Saturday, April 30, 2005

Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming

I'll say this for John Bolton--he's much more honest than his fellow draft-dodging Republicans:

So it's entirely unsurprising to read the following about John Bolton, Yale '70, in the Yale Daily News:

Though Bolton supported the Vietnam War, he declined to enter combat duty, instead enlisting in the National Guard and attending law school after his 1970 graduation. "I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy," Bolton wrote of his decision in the 25th reunion book. "I considered the war in Vietnam already lost."

I'm confused

President Bush, in making his case for partially privatizing Social Security, says he is battling two myths about the retirement system. One is indeed a falsehood, though I'm not sure how many people actually believe it: That the money a person pays in Social Security taxes is saved for them until such time as they retire. Indeed, Social Security taxes paid by today's workers go to pay the benefits received by today's retirees. That's the reason, of course, why the long term solvency of the system is in jeopardy; longer lifespans and lower birthrates means more money will soon be paid out then collected in taxes--by 2018, according to many estimates.

Which brings us to the other myth the president claims is keeping people from supporting his plan: that there is a surplus of Social Security funds that will last until 2041 or so. (A disputed projection, and one that assumes an anemic level of economic growth.) The president says the surplus is just a cabinet full of IOUs; pieces of paper that are meaningless.

Well, actually, that surplus is held in Treasury bonds, which are used to finance government debt and which generally are a safe if low-yield investment that many people use to balance risk in their portfolios. In fact, the president, during his prime-time news conference Thursday night, sought to reassure the American public that under his plan, risk-averse workers will be able to invest in Treasury bonds.

So do you see why I'm confused? On the one hand, Bush claims the Social Security surplus is a fiction, an argument he is free to make, despite the dangerous signal it sends to anyone who has invested in the federal government's considerable debt. But on the other hand, Bush touts Treasury bonds as a risk-free way for people to benefit from his plan to change Social Security. I would say he can't have it both ways, but given his administration's record to date, I'd probably be wrong.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

This is your Congress on drugs

Apparently, the Congressional hearings into Major League Baseball's steroids policy didn't provide enough opportunities for grandstanding and moralizing, so now Congress is looking into the NFL's drug-testing program.

''The percentage of NFL players who test positive for steroids is very low,'' [Rep. Henry]Waxman said. ''Is this because the policy is working or is this because players have figured out how to avoid detection?''

I don't know, Congressman; personally, I can't get past the fact that while millions of people go without health insurance, the government runs up huge deficits and the nation's Social Security system is heading toward insolvency, you are wasting your time making sure that men who play a kid's game aren't cheating. That, to me, is the bigger mystery.


Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Peduto for mayor

Mayoral candidate Bill Peduto has been answering questions about his plans for the city over at Pittsblog, including a question I submitted:

If you are elected, would you pressure the URA to sell of the properties it has been sitting on Downtown, in the hopes of spurring private development?

Yes. We need to return these properties to the tax rolls. Fifth and Forbes has been an embarrassment. I will not let parts of downtown decay while city leaders wait for a “suitable” all-encompassing retail project.

Pittsburgh needs to change from the current model of focusing on attracting national big box retail to downtown, to supporting and creating opportunities for locally owned enterprises. We must avoid trying to play catch-up with cities like Indianapolis, Cleveland, and Baltimore, and instead create a one-of-a-kind local flavor. New urban development promotes the uniqueness of a region, and it doesn’t choose winners and losers.

I give him an "A."

Monday, April 25, 2005

Blood and oil

What's more humiliating, that a poorly equipped and undermanned Marine unit in Iraq had to make dummy soldiers out of cardboard cutouts, or that we are so dependent on oil that our president has to beg the leader of one of the world's most repressive regimes to lower prices?

For sheer human tragedy, I'd have to vote for the Marines, but for farce, I'd have to go with the Saudi oil story. Here's my favorite part:

``This is an important relationship,'' Bush said today in Crawford, Texas, after Abdullah's arrival at the president's ranch. ``The crown prince understands that it's very important to make sure that prices are reasonable'' and that ``high oil prices damage markets.''

