Monday, May 11, 2015

Jeb Bush and Iraq War justifications

Jeb Bush is running for president, because you know, our economy and politics are purely merit-based. And because his former president brother was in office such a short time ago, he's getting questions about how he compares to his brother, mostly regarding the biggest decision his brother made, invading Iraq. (I'm not sure if that sentence is a mess grammatically or just sounds messy reading it in my head)

On some level, Jeb and most Republicans know that the Iraq War wasn't a glowing success. Maybe Dick Cheney is still 100% convinced that it was the right choice and everything worked out perfectly. But most Republican presidential candidates aren't giving a full-throated defense of the decision. In fact, many are implicitly acknowledging that it was a bad decision when they say stuff like what Jeb said:

“I would have [authorised the invasion], and so would have Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody,” Bush told Fox News television in an interview to be aired late on Monday. “And so would almost everybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.

You'll notice that many people are falling back on the "intelligence at the time" justification as to why they would have invade Iraq. Putting aside the problems with what the intelligence at the time actually said, even if the intelligence would have been perfect and told us definitively that Iraq did or didn't have nukes, this is bullshit, as Daniel Larison explains:

Even if administration claims had been right, there was no threat to the U.S. or anyone other country that warranted an invasion. The main problem with the war was not that the U.S. and its allies failed to prepare for the aftermath of regime change (though they did), but that they launched a “preventive” war on shoddy evidence for the explicit purpose of toppling another government by force.

The decision to invade was indefensible, and the war was entirely unjustified. It could not have been salvaged or made better by a more competent occupation, but then there is no reason to think that the previous administration or any American administration would be competent at establishing a new system of government in another country that it barely understands. The fact that Bush can’t begin to grasp that the original, irredeemable error was the invasion itself tells us all that we need to know about his appallingly bad foreign policy judgment. It gives everyone fair warning that he would make the same sort of disastrous blunder if presented with the opportunity. That alone proves him to be unfit for the presidency.

Jeb Bush, nor really any Republican or conservative pundit, hasn't grappled with the real reasons invading Iraq was a mistake. This is apparent in how they talk about Iran's nuclear policy. To them, any country with nuclear weapons is automatically a direct threat to the US. There's always a mushroom cloud around the corner. They haven't learned a single thing from the entire Cold War or the more recent Iraq War. They have no clue as to how countries with nukes or those pursuing nukes have acted. And they are of course blindly dedicated to supporting Israel.

Which is all to say that their entire worldview or philosophical underpinning when it comes to foreign policy is completely skewed by paranoia, much like their domestic philosophy. This isn't to say that anyone who isn't as fanatical as most of the GOP isn't going to be hawkish; see Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many other Democrats. But with Democrats you at least have a chance at them making the right decision. If Republicans win the presidency in 2016, we will be left crossing our fingers and hoping that they just luck into not making horrible foreign policy decisions.

Update: Chris Christie says he wouldn't have invaded Iraq knowing what we all know now. But, of course he didn't really mean that because he says Bush made the right choice at the time. No wonder Christie's campaign can't get going. Aside from being a complete asshole and probably corrupt, he tries to play to whatever moderate conservatives he thinks still exist.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The religious freedom of Satanists

Rolling Stone picks up on one of my favorite topics, what rises to the level of a constitutionally protected religious belief:

The Satanists announced this week that they're demanding exemptions to anti-abortion regulations — like Missouri's 72-hour state-mandated waiting period — claiming such measures violate their religious beliefs.

It's an obvious, and brilliant, ploy to test how serious conservatives are about their supposed belief that a person's "religious liberty" rights mean they can opt out of laws they simply don't like. The Satanists are trying to prove that conservatives are hypocrites whose interest in religious exemptions only applies to situations where they can take away someone's birth control, or ruin a same-sex couple's wedding.

This may look like trolling, and on some level it might be. But this gets to the heart of every other "religious freedom" issue that has come up recently. What is a belief that gets protection under the 1st Amendment? And assuming there are different beliefs out there, which gets preference when making policy?

The only way to say the satanist argument in this case is different than conservative's argument is to say either satanism isn't a religion or if they are, their belief about abortion restrictions isn't a "sincere religious belief". I'm sympathetic to the latter argument. But if the courts are going to say conservative arguments against contraception are legit then you have to say the satanist one is too. Satanism isn't quite the same as other traditional religions. But I don't see why they can't be defined as a religion and thus worthy of 1st Amendment protection.

That leaves us with two legit religious arguments trying to decide policy. This is why the