Will the eco-foodie movement starve poor people?

That's Robert Paarlberg's case at Foreign Policy:
In Europe and the United States, a new line of thinking has emerged in elite circles that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers and opposes linking those farmers more closely to international markets. Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that "sustainable food" in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn't work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished.

If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we've developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe. In other words, a lot like the hunger-plagued rest of the world.
Here's the thing, I'm not sure that Michael Pollan -- author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and thus the high priest of the slow-local-organic food movement -- would disagree entirely with this. He builds a sustained critique against industrial agriculture, against the pollution it creates and the ethically and nutritionally challenged food it delivers us. But he does admit that industrial agriculture has been very, very successful at producing lots of food -- and, perhaps, lots of new eaters: the population of the world has exploded thanks in part to industrial farming methods pioneered here in the United States.

And even though there's plenty I find interesting about Pollan's work, this is the part I find most morally troubling: If an abundance of cheap, quickly produced food has made life on the planet more sustainable, wouldn't a slow-local-organic revolution make food more scarce and expensive -- and thus doom many people now living to a miserable death by starvation? I don't know that I've ever seen Pollan or his ilk address this, really -- I could be wrong -- but it seems a worthy and morally weighty question to hash out before going too far down Pollan's road.

Arlen Specter: 'I might have helped the country more if I'd stayed a Republican'

Dave Weigel flags these comments from Pennsylvania's senior senator:

''Well, I probably shouldn't say this,'' he said over lunch last month. ''But I have thought from time to time that I might have helped the country more if I'd stayed a Republican.''

Specter mused that perhaps if he'd remained in the caucus he could have persuaded one or two of his GOP colleagues to support health care reform.

But joining the Democratic Party was never about "helping the country." It was about preserving Specter's political career. Even if staying with the GOP would've helped the country more, there's little guarantee that Specter would've stayed.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

America's victory in Iraq

"Report Details Torture at Secret Baghdad Prison":
“They applied electricity to my penis and sodomized me with a stick,” he told Human Rights Watch. “I was forced to sign a confession that they would not let me read.”
Not Americans this time. Just the people we put in power.

Oklahoma Republicans: It's OK if doctors lie to women so they don't have abortions

I don't write about abortion very often because, well, it's not a subject I'm very partisan about. I'm instinctively uncomfortable with the procedure; I also suspect that women's liberties really are bound up (to some extent) in the freedom to decide whether to carry a pregnancy to term. There's lots I find sympathetic -- and reprehensible -- about both sides of the political debate, so I try to stay out of it as much as possible.

Still, a new law passed in Oklahoma to reduce abortions is really, really awful:

The second measure passed into law Tuesday protects doctors from malpractice suits if they decide not to inform the parents of a unborn baby that the fetus has birth defects. The intent of the bill is to prevent parents from later suing doctors who withhold information to try to influence them against having an abortion.

In other words, if your doctor doesn't want you to have an abortion, he can keep critical information about your fetus-baby's health from you on purpose -- and have the sanction of the state of Oklahoma in doing so. It's a huge interference in the doctor-patient relationship, and a hugely burdensome one at that.

Why burdensome?

For one thing: Women in Oklahoma have much less reason to trust their doctors now. The relationship between patients and doctors is more than a business transaction for services rendered; it involves the feelings and decisions of people at the most vulnerable points in their lives. That's why the doctor-patient relationship has been treated among society's most sacred -- right up there with client-attorney and priest-confessor. This action by Oklahoma Republicans erodes the foundation of that relationship: If you know your doctor has state sanction to lie to you (even if by omission) the only safe thing to do during a pregnancy is go to two, three or more doctors to ensure you're getting sound advice. Most women don't have the financial resources to do that. Once again, restrictions against abortion are really restrictions against abortion for poor women.

For another thing: A doctor's decision now can commit a family -- independent of their own choices in the matter -- to a lifetime of medical bills and hard work to support a child with birth defects. Don't get me wrong: I admire people like Sarah Palin who choose to carry a Down's Syndrome fetus to term. But such decisions are hugely burdensome and, yes, costly to the families that make them. Entering the delivery room without such knowledge -- when your doctor has that knowledge -- is an unconscionable burden on those parents.

Finally, there's the simple matter of the truth. Truth is important. Period.

Again, I understand why people can be virulently opposed to abortion. But sanctioning lies as a means of reducing abortion seems a twisted and corrupt way to achieve the goal. Oklahoma Republicans believe it's ok for your doctor to lie to you. That's simply awful.

UPDATE: Not to mention it's paternalistic in a way we simply don't allow in other phases of the doctor-patient relationship. There was a time doctors didn't tell you you had untreatable cancer because they wanted you to die with a minimum of fuss and worry. But those days are long gone. Except for women in Oklahoma.

Monday, April 26, 2010

More errors at NRO

I think Seth Leibsohn has this absolutely wrong:

If the press had unified, as they do on so many other political and policy issues, and stood up to the ever-growing radical Islamist speech veto in the West, we could be well on our way toward a cultural victory in the war. Instead, we continue to cave. The last place I thought I'd see such caving was at Comedy Central — a channel dedicated to the iconoclasm of almost everything religious and everyone political. Now, even chief iconoclast Jon Stewart is defending the veto, or censorship, on his network.

