March 30, 2010

Taking a Break

No post today - I need a break!

March 24, 2010

A Vital Part of Our Political System Is Destroying Itself

Yesterday, President Obama signed into law landmark health care reform legislation.  After a year of increasingly contentious - and often absurdist - opposition from the Republican Party, Mr. Obama and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wrangled enough votes in the House to pass a version of the Senate bill.

As a practical matter, immediate impact will be felt in a number of ways. The bill is projected to reduced the deficit by $143 billion over 10 years, expand health insurance coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans, close the Medicare prescription coverage gap, and expand Medicaid to more of the poor. Insurers are prohibited from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, exchanges will be established to allow the self-employed to purchase insurance, low-income families will be able to buy insurance with the help of subsidies, and all individuals are now mandated to have coverage.  This effort - while far short of what many, including myself, advocated - is unquestionably transformational.

Beyond the effect on the daily lives of Americans, however, is the political impact the passage of health care reform has had on the two major political parties.  Democrats were able - as they have far too often not been - to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and are re-energized.  Their Republican colleagues, meanwhile, pushed in all their chips in radical, obstructionist opposition to what was at heart a centrist bill that included many of their own ideas (albeit disavowed once they were being championed by Democrats), and were left with nothing but embarrassment and dissarray to show for it.  GOP Senator Jim Demint had talked of making health care reform President Obama's Waterloo, but it was his own party that suffered ignominious defeat.

David Frum, a former speech writer for President George W. Bush, pulls no punches in evaluating the root cause of this meltdown:
I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

So today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it’s mission accomplished. For the cause they purport to represent, it’s Waterloo all right: ours.
Unfortunately, this frank appraisal doesn't seem to be one that has gained much traction among Republican Party leadership.  Senator John McCain, the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee who ran on the slogan "Country First," instead dropped this playground-level nonsense in the wake of his party's defeat:
"There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year... They [the Democrats] have poisoned the well in what they've done and how they've done it."
Ignoring for a moment the utter childishness of this statement on its own - and the fact that it puts politics as team sports above the interests of the nation - one need only look back over the course of the last 12 months at the staggering number of filibusters in the Senate to realize this represents no change whatsoever from the tactics Senator McCain's party has employed since being roundly thrashed in the last election cycle.

The always-excellent Digby puts it in perspective:
It's fairly clear that Republicans don't understand how democracy works. You campaign, people vote, you win elections, you get a majority, you pass legislation. They seem to think Democracy means that elections are irrelevant, majorities are meaningless and that all legislation is contingent upon the permission of the Republican Party.

I'm sorry these people are so unhappy. I know how they feel. I used to hate it when the Republicans passed some disgusting initiative that went against everything I believe in. But I don't recall having a mental breakdown at the notion that they could do it even though I didn't want them to. The idea that they were obligated to do my bidding didn't actually cross my mind.

As they used to say repeatedly, "elections have consequences." If the people don't like this bill, they have every right to turn the Democrats out of office and repeal it. But screaming hysterically that it's cheating to pass legislation with a majority just proves that these folks' great reverence for the Constitution is based more on their love of wearing funny hats than anything that's written in it.

This is how the system works. If you don't like it, start pressing for a constitutional amendment that requires that all legislation be approved by every teabagger in the land before it can be enacted. Or start campaigning to put your teabaggers in office so they can have a majority and enact the legislation you like. In either event, stop the whining about "abuse of power." They passed a bill you don't like, for crying out loud, it's not like they seized office with a partisan decision by the Supreme Court and then invaded a country that hadn't attacked us or anything...
As correct as I think that sentiment is, however, it still leaves America with a problem.  As we saw during the Bush years, single party rule is a dangerous, often disastrous, recipe for arrogance and stupidity, and while I currently trust Democrats in Washington a little bit more than I trust their Republican counterparts, there is nothing like a good dose of unfettered power to bring corruption levels to a steady boil.

