Monday, June 05, 2006

Tienanmen Square Anniversary: The Day After June 3rd is June 4th

Despite Google's promise to the People's Republic of China that "the day after June 3rd is June 5th", the 17th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square crackdown did in fact come and go this weekend, though with little fanfare in the Middle Kingdom.

Victor Frankl comes to mind--"What is to give light must endure burning."

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Da Vinci Code: Why Now?

Why is The Da Vinci Code so popular? I had the misfortune of first experiencing it as a book on tape, which renders it ridiculous, perhaps because Dan Brown's adjective-laden descriptive prose doesn't hold up to being spoken out loud.

More interesting than the story, I think, is the book itself as a phenomenon. Sloppily written suspense tales based on the Magdelene mystery have been written before; why does this premise strike a chord at this moment in history?

There are a number of strands of cultural change going on right now in the US, that The Da Vinci Code pulls together. The most visible is the worldwide surge in religious involvement--among Evangelical denominations particularly. This trend may not need exposition, but in brief it is seen in the expansion of megachurches and the growing importance of fundamentalist Christian voters as a bloc.

A related phenomenon is the way in which decline of the ascendence of the secular humanist worldview has occurred, namely, disenfranchisement of a generation of young adults with a radically pluralistic morality. I think it was Napoleon who once said that to understand a man, you have to know what was going on in the world when he was 20 years old. The generation shaped by September 11, 2001 will be much more confident passing moral judgements based in absolute principles than the generation forged in the moral disillusionment of Vietnam and Watergate and reacting against McCarthyism and totalitarianism. No system of morality that leaves a hint of room permitting Islamism is tolerable. Rooting absolute principles requires a source of authority--today religion seems preferred over political ideologies.

This is not to say that secular institutions are losing significant power or influence, but that secular sources of knowledge have lost some of the authority that they had. In the 1960s, it was reasonable to think that rational application of human organizations could eliminate poverty and cancer in a generation; today such notions seem hoplessly naive.

The third trend is a crisis of feminism. So-called "Liberal Feminism"--the brand of feminism focused on attaining equal political and economic rights for women--has achieved a large swath of its goals in the 20th century, but as Cathi Hanauer has shown, the project of "liberal feminism" has proven more complex than initially envisioned. Using Kegan's terms, we might say that post-feminist America has developed the holding environment to help women achieve the Institutional Self, but not to support them once they've gotten there. Men and women need to try to make meaning of its unfinished work within their own families and relationships, but they are reluctant to reject its ideals of equal pay for equal work and opposition to sex discrimination, and rightly so. As they re-negotiate roles and identities, they identify with dominant cultural metaphors, simultaneously taking mythical figures as role models and projecting themselves onto them. The figure of Mary Magdalene admits of so many powerful interpretations--forgiven woman sinner, strong woman companion misunderstood as harlot, early church mother--that she is a good choice for such meaning-making.

The Da Vinci Code had the second highest box-office opening ever despite aweful reviews. It may be a coincidence that a movie about the supression of the truth that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife and a chuch leader is wildly popular at a moment that religous discourse is ascending, secular discourse is losing authority, and feminism's project is leaving women wrestling with questions of family, workplace, identity and priorities. But I doubt it.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Speech and Debate: No Immunity from Corruption or the Constitution

Arguments that the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution does not cover bribery often invoke existing caselaw that has found that it applies to activities directly involved in legislating (even speeches and press releases outside the halls of Congress), and since taking a bribe is not inherent in lawmaking that the FBI's raid on Mr. Jefferson's offices is not prohibited. Outside the Beltway makes this argument well.

However, I think this argument addresses the wrong question. It is off the mark to imply that some contend that bribery should not be investigated and prosecuted. The issue at hand is whether the raid itself interfered with an activity inherent in lawmaking, and I would argue that it did: privacy of the legislator's office. Members of Congress need assurance of confidentiality of the many sensitive materials that their work exposes them to--both personal communications in the daily business of politics, and information about national security or delicate foreign relations issues they handle. The Supreme Court has clearly considered Speech and Debate to include written documents, and that must include those held in congressional offices.