Interestingly, Leibsohn links to this New York Times blog post titled: "Jon Stewart Takes On Comedy Central’s Censorship of ‘South Park’." That doesn't sound like a defense.

And here's the video the NYT post is about:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
South Park Death Threats
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

To me, it's clear that Stewart's not too happy with the censorship -- though he acknowledges that Comedy Central has the right to do so. But certainly somebody who was afraid of incurring militant Muslim wrath wouldn't bring their commentary to a culmination with a rousing gospel rendition of "Go F**k Yourself" aimed at the group in question. Would they?

'To ask the question is to answer it'

At National Review, Rich Lowry is grumpy:
Over at PowerLine, John Hinderaker makes a great catch: CNN describes the Arizona immigration law as "polarizing." John asks why the health-care bill was never described that way, even though it too brought protestors into the streets and was actually, in contrast to the Arizona bill, opposed by most people? To ask the question is to answer it.
I sent Mr. Lowry a note:

A Google search for "health care bill polarizing" gets 476,000 results.

A GoogleNews search for the same term gets more than 600 results.

You say that "to ask the question is to answer it," but trying to answer it might've provided you a different result.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The essential Deborah Solomon interview

I've long hated Deborah Solomon's Q&A interviews in The New York Times Magazine. They've always come across -- to me, anyway -- as a weird combination of needlessly combative and unilluminating: confrontational for the sake of confrontation in a lot of cases, without any real payoff that helps the reader understand a subject or interviewee any better.

In today's magazine, she gets down to the essence of her style in an interview with Craig Robinson, a basketball coach and the brother of Michelle Obama. He has a new book out, which leads to the following exchange:

Are you aware that in your new book you erroneously describe Princeton, N.J., as “the first capital of the United States”?

Oh. I was thinking that it was the first capital because that’s what I thought when I got to Princeton on the first day. I was awed by it.

It was the second capital under the Articles of Confederation. I wonder why your editors failed to catch that.

I wrote it, so I don’t want to blame them.

Don't get me wrong: Solomon is right on the facts. But the accident makes no material difference to the memoir, does it? It's an aside in the book, as best I can tell, but Solomon elevates it to a matter of importance ... why exactly? So she can not look like a pushover?

I can't decide if that's better or worse than this exchange:

You’re very discreet and clearly not following the Billy Carter model of wacky presidential relatives. Do you drink beer?
I actually don’t mind beer, but I just don’t drink it to excess.

Why is this in the New York Times? You can't just say it's a puff piece, because even puff pieces in the New York Times have coherence and identifiable logic about them. The best I can determine is that Deborah Solomon interviews -- if they're not just a hoity-toity version of The Chris Farley Show -- are performance art pieces, designed to elicit discomfort in interviewees and readers to no good purpose at all. I wish the Times would get somebody else to do this job.

When government abuses its partnerships with churches

The Weekly Standard has a new piece out, shocked! that the Obama White House is using the office of "faith-based initiatives" to mount a campaign against climate change. It quotes Jim Towey, a former director of the office, decrying the efforts.

The use of churches and congregations to advance the administration’s climate-change agenda, Towey says, “looks a lot like this is simply a political outreach initiative.” He adds: “The faith-based office was supposed to be a common-ground effort with Republicans and Democrats working to assist the poor—and that’s just long gone.”

Oh yes, it's awful to use a government-church partnership to advance a political agenda!

I'm not going to defend this. I'm just amused that Republicans, who were warned and criticized during the Bush Administration about the problems inherent in establishing church-state partnerships, are suddenly on the side of critics now that Democrats are in charge.

It's not as if politicization of the office of faith-based initiatives is new. Remember David Kuo, who served in the office when Bush launched it? He wrote a book about the experience:

Kuo alleges that then-White House political affairsdirector Ken Mehlman knowingly participated in a scheme to use the office, and taxpayer funds, to mount ostensibly “nonpartisan” events that were, in reality, designed with the intent of mobilizing religious voters in 20 targeted races.

Nineteen out of the 20 targeted races were won by Republicans, Kuo reports. The outreach was so extensive and so powerful in motivating not just conservative evangelicals, but also traditionally Democratic minorities, that Kuo attributes Bush’s 2004 Ohio victory “at least partially … to the conferences we had launched two years before.”

None of this, of course, is in the Weekly Standard story -- no hint that maybe the whole idea of a government office of "faith-based partnerships" is always problematic, prone to abuse by whoever holds the reins of power. Of course it is! But in the Standard's view, it's the Democrats who are really the bad guys. Of course.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Fun with math: Obama's health care 'tax increase' on the middle class

Daniel Foster points to this Hill story, showing that Obama's health reform bill will actually sock the middle class with tax increases. The bolded parts are Foster's emphases:

Taxpayers earning less than $200,000 a year will pay roughly $3.9 billion more in taxes — in 2019 alone — because of healthcare reform, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, Congress' official scorekeeper for legislation.