Yes, one can imagine W. explaining to the Saudi prince that in order for Americans to continue to drive oversized cars to their oversized homes far from they where they work and shop, the U.S. government will continue to pretend that Saudi Arabia and its cozy relationship with the United States isn't at least indirectly responsible for the rise of radical Islam and its war on America.

"Please, please, lower oil prices, Your Royal Highness. If my approval ratings slip any further, I won't be able to continue dismantling my country's social safety net and running up record deficits."

Redeveloped to death

The symptoms come on every time I read about the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority. My throat constricts and I start frothing at the mouth. I start to convulse, and if no one is around to stick my wallet in my mouth, I'm likely to bite off my tongue. Here is the cause of today's histironics, a profile of URA Executive Director Jerome Dettore in the PG:

"I'm proud of Washington's Landing," he said. "I'm proud of Summerset at Frick Park. I'm proud of the SouthSide Works. I'm proud of the Pittsburgh Technology Center. We've impacted almost every neighborhood in the city."

Let's take Summerset and Washington's Landing. Truly progressive cities devote redevelopment funds to rejuvenating blighted, run-down neighborhoods, not building upscale housing and a marina. Both Summerset and Washington's Landing were built on former brownfield sites, and I have no problem with government assuming the costs of preparing such land for redevelopment. I just want government's role to end there; let the private market take over.

And as for SouthSide Works, the last thing this city needs is more subsidized retail, particularly in an already thriving commercial and residential district. Again, I don't question tax dollars going toward reclamation of abandoned industrial land; but I do have a problem with government subsidizing the private developers who take over once that process is completed.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Moral Majorities

The New York Times Magazine has this excellent essay today about the dilemmas Democrats face in trying to counter the GOP's appeal to moral values. The writer astutely notes that the Schiavo case may not be the winner for Democrats that many seem to believe, and I agree:

Far from having made a compelling case for euthanasia or against morality by fiat, Democrats, with a few notable exceptions, pretty much became bystanders to the whole unseemly affair. And while Republicans managed to further define themselves as a party that would even go to unpopular lengths to defend the sanctity of ravaged and unborn souls alike, Democrats were again left to ponder their own identity in an age in which religious values and scientific insight seem increasingly to be hurtling toward collision. Even in defeat, Republicans emerged as ''the party of life.'' And as one leading Democratic operative privately warned a roomful of allies, ''We can't just be the party of death.''

After all, the GOP, in attempting to intervene to keep Schiavo alive, were appealing to the core of their activist base. They are a minority in the nation but wield great influence in the modern Republican party. And they may be more motivated by this issue precisely because they lost, so to speak, and because to them, the issue had a great deal of emotional and more resonance. Opponents of Republican intervention were motivated by more abstract ideals, like the separation of powers and freedom of choice. A majority of Americans may have supported that position, but a much smaller number are going to see this is the defining political issue that those on the other side will.

A final word from Matt Bai, the author of the essay:

Like Bill Clinton in 1992, Democrats now may have to confront some of their most powerful interest groups, which have grown accustomed to demanding absolute fealty on issues like abortion and obscenity, if they want their notions of morality to feel more consistent and inclusive to many Americans. This may be a transitional moment for both parties. More voters now are refusing to join either party, rejecting the notion that either holds a monopoly on values. And as technology advances, so, too, does the shading of moral choices that used to seem black or white. Can Roe v. Wade still be the sole arbiter of life's starting point, for instance, now that a mother can watch her 12-week-old fetus spinning in the womb? Perhaps the party that builds a national consensus in the era after Terri Schiavo will be the one that has the courage not to exploit moral choices but to wrestle with them. Most Americans seem to understand that we are entering a time of complex, wrenching decisions that defy facile and self-righteous answers. Maybe it's time for politicians to admit that, too.

Suffer the little children

Via 2 Political Junkies, we learn that the new pope asserted the Catholic Church's right to keep secret evidence that priests had abused children. The blog links to this article in a British newspaper:

Pope Benedict XVI faced claims last night he had 'obstructed justice' after it emerged he issued an order ensuring the church's investigations into child sex abuse claims be carried out in secret.
The order was made in a confidential letter, obtained by The Observer, which was sent to every Catholic bishop in May 2001.

