Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Huckabee - reaping what you sow

Very good post from Arianna Huffington of the cleverly-named ( discussing the discomfort that the Republican base has with the success of Mike Huckabee. Huffington quite accurately points out that the "power brokers" of the Republican party are generally wealthy business interests, with little in common with the evangelical right. The Republicans, for the last two or three decades, have figured out how to galvanize the evangelical right with certain hot-button issues at election time. It's worked (ask the current President about the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage he went on and on about in 2004), and the GOP has consistently failed to deliver.

But they've created the movement, and now the movement may be taking over the Republican party. Much like how the Democrats were hijacked by the Jesse Jackson wing of the party in the 70's and 80's, it's possible we could see the GOP beholden to its' hard-right base for the next decade or so. Surely no one thinks that a guy like Rudy Giuliani is going to be the Bill Clinton of his party.

My favorite little snippet of the post is this, but that's just schadenfreude on my part:

"Over at the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan frets that the Republican Party of today wouldn't like Ronald Reagan much now that "faith has been heightened as a determining factor in how to vote," and says that voters in Iowa "may be deciding if Republicans are becoming a different kind of party."

If? If??"

So, it's interesting to watch. While I am all for a guy who makes a Chuck Norris commercial (truly brilliant, check it out on Huckabee's website), it would be an interesting election to be certain if Huckabee wins the GOP nomination.


With Mike Huckabee's continuing surge, the Republican Party now has an Iowa front-runner whose religious beliefs are virtually identical to those of George Bush. He's anti-choice, born-again, against gay-marriage, and gets political advice directly from God.

So why is the Republican establishment suddenly in a state of near-apoplexy about Mike Huckabee? Shouldn't they be happy? They've been cultivating evangelicals and fundamentalists for 30 years. Now they finally have a candidate who's truly part of the movement. So what's the problem?

Actually, that is the problem. The evangelical crowd was fine when it was just a resource to be cynically exploited every few years in demagogic anti-gay get-out-the-vote campaigns. But now the holy-rolling monster the GOP's Dr. Frankensteins have created has thrown off the shackles, fled the lab, and is currently leading in Iowa. And the party doesn't know what to do.

It's actually fun to watch the consternation. Ross Douthat has dubbed this feeling "Huckenfreude," which he defines as "pleasure derived from the outrage of prominent conservative pundits over the rising poll numbers of Mike Huckabee."

And there is certainly no shortage of outrage among hyperventilating conservative columnists across the country. The National Review's Rich Lowry has coined a neologism of his own: "Huckacide." This is when a national party commits suicide by nominating an "under-vetted former governor who is manifestly unprepared to be president of the United States."

Yeah, that would certainly be crazy, wouldn't it? Makes you wonder where these people have been for the last seven years.

Over at the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer is wringing his hands about an "overdose of public piety," "scriptural literalism," and how the 2008 campaign is "knee-deep in religion."

At the Weekly Standard, Stephen Hayes worries about the fact that Huckabee "told a producer for Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network that his religious background made him most qualified to lead the war on terror," and that he "seems to believe the best foreign policy is one guided by the Golden Rule." Scoffing at the Golden Rule? What's next, attacking the Boy Scout Oath? And what it is about Huckabee's name that inspires a whole new lexicon? The Weekly Standard's headline writers couldn't resist, dubbing his perceived foreign policy shortcomings "The Perils of Huckaplomacy."

Over at the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan frets that the Republican Party of today wouldn't like Ronald Reagan much now that "faith has been heightened as a determining factor in how to vote," and says that voters in Iowa "may be deciding if Republicans are becoming a different kind of party."

If? If??

Turns out that when you define your party a certain way for a two or three decades, people actually start to believe it, and that definition can, in fact, become your party.

According to Andrew Sullivan, "it is certainly too late for fellow-traveling Christianists like Lowry and Krauthammer to start whining now. This is their party. And they asked for every last bit of it."

The Republican establishment is tying itself in knots trying to land on a publicly acceptable rationale for their Huckabhorrence (I told you, it's irresistible). Some criticize his "fair tax" plan -- but since when have nutty economic plans ever disqualified a Republican presidential candidate?

No, the real reason is class. As Kevin Drum puts it, "mainstream conservatives are mostly urban sophisticates with a libertarian bent, not rural evangelicals with a social conservative bent. They're happy to talk up NASCAR and pickup trucks in public, but in real life they mostly couldn't care less about either. Ditto for opposing abortion and the odd bit of gay bashing via proxy. But when it comes to Ten Commandments monuments and end times eschatology, they shiver inside just like any mainstream liberal."

As Steve Benen writes at TPM, "The Republican Party's religious right base is supposed to be seen, not heard. Candidates are supposed to pander to this crowd, not actually come from this crowd."

They want their base to be a kind of electoral cicada: wake up every four years, vote, and then go underground and shut-up.

Will Huckabee win the nomination? No one knows. But win or lose, I can't see this genie going back in the bottle. One danger for the Huckabee haters is that right wing social positions aren't the only thing they've been nurturing for 30 years -- there's also this sense of aggrieved, martyred hatred of "the elites." Of course, it's usually completely manufactured. But this time, there really is a group looking down its nose at the evangelicals -- and it's not godless liberals. It's the supporters of Romney, McCain, Thompson and Giuliani. So what's going to happen when evangelicals realize this and tap into the hatred of "the elites" the GOP establishment has been whipping up in them for three decades?

Mark Kleiman points out that Huckabee is the only non-millionaire among the serious GOP contenders, and the only one who doesn't court what Kevin Drum calls the "money-cons" -- those Republicans for whom globalization is the only true religion.

Republicans have been running on a faux populist/religiously conservative platform ever since Richard Nixon. It was refined and heightened by Lee Atwater and again by Karl Rove. And now that they have a rising candidate who truly represents that platform, the movers and shakers of the party are doing all they can to kneecap him.

But as the Good Book says: "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Winning and losing

Great article by Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post ( describing how the current President's rash of vetoes has far less to do with the policies themselves, and far more to do with scoring political points and making life hell for Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

Not that being Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid wasn't hell enough.


Bush's Budget Wins May Cost Him
Victories Over Democrats Could Increase Debt and Impede His Own Agenda

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 15, 2007; Page A01

As Congress stumbles toward Christmas, President Bush is scoring victory after victory over his Democratic adversaries. He has beaten back domestic spending increases, thwarted an expansion of children's health insurance coverage, defeated tax hikes, won funding for the war in Iraq and pushed Democrats toward shattering their pledge not to add to the federal deficit with new tax cuts or rises in mandatory spending.

But the cost of those wins could be high, both for the federal debt and for the president's own priorities.

Even some Republicans bristle at the president's inflexibility. Bush has pledged never to sign bills with tax increases, even tax increases that he once supported.

"I see the president trying to play catch-up in two years for not vetoing anything in the first six years, and probably regretting that he treated the Republican Congress with softer gloves than he did a Democrat Congress," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the conservative ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. "He's kind of waking up to the necessity of having a certain policy that ought to be consistently followed, even if it's irrational."

White House officials -- and virtually every other Republican in Congress -- are not about to apologize. "The Democrats are learning this isn't the early 1970s, when the Republican Party was Gerald Ford and 140 of his friends," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "There are 201 of us, and we will be heard."

In his first six years in office, Bush accepted domestic discretionary spending increases from Republican-controlled Congresses that averaged 7 percent a year, said Brian Riedl, a conservative budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation. In his showdown with the current Democratic Congress, the president is insisting on spending growth of 4 percent at most.

But as he stood his ground, first against $22 billion in additional domestic spending, then against $11 billion, Bush steadfastly opposed Democratic efforts to raise taxes to recoup the cost of a $50 billion measure that would stave off the growth of the alternative minimum tax (AMT). The parallel tax system was created in 1969 to ensure that a few rich Americans could not avoid paying taxes altogether, but because it was not indexed to inflation, it now threatens more than 20 million upper-middle-income households.

If, as expected, Congress passes a bill without making up the lost revenue, the cost to the Treasury would swamp the savings from Bush's spending fight.

The president also has taken to the White House's bully pulpit week after week to demand nearly $200 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, without tax increases or spending cuts. If the president prevails on all three fronts, he will end up adding about $239 billion to the federal deficit this fiscal year.

"I have difficulty seeing how $11 billion or $22 billion in discretionary spending on the domestic side of the equation is so fiscally irresponsible when juxtaposed against these major AMT provisions of $50 billion, or certainly against the $70-plus billion they want for the global war on terror, Iraq and Afghanistan," said G. William Hoagland, a Republican budget adviser to former Senate majority leader Bill Frist (Tenn.). "It doesn't pass the sensible man's test."

As Democrats shuffle funds to meet Bush's bottom line, the White House also is likely to lose half of the $3 billion the president requested for his Millennium Challenge Corp., an effort to increase development assistance to some poor nations. Bush's program to resume the reprocessing of nuclear waste will be cut dramatically. A $579 million increase for math and science instruction under the No Child Left Behind initiative will be cut, and the Reading First program will be reduced, Democratic aides said Friday.

Bush's victory against much of the Democrats' energy bill also came at a price. A comprehensive bill will be signed into law, but the president defeated $21 billion in revenue increases that would have paid for tax incentives to support renewable energy, conservation and other programs that he has vocally supported.

"It's ridiculous," Grassley fumed. "He has compromised his own position."

The biggest revenue-raiser would have done away with a tax incentive that the five largest oil companies have enjoyed for three years. That break came about as Congress was considering tax incentives to spur manufacturing exports; the oil companies -- among the largest importers in the country -- successfully lobbied to be declared manufacturers, making them eligible for a new tax break.

At the time, Bush opposed more tax incentives. "I will tell you, with $55 oil, we don't need incentives to oil and gas companies to explore," he told a gathering of newspaper editors. "There are plenty of incentives." Grassley said Bush personally reiterated that position to him in 2006, during a private White House session on taxes.

This time around, Bush and Republican leaders declared that a repeal of such incentives would amount to a "massive" tax increase.

"What is clear is that raising taxes on oil producers will not lower the price of gasoline," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "And raising the price of gasoline is not what Americans need today. . . . We do not need a tax increase."