Subpoena, rather than search and seizure, should be the preferred method of obtaining evidence to investigate congressional corruption. Forcibly obtaining documents by midnight raid creates and atmosphere of siege, and will encourage congressional offices to take pre-emptive countermeasures that may make corruption investigations more difficult to undertake in the future.

The privledge of Speech and Debate, broadly conceived, stemmed from the English Bill of Rights as a response to Tudor monarchs' intimidation of members of parliament. Let us hope that we don't confuse the legitimacy of investigating corruption with the illegitimacy of violating a Constitutional clause and a principle of government that ensures that the bills passed by Congress are not just a rubber stamp for the will of the Executive.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hybrid Cars: The Indirect Solution to Oil Prices?

The Quaker Economist recently posted an article arguing that the benefit of hybrid cars is not in the short-term fuel economy they provide, but as a technological springboard to developing small enough, efficient enough battery car systems that will permit plug-in cars in the medium-term future.

I had previously argued that alternative fuels per se would not be the answer to the current energy crisis. That is, we must be clear if a given energy system is truly a novel energy source, or just a novel distribution system. For instance, hydrogen is really a novel distribution system, since there is no obviously most efficient means of production, so the administration's prior promises to extensively research hydrogen was not probably the best policy strategy. A fuel like biodiesel however has already a distribution system to plug into, and constitutes a bridge technology from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

The possibility of plug-in battery cars evolving from hybrid cars fits this analysis nicely as well. While battery cars would not themselves solve the demand for energy, by allowing oil-run plants to compete against nuclear, hydro, and other sources, overall energy costs would be expected to decline. As newer, cheaper means of electricity production are developed, plants with the innovations can be simply added to the existing power grid, without significant changes to the vehicles themselves. And this without the massive infrastructure investment required by a hydrogen fuel system.

That being said, I do not believe that the government should significantly subsidize hybrid car consumption. It is absurd for the federal government to support buying a hybrid SUV that gets worse milage than a non-hybrid sedan. Any federal incentives should be based on milage alone, for the government's goal is properly a more short-term effect of reducing national oil consumption. Hybrids have enough traction in the market that auto companies should be allowed to compete for smaller and more efficient designs with minimal government market distortion.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Lessons from China on Dealing with Africa

The US needs to relearn how to win friends and influence nations, and the Chinese experience in Africa holds good lessons, according to a recent American Foreign Policy Council report.

How does China obtain resources, build trade, and win African nations to its side? In January, Beijing released an official China-Africa policy white paper, a document remarkable for the broad range of issues it covers. The white paper offers some clues into Beijing's strategy in Africa. First, China is dramatically boosting its aid and economic support to Africa-aid it can provide with few strings, at the same time as international financial institutions, like the World Bank, increasingly link aid disbursements in the developing world to good governance and anticorruption initiatives.

Chinese aid to the continent has become more sophisticated. While China once focused on large buildings-sports stadiums in Gambia and Sierra Leone, for example-it has increasingly used aid to support infrastructure creation that then also helps Chinese companies, and to directly woo African elites. In 2002, China gave $1.8 billion in development aid to its African allies. (Beijing has since then stopped officially reporting its aid, making a complete and accurate tally impossible.)

China has also used debt relief to assist African nations, effectively turning loans into grants. Since 2000, Beijing has taken significant steps to cancel the debt of 31 African countries. In 2000, China wrote off $1.2 billion in African debt; in 2003 it forgave another $750 million. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has proclaimed that "China's exemplary endeavor to ease African countries' debt problem is indeed a true expression of solidarity and commitment." Debt relief has been an excellent public relations tool for Beijing because it not only garners popular support but also allows for two positive press events: the first to provide the loan, the second to relieve the debt.

In addition to increased aid, China's outreach includes efforts to boost its soft power in Africa. This is evident in a growing focus on promoting Chinese cultural and language studies on the continent. In 2003, 1,793 African students studied in China, representing one-third of total foreign students that year. Indeed, China plans to train some 10,000 Africans per year, including many future African opinion leaders who once might have trained in the West.