It asserted the church's right to hold its inquiries behind closed doors and keep the evidence confidential for up to 10 years after the victims reached adulthood. The letter was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was elected as John Paul II's successor last week.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

A not-so-great society

On Monday, Bob Herbert paused to remember FDR in honor of the 60th anniversary of his death, and to bemoan the fact that liberalism is dead as well.

Roosevelt's vision gave conservatives in both parties apoplexy in 1944 and it would still drive them crazy today. But the truth is that during the 1950's and 60's the nation made substantial progress toward his wonderfully admirable goals, before the momentum of liberal politics slowed with the war in Vietnam and the election in 1968 of Richard Nixon.

Herbert is right to praise FDR, whose legacy is under attack by modern conservatives. FDR saved capitalism; he did not destroy it as his detractors would have us believe. However, there are a few problems with Herbert's broader argument. For one, Nixon may have run as a conservative, but he governed as a liberal, expanding the welfare state and dabbling in centralized economic planning by instituting wage and price controls.

Second, to argue that liberalism, if left unchecked, would have transformed America into a utopia of liberty, fraternity and equality is to engage in no small amount of revisionism. Modern American liberalism did not merely fall out of fashion, nor was it subverted by vengeful conservatives. It collapsed of its own weight. The New Deal may have been a necessary curative for the ravages of the Great Depression and the excesses of capitalism, but it would spawn the Great Society, which was the height of government hubris and paternalism. Liberalism devolved from an answer to laissez-faire capitalism to a collection of grievances, from the belief that we bear collective responsibility for the welfare of our society to the belief that government will do for us what we should do for ourselves.

I just hope I'm around to write the eulogy for conservatism as well.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Slouching toward theocracy

One of the challenges our republic has faced since its inception--and the reason we have a constitution--is how to respect the will of the majority while protecting the rights of the minority. And in a nation whose people often have conflicting values, how do we allow people to live by those values, to follow their conscience, without tramping on the values and rights of others?

This tension is manifested vividly on the issue of abortion, in which the autonomy of a woman over her own body would seem to be in conflict with the belief that the sanctity of life extends to humans conceived but not yet born. This is not a matter of personal conscience; people who believe abortion is tantamount to murder believe it is incumbent upon them to stop abortions from happening.

The Supreme Court, in its flawed decision to enshrine abortion as a constitutional right, decided that the state had a right to intervene after the second trimester. The court set a timeframe as the standard, rather than the nebulous concept of viability, recognizing that one day medical science may extend the viability of a fetus or embryo so far as to effectively nullify the right of a woman to seek an abortion.

That has not happened. But what has happened is that pharmacology has allowed us to prevent pregancy by preventing ovulation and fertilization, and now also by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. That would seem to be a way to prevent unwanted pregnancies without ending a life; even the so-called morning after pill does nothing more than what the female body often does on its own, spontaneously and without any outward signs.

Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way. The Catholic Church, most famously, believes that birth control is immoral, and if abortion is tantamount to abortion, some anti-abortion zealots believe that the morning after pill is tantamount to abortion. Some pharmacists are refusing to fill prescriptions for woman seeking birth control and the morning after pill.

As Dahlia Lithwick explains in this cogent essay, this is unacceptable:

Emergency contraception inhibits ovulation, fertilization, or implantation. The accepted medical definition of abortion is that it can occur only after implantation. Whatever visceral appeal the "Life Begins When Sperm and Egg Walk Into a Bar" position may hold, it remains factually inaccurate; only a fringe of the medical community accepts the notion that emergency contraception is an abortifacient.

Second, whatever you may think of the morality of taking a morning-after pill, the incontrovertible fact is that it loses efficacy after 24 hours and becomes virtually useless after 72. So, one pharmacist's refusal to dispense them can rapidly morph into an unwanted pregnancy. That means—particularly in isolated or rural communities—the religious objections of the pharmacist can trump the mother's legal rights. This may well lead—as noted recently by the St. Petersburg Times—to an increased number of later-term abortions. Which would be ironic, were it not so sad.