Bush's aversion to any tax increase -- no matter the size or the target -- has led directly to the death of a number of measures. Bush opposed a Democratic plan to pay for the AMT "patch" largely by forcing wealthy managers of hedge and private-equity funds to pay ordinary income tax rates on their earnings. Currently that income is classified as capital gains and taxed at 15 percent.

When that measure fell to a filibuster, House Democrats tried again, this time paying for the AMT bill by preventing hedge fund managers from putting compensation in offshore tax havens. Again, Bush opposed it.

Fratto called such proposals "very typical of tax policy based on populism and class warfare, rather than sound economic policy."

Democrats said Bush was not nearly so averse in the past to using tax increases to deal with losses from the AMT. In 2005, he empaneled a tax reform commission, entrusting it to, among other things, repeal the AMT without costing the Treasury any revenue.

That would have meant eliminating a tax that brings in $1 trillion over 10 years and making up the lost revenue with tax increases somewhere, said Tom Kahn, Democratic staff director of the House Budget Committee.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

When right-wingers love Darwinism

Fascinating article by Sean Gonsalves of AlterNet ( making a point I'm disappointed I didn't think of myself. Most hard-right Christians hate the theory of evolution, believing it to be unholy and an assault on God. But most hard-right Christians are also die-hard believers in the free market. By definition, the free market is a "survival of the fittest" philosophy. So how, pray tell, can someone believe biologically that Darwinism is evil, and socially believe Darwinism is wonderful?


In my neck of the woods -- actually Woods Hole in Falmouth, Mass. to be exact -- a new front in the "Culture War" has opened up.

A federal lawsuit has been filed against a biologist at the world-famous Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution by a zebra fish researcher named Nathaniel Abraham, alleging his civil rights were violated when he was fired because his belief in creationism.

The same day that story broke in the Cape Cod Times, the Associated Press had a story about how anti-evolutionists have come up with a new strategy in the battle against the unifying principle of the biological sciences.

The AP reported: "arguments for inserting skepticism, rather than religious concepts, into evolution lessons emerged after a federal court ruling nearly two years ago struck down the teaching of intelligent design in biology classes in Dover, Pa., said Michael Ruse, the director of Florida State University's program on the history and philosophy of science."

Ruse calls it "Strategy No. 4." What were the first three strategies? Strategy No. 1: Prohibit teaching it. The 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial put an end to that strategy.

Strategy No. 2: Get creationism taught in schools -- the literal biblical account of creation -- as an alternative to the "theory" of evolution. But courts rejected that strategy in the 1980s, Ruse said.

Strategy No. 3: Promote "Intelligent Design (ID)" -- the notion that "the universe's order and complexity is so great that science alone cannot explain it."

That strategy hit the legal wall in Dover, Penn., where a judge ruled that ID was religion-in-drag, pretending to be science, which meant teaching it in public schools constituted a violation of the separation of church and state.

And that brings us to Strategy No. 4: "Ruse described it as presenting evolution as an 'iffy hypothesis' instead of what it really is -- a scientific theory 'that's accepted like the Earth goes around the sun.'"

The new strategy seems to be losing steam too. "A suburban Atlanta school board abandoned its effort to put stickers in high-school science books saying that evolution is 'a theory, not a fact,' and South Carolina's Board of Education rejected a proposal to require students to 'critically analyze' evolution."

I don't know what strategy our zebra fish creationist is employing but I do know that in the "culture wars," as our conservative brethren call it, the teaching of evolution is considered nothing less than a satanic assault on the image of God.

I confess my heresy: like the Jesuit theologian/paleontologist Pierre Teilhard did 50 odd years ago, I'm a believer whose made his peace with evolution. But then, I've never understood why science and faith are discussed as if they're mutually exclusive. Folks who think evolution is an inherently atheist argument or those who think evolution disproves the existence of God are people with little imagination.

The evolution vs. creationism debate may be an unavoidable political fight but much more relevant and revealing is what many evolution-believing secular conservatives and evolution-denying religious conservatives have in common: a belief in social Darwinism.

A popular misconception is that Darwin coined the phrase "survival of the fittest." Actually, Darwin's thing was "natural selection," which turns out to involve lots of cooperation.

The origin of "survival of the fittest" can be traced to British philosopher Herbert Spencer, who had an illustrious career justifying racism and imperialism with his pseudo-science 50 years after Darwin published The Origin of the Species.

Spencer bastardized Darwin's theory and attempted to apply his misunderstanding of evolution to politics and economics. Thus began a political tradition in this country that has reached its apogee today, in which public policy is seen as a vehicle to prevent the weak from being "parasites" on the "fit."

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich marvels as I do at how "the modern Conservative Movement has embraced social Darwinism with no less fervor than it has condemned Darwinism."

Listen to Spencer's own words: "Society advances where its fittest members are allowed to assert their fitness with the least hindrance."

Listen to any domestic policy debate about crime or education and you'll hear Spencer lurking beneath the surface in arguments justifying everything from war to incarceration rates to wealth disparities.

All that supply-side, Ronald Reagan, freedom stuff about meritocracies and the liberal conspiracy to "dumb-down" America with egalitarianism is social Darwinism -- in defense of the liberty of the "natural aristocracy."

So while science battles evolution-opponents, I'm trying to understand a conservative political species that opposes evolution on religious grounds while supporting social Darwinism on the political and economic grounds.

There's a missing link here.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christmas' pagan history

Usually you can count on at least one version of this story to pop up around this time of year, and Rob Boston of Church and State ( delivers a good one. All of the faux conservatives bluster about a "War on Christmas" and a bemoaning of the loss Christian-ness of the holiday season belies an ignorance of the pagan history of the Yuletide season. It is amusing to watch "fundamentalist" preachers and "thinkers" bloviate about the loss of symbols that, at their heart, are pagan rites appropriated by the early Christian church.


It's ironic to hear Religious Right groups portray themselves as the great defenders of Christmas - their spiritual forebears hated the holiday and even banned its celebration.

The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay frowned on Christmas revelry, considering the holiday a Roman Catholic affectation. A law in the colony barred anyone from taking the day off work, feasting or engaging in other celebrations on Christmas, under penalty of a five-shilling fine.

The law was repealed in 1681, but Christmas celebrations remained unpopular in New England and other colonies for many years. That did not change after the Revolution, because many Americans viewed Christmas as a Tory custom, a reminder of the expelled British.

Although Christmas became popular in the South as early as the 1830s, other regions were apathetic. Writer Tom Flynn notes in his 1993 book The Trouble with Christmas that Congress did not begin adjourning on Christmas Day until 1856. Public schools in New England were often open on Dec. 25, as were many factories and offices. Many Protestant churches refused to hold services, considering the holiday "popish."

Not until after the Civil War did Christmas begin to seriously affect American cultural and religious life. European immigration increased sharply after the war, and many of the newcomers came from countries with strong Christmas traditions. Germans, Italians, Poles, Swedes, Norwegians and others brought the holiday and many of its features, including Christmas trees and Santa Claus, to America in a big way.

The celebration spread, and in 1870 Christmas was declared a federal holiday by Congress. But practices in the states continued to vary. As late as 1931, Flynn reports, nine states still called for public schools to remain open on Christmas Day.

It might also surprise Religious Right activists to learn that many of the Christmas traditions they defend so vociferously have, at best, a tenuous connection to Christianity.

Several of the holiday's most common features grow out of pre-Christian religions. The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia in mid-December, a time of general merriment, feasting and gift exchanges. Slaves were given time off and were even permitted to play dice games in public. During this period, many Romans decorated their homes with evergreens as a reminder that life would persevere through the dark days of winter.

Evergreen trees had long been viewed as a symbol of fertility by Pagan peoples. When winter came and most trees lost their leaves and appeared to die, the evergreen was a reminder that life would endure and that long days, warmer weather and a harvest would come again. Germans were early boosters of the Christmas tree and brought it to America. (The pious legend that Martin Luther decorated the first Christmas tree is not taken seriously by scholars.)

Candles, a necessary item during the dark winter period, were a common Saturnalia gift. Some scholars consider them a precursor to Christmas lights.

Originally celebrated on Dec. 17, the Roman Saturnalia eventually expanded to last an entire week, ending on Dec. 23.

So where did the Dec. 25 date for Christmas come from?

Many scholars believe that date came from another Roman festival, one that became popular around the middle of the third century - the feast of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun.

During this festival, various gods related to the sun in the Roman pantheon were honored. The festival was most popular during the reign of the emperor Aurelian (270-275 A.D.), who attributed his military victories to the sun god and may have wanted to establish a solar deity as supreme in the Roman pantheon. Images of Sol Invictus remained popular and appeared on Roman coinage even during the reign of Constantine the Great (306-337 A.D.).

There is some evidence that early Christians celebrated the festival alongside Pagans, and that church leaders, seeing these practices under way, simply appropriated the date for the birth of Jesus as Christianity grew and became the dominant religion of the empire throughout the fourth and fifth centuries.

Michael Grant, the late scholar of the ancient world, noted in his 1985 book The Roman Emperors that Dec. 25 was "a bequest of the solar cult to Christianity, converted into Christmas Day."

Legal codes laid down by the emperors Theodosius I and later Justinian made Christianity the state religion and banned Paganism. Church leaders were generally tolerant of people taking old practices and adding a Christian gloss to them. Overt worship of Pagan gods disappeared but the Dec.25 date - and many residual practices associated with the old festival - remained.

As strange as it may seem, when Religious Right legal groups go to court to battle the "War on Christmas," they may really be defending practices historically associated with the worship not of the son of God but the sun in the sky.

Cable ala carte

Interesting article from the New York Times by Joe Nocera ( about why ala carte cable pricing would be a bad idea. The basic premise is that if you allow ala carte pricing, you'd drive up the prices for most customers, and would choke off some of the smaller channels. A true free-marketer would argue that would be the point, but it is an interesting analysis on what otherwise seems to be a no-brainer idea.

(P.S. - Apologies for my absence the last couple of weeks. I've had a couple of health emergencies in my family which has kept me from keeping up to date. I'll try to keep up in the future)


Talking Business
Bland Menu if Cable Goes à la Carte

Published: November 24, 2007
Twice in the last few months, I’ve written columns about the bitter “carriage dispute” between the NFL Network and the nation’s two largest cable companies, Comcast and Time Warner. This column, I swear, is not going to be the third in a series. As annoyed as I remain over the tactics of the National Football League, I’ve had my say.