Unfortunately, at this point, there isn't much choice, as today's GOP is a fractured entity that is more and more unwelcoming to reasonable conservatives.  It is a party that has degenerated into a self-destructive mass of willfull ignorance and divisive anger that not only tolerates, but actively promotes, both disinformation and the basest elements of the American polity.  As Bob Herbert writes:
It is 2010, which means it is way past time for decent Americans to rise up against this kind of garbage, to fight it aggressively wherever it appears. And it is time for every American of good will to hold the Republican Party accountable for its role in tolerating, shielding and encouraging foul, mean-spirited and bigoted behavior in its ranks and among its strongest supporters.
Glenn Beck of Fox News has called President Obama a “racist” and asserted that he “has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”

Mike Huckabee, a former Republican presidential candidate, has said of Mr. Obama’s economic policies: “Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff.”

The GOP poisons the political atmosphere and then has the gall to complain about an absence of bipartisanship.

The toxic clouds that are the inevitable result of the fear and the bitter conflicts so relentlessly stoked by the Republican Party — think blacks against whites, gays versus straights, and a whole range of folks against immigrants — tend to obscure the tremendous damage that the party’s policies have inflicted on the country. If people are arguing over immigrants or abortion or whether gays should be allowed to marry, they’re not calling the GOP to account for (to take just one example) the horribly destructive policy of cutting taxes while the nation was fighting two wars.

If you’re all fired up about Republican-inspired tales of Democrats planning to send grandma to some death chamber, you’ll never get to the GOP’s war against the right of ordinary workers to organize and negotiate in their own best interests — a war that has diminished living standards for working people for decades.

With a freer hand, the Republicans would have done more damage. George W. Bush tried to undermine Social Security. John McCain was willing to put Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the Oval Office and thought Phil Gramm would have made a crackerjack Treasury Secretary. (For those who may not remember, Mr. Gramm was a deregulation zealot who told us during the presidential campaign that we were suffering from a “mental recession.”)

A party that promotes ignorance (“Just say no to global warming”) and provides a safe house for bigotry cannot serve the best interests of our country.
The current iteration of GOP leadership is so far off the reservation it has become little more than a burlesque show of lowest common denominator hypocrisy, crass clownishness and mob rage.  It has left principled conservatives essentially homeless and unrepresented in a modern political dialog that has devolved into a circus sideshow in which one side tries to talk while their opposition screams about socialism, communism, fascism, or some brain-dead, impossible mixture of all three, blindly following whatever half-chewed conceptual train wreck Glen Beck has vomited up that day.

The fact is that we need the Republican Party, or at least another viable opposition organization in its stead.  We need real dialog, because without it, there is no choice, there is no competition and there is no marketplace of ideas.  In my opinion, it is a good thing that we have taken our first steps on the road to health care reform, but I take no pleasure in watching a very necessary component of our political system immolate itself on the national stage.

March 18, 2010

Maybe It's Everything Else

Outside of the debate over health care reform as a whole, one of the hottest medical topics of discussion in recent years has been the potential role of vaccines in the explosive growth of autism among American children.  Celebrity Jenny McCarthy, whose son is autistic, has been at the vanguard of the crusade against childhood vaccinations, and in a country where immunization was part and parcel of post-natal care for decades, many parents have begun to seriously question whether or not their kids should receive such preventative treatment.

The result?  The reappearance of meningitis and measles cases in numbers not seen in over a generation, and no comfort for the parents of autistic children.

Last week, however, a federal court reviewing the alleged link between immunization and autism issued a ruling that dealt a major setback to the parents pursuing more than 5,000 cases in which they claim that mercury-based thimerosal (a preservative no longer widely used) - or the Measels/Mumps/Rubela (MMR) vaccine itself - caused their children's autism.  While it should be noted that the ruling was a legal decision and not the results of scientific study, there was little question about the court's frame of mind:
The three separate decisions by the court's "special masters" were not close.