In other words, reasonable people can disagree as to whether a fetus is human life; but it is much less reasonable to believe that a sperm or egg, or even a fertilized yet unimplanted egg, is human life. Now, plenty of religiously held beliefs are unreasonable; religion itself defies reason. But to the extent that the pharmacists are raising an objection that is almost wholly religious, they should not be allowed to impinge on a woman's right to receive legally available medical care.

Again, Lithwick:

Steve Chapman compares a pharmacist's refusal to dispense a drug to a bookstore owner's legitimate refusal to sell a book. Of course, the worst thing that can happen if I can't get a book within 24 hours is that I only pretend to have read it at the cocktail party. Whereas an unwanted pregnancy represents a fairly profound violation of self.

The law cannot always be called on to immunize us from our decisions to take the law into our own hands. That's why Ellen Goodman pointed out last week that the very definition of "conscientious objector" includes the proposition that you may well suffer consequences for your protest. "In a conflict between your job and your ethics, you can quit," she writes. If you don't believe an FDA-approved drug should be legal, work at the Dairy Queen. But if a pharmacist doesn't have to dispense birth control, or an EMT can refuse to drive someone to an abortion clinic, or a nurse can refuse a rape victim emergency contraception, none of us can really trust in the professionals around us at those moments when we need them the most.


Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Bad medicine

I'm skeptical of efforts to cap awards in medical malpractice lawsuits, and this Washington Post article demonstrates why--because the medical establishment seems to be unable to police its own:

Among doctors licensed in the District, Maryland and Virginia, nearly two dozen got in trouble in one jurisdiction and then moved elsewhere to practice, according to a Washington Post analysis of medical board records between 1999 and 2004.

Nationally, 972 physicians during that period were disciplined in one state, then moved at least once more and were disciplined again for a separate infraction, according to federal statistics. Nineteen were disciplined in four or more states over five years.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Speaking ill of the dead

If, like me, you'd appreciate a little more perspective on the death of John Paul II than you've seen in the local or national media, check out Hitchens' latest invective against the late pope, and this other Slate essay about who really defeated communism. Andrew Sullivan also has been doing a good job of providing a balanced yet respectful view. (Full disclosure: I'm Protestant, so my views on this pope or any pope are a bit skewed. The idea that any man could claim to be the infalliable interpreter of God's laws is unfathomable to me. After all, if popes were infalliable, why should John Paul have had to do all the apologizing that he's been lauded for?)

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Shut 'em down

Sen. Trent Lott, who you may recall lost his Senate leadership position because of his belated endorsement of the 1948 presidential candidacy of segregationist Strom Thurmond, was outmaneuvered by the White House in his bid to politicize the closings of military bases:

Just before Congress returned from a two-week recess, President Bush on Friday night used his recess-appointment power to thwart an effort by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to stall the work of a military base-closing commission. ...

The process is aimed at taking some of the political heat out of base-closing decisions. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is due to make his recommendations for closings and consolidations by May 16. Then the commission will evaluate them and submit a final package for up-or-down approval by Bush and then Congress.

Lott has said he objected to having decisions about base closings made by what he called an "exclusive, closed and unelected commission" instead of letting it remain the province of Congress. As a senior lawmaker, he said he would be in a better position to protect shipyards at Pascagoula and elsewhere along Mississippi's Gulf Coast.

Lott wrote Jan. 30 in his weekly column, published on his Web site, that he would rather see bases close in "an increasingly unsupportive Western Europe" than "in patriotic, taxpaying towns in Mississippi."

"I'm more worried about the plight of folks in Heidelberg, Mississippi, than Heidelberg, Germany," Lott wrote. "Base closure is not really an initiative for high-rent lobbyists and fleeting commissions to perform. Congress and the people we represent should participate in the debate and carry out the hard work of base closure."

Oh, I see. U.S. military bases don't exist to secure out national defense, but to secure jobs in the home states of politically powerful (well, formerly powerful) senators. It seems to me that Lott has just demonstrated, perhaps unwittingly, why such decisions are taken out of the hands of elected officials.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

His Holiness

Plenty of tributes, many well-earned, will be paid to Pope John Paul II in the weeks that will follow his death. To hear another side, however, I knew I would have to rely on Christopher Hitchens, who writes of the Church's moral cowardice in dealing with its pedophile priests:

A few years ago, it seemed quite probable that Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston would have to face trial for his appalling collusion in the child-rape racket that his diocese had been running. The man had knowingly reassigned dangerous and sadistic criminals to positions where they would be able to exploit the defenseless. He had withheld evidence and made himself an accomplice, before and after the fact, in the one offense that people of all faiths and of none have most united in condemning. ...