Beijing also seeks to establish "Confucius Institutes" in Africa-programs at leading local universities, funded by Beijing and devoted to China studies and Chinese language training. Already, in Asia, Confucius Institutes have proved effective in encouraging graduate students to focus on China studies and, ultimately, to study in China. Meanwhile, Chinese medical schools and physicians train African doctors and provide medicine and equipment free of charge to African countries.

Through these programs and exchanges, China develops trust by investing in long-term relationships with African elites that formerly might have been educated in London or Washington. Beijing is also working to encourage tourism in Africa, partly in an effort to develop cultural ties. The government has approved 16 African countries as outbound destinations for Chinese tourists, including Ethiopia, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. This pushed the number of Africa's Chinese tourists to 110,000 in 2005, a 100 percent increase over 2004, according to Chinese government figures.

In particular, the US cannot afford to lose its status as THE place for the best and brightest in the world to get an education. The brain draw of US universities is the enduring insurance of maintaining innovation, and a widespread deep understanding of American values among the influential classes of other countries.

h/t Simon World

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

GW Bush, First Citzen

I'm afraid the blogging has been sparce with a lot of business to attend to, but this is important stuff I wanted to pass on. A recent copyrighted Boston Globe article detailing GW Bush's practice of writing 'signing statements' when he signs laws, many of which run directly contradictory to the very letter of the law being signed.

March 9, [2006]: Justice Department officials must give reports to Congress by certain dates on how the FBI is using the USA Patriot Act to search homes and secretly seize papers.
Bush's signing statement: The president can order Justice Department officials to withhold any information from Congress if he decides it could impair national security or executive branch operations.

Dec. 30, 2005: US interrogators cannot torture prisoners or otherwise subject them to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
Bush's signing statement: the president, as commander in chief, can waive the torture ban if he decides that harsh interrogation techniques will assist in preventing terrorist attacks.

Dec. 30: When requested, scientific information ''prepared by government researchers and scientists shall be transmitted [to Congress] uncensored and without delay."
Bush's signing statement: The president can tell researchers to withhold any information from Congress if he decides its disclosure could impair foreign relations, national security, or the workings of the executive branch.

Aug. 8: The Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its contractors may not fire or otherwise punish an employee whistle-blower who tells Congress about possible wrongdoing.
Bush's signing statement: The president or his appointees will determine whether employees of the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can give information to Congress.

Dec. 23, 2004: Forbids US troops in Colombia from participating in any combat against rebels, except in cases of self-defense. Caps the number of US troops allowed in Colombia at 800.
Bush's signing statement: Only the president, as commander in chief, can place restrictions on the use of US armed forces, so the executive branch will construe the law ''as advisory in nature."

Dec. 17: The new national intelligence director shall recruit and train women and minorities to be spies, analysts, and translators in order to ensure diversity in the intelligence community.
Bush's signing statement: The executive branch shall construe the law in a manner consistent with a constitutional clause guaranteeing ''equal protection" for all. (In 2003, the Bush administration argued against race-conscious affirmative-action programs in a Supreme Court case. The court rejected Bush's view [this is a clear case where the signing statement directly contravenes prior U.S. Supreme Court decisions].)

Oct. 29: Defense Department personnel are prohibited from interfering with the ability of military lawyers to give independent legal advice to their commanders.
Bush's signing statement: All military attorneys are bound to follow legal conclusions reached by the administration's lawyers in the Justice Department and the Pentagon when giving advice to their commanders.

Aug. 5: The military cannot add to its files any illegally gathered intelligence, including information obtained about Americans in violation of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches.
Bush's signing statement: Only the president, as commander in chief, can tell the military whether or not it can use any specific piece of intelligence.

Nov. 6, 2003: US officials in Iraq cannot prevent an inspector general for the Coalition Provisional Authority from carrying out any investigation. The inspector general must tell Congress if officials refuse to cooperate with his inquiries.
Bush's signing statement: The inspector general ''shall refrain" from investigating anything involving sensitive plans, intelligence, national security, or anything already being investigated by the Pentagon. The inspector cannot tell Congress anything if the president decides that disclosing the information would impair foreign relations, national security, or executive branch operations.