It is, however, about cable television — and in particular, about a response I kept hearing in the aftermath of those articles. One of my central points was that if the National Football League gained carriage on digital cable for its overpriced network, all cable subscribers would be stuck paying an exorbitant amount for something only a tiny fraction actually want.

Many readers sympathetic to my stance wondered why I hadn’t pursued that argument to its logical end. Don’t just stop with the NFL Network, they wrote. Why should cable subscribers have to pay for any stations they don’t want? Why does the cable industry force us to absorb the cost of the 75 or 100 stations that make up “extended basic” or “extended digital”— which most cable customers subscribe to — in order to see the much smaller universe of stations we truly want to watch?

“What we really need is à la carte cable TV,” wrote a reader named Neal D. Breitenbach. “That way I can buy what I want rather than what someone forces into my TV. I don’t want to pay a dollar for the NFL Network and I don’t want home shopping or Fox News either. Why can’t I pay for what I want and nothing more?”

Another reader, Alan Kemp, wrote: “Comcast’s claim of wanting its basic programming to focus on widely watched programming is nonsense. Over one-half of its basic channels are never watched in my house. I suspect most Comcast subscribers, like me, pay for many channels that they do not want and do not watch.”

À la carte. It sounds so appealing, doesn’t it? Instead of having to accept — and pay for — all the channels bundled by your cable company, you could pick from a menu and pay for only the ones you watch. As Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College, nicely put it in a paper he wrote on the subject: “Imagine walking into a department store to buy a pair of slacks and being told by the salesman that in order to buy the pair you like, you would also have to buy a particular shirt, a particular tie and two pairs of socks. Department stores do not attempt such bundling, because the consumer would not stand for it.” Yet that’s what the cable industry does.

À la carte is an idea that has been floating around Washington for years. One of its biggest champions is Gene Kimmelman, an executive at Consumers Union; he sees it as both a way “to create marketplace pressure to reduce prices” and to goose competition.

Another big supporter is the Parents Television Council, an organization dedicated to “protecting children and families from sex, violence and profanity in entertainment,” according to its president, Tim Winter. Although Mr. Winter pays lip service to the “pro-consumer and pro-free market” aspects of à la carte, his real agenda is decency. À la carte, he told me this week, would “allow parents to make the choice of what they want to bring into their homes.” In other words, bring Disney in — and keep MTV out.

And then there’s the most important, and most dogged, supporter of à la carte in Washington. That would be Kevin J. Martin, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. As a regulator, Mr. Martin has zero authority to impose à la carte on the cable industry, but that has not stopped him from pushing for it at every opportunity, including promoting it before Congress.

Mr. Martin has long said that he favors à la carte because it’s pro-consumer, but most people in the cable industry — none of whom will speak on the record, for fear of angering the F.C.C. chairman — are convinced that he favors it for the same reason Mr. Winter does: it will allow parents to keep MTV and its ilk out of their homes. Mr. Martin, who is widely expected to run for office someday in his native North Carolina, has made no secret of the fact that he has “strong concerns” about the amount of sex, violence and profanity on television, as he put it in an interview this year with Broadcasting & Cable magazine.

Yet as appealing as the idea might seem at first glance, there is a reason that Congress has not taken the bait and passed an à la carte law. À la carte would be a consumer disaster. For those of you who yearn for it, this is a classic case of “be careful what you wish for.”

For backers of à la carte, their big moment came in 2004, when Michael K. Powell, a champion of deregulation, was still F.C.C. chairman. Asked by Congress to look into the feasibility of à la carte pricing Mr. Powell had the F.C.C.’s economists work up a study. To the surprise of many — including, I’m told, Mr. Powell himself — the study concluded that à la carte would have the exact opposite effect from what its backers claimed. Instead of reducing prices, à la carte would cause cable bills to rise for most people. And it would cause many channels to go out of business. Mr. Powell turned the study over the Congress, and that was that.

Except it wasn’t. Soon afterward, Mr. Martin was named chairman of the commission — and one of his first acts was to “redo” the F.C.C. study. Sure enough, the new study attacked the old one, and claimed that à la carte would, indeed, be good for consumers. That, in turn, led to a flurry of condemnations and yet more studies that picked apart Mr. Martin’s study. The F.C.C. chairman was accused of doctoring the numbers to get the result he wanted. The study fiasco so hurt Mr. Martin’s credibility that when an à la carte bill came up in the Senate Commerce Committee last year — a bill Mr. Martin backed — it lost 20-to-2.

But wait: how can it be that à la carte will cause cable prices to rise? If you are subscribing to far fewer channels, doesn’t it therefore follow that your bill will be lower? Strange as this may seem, the answer for most people is no.

True, if you decide to take only one or two channels, à la carte pricing will save you money. But how many people are going to limit themselves to one or two channels? In fact, even if you pick as few as a dozen channels, à la carte will almost surely cost more than your current “exorbitant” cable bill.

The reason is that unmoored from the cable bundle, individual networks would have to charge vastly more money per subscriber. Under the current system, in which cable companies like Comcast pay the networks for carriage — and then pass on the cost to their customers — networks get to charge on the basis of everyone who subscribes to cable television, whether they watch the network or not. The system has the effect of generating more money than a network “deserves” based purely on viewership. Networks also get to charge more for advertising than they would if they were not part of the bundle.

Take, for instance, ESPN, which charges the highest amount of any cable network: $3 per subscriber per month. (I’m borrowing this example from a recent research note by Craig Moffett, the Sanford C. Bernstein cable analyst.) Suppose in an à la carte world, 25 percent of the nation’s cable subscribers take ESPN. If that were the case, the network would have to charge each subscriber not $3, but $12 a month to keep its revenue the same. (And don’t forget: with its $1.1 billion annual bill to the National Football League alone, ESPN is hardly in a position to tolerate declining revenues.)

And that’s one of the most popular channels on cable. What percentage of cable subscribers would take Discovery, or the Food Network, or Oxygen, or Hallmark — or the many, many more obscure networks that you can now find up and down your cable box? Five percent? Ten percent? According to Mr. Moffett’s analysis, if every African- American family in the country subscribed to the Black Entertainment Network, it would still have to raise its fees by 588 percent. He adds, “If just half opted in — still a wildly optimistic scenario — the price would rise by 1,200 percent.”

And that’s just the effect on fees. Networks would have to charge less for advertising because they would lose the casual viewer — a k a the channel flipper. Marketing budgets, on the other hand, would skyrocket, because the channels would have to pay huge sums to persuade people to subscribe. “Identifying everybody who likes the Food Network and getting them to pay for it is hard to do,” says Christopher Yoo, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied cable bundling. One of the nice things about the current system is that once a station gets on extended basic, it can be discovered by viewers — and that wouldn’t happen in an à la carte world.

Indeed, it is quite likely that many of the smaller channels would simply vanish because they wouldn’t have enough subscribers — or couldn’t charge enough to stay in business with the subscribers they did have. It is undoubtedly true, as Mr. Kemp wrote to me, that he never watches most of the cable channels that come into his house. That’s true for most people. But there are also probably one or two small networks he does watch from time to time.

We all have our particular interests and tastes, and under its current business model, cable does a remarkable job of satisfying those interests. Diversity of programming is one of the real benefits that cable has over the old over-the-air broadcasting system. When we pay for the cable bundle we are, in effect, subsidizing those channels for everybody — including ourselves.

The cable industry is far from perfect, of course. Its customer service leaves much to be desired. Its relentless price increases are galling. Because of its monopoly roots, it can still act like a monopolist at times.

But the bundle of networks cable delivers into your home? That’s not one of the problems with the cable industry. That’s one of the blessings.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The history of marriage

A fascinating article by Stephanie Coontz of the International Herald-Tribune ( discussing how the concept of the marriage license - the state-sanctioning of a marriage - is a relatively new concept. Born in the 16th century, it's initial purpose was to prevent marriages between children to whom their parents did not approve. Currently, the purpose is intended to be to determine who dependents are for support purposes. But with the rise of cohabitation, the author argues forcefully that the purpose of the license has outlived itself.

It's a great piece to rebut the "marriage is unchanging" argument from the hard Right about gay marriage. Always that pesky history making things difficult for the Pavlovian-like denizens of the extremes.


Why do people - gay or straight - need the state's permission to marry? For most of Western history, they didn't, because marriage was a private contract between two families. The parents' agreement to the match, not the approval of church or state, was what confirmed its validity.

For 16 centuries, Christianity also defined the validity of a marriage on the basis of a couple's wishes. If two people claimed they had exchanged marital vows - even out alone by the haystack - the Roman Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married.

In 1215, the church decreed that a "licit" marriage must take place in church. But people who married illicitly had the same rights and obligations as a couple married in church: Their children were legitimate; the wife had the same inheritance rights; the couple was subject to the same prohibitions against divorce.

Not until the 16th century did European states begin to require that marriages be performed under legal auspices. In part, this was an attempt to prevent unions between young adults whose parents opposed their match.

By the 1920s, 38 states prohibited whites from marrying blacks, "mulattos," Japanese, Chinese, American Indians, "Mongolians," "Malays" or Filipinos. Twelve states would not issue a marriage license if one partner was a drunk, an addict or a "mental defect." Eighteen states set barriers to remarriage after divorce.

In the mid-20th century, governments began to get out of the business of deciding which couples were "fit" to marry. Courts invalidated laws against interracial marriage, struck down other barriers and even extended marriage rights to prisoners.

But governments began relying on marriage licenses for a new purpose: as a way of distributing resources to dependents. The Social Security Act provided survivors' benefits with proof of marriage.

Employers used marital status to determine whether they would provide health insurance or pension benefits to employees' dependents. Courts and hospitals required a marriage license before granting couples the privilege of inheriting from each other or receiving medical information.

In the 1950s, using the marriage license as a shorthand way to distribute benefits and legal privileges made some sense because almost all adults were married. Cohabitation and single parenthood by choice were very rare.

Today, however, possession of a marriage license tells us little about people's interpersonal responsibilities. Half of all Americans aged 25 to 29 are unmarried, and many of them already have incurred obligations as partners, parents or both. Almost 40 percent of America's children are born to unmarried parents. Meanwhile, many legally married people are in remarriages where their obligations are spread among several households.

Using the existence of a marriage license to determine when the state should protect interpersonal relationships is increasingly impractical. Society has already recognized this when it comes to children, who can no longer be denied inheritance rights, parental support or legal standing because their parents are not married.