Anyway, Cardinal Law isn't going to face a court, now. He has fled the jurisdiction and lives in Rome, where a sinecure at the Vatican has been found for him. (Actually not that much of a sinecure: As archpriest of the Rome Basilica of St. Mary Major, he also sits on two boards supervising priestly discipline—yes!—and the appointment of diocesan bishops.) Even before this, he visited Rome on at least one occasion to discuss whether or not the church should obey American law. And it has been conclusively established that the Vatican itself—including his holiness—was a part of the coverup and obstruction of justice that allowed the child-rape scandal to continue for so long.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Deja vu all over again

What with the pope dying, Terri Schiavo dead, and Michael Jackson being on trial, you may have forgotten about the war in Iraq, and who could blame you? Well, it seems that the Rand Corp. released a report a month ago blasting the Pentagon for its failure to adequately plan for the war's aftermath:

The study, done by the Rand Corp., an independent research group that was created by the U.S. government and frequently does analyses for the Pentagon, also says the experience in Iraq has underscored the Pentagon's tendency "not to absorb historical lessons" when battling insurgencies. It notes a lack of political-military coordination and of "actionable intelligence" in the counterinsurgency campaign, and urges creation in the Army of a "dedicated cadre of counterinsurgency specialists."

The study highlights shortcomings as well in the conduct of the invasion. It cites inflated expectations at the outset about airstrikes in toppling the Baghdad government, poor performance by Apache helicopters in attack missions, delays in bomb damage assessments, gaps in tactical intelligence for battlefield commanders, disruptions in supply lines and inadequate coordination between Special Operations units and conventional forces.

Although the report notes that Iraq's poorly trained and ill-equipped forces proved "no match" for U.S. troops, it says the conflict exposed some important problem areas for the U.S. military that need fixing.

"There is a case for change, and even urgency, in those areas where problems arose even in such favorable conditions," concludes the confidential report, a copy of which was made available to The Washington Post. ...

When the insurgency arose, the report says, U.S. authorities failed to understand how it differed from past "wars of national liberation" or from a "classical guerrilla-type campaign."

The president has insisted that the war be judged by its ultimate results, and those are still unclear. But nothing should absolve the administration from responsibility for its mistakes, most born out of arrogance and a rush to fight an unnecessary war.

Which reminds me...the commission looking into the intelligence failures that led up to the war (you may recall that Saddam Hussein was supposedly developing weapons of mass destruction) issued its report, and this Slate articles discusses what the report does and doesn't say:

Reading beyond the executive summary reveals that the intelligence failure on Iraq had little to do with management, interagency disputes, or sloppy organizational charts. Rather, the main causes were twofold. First, on many points, well-placed intelligence analysts were simply wrong; it's as plain as that, and it's hard to see how any reshufflings or new directives might have overwhelmed human fallacy. Second, everyone knew President Bush was gearing up for war; he, therefore, wanted, needed, to find Iraq worthy of invasion; and the heads of intelligence, doubling as administration appointees, accommodated that disposition.

The commissioners try to skirt this political dimension of the intelligence analysts' findings. "In no instance," the report states up front, "did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgment." However, it goes on, "That said, it is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence agencies worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom."

Later on, the report elaborates: "Some analysts were affected by this 'conventional wisdom' and the sense that challenges to it—or even refusals to find its confirmation—would not be welcome." This "climate" was shaped, the report continues, by a "gathering conviction among analysts that war with Iraq was inevitable." ...

The panel didn't interview the president or vice president. The report doesn't even mention the special five-man team that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld set up in his Pentagon office in the fall of 2002 to scour raw reports for the slightest suggestion of evidence, which the CIA might have missed, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or links to al-Qaida. An executive order is an executive order. But for a report about intelligence errors to avoid such matters is like viewing Hamlet through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (but, unlike Tom Stoppard, not for laughs).

Now, back to the real news.