Nov. 5, 2002: Creates an Institute of Education Sciences whose director may conduct and publish research ''without the approval of the secretary [of education] or any other office of the department."
Bush's signing statement: The president has the power to control the actions of all executive branch officials, so ''the director of the Institute of Education Sciences shall [be] subject to the supervision and direction of the secretary of education."

Hat tip to Boston Progressive.

Let your Senator or Representative know if you think this constitutional back door is dangerous and needs to be stopped.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Turning Points in Medicine

Sherwin Nuland lists top 5 books that were turning points in medicine in this weekend's Wall Street Journal:

1. Interpretation of Dreams by Freud
2. The Double Helix by James Watson
3. The Silent World of Doctor and Patient by Jay Katz
4. Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif
5. The Merck Manual of Medical Information: Home Edition

To that list I would add On Doctoring, an anthology of writings about the art of medicine commonly given out to US medical students at the beginning of their training.

H/t Med Pundit

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Ecology of Polarization

Centrists are so often frustrated with the black-and-white thinking of the political Left and Right that I think it's worth reflecting on the useful role each political pole plays in the ecology of our political system.

Perhaps most importantly, the Left and Right wings supply much of the energy into the political system. While solutions may come about from compromise and persuasion, the movement toward resolution of problems is often sustained by pressure from one or the other political pole. It is much like the relationship between the Id and the Ego--the extremes supply the drive, the centrists find the solutions.

That formulation makes sense in terms of the routine operation of the government, but the more dramatic functions of the extremes are seen when societal paradigm shifts happen. Without a Left and a Right, we never would have seen either the civil rights movement of the 60s or the arrest in growth of the welfare state of the 80s-90s. The poles often supply the Big Ideas, or champion them before they have a chance to win general acceptance.

Finally, even if centrists had all the answers to the social and political problems of the day, unfortunately much of their impetus to action comes from a need to counter what they see as harmful initiatives by the political poles, and replace them with their own intitiatives. In this way, the Left and the Right prompt those in the Center to become politically active when they might otherwise not be.

So next time you're discussing abortion or Iraq with a liberal or conservative who just digs in his heels, try not to get too frustrated. He's chosen his role in the political ecology, and it's all just the circle of life.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Peter Pans of Generation Y

Are the young men of Generation Y (today's 20-somethings) more listless than their forebears? Alan Stewart Carl comments on a Leonard Sax Wa Po column:

Within the last 30 years, marriage rates have been sinking and those getting married are doing so later in life. So, whereas young men in their 20s used to get married and then need a good job to support their family, now they don’t get married and thus don’t need a good job. Young men today simply do not have the responsibilities young men used to have.

But why hasn’t the decline in marriage also led to many more woman living at home? I think this has to do with the continuing effects of the feminist movement. Men who are not married are permitted by our culture to be boyish and directionless. But unmarried women are expected to rise above and claim their independence.

This cultural incongruity is readily seen within our modern movies. Actors like Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughan, Owen and Luke Wilson, Steve Carell and others make movie-after-movie that portray grown men as nothing more than overgrown children who find happiness in their boyishness. But actresses like Sarah Jessica Parker, Chalize Theron, Reese Witherspoon and most other popular Hollywood actresses are not playing roles that celebrate girlishness. Instead, they take on roles that demonstrate the virtuousness of independent women who either don’t need a man to be complete or are the rock in a directionless man’s life.

A TV advertisement that stands out in my memory showed an SUV that was seen packaged in a box as a toy, with a fully grown man agape like a child. It makes sense for advertisers to evoke child-like states of mind; child-men are more likely to make impulse purchases than mature men.

Youth has been glorified in various forms since antiquity, but in times of widespread material prosperity it is possible for people to 'live the dream' of prolonged childhood. I expect that extending the Imperial Self (to use Robert Kegan's psychological development theory) for men into their twenties, while women become more free to develop beyond the Institutional Self, will have profound implications on the institution of marriage in years to come. I see it in my own patients already. The difference between the situation now and 25 years ago is that it is common for such child-men to be economically and academically successful in their careers. This contrasts with Vaillant's work that found that achieving successful intimacy (with a spouse or mentor) was necessary to really succeed at work, because it catalyzed one's ability to connect with people, build trust, and work smoothly in organizations. In today's email workplace, it is possible to accomplish much without emotional maturity being noticed in many jobs.