The new law raises $15.2 billion over 10 years by limiting the medical expense deduction, a provision widely used by taxpayers who either have a serious illness or are older.

Taxpayers can currently deduct medical expenses in excess of 7.5 percent of their adjusted gross income. Starting in 2013, most taxpayers will only be allowed to deducted expenses greater than 10 percent of AGI. Older taxpayers are hit by this threshold increase in 2017.

Once the law is fully implemented in 2019, the JCT estimates the deduction limitation will affect 14.8 million taxpayers — 14.7 million of them will earn less than $200,000 a year. These taxpayers are single and joint filers, as well as heads of households.

"Loss of this deduction will mean higher taxes for 14.7 million individuals and families making under $200,000 a year in 2019," Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told The Hill. "The new subsidy for health insurance would not be available to offset this tax increase for most of these households."

A little more math here is helpful, though: 14.7 million taxpayers will lose the deduction; they'll get hit with a collective $3.9 billion in new taxes in 2019. That means each taxpayer (and taxpaying household) will see an average tax increase of ... $26.

Clearly, socialism is bringing confiscatory tax rates to America.

Funny, though, Foster's excerpt skipped The Hill's line right after the Grassley quote:

The healthcare law contains tax breaks for individuals purchasing health insurance, but the breaks phase out for those making $88,000 a year.

So: The average tax increase of $26 a year will apply to families making between $88,000 and $200,000 a year. Even if you're on the low end of that scale, that average $26 increase will consume roughly three-tenths of one percent of your income!

I suppose that technically, this violates Obama's promise not to raise taxes of people making less than $250,000 a year. In reality, I'm not sure they'll notice it all that much. Unless organizations like The Hill continue to force readers to do the math to put these things in context -- and let Republicans needlessly scare the middle class.

UPDATE: The back of the envelope is no match for a calculator. I failed to carry a "zero" somewhere: Actual numbers are a $265 a year increase for those 14.7 million people. That's a bigger and more-noticeable number, to be sure. Still three-tenths of one percent of the $88,000-a-year income though. (How the hell did I make that mistake?)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Honoring the Confederacy means you hate America

There's been a lot of talk about the apparent racism and historical ignorance of Virgina Gov. Bob McDonnell's proclamation of "Confederate History Month." But racism aside, I think Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a good point that we don't think about very often. Speaking of Republicans who approve of McDonnell's actions, he says:

If you honor a flag raised explicitly to destroy this country then this is the movement for you.

Well, yeah.

Defenders of the Confederate flag and other efforts to honor the Old South always say they're not interested in slavery or racism but heritage. Let's leave aside how the racism and slavery are inextricably bound up in that heritage; we'll ignore them entirely. (Although Republicans who chafe under the burden of racism accusations might stop and consider, for a moment, how actions like McDonnell's look to African Americans.)

Even putting its best foot forward, the reason the Confederacy existed was to tear asunder the United States of America. You can't get around it.

In that sense, the Confederates who fired on Fort Sumter weren't all that different from the Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor, the Germans who sunk the Lusitania or the hijackers who hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 9/11. We don't raise memorials in their honor, we don't fly their flags and we don't make proclamations in their memory -- their actions were an assault on the United States and its citizens.

Honoring the Confederacy, then, is a signal of contempt for the United States of America. Period.

Not all - probably not even most - Republicans are lovers of the Confederacy. But Confederacy-loving sentiment mostly finds its home in today's Republican Party. There is some irony here, since the GOP likes to style itself as more-patriotic-than-thou. But in the words of a Republican president: "You're either with us or against us." How can you love this country and the people who tried to destroy it? It doesn't make any sense.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Economic liberty and actual liberty

Some of my more thoughtful conservative friends have criticized President Obama's bigger initiatives -- like the health reform law -- from a "first principles" argument that economic liberty is the foundation of, well, liberty liberty. Any governmental act that interferes with the rights of individuals to their property or profit is a reduction of liberty and thus potentially a step down the slippery slope to tyranny. I think it's an insightful argument, but I also think it's got limits.

And I think those limits might be demonstrated by the Heritage Foundation's 2010 Index of Economic Freedom. What's notable is that the two "countries" ranked highest on the index -- Hong Kong and Singapore -- might be great places to make cash, but they're not what most Americans would think of as substantially "free." (The United States ranks ninth.) Hong Kong might be listed as a separate "country" for the purposes of the index, but it's ruled by Chinese Communists; it might be more free than the mainland, but there are still rather significant concerns about freedom of expression. And Singapore? It's the authoritarian government that gave us caning and ranks 133rd in the World Press Freedom Index.

Heritage's index, obviously, doesn't take those things into account. Instead it ranks each country on a list of 10 criteria, including property rights, business freedom, government spending and "labor freedom." Weirdly, Canada -- with its big socialistic health care system -- ranks ahead of the United States.

I don't think my thoughtful conservative friends would assert that countries with libertarian policies only for corporations and not for citizens are truly free. Nor would I want to suggest that the ability to express yourself freely is the only criterion for liberty; economic liberty is an important component. But it appears that low taxes and free trade are no guarantee of freedom; I suspect it probably follows that a more-regulated health system isn't the end of our Republic.