"To conclude that [autism] was the result of [this child's] MMR vaccine, an objective observer would have to emulate Lewis Carroll's White Queen and be able to believe six impossible (or, at least, highly improbable) things before breakfast," wrote Special Master Denise K. Vowell.
While I have deep sympathy for the challenges facing any parent whose child has autism, what has always been most striking to me about this debate has been the focus on vaccines to the exclusion of virtually all other inputs.  It may be that vaccines represent a coherent target on which to focus, but the reality is that environmental pollution now broadly affects almost the entire population of the United States.

A recently-released study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), for instance, found that not only were every single one of the fish it sampled contaminated with some level of mercury, but that two-thirds were tainted at a "level of concern", and that more than a quarter contained amounts significantly higher than the safe upper bound for human consumption.  Given that the study examined waterways in every part of the nation - and that mercury is a potent neurotoxin - this seems like an area worth investigating for its potential links to autism and other conditions.  (Although a definitive link between mercury and autism has yet to be proven.)

Likewise, a study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found new evidence that babies are being being born "pre-polluted" by chemical agents transferred from their mothers:
Laboratory tests commissioned by Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Rachel's Network have detected Bisphenol A (BPA) for the first time in the umbilical cord blood of U.S. newborns. The tests identified the plastics chemical in 9 of 10 cord blood samples from babies of African American, Asian and Hispanic descent.

The findings provide hard evidence that U.S. infants are contaminated with BPA beginning in the womb.

Additional tests conducted by five laboratories in the U.S., Canada and Europe found up to 232 toxic chemicals in the 10 cord blood samples. Besides BPA, substances detected for the first time in U.S. newborns included a toxic flame retardant chemical called Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) that permeates computer circuit boards, synthetic fragrances (Galaxolide and Tonalide) used in common cosmetics and detergents, and perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA or C4), a member of the notorious Teflon chemical family used to make non-stick and grease-, stain- and water-resistant coatings for cookware, textiles, food packaging and other consumer products.

The EWG study is the first to find perchlorate contamination in cord blood samples from multiple states. (A study by researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently found perchlorate in cord blood samples from infants born in New Jersey.) Nine of the 10 samples in the EWG study were contaminated with perchlorate, a solid rocket fuel component and potent thyroid toxin that can disrupt production of hormones essential for normal brain development.
There is unquestionably something driving the explosive growth of autism in the United States, which now affects 1 in every 150 children born.  Th origin might be genetics, it might be improved diagnosis, it might be environmental, or it might be some combination thereof.  If an environmental factor is wholly or partially responsible, however, it would seem that focusing on vaccines - compounds which, by the way, undergo significant testing before their use on human beings - is potentially counterproductive.  Simply stated, it appears that there is ample evidence that the cause might be pretty much everything else.

March 12, 2010

America's Unlawful Combatants

Today's Washington Post features a very interesting column by Georgetown University law professor Gary Solis.  In it, he provides background on the definition of the term "unlawful combatant", a concept near and dear to the hearts of those who support indefinite imprisonment and torture, as it has provided them with what they believe to be justification for taking such actions in the "War on Terror".  Professor Solis points out, however, that the United States is using unlawful combatants of its own:
In terms of international armed conflict, those CIA agents [who pilot armed, unmanned drone aircraft] are, unlike their military counterparts but like the fighters they target, unlawful combatants. No less than their insurgent targets, they are fighters without uniforms or insignia, directly participating in hostilities, employing armed force contrary to the laws and customs of war. Even if they are sitting in Langley, the CIA pilots are civilians violating the requirement of distinction, a core concept of armed conflict, as they directly participate in hostilities.
It makes no difference that CIA civilians are employed by, or in the service of, the U.S. government or its armed forces. They are civilians; they wear no distinguishing uniform or sign, and if they input target data or pilot armed drones in the combat zone, they directly participate in hostilities - which means they may be lawfully targeted.
In related news, the non-partisan New America Foundation released a report in February with some sobering analysis:
Our study shows that the 114 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan from 2004 to the present have killed between 830 and 1,210 individuals, of whom around 550 to 850 were described as militants in reliable press accounts, about two-thirds of the total on average. Thus, the true civilian fatality rate since 2004 according to our analysis is approximately 32 percent.
Putting these pieces together, the United States has used armed, unmanned drones to attack targets in another nation, killing hundreds of civilians.  At least some of these drone attacks were directed by unlawful combatants, as defined by both custom and law.  While it is unquestionably desirable to see legitimate threats to American interests eliminated, when regarded in this fashion, it's not hard to understand why Pakistanis might consider drone attacks within their borders to be no better than the terrorism wrought by the Muslim extremists they target.