But while you can fake sincerity, you can't fake emotional maturity, and tomarrow's families will need husbands and fathers who can fill the bill.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Mental Health Parity: New Evidence

The current New England Journal reports a study comparing federal employee health benefit plans with and without mental health parity (full coverage for mental health services on par with coverage for other medical services). They found that:

The implementation of parity was associated with a statistically significant increase in use in one plan (+0.78 percent, P<0.05) a significant decrease in use in one plan (–0.96 percent, P<0.05), and no significant difference in use in the other five plans (range, –0.38 percent to +0.23 percent; P>0.05 for each comparison). For beneficiaries who used mental health and substance-abuse services, spending attributable to the implementation of parity decreased significantly for three plans (range, –$201.99 to –$68.97; P<0.05 for each comparison) and did not change significantly for four plans (range, –$42.13 to +$27.11; P>0.05 for each comparison). The implementation of parity was associated with significant reductions in out-of-pocket spending in five of seven plans.

The NEJM editorial opines:

Although parity did not lead to increases in the use of services relative to a comparison group, it did lead to systematic reductions in out-of-pocket spending for mental health services. Parity coverage performed just as insurance coverage should. It shifted costs from out-of-pocket payments to the insurance company (and eventually to very small increases in insurance premiums) without leading to an increase in the use of services. This shift means that, in today's mental health environment, parity coverage unambiguously improves the value of health insurance. It moves risk away from individual patients without changing the incentives that they face.

The evidence is stacking up, and policymakers will not be able to ignore it much longer. Treating psychiatric care as a separate service from general medical care means that the organization that sees the costs--the mental health insurer--does not reap the reduction in general medical costs that occurs when good mental health care is provided, so there is no incentive to provide adequate mental health coverage. Parity ensures that the same insurance company has a stake in both psychiatric and general medical care, and providing a system that handles both types of problems well. Parity makes sense for patient care, and now the data shows it is good, or at least not bad, for the bottom line.

Because integrated mental health care can decrease general medical costs, it should be a key part of a comprehensive national plan to control the growth of health care costs. However, if one company implements parity, it would fear patients with mental health problems flocking to its plan from others, so parity must be implemented simultaneously across the insurance industry. That's where federal action is necessary.

Let your senator or representative know if you think that mental health parity is important.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Fall of Red America

I was an online denizen, reasonably frequent commenter, and occasional diarist at Red State for about 6 months after the 2004 elections (my diary). Ben Domenech (aka Augustine) was a fair-handed editor of the site, and agree or not with his posts, he always did his homework.

Last year, the atmosphere at Red State became decidedly less friendly to good-faith dissent, and along with many other commenters, I left the site--and started my own blog.

Meanwhile, this year Augustine was rewarded for his excellent online writing with a job as the Wa Po conservative blogger. His supporters at Red State stalwartly defended him when he was attacked from all sides. Yesterday, Domenech was conclusively shown to have plagiarized throughout his writing career. Michael Dougherty summarizes the story nicely. He concludes:

No one can fault the reflexive defense mounted by RedState for their co-founder, especially when Domenech's original critics gave no indication of being fair or decent. They succumbed to a pressure unique to the blogosphere -- to publish faster than the speed of thought. They acted on instinct for everyone to see. But as the facts came out, RedState's editors were surprisingly unfazed. Mike Krempasky had the last word, announcing Domenech's leave of absence and prophesying his walk down the road of redemption. The harshest words were not for the colleague that had only a few hours ago refused to own up to his intellectual theft, and used RedState to lash out at his critics and spin the story in his favor, but for that man's critics. "Loathesome (sic), vile, and disgusting -- their contempt for civil behavior surpassed only by the emptiness of their own souls."

Meanwhile, now that the truth is clear, those defenders are as quick to forgive him as Domenech was to lie in his own defense this week. They are as quick to excuse him as they are to condemn Jayson Blair or Jill Carroll.