As Nancy Polikoff, an American University law professor, argues, the marriage license no longer draws reasonable dividing lines regarding which adult obligations and rights merit state protection. A woman married to a man for just nine months gets Social Security survivor's benefits when he dies. But a woman living for 19 years with a man to whom she isn't married is left without government support, even if her presence helped him hold down a full-time job and pay Social Security taxes. A newly married wife or husband can take leave from work to care for a spouse, or sue for a partner's wrongful death.

But unmarried couples typically cannot, no matter how long they have pooled their resources and how faithfully they have kept their commitments.

Possession of a marriage license is no longer the chief determinant of which obligations a couple must keep, either to their children or to each other. But it still determines which obligations a couple can keep - who gets hospital visitation rights, family leave, health care and survivor's benefits. This may serve the purpose of some moralists. But it doesn't serve the public interest of helping individuals meet their care-giving commitments.

Perhaps it's time to revert to a much older marital tradition. Let churches decide which marriages they deem "licit." But let couples - gay or straight - decide if they want the legal protections and obligations of a committed relationship.

Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history at Evergreen State College, is the author of "Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage."

Monday, November 19, 2007

Buffett defending the estate tax

Boy, you don't see this every day. Warren Buffett, mega-rich investor, appeared before Congress to advocate KEEPING the Federal estate tax, calling the "death tax" moniker and all of the rhetoric surrounding it for the bollox that it is.

Good for him. Here's a guy that would directly benefit from the estate tax going away, but he's standing up and telling Congress to keep it in place, and telling the Republicans to stop lying about it to the American people.

Thanks to Chuck Collins of AlterNet ( for a great post on the topic.


Billionaire Warren Buffett testified before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday in defense of the federal estate tax, the nation's only tax on inherited wealth.

Buffett invoked the historical roots of the estate tax, established in 1916 during the Gilded Age to put a brake on anti-democratic concentrations of wealth and power. "Dynastic wealth, the enemy of meritocracy, is on the rise," Buffett told the panel. "Equality of opportunity has been on the decline. A progressive and meaningful estate tax is needed to curb the movement of a democracy toward plutocracy."

As a result of the 2001 Bush tax cut, the federal estate tax is being phased out and in 2010 will be completely repealed for one year. But the entire tax bill sunsets in 2011, and unless Congress takes action, the estate tax will return. The votes no longer exist for "permanent repeal," so a compromise lies ahead.

Wealthy individuals and tax cutters have always disliked the estate tax, which they labeled the "death tax." In the mid-1990s, a group of superrich families began funding organizing efforts to abolish the tax, culminating with the passage of the 2001 legislation.

For the last decade, conservative tax cutters working to abolish the tax have had the upper hand, beating up Democrats for supporting a tax that they alleged "destroy family farmers and small businesses." They put forward these farmers and small business owners as the public face of their campaign, even though research and investigative reporting have vanquished these charges. Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, representing 250,000 farmers, complained, "Family farmers and ranchers are insulted by those who use farmers as the reason for eliminating estate taxes, when the real beneficiaries are the nation's multimillionaires."

After a decade of false accusations and innuendo, Wednesday's hearing was the first opportunity to set the record straight as to who pays the estate tax, how much revenue it generates and why we should retain it. Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus, D-Mont., a supporter of abolishing the tax, conceded that the "99 times out of a hundred, the tale is worse than the tax."

Republican Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, complained that "the death tax" was "fundamentally wrong." Buffett responded that use of the phase "death tax" was "intellectually dishonest" and "clever, Orwellian and dead wrong."

Buffett pointed out that tax cuts of the last decade have enabled the superrich, including himself, to get richer. "Tax-law changes have benefited this superrich group, including me, in a huge way. During that time the average American went exactly nowhere on the economic scale: He's been on a treadmill while the superrich have been on a spaceship."

Buffett noted that only one in 200 households in the United States pays the tax, and they are exclusively multimillionaires and billionaires. "Leona Helmsley's dog, Trouble, reportedly is inheriting $12 million," Buffett quipped. Without an estate tax, "Trouble could instead receive $22 million."

Abolishing the estate tax will cost over a $1 trillion in lost revenue over the next 15 years. This would shift debt further onto future generations and low- and middle-income taxpayers.

With massive budget deficits and Democrats in control of Congress, the conversation is changing from "Should we abolish the estate tax?" to "How should we responsibly reform it?"

"The estate tax is not going away," acknowledged Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who has led the effort to eliminate the tax. Those who have historically voted for repeal, like Kyl and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., are now putting forward "virtual repeal" proposals intended to gut the law. But these proposals cost almost as much as repeal.

The fight comes down to how high the wealth exemption will rise and how low the rate will be reduced. Currently estates valued under $2 million pay no estate tax and this amount is scheduled to rise to $3.5 million in 2009. That year, the tax rate comes down to 45 percent.

Raising the wealth exemption reduces the number of estates that pay the tax. But this doesn't help the superrich families that have bankrolled the repeal movement. They care about the rate reduction and advocate for dropping the rate down to 35 percent and even 15 percent. But as Bill Gates Sr. wrote in Politico, "This would mean handing out hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to the wealthiest five out of every 1,000 citizens."

Coalitions working to preserve the estate tax are now coalescing around a "revenue neutral" estate tax reform that retains revenue lost from raising wealth exemptions by instituting progressive rate structures on estates over $10 million and $20 million.

Warren Buffett has a few lessons for Congress on tax priorities for the coming years. He supports making the tax system more progressive. To underscore the unfairness of the tax system, he recently offered a $1 million reward to any member of the Forbes 400 who could prove that they pay a higher tax rate than their personal assistants and secretaries. So far, he has had no takers.

"Keep the estate tax and its $24 billion," Buffett proposed. "There are 23 million households in the United States with $20,000 or less of income. … Let's give those 23 million households a $1,000 annual credit. ... The cost of this would be less than getting rid of the tax on less than 12,000 estates."

Monday, November 12, 2007

The enemy is, who?

Excellent, thought-provoking piece by Robert Dreyfuss of (, trying to analyze exactly who the enemy is in Iraq. After making the disturbing point that we're not really sure any more, he goes on to make some remarkably good points about how things have in fact improved in Iraq over the last few months, and that there's no plan in place to take advantage of the improvement that we've seen.

In other words, shock of shocks, sending in boatloads of troops does in fact quell violence. And, shock of shocks, the current President has no plan in place to take advantage of the "breathing space" his surge has bought him. Why have a plan now, when not having a plan has worked so well thus far?

I very much appreciate this piece. It rightly points out the wrong-headedness of elements of the anti-war movement "rooting" for failure and refusing to take into account the facts of the improved security situation. As has been said previously, the point is not to create the secure environment, the point is whether it is possible for the current Iraqi government to do anything with that secure environment once they get it, and whether the United States can do anything to encourage that. The sad answer to both appears to be no.


Who's the Enemy?

In Iraq, It's Getting Harder to Find Any Bad Guys
By Robert Dreyfuss

Who is the enemy? Who, exactly, are we fighting in Iraq? Why are we there? And what's our objective?

Nearly five years into the war, the answers to basic questions like these ought to be obvious. In the Alice in Wonderland-like wilderness of mirrors that is Iraq, though, they're anything but.

We aren't fighting the Sunnis. Not any more, anyway. Virtually the entire Sunni establishment, from the moderate Muslim Brotherhood-linked Iraqi Islamic Party (which has been part of every Iraqi government since 2003) to the Anbar tribal alliance (which has been begging for U.S. support since 2004 and only recently got it) is either actively cooperating with the American military or sullenly tolerating what it hopes will be a receding occupation. Across Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq, the United States is helping to build army and police units as well as neighborhood patrols -- the Pentagon calls them "concerned citizens" -- out of former resistance fighters, with the blessing of tribal leaders in Anbar, Diyala, and Salahuddin provinces, parts of Baghdad, and areas to the south of the capital. We have met the enemy, and -- surprise! -- they are friends or, if not that, at least not active enemies. Attacks on U.S. forces in Sunni-dominated areas, including the once-violent hot-bed city of Ramadi, Anbar's capital, have fallen dramatically.

Among the hard-core Sunni resistance, there is also significant movement toward a political accord -- if the United States were willing to accept it. Twenty-two Iraqi insurgent groups announced the creation of a united front, under the leadership of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former top Baath party official of the Saddam era, and they have opened talks with Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia who was Iraq's first post-Saddam prime minister.

We aren't fighting the Shia. The Shia merchant class and elite, organized into the mostly pro-Iranian Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and the Islamic Dawa party, are part of the Iraqi government that the United States created and supports -- and whose army and police are armed and trained by the United States. The far more popular forces of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army aren't the enemy either. In late August, Sadr declared a ceasefire, ordering his militia to stand down; and, since then, attacks on U.S. forces in Shia-dominated areas of Iraq have fallen off very sharply, too. Though recent, provocative attacks by U.S. troops, in conjunction with Iraqi forces, on Sadr strongholds in Baghdad, Diwaniya, and Karbala have caused Sadr to threaten to cancel the ceasefire order, and though intra-Shia fighting is still occurring in many parts of southern Iraq, there is no Shia enemy that justifies a continued American presence in Iraq, either.

And we certainly aren't fighting the Kurds. For decades, the Kurds have been America's (and Israel's) closest allies in Iraq. Since 2003, the three Kurdish-dominated provinces have been relatively peaceful.

We're not exactly fighting Al Qaeda any more either. Despite President Bush's near-frantic efforts to portray the war in Iraq as a last-ditch, Alamo-like stand against Osama bin Laden's army, U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq are having a hard time finding pockets of Al Qaeda to attack these days, though the group still has the power to conduct deadly attacks now and then. In recent weeks, General David Petraeus, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and other authorities have pretty much declared Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) dead and buried. That happy funeral is the result not of brilliant U.S. counterinsurgency efforts, but of the determination of our newfound Sunni allies to exterminate the group. No lesser authority than General Petraeus himself now admits that Al Qaeda has been expelled from every single one of its strongholds in Baghdad. In Anbar Province, according to Crocker, "People do feel the weight's off. Al Qaeda is simply gone."