March 7, 2010

Puckering Mr. Cheney

Back in 2006, I wrote a post entitled A Nation of Hypocrites that focused on the case of Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel, private military contractors working in Iraq.  The two men uncovered what appeared to be illegal arms dealing by their employer, Shield Group Security, and reported it to outside authorities.

The result? Mr. Ertel and Mr. Vance, a Navy veteran and two-time voter for George W. Bush, were disappeared into a military prison without access to the outside world and without judicial review. Mr. Ertel was released after 6 weeks, but Mr. Vance was held for 97 days.  His family had no idea what had happened to him - his fiance believed he had been killed - and both men allege that they were tortured. It is only because the military deigned to release them - with implied threats that they'd better keep their mouths shut - that they are today free men.

Mr. Ertel and Mr. Vance brought suit against the military and against Bush Administration Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, focusing on three areas: cruel and inhumane treatment; violation of procedural due process; and denial of access to the courts.  Lawyers for Secretary Rumsfeld filed a motion to dismiss the suit, and on Friday, U.S. District Judge Wayne Andersen voided the second and third counts.  More importantly however, Judge Andersen also ruled that the former contractors had alleged enough specifics to warrant a hearing of evidence on the first count of cruel and inhumane treatment.

Speaking to the Blog of Legal Times, Mike Kanovitz, an attorney for Mr. Vance and Mr. Ertel, characterized the ruling as "pretty historic" and provided the following analysis:
Essentially the judge held that there is a constitutional violation for the types of brutality that are alleged in our complaint, and that someone who is even as high ranking as a Cabinet official can be held liable for that constitutional violation if he authorizes subordinates to commit that type of violence. Furthermore, the court held that even though he is a high placed official, the pleading requirements that apply to any defendant and any plaintiff are the same ones. And even though it requires a high amount of specific evidence for holding him liable, there’s enough evidence in the complaint that he did authorize this type of violence to be sufficient to force him to answer for these actions in a court of law. 
This is hopefully a sphincter-puckering moment for not only Donald Rumsfeld, but former Vice President Dick Cheney, who confessed last month - on television, no less - to authorizing cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners in the "War on Terror".  In a post called The Straightforward Case for Prosecuting Dick Cheney as a War Criminal, I laid out almost precisely the same path of reasoning that appears in Judge Andersen's ruling:
... If Dick Cheney or anyone else admits to being a "big supporter of waterboarding" he admits to being a "big supporter of torture".  And if he is or was in a position to successfully influence or directly command others to torture and does so, he is guilty of - at a minimum - conspiracy to carry out a crime... There are no protected classes in the United States, there is no aristocracy, and there is no one to whom the law does not apply.
It will be interesting to see if the people who supported the Bush Administration's decision to torture foreign nationals will be as vocal in their backing when it comes to a case involving fellow U.S. citizens.  My bet is that they will be, employing the same "a few bad apples" defense that saw guards at Abu Ghraib prison punished and policy-makers escape all repercussion. 

In any case, there is a long way to go before either Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney is called to answer publicly for their decision to make torture part of official U.S. policy.  Judge Andersen's ruling, however, is a rare, positive development in the effort to hold highly-placed officials accountable in the eyes of the law.

March 2, 2010


Darrin Bell's Candorville is a strip that I have only recently started reading, but which I like more everyday.  As these two examples indicate, Mr. Bell takes a pretty even hand from an ideological standpoint, and his work is both intelligent and original.

You can find more Candorville (which is generally not particularly political) here.