Here's the question for centrists like myself: are the reflexive defenders left at Red State the conservatives that can be productive in dialogue with liberals and moderates, or are those conservatives somewhere else? If not, where are they?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Habeas Corpus: Today and Yesterday

Here's a taste of the fireworks in the Supreme Court today in the Hamdan case, as told by NY Times:

Mr. Clement's position was that Congress had not in fact suspended habeas corpus, but that it might constitutionally have done so given "the exigencies of 9/11." Addressing Justice Stevens, the solicitor general said, "My view would be that if Congress sort of stumbles upon a suspension of the writ, that the preconditions are satisfied, that would still be constitutionally valid."

Justice Souter interrupted. "Isn't there a pretty good argument that suspension of the writ of habeas corpus is just about the most stupendously significant act that the Congress of the United States can take," he asked, "and therefore we ought to be at least a little slow to accept your argument that it can be done from pure inadvertence?"

When Mr. Clement began to answer, Justice Souter persisted: "You are leaving us with the position of the United States that the Congress may validly suspend it inadvertently. Is that really your position?"

The solicitor general replied, "I think at least if you're talking about the extension of the writ to enemy combatants held outside the territory of the United States —— "

"Now wait a minute!" Justice Souter interrupted, waving a finger. "The writ is the writ. There are not two writs of habeas corpus, for some cases and for other cases. The rights that may be asserted, the rights that may be vindicated, will vary with the circumstances, but jurisdiction over habeas corpus is jurisdiction over habeas corpus."

Hat tip The Moderate Voice

A group of British MPs filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court recently, offering their perspective on the legal status of the Guantanamo prisoners. For a bit of historical perspective, I highly recommend this transcript of NPR's This American Life (the middle segment). The piece nicely paints a picture of the moment when habeas corpus was last suspended in England.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Garbage Problem

A new book by Vermont author Heather Rogers looks at the post 1950s US garbage production and disposal problem. After detailing the industrial and policy choices that brought us to this mess, she concludes that no amount of virtuous consumer behavior will be enough to really fix the problem.

This observation dovetails nicely with my last post--we need to have broad-based systematic solutions to problems with so many contributing causes, rather than focusing on single endpoints like convincing towns to recycle more aluminum. In this case, I think it means strong state and federal regulations and incentives to use and manufacture reusable, not recyclable, packaging.


Monday, March 27, 2006

Fair Trade or Free Trade?

Michael Stickings, a self-described Fair Trade coffee supporter, asks whether the forseeable long-term effects of price supports for coffee farmers might become a worse cure than the problems they solve.

The problem is that these high prices will encourage new entrants into coffee production, which will lead to a glut in supply that pushes global coffee prices down. Those who are already locked into Fairtrade supply contracts will do fine, but those who do not receive the benefit of Fairtrade prices will be made even worse off.

Converting every coffee buyer in the world to the Fairtrade philosophy doesn't necessarily solve the problem either, for you still have the inducement to entry provided by high coffee prices, leading to the same glut of coffee, and to strong incentives for those selling at the lower end of the market to defect out of the Fairtrade movement and reap the benefits of lower coffee prices.

I think his observations speak to the overly reductionistic approach of fair trade proponents.

The stated goal of fair trade is to raise wages for farmers, under the assumption that profiteering businessmen are cashing in on these farmers' work. But those wages are not set in a vaccuum, and the power of multinational corporations is not the only force keeping those wages low. To think that we can affect broad-based economic justice in just one industry of a complex multinational trading system, overriding the forces of labor availability, commodity supply and demand, and political requirements is a recipe for wasted time and effort. The difficulties making fair trade universal throughout the coffee industry only highlight this point; if fair trade can't be made accessible to every farmer, is it an equitable strategy at all?

While fair trade may indeed have the potential to improve raise the income of a reasonable number of farmers, to really lift a significant fraction of people in developing countries up from poverty in a self-sustaining way will require changes at the level of national trade and economic policy. Anything more reductionistic than that is, unfortunately, mostly window dressing.