And, nearly a year after President Bush proclaimed Iran to be Public Enemy No. 1 in Iraq, blaming Tehran for supporting both Al Qaeda and Shia militias, things are even getting better on that front. Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared that Iran had quietly promised to halt the smuggling of weapons and advanced roadside bombs into Iraq. "I don't know whether to believe them. I'll wait and see," he said, in what was a rather dramatic downgrading of the White House's warnings about Iran.

Confirming Gates' comments, General Ray Odierno, the commanding general of the multinational forces in Iraq, noted a sharp decline in the use of EFP's (explosively formed penetrators), the sort of IED that the United States blames Iran for supplying. In July, Odierno said, there were 99 EFP's used against U.S. forces; in August, 78; in September, 52; and in October, 53. Partly as a result, Crocker announced that he is resuming a dialogue with his Iranian counterpart, Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, soon. At the same time, the United States announced its intention to release a number of Iranians detained in Iraq, a move seen as a good-will gesture toward Tehran.

Surge or Not, Things Are Getting Better

All in all, violence in Iraq has dropped precipitously since late summer. With Al Qaeda declared dead, former Sunni resistance fighters wearing American-supplied uniforms, and the Mahdi Army lying low, killings in Iraq are way down. The security situation in Iraq is far better than it's been at any time since 2005. Many American antiwar critics, who are invested in the notion that no good news can come out of Iraq and who (secretly or openly) revel in the Bush administration's Iraqi failures, are reluctant to admit that things are getting better.

Perhaps they worry that, if the situation in Iraq improves, the prospect of Democratic gains at the polls next November will diminish. Perhaps they've convinced themselves that Iraq's ethnic and sectarian divide is so enormous that partition is the only solution, and that Iraq doesn't deserve to be a country anyway. Perhaps their distaste for President Bush (which I share) is so all-consuming that they fear any improvement in the situation will be credited to the President -- something they can't tolerate.

If so, that's perverse. The fact is: There is a critical window of opportunity opening for the United States to withdraw and for Iraq to hold itself together and rebuild. To the extent that things are getting better, that's good news. The majority of Americans -- from the left to conservative realists -- who want the United States to get out of Iraq quickly ought to seize this news and push for an acceleration of the momentum for withdrawal. Certainly, as the polls all indicate, this is the course Americans generally want their politicians to follow.

There's really no disputing the improvement since August. According to the careful compilers at the website, both U.S. and Iraqi deaths have fallen dramatically. In May, June, and July, more than a hundred Americans were killed each month; for August, September, and October the totals were 84, 65, and 38. For Iraqis, the numbers have been even more dramatic, with Iraqi military and civilian deaths falling from 3,000 per month earlier this year to 848 and 679 in September and October. There are, of course, other counts, and reliable statistics are hard to come by in Iraq, but there's no doubt that the numbers represent something real, that the violence is down in Baghdad and most of the rest of the country.

There is other, anecdotal news to support the notion that security is better these days. Last week, Iraqi officials announced that, since the summer, 46,000 Iraqis have returned to the war-torn capital. Hundreds of shops are reopening; taxi drivers say the streets are far safer; and Christian Berthelsen and Said Rifai the Los Angeles Times report that "the booze business has rebounded" after years of puritanical suppression by Islamists, another sign that Al Qaeda has been driven from the premises. On November 3, the Associated Press reported that an entire day passed in Baghdad without a single bombing or shooting. That same day, according to Agence France Press, the U.S. Air Force, for the first time in memory, declared that it had carried out not a single bombing raid or combat mission anywhere in Iraq, due to an "improved security situation."

In Anbar Province, including its capital, Ramadi, the news is rather remarkable. In January, attacks on U.S. forces in Ramadi came at the rate of 30 per day; today, there is less than one a day. During the recent month-long Ramadan holiday, there were only four attacks on U.S. forces; during Ramadan 2006, there were 442.

None of this means that Iraq has become Sweden. It's still a violent place. There is no real government; the economy is in shambles; basic services --- electricity, water, trash collection -- are nonexistent; and most areas of the country are ruled by militias, gangs, criminal elements, or local warlords. But for the first time since the invasion in March 2003, there is a real opportunity for the two main blocs of Iraqi Arabs, the Sunni and Shia communities, to strike a deal. If such a deal were indeed struck, the Kurds would have little choice but to buy into it. Problem is, the United States cannot broker the deal. Having spent five years boosting sectarianism in Iraq, killing innocent Iraqis, busting down doors in small villages, and trying to turn Iraq into an American colony, the United States simply has no credibility left.

Any deal we broker, any leader we promote, any government we sponsor has just gotten the kiss of death. What unites Iraqi Arabs, from the Sunni resistance to the Mahdi Army, is opposition to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, as well as opposition to Al Qaeda and to Iran's heavy-handed interference in Iraqi affairs.

Next Step: A New Iraqi Accord?

A new, nationalist Iraq is emerging underneath the presence of 160,000 U.S. troops. That nationalism extends from the current and former Sunni resistance fighters to Sadr's Mahdi Army to a range of moderate, secular Sunni and Shia politicians, all of whom -- albeit under exceedingly difficult circumstances -- are talking to each other about a new political framework for a new Iraqi government.

Two urgent steps are needed in order capitalize on the reemergence of Iraqi nationalism. First, the broad-based majorities among Sunni and Shia Arabs must be reconciled under a new Iraqi constitution, with new Iraqi elections creating a new Iraqi government untainted by American oversight. Second, Iraq's neighbors -- all of them, including Iran and Syria -- have to underwrite the new Iraqi nationalism. With its track record, the Bush administration is utterly incapable of accomplishing either of these tasks. It's a job for the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and other parties. And all of this, in turn, depends on the United States announcing a timetable for withdrawing its forces from Iraq.

As noted by countless observers, including official ones, the United States has so far been unable to translate the decline in violence into political gains. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) made exactly that point, accusing the administration of failing to take advantage of the improved security situation. With a great deal of understatement, the GAO said: "U.S. efforts lack strategies with clear purpose, scope, roles, and performance measures." (In other words, the United States doesn't know what it's doing.)

Similarly, the Center for American Progress, a thinktank that has truly distinguished itself from other establishment bodies by unequivocally calling for the total and rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, picks up on this in an astute memorandum called "Strategic Drift in Iraq." It notes (accurately in my reading): "The United States' current Iraq debate has three key dynamics: a lame duck president looking to hand Iraq off to his successor, a conservative movement promoting fear over reason for perceived political gain, and a progressive movement frustrated by a lack of change in Iraq policy and vague positions about what to do."

In fact, the "strategic drift" that the Center for American Progress refers to is beginning to look more and more like a Washington establishment with every intention to stay put in Iraq for decades to come. Even if the more rabid neoconservative calls for escalating the war into Iran and Syria are left aside, it's still clear that many centrist Republicans and moderate Democrats expect a long occupation followed by an even longer period in which the presence of U.S. forces will remain significant. Former Centcom Commander General John Abizaid, a realist-minded, anti-neocon officer, recently predicted that U.S. forces would have to stay in the Middle East "for the next 25 to 50 years," and he was pretty blunt about the importance of oil. "I'm not saying this is a war for oil, but I am saying that oil fuels an awful lot of geopolitical moves that political powers may take there." Notably, it was recently reported that U.S. legal advisers to the Iraqi Ministry of Oil helped Iraq to cancel an enormous Russian oil deal with Iraq to develop its West Qurna oil field, which the New York Times called "one of a dozen or so supergiant oil fields in the world." Not that the war had anything to do with oil, mind you.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), in a glum forecast, put forth two scenarios for Iraqi war costs. The first -- envisioning 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through 2017 -- would cost an additional $570 billion over 10 years. The second -- involving a slow decline to 75,000 U.S. troops by 2013 and then the maintenance of that force through 2017 -- would cost an additional $1,055 billion, bringing the war's cost to a conservatively estimated $1.7 trillion. CBO didn't project beyond 2017, so feel free to take out your calculator.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

NU Review:Kansas 76, Nebraska 39

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Sam Keller came to Nebraska after losing his starting job at Arizona State. He toiled for a year on the scout team, learning Bill Callahan's complicated west coast offense and earning the respect of his teammates. He won the starting job this year and was ready to take the reins and unleash the full power of Nebraska's new offense.

He was supposed to lead NU to glory. He was supposed to compete on a national stage, win big games, and prepare himself to be Callahan's first protege to go into the NFL.

Instead, he was the stoic leader expressing faith in his teammates as everything unraveled. He watched as his friends on defense got torched time and time again. And his college career ended on the sidelines in Austin, Texas, in tears and a shoulder sling as Nebraska's hope for a victory faded away in Jamaal Charles' wake.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Bo Ruud was the last in a line of a great 'Husker family. He was supposed to carry the torch of Blackshirt glory. He was supposed to lead his teammates on defense to a signature win, to a conference title, and to national relevance.

Instead, he lost his starting job, executing a flawed game plan week after week and watching as his beloved Blackshirts being humiliated again and again. He will end the season hurt, beaten, and a member of the worst Nebraska defensive squad in a century.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Bill Callahan came to Lincoln with big shoes to fill and a lot of people expecting him to fail. He had nothing to do with Steve Pederson's ham-handed firing of Frank Solich, but he bore the resentment of the 'Husker faithful who felt Solich was wronged.

He brought with him a finesse-based offense that required a complete change in the mindset of Nebraska football. He also brought a confidence that his scheme would be successful in Lincoln. Unfortunately, the line between confidence and arrogance is a thin one. Time and time again, Callahan showed he would keep hammering at his game plan regardless of the outcome.

Callahan also demonstrated a remarkable inability to develop his own talent. Players under Callahan got worse each year in the system. Playmaking athletes languished on the bench while less talented players saw the field - because they understood his system.

But the limitations of the system proved costly. As proved by the one-dimensional offensive productions of the Callahan era, even an eight pound playbook can result in a predictable offense.

To make his problem worse, Callahan demonstrated a tin ear to the needs of his fan base. Much like his boss, Steve Pederson, Callahan created a culture of arrogance in his system and his coaches. Whether he was unable or unwilling to say the things Nebraska fans wanted him to say, we will never know. Callahan was dealt a tough hand in being the guy to replace the Osborne-Devaney era. But he did himself no favors with his inability to connect with Nebraska fans, particularly this season.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Steve Pederson returned to Lincoln as the native son, the Nebraska boy coming home to bring 'Husker athletics to glory. He brought with him a successful resume from the University of Pittsburgh, including a new football stadium and the creation of a nationally-competitive men's basketball program.

He was supposed to have 'Husker lore in his blood. He was supposed to understand "the Nebraska way." He was supposed to be the one, like Nixon going to China, that would be able to bring a conservative fan base into the new millenium.

Instead, he created a culture of arrogance. He knew he was doing the right thing for NU. He believed that any honest discussion about his performance was dissention, and distraction, and harmful. And he believed that if he just told people to trust him and that everything was going great, that the dissent would fall away.

It didn't. And the more people saw through his Cheshire Cat smile and sunshine-pumping speeches, the more he dug in and refused to level with Nebraska fans. A downward spiral commenced, culimnating in a poisonous work environment, an alienation of the big-money "boosters of substance," and ultimately his dismissal.

And the Nebraska boy, the prodigal son returned, left the University of Nebraska in disgrace, chased by television cameras and fans cheering his dismissal.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

In 1997, when Tom Osborne retired, Nebraska was the premier college football program in the country. Only ten years ago, Nebraska stood on the mountaintop, with a stadium renovation completed, national glory, and a future of dominance lying before them.

One short decade later, Nebraska is mired in its' worst season since 1963. Fifteen minutes after the Colorado game, Nebraska will be looking for its' third head coach in five years. Nebraska will miss its' second bowl game in three years, and have its' second losing season in five years. Nebraska fans will watch as Kansas and Missouri - Nebraska's perennial whipping boys - play for a division title and a chance at a national championship.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Olbermann's special comment on torture

Once again, Keith Olbermann hits it over the fence about the new waterboarding revelations, and the absolute spinelessness of the Democratic leadership in confronting the current President on the issues.

At this point, I give up. The capitulation of Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein on the nomination of Michael Mukasey as attorney general tells me that the Democrats in Congress will do nothing of substance to combat this renegade executive. The current President will have a free hand to conduct himself as he sees fit until January, 2009.

Assuming, of course, he and his cronies do not come up with another "creative" Constitutional interpretation to nullify the 2008 election and remain in power. Hey, it worked for Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, a good pal of our current President's ...


This transcript comes from

It is a fact startling in its cynical simplicity and it requires cynical and simple words to be properly expressed: The presidency of George W. Bush has now devolved into a criminal conspiracy to cover the ass of George W. Bush.

All the petulancy, all the childish threats, all the blank-stare stupidity; all the invocations of World War III, all the sophistic questions about which terrorist attacks we wanted him not to stop, all the phony secrets; all the claims of executive privilege, all the stumbling tap-dancing of his nominees, all the verbal flatulence of his apologists...

All of it is now, after one revelation last week, transparently clear for what it is: the pathetic and desperate manipulation of the government, the refocusing of our entire nation, toward keeping this mock president and this unstable vice president and this departed wildly self-overrating attorney general, and the others, from potential prosecution for having approved or ordered the illegal torture of prisoners being held in the name of this country.

"Waterboarding is torture," Daniel Levin was to write. Daniel Levin was no theorist and no protester. He was no troublemaking politician. He was no table-pounding commentator. Daniel Levin was an astonishingly patriotic American and a brave man.

Brave not just with words or with stances, even in a dark time when that kind of bravery can usually be scared or bought off.

Charged, as you heard in the story from ABC News last Friday, with assessing the relative legality of the various nightmares in the Pandora's box that is the Orwell-worthy euphemism "Enhanced Interrogation," Mr. Levin decided that the simplest, and the most honest, way to evaluate them ... was to have them enacted upon himself.

Daniel Levin took himself to a military base and let himself be waterboarded.

Mr. Bush, ever done anything that personally courageous?

Perhaps when you've gone to Walter Reed and teared up over the maimed servicemen? And then gone back to the White House and determined that there would be more maimed servicemen?

Has it been that kind of personal courage, Mr. Bush, when you've spoken of American victims and the triumph of freedom and the sacrifice of your own popularity for the sake of our safety? And then permitted others to fire or discredit or destroy anybody who disagreed with you, whether they were your own generals, or Max Cleland, or Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame, or Daniel Levin?

Daniel Levin should have a statue in his honor in Washington right now.

Instead, he was forced out as acting assistant attorney general nearly three years ago because he had the guts to do what George Bush couldn't do in a million years: actually put himself at risk for the sake of his country, for the sake of what is right.

And they waterboarded him. And he wrote that even though he knew those doing it meant him no harm, and he knew they would rescue him at the instant of the slightest distress, and he knew he would not die — still, with all that reassurance, he could not stop the terror screaming from inside of him, could not quell the horror, could not convince that which is at the core of each of us, the entity who exists behind all the embellishments we strap to ourselves, like purpose and name and family and love, he could not convince his being that he wasn't drowning.

Waterboarding, he said, is torture. Legally, it is torture! Practically, it is torture! Ethically, it is torture! And he wrote it down.

Wrote it down somewhere, where it could be contrasted with the words of this country's 43rd president: "The United States of America ... does not torture."

Made you into a liar, Mr. Bush.

Made you into, if anybody had the guts to pursue it, a criminal, Mr. Bush.

Waterboarding had already been used on Khalid Sheik Mohammed and a couple of other men none of us really care about except for the one detail you'd forgotten — that there are rules. And even if we just make up these rules, this country observes them anyway, because we're Americans and we're better than that.

We're better than you.

And the man your Justice Department selected to decide whether or not waterboarding was torture had decided, and not in some phony academic fashion, nor while wearing the Walter Mitty poseur attire of flight suit and helmet.

He had put his money, Mr. Bush, where your mouth was.

So, your sleazy sycophantic henchman Mr. Gonzales had him append an asterisk suggesting his black-and-white answer wasn't black-and-white, that there might have been a quasi-legal way of torturing people, maybe with an absolute time limit and a physician entitled to stop it, maybe, if your administration had ever bothered to set any rules or any guidelines.

And then when your people realized that even that was too dangerous, Daniel Levin was branded "too independent" and "someone who could (not) be counted on."

In other words, Mr. Bush, somebody you couldn't count on to lie for you.

So, Levin was fired.

Because if it ever got out what he'd concluded, and the lengths to which he went to validate that conclusion, anybody who had sanctioned waterboarding and who-knows-what-else on anybody, you yourself, you would have been screwed.

And screwed you are.

It can't be coincidence that the story of Daniel Levin should emerge from the black hole of this secret society of a presidency just at the conclusion of the unhappy saga of the newest attorney general nominee.

Another patriot somewhere listened as Judge Mukasey mumbled like he'd never heard of waterboarding and refused to answer in words … that which Daniel Levin answered on a waterboard somewhere in Maryland or Virginia three years ago.

And this someone also heard George Bush say, "The United States of America does not torture," and realized either he was lying or this wasn't the United States of America anymore, and either way, he needed to do something about it.

Not in the way Levin needed to do something about it, but in a brave way nonetheless.

We have U.S. senators who need to do something about it, too.

Chairman Leahy of the Judiciary Committee has seen this for what it is and said "enough."

Sen. Schumer has seen it, reportedly, as some kind of puzzle piece in the New York political patronage system, and he has failed.

What Sen. Feinstein has seen, to justify joining Schumer in rubber-stamping Mukasey, I cannot guess.

It is obvious that both those senators should look to the meaning of the story of Daniel Levin and recant their support for Mukasey's confirmation.

And they should look into their own committee's history and recall that in 1973, their predecessors were able to wring even from Richard Nixon a guarantee of a special prosecutor (ultimately a special prosecutor of Richard Nixon!), in exchange for their approval of his new attorney general, Elliott Richardson.

If they could get that out of Nixon, before you confirm the president's latest human echo on Tuesday, you had better be able to get a "yes" or a "no" out of Michael Mukasey.

Ideally you should lock this government down financially until a special prosecutor is appointed, or 50 of them, but I'm not holding my breath. The "yes" or the "no" on waterboarding will have to suffice.

Because, remember, if you can't get it, or you won't with the time between tonight and the next presidential election likely to be the longest year of our lives, you are leaving this country, and all of us, to the waterboards, symbolic and otherwise, of George W. Bush.

Ultimately, Mr. Bush, the real question isn't who approved the waterboarding of this fiend Khalid Sheik Mohammed and two others.

It is: Why were they waterboarded?

Study after study for generation after generation has confirmed that torture gets people to talk, torture gets people to plead, torture gets people to break, but torture does not get them to tell the truth.

Of course, Mr. Bush, this isn't a problem if you don't care if the terrorist plots they tell you about are the truth or just something to stop the tormentors from drowning them.

If, say, a president simply needed a constant supply of terrorist threats to keep a country scared.

If, say, he needed phony plots to play hero during, and to boast about interrupting, and to use to distract people from the threat he didn't interrupt.

If, say, he realized that even terrorized people still need good ghost stories before they will let a president pillage the Constitution,

Well, Mr. Bush, who better to dream them up for you than an actual terrorist?

He'll tell you everything he ever fantasized doing in his most horrific of daydreams, his equivalent of the day you "flew" onto the deck of the Lincoln to explain you'd won in Iraq.

Now if that's what this is all about, you tortured not because you're so stupid you think torture produces confession but you tortured because you're smart enough to know it produces really authentic-sounding fiction — well, then, you're going to need all the lawyers you can find … because that crime wouldn't just mean impeachment, would it?

That crime would mean George W. Bush is going to prison.

Thus the master tumblers turn, and the lock yields, and the hidden explanations can all be perceived, in their exact proportions, in their exact progressions.

Daniel Levin's eminently practical, eminently logical, eminently patriotic way of testing the legality of waterboarding has to vanish, and him with it.

Thus Alberto Gonzales has to use that brain that sounds like an old car trying to start on a freezing morning to undo eight centuries of the forward march of law and government.

Thus Dick Cheney has to ridiculously assert that confirming we do or do not use any particular interrogation technique would somehow help the terrorists.

Thus Michael Mukasey, on the eve of the vote that will make him the high priest of the law of this land, cannot and must not answer a question, nor even hint that he has thought about a question, which merely concerns the theoretical definition of waterboarding as torture.

Because, Mr. Bush, in the seven years of your nightmare presidency, this whole string of events has been transformed.

From its beginning as the most neglectful protection ever of the lives and safety of the American people ... into the most efficient and cynical exploitation of tragedy for political gain in this country's history ... and, then, to the giddying prospect that you could do what the military fanatics did in Japan in the 1930s and remake a nation into a fascist state so efficient and so self-sustaining that the fascism would be nearly invisible.

But at last this frightful plan is ending with an unexpected crash, the shocking reality that no matter how thoroughly you might try to extinguish them, Mr. Bush, how thoroughly you tried to brand disagreement as disloyalty, Mr. Bush, there are still people like Daniel Levin who believe in the United States of America as true freedom, where we are better, not because of schemes and wars, but because of dreams and morals.

And ultimately these men, these patriots, will defeat you and they will return this country to its righteous standards, and to its rightful owners, the people.

Monday, November 05, 2007

What torture is for

Fascinating quote from an article by Jane Smiley of (, quoting Jonah Black, lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The quote discusses the similiarities of American techniques of torture ... I'm sorry, of "enhanced interrogation techniques" ... that we learned from places like North Korea, the Soviet Union, and the Khymer Rouge.

In addition to the obvious answer of "we don't want to be like the Khymer Rouge," Black suggests yet another reason why torturing isn't a good idea for getting intelligence. All these techniques we are using - waterboarding, stress positions, water torture, etc. - were not used by the Soviets or the Khymer Rouge to get intelligence. The purpose of these techniques was to extract a confession from their victim. Such confession had propaganda value for a totalitarian state, because it didn't matter if it was true or not.

Even the Soviets knew better than to torture people trying to get useful intelligence. But here we are, with the current President further soaking the American flag in blood in an attempt to protect his own "legacy."


The crux of the issue before Congress can be boiled down to a simple question: Is waterboarding torture? Anybody who considers this practice to be "torture lite" or merely a "tough technique" might want to take a trip to Phnom Penh. The Khymer Rouge were adept at torture, and there was nothing "lite" about their methods. Incidentally, the waterboard in these photo wasn't merely one among many torture devices highlighted at the prison museum. It was one of only two devices singled out for highlighting (the other was another form of water-torture -- a tank that could be filled with water or other liquids; I have photos of that too.) There was an outdoor device as well, one the Khymer Rouge didn't have to construct: chin-up bars. (The prison where the museum is located had been a school before the Khymer Rouge took over).

These bars were used for "stress positions"-- another practice employed under current US guidelines. At the Khymer Rouge prison, there is a tank of water next to the bars. It was used to revive prisoners for more torture when they passed out after being placed in stress positions.

The similarity between practices used by the Khymer Rouge and those currently being debated by Congress isn't a coincidence. As has been amply documented ("The New Yorker" had an excellent piece, and there have been others), many of the "enhanced techniques" came to the CIA and military interrogators via the SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape] schools, where US military personnel are trained to resist torture if they are captured by the enemy. The specific types of abuse they're taught to withstand are those that were used by our Cold War adversaries. Why is this relevant to the current debate? Because the torture techniques of North Korea, North Vietnam, the Soviet Union and its proxies--the states where US military personnel might have faced torture -- were NOT designed to elicit truthful information. These techniques were designed to elicit CONFESSIONS. That's what the Khymer Rouge et al were after with their waterboarding, not truthful information.

Bottom line: Not only do waterboarding and the other types of torture currently being debated put us in company with the most vile regimes of the past half-century; they're also designed specifically to generate a (usually false) confession, not to obtain genuinely actionable intel. This isn't a matter of sacrificing moral values to keep us safe; it's sacrificing moral values for no purpose whatsoever.

These photos are important because most of us have never seen an actual, real-life waterboard. The press typically describes it in the most anodyne ways: a device meant to "simulate drowning" or to "make the prisoner believe he might drown." But the Khymer Rouge were no jokesters, and they didn't tailor their abuse to the dictates of the Geneva Convention. They -- like so many brutal regimes -- made waterboarding one of their primary tools for a simple reason: it is one of the most viciously effective forms of torture ever devised.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Muslim reformation

Excellent article by Ali Eteraz from AlterNet ( discussing how there needs to be the creation of a "Muslim left" to counteract the dominance in the public sphere of political Islam. Making disturbing analogies between folks like the Taliban and folks like Jerry Falwell, Eteraz describes how there needs to be the rise of a Muslim left to counter the dominant position of the "Islamists" out there today.

Any story that reminds us that Islam is a wide and complex faith, not the cartoon villains they are made out to be, is a good thing. It is interesting that Islam is at their point in history about where Christianity was when Martin Luther got to work on his Theses. It is also a sad reminder of opportunities losts. After 9/11, the United States had the chance to reach out to this nascent Islamic left. Instead, we chose to demonize all of Islam, playing right into the hands of the terrorists, and creating groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq and countless others.


I went to a government school in the American south where I had constant interaction with religious supremacists. Such people believe that their moral mandate must be given preference, if not outright dominance. In the south, these people were Christian. Their imperative was to acquire converts who would eventually help make their political programme the law of the land.

Many times I put up with the noise of evangelical youth preaching on the steps with a megaphone. I was condemned to hell in class discussions. English teachers had to tread carefully through 19th century literature so as not to offend. I had to politely reject, and then oppose, Bible study groups.

My brother and I were the only Muslims in the school. We lamented the ceaseless invasion of our personal conscience by "these fundos."

After a couple of years, a number of Muslim students enrolled at the school. They were also upset with the endless Christian proselytising. Since many of them were family friends, they took me aside and urged me to help them set up an Islamic society. Its primary purpose would be to hold Quran study circles, correct anti-Muslim propaganda in textbooks, and - "just like the Christians do" - invite students to learn about their religion. All on school property. Their goal, just like the Christians, was evangelism (the Arabic term is da'wa). They presented two white boys with new Muslim names as proof of their success. As I left, my acquaintances couldn't understand why I wouldn't help them. "It's just da'wa!" they said. "It's a free country!"

There it was, in the microcosmic world of high school, staring at me in the face: the Muslim right. Or, as my brother pejoratively called them: "Falwell Muslims."

Today, it is undeniable that traditionalist clerical Islam - which is quietist, meek, and oriented towards the status quo - has lost its monopoly over Muslims. This is the result of multiple instances of internal dissent over a millenia (as well as colonialism). Led by a mixture of cleric-minded Muslims in the US, UK, and Jordan, traditionalist clerical Islam is trying to make a comeback and become more relevant - like by writing a letter of peace to the Pope. Though such efforts are good, it is a case of too little too late.

Instead, Islam is well on its way towards an individualist revolution; one that no amount of clerical effort can contain.

The most attention-grabbing child of this revolution has been jihadism. However, it is not the most successful. That (dis)honour lies, in my mind, with the Muslim evangelicals - also known as Islamism, the Muslim right, or political Islam. It is a great fallacy to think that jihadists and Islamists are one and the same.

The Muslim right is an ideological movement. Why not? When rationalism is rampant and clerics can't bind Muslims together, ideology is the best thing to obtain mass obedience.

Islamism's ideological aim is secular, ie political power. Yet, despite its secular ends, it makes its political base among a large swath of religious Muslims. With their religious supremacism - which convinces them that everyone else's life would be better off if they adopted the same values as them - these Muslims leave themselves wide open to be preyed upon by savvy propagandists. Thus, hateful tricks like invoking the dangers of homosexuality, attacking sexual liberation, demonising religious minorities and foreign cultures, and censoring anything that smacks of critical thinking, are all used to keep the ideological base stirring.

With that base in hand, Islamism then agitates for unfettered democracy. It purports to speak for the "common man" (even as it preys upon it) and acquires a populist mystique. Islamism doesn't fear elections because it is the best of the grassroots propagandists.

The Muslim right is international. It played off the Cold War and in a Machiavellian stroke made the US its benefactor. It ended up creating a decentralized international network. Jamat-e-Islami in Pakistan consulted with Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; the Brotherhood then, with "tacit support" from their self-professed enemies, created Hamas. Then the Sunni Islamists went and assisted Khomeini, pragmatically putting aside their doctrinal disagreement with the Shia for the sake of shared ideology. Taking inspiration from these successes, copycats rose up in Gulf and African states. For publicity and fund-raising purposes, the Muslim right brought its evangelism to the west. Muslim children coloured by this ideology ended up in school with me, asking me to help them set up an organisation that does exactly what Christian supremacists do.

So the dilemma for 21st century Islam is that there is a group of Muslims who with "activists" instead of "clerics" have reined in Muslim individualism, organized it into a system, injected it with illiberal values, and then invoked non-violence and freedom of speech as a shield to hide behind. If I had not seen Karl Rove do it with American Christianity I could have never realized how the Muslim right does it with Islam.

So what is to be done?

Well, secular tyrannies are inadequate. Monarchies are dictatorial. Outright Islamophobia and directly demonizing Islam gives fuel to Islamism. Military confrontation is out of the question for ethical and pragmatic reasons.

I recommend creating a viable and well organized Muslim left. It would be an intra-religious movement as opposed to a universalist one (though obviously it doesn't shun allies). It would be a cousin of the international left, but in a Muslim garb. Just as the Muslim right found Islamic means to justify the destructive ideas from the enlightenment (Fascism, Marxism, totalitarianism, evangelical religion), the Muslim left should find Islamic means to justify the positive ones (anti-foundationalism, pragmatism, autonomy, tolerance).

This Muslim left should also espouse the following basic ideas, without being limited to them:

separation of mosque and state;

opposition to tyranny (even if the tyrant has liberal values);

affirmation of republicanism or democracy;

an ability to coherently demonstrate that the Muslim right represents merely one interpretation of Islam;

a commitment to free speech and eagerness to defeat the Muslim right in the marketplace of ideas;

opposition to economic protectionism;

opposing any and all calls for a "council of religious experts" that can oversee legislation (even if those experts are liberals); and

affirming international law.

Muslim leftists will - it is a must - have to be able to articulate all of these in Islamic terms, in order to persuade the people who need to be convinced, ie Muslims. This means that a Muslim leftist will, naturally, also have facility in the Muslim traditions. The real-world paucity of individuals with such dual facility is indicative of how far behind Muslim leftism is currently.

Further, in order to advance these ideas, the Muslim left will have to be sophisticated enough to employ certain strategies. These include but are not limited to:

Popularising the slogan "theocentric, not theocratic" to counter claims of religious treason that will be hurled by Islamists;

An alliance with supporters of old-school Muslim orthodoxy who despite their conservative values are not the same as the Muslim right because they do not like to politicise their faith. These Muslims, by virtue of doctrine and history, have always supported separation of mosque and state, and still do;

Having the confidence to call their solutions truer to the ethos of Islam than the ideas of the Islamists, without engaging in apostasy wars;

Opposing any and all punishments, fines and stigma for "apostasy," "heresy," and "blasphemy". This includes opposition to all "sedition" crimes;

Accepting that the enthronement of the left through democratic means might require the intermediate step of the Muslim right succeeding as well, due largely to its head-start;

Supporting arts, literature, agnosticism and atheism without engaging in derogatory or insulting gestures. The battle against Islamism isn't a fight against Allah or Prophet; it is against an ideology;

Supporting Muslims' right to express their piety with beards, hijab, niqab in order to draw the moderates among the pietists away from the Islamists; and most importantly

Opposition to all imperial western behaviour. Also, rejection of any and all alliances and support from the western right.

Muslim leftism is the only thing that will assure that Islam's individualist revolution doesn't take an even darker turn than it already has. Some in the Muslim right like to insist that they are moderate and ready for pluralism. That might be a bit of wishful thinking. Without a potent Muslim left, the right will not have an adequate check, nor any incentive to make accommodations. This is because political systems that rest on religious supremacism rarely make compromises. We know this from America. We know it from the third world as well. After more than two decades the Iranian right has failed to move significantly towards the center. If unchallenged, better should not be expected from the Egyptian, Pakistani, or Gulf nations equivalents.

In a recent post for the Guardian series on Islamic reform, entitled "Muslim Secularism and its Allies," I shared a number individuals worldwide who are on the Muslim left. They come to us from multiple Muslim countries and their works should be noted and monitored by the Western media.

Friday, October 26, 2007

What liberal bias?

Great piece from Rory O'Connor of AlterNet ( interviewing Paul Krugman on how the right wing noise machine has made their brand of lunacy far more accepted than it would be otherwise. Great read.


I had the opportunity to sit down this week with one of America's top economists, Paul Krugman, who of course doubles as an influential op-ed columnist for the New York Times. It's more than a bit surprising when the guy from the New York Times sounds more radical than anyone else in the room, but Krugman and his twice-weekly column have been more consistently surprising and radically different than anything else allowed to appear in the Times (or indeed anywhere else in the so-called "mainstream media") for so long that even Krugman himself no longer seems surprised by the force of his own outrage.

He certainly pulled no punches during our conversation, stating in a forthright manner his opinions on such controversial topics as truth and lies in the newsroom ("The Big Lies are all on the right"), media bias ("A large part of it is in fact right-wing bias, because they are effectively part of the right wing") and corporate pressure ("It's very clear that when the parent companies of the major news sources have issues at stake before the federal government ... this definitely influences the coverage.) Perhaps the fact that he's a tenured professor at Princeton -- and not a professional journalist still on the make -- has freed Krugman to speak truth to naked emperors and Times readers on a biweekly basis.

We spoke at the beginning of a national publicity tour for Krugman's latest book, The Conscience of a Liberal, which ranges over the history of the past century to explain what went wrong in America -- and then attempts to point the way to a "new New Deal." Part of what went wrong with America, of course, was the role played in our democracy by the mass media, as Krugman recognized and parsed in one chapter in his book entitled "Weapons of Mass Distraction."


Rory O' Connor: You speak in your book about "movement conservatism," which you call a "radical new force in American politics that took over the Republican Party." What role if any do the media play in movement conservatism?

Paul Krugman: The media are a very important force in it. They shape perceptions, and they conceal issues. Look at the 2000 presidential campaign, for example, where the media were so heavily biased against Al Gore. That's what brought Bush to within a Supreme Court decision of the White House. So if you look at, certainly these last seven years, the role of the media in not telling you reasons why you should be skeptical about the course of the war, for example, it's enormously important.

We have a situation right now in which there are several major parts of the news media that are for all practical purposes part of "movement conservatism" -- Fox News, the New York Post, the Washington Times -- and in which other news organizations are intimidated, at least to some extent. I sometimes talk about what I call "asymmetrical intimidation." If you say a true but unflattering thing about Bush or in fact about any other prominent conservative, oh, boy! People are going to go after you. I mean, I've got people working full-time going after me, right? But if you say a false, unflattering thing about a Democrat or a progressive, no risk ... And that shapes coverage, no question about it. It's better now, but it's still very asymmetric. The other thing we should mention about the media is their addiction to the trivial. We've got the most substantive election coming up, I think, ever. We've got clear differences on policies between parties. And what are we seeing news stories about? John Edwards' hair and Hillary Clinton's laugh ... this is horrifying! And again -- it's asymmetric. I can think of lots of unflattering things to say about any of the Republican candidates -- Mitt Romney's saying his sons are serving the country by helping him get elected! -- but it doesn't get nearly as much play in the media.

ROC: It sounds like you're saying there's a bias in the media. If you are, what is the bias?

PK: The media's bias, a large part of it is in fact right-wing bias, because they are effectively part of the right wing. Fox News ... there's nothing like Fox News on other television networks that you can look at. There is no liberal equivalent of Fox News, there is no network that, if a conservative got the Nobel Peace Prize, would have responded the way Fox News did to Al Gore's Peace Prize, by first saying nothing at all, then when they figured out the line, talking about how fat he is ... So there's no correspondence there.

Beyond that, there's two things at least; first, the hatred of substance -- they really want to talk about all that trivia -- and there's also the fetish of evenhandedness. If one candidate says something that's completely false, and the other something that's true, the media will say, "Some people believe what that guy said was false, and some people say it was true." Way back in the 2000 campaign, I wrote a piece in which I said that if Bush said the earth was flat, the headline would read: "Opinions Differ on Shape of the Planet." I was thinking specifically about what Bush was saying about taxes and Social Security, which were just out and out lies! But no one would say that, and they still won't. It's better now, a little, but they still won't say it, and that tends -- I imagine in some future environment that might work to the advantage of some dishonest candidates on the left -- but the fact of the matter is the Big Lies are all on the right right now. So it works much more to their advantage.

ROC: Do you think it's possible that economics is driving politics in the media?

PK: The role of economics in driving the media is an interesting one. One question is simply, "Do they respond to what sells?" And to some extent the focus on the trivial is there due to that. And also, by the way, talking heads screaming at each other is a lot cheaper than actually having reporters out in the field doing reporting, so that's one reason why you get that.

I guess the question that you want to ask is, "To what extent is news coverage biased by the corporate interest of the parents?" And that's hard to pin down in any direct way, but one of the interesting things that you notice right now is the remarkable reluctance of some of the networks to follow what the viewer ship numbers seem to be saying. I mean, look at Olbermann's show versus anything else at MSNBC, for example. Why aren't there more programs like that? Why is CNN still trying to be Fox Lite, when you clearly can't outfox Fox and there clearly seems to be a bigger market opportunity on the other side? And you really do start to think that -- there probably aren't, at networks other than Fox, there probably aren't memos saying here is how we are going to slant the news today -- at Fox there are, every day. But there's probably this general sort of pressure to go for the views that won't upset the CEO of the firm that controls the network that has a lot of business interests that are best served by one side or the other ... so yes, this is a problem.

ROC: So deregulation, consolidation and corporate issues like that might affect news coverage?

PK: Oh sure. It's very clear that when the parent companies of the major news sources have issues at stake before the federal government -- and if one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress, and has made it very clear that it keeps lists and remembers who its friend and not-so-friend are -- this definitely influences the coverage. A lot of people I talk to in the media say that they have received pressure in ways that only seem to make sense if you think that at some level management -- not the guys that think about audience shares but the guys who think about broader concerns -- are taking into account the political liabilities. Which is one reason why it is remarkable, although it's still not what I want, that the news coverage has gotten a whole lot better -- funny, no? -- after the polls really turned the other way.

ROC: In your book, you talk about the media's use of "storylines" and what you've called the "Rambofication of history."

PK: Yes, I'm rather proud of the term "Rambofication." In the years immediately following Vietnam, all of this stuff that now seems so much a part of the story -- that we lost the war because we were stabbed in the back, that the "weak" politicians, the Democrats, can't be trusted on national security -- wasn't very much out there. I actually went back and looked at a lot of polling and what people had to say at the time. In 1977, people still remembered what Vietnam had actually been like, and why we needed to get the heck out of there.

It wasn't really until the 1980s that the history began to be re-invented, so if only we'd let Sylvester Stallone flex his muscles, we could have gone back and won the war. The idea of Democrats as "weak" on national security really got invented then -- and you know there were a couple of events that played into that, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, which I really don't think had much to do with Reagan, but helped make the storyline. So when 9/11 came along, the realities of 9/11 were that the Clinton people had been working pretty hard to try to so something about Bin Laden, and the Bushies said as soon as they came in, "We're not interested, we want to think about a war with China." But the storyline that the media fell into was that, "We're the tough guys, the other guys neglected it." And that gave them a good run -- they won two elections, in '02 and '04, which I think otherwise they would have lost -- by playing on this notion of "We're strong, and they're weak." I guess the sort of good news is that they have done such an incredibly terrible job at all of that that we may have at least a while before all that scare tactic stuff comes back.

ROC: Or we may hear in four years how the Democrats "lost Iraq."

PK: I'm worried, obviously. Clearly, if it's a Democrat who withdraws from Iraq, which it appears likely it will be, then it will be more of the, "We were winning, we were on the edge of victory, then they stabbed us in the back ..."

ROC: "They spit on our soldiers ..."

PK: Yeah, that's amazing, the "spitting on our soldiers" thing -- because it never happened, there are no documented cases -- but it became part of the storyline. Will that happen again? Certainly they'll do their damnedest to make it happen ...

I guess I'm more optimistic about the American public, that it will take a lot more than four years, for us to see that again, because it took more than four years after Vietnam, and right now the American public has a pretty good sense of just what a disaster that's all been ... I think people have made up their minds that this is a disaster. Maybe 10 years from now, they'll have forgotten and be willing to, you know, see movies in which some heroic guy goes back and wins the Iraq war but ... not for a while anyway.

ROC: Well, I'm more of a Mencken disciple when it comes to the American public, but I hope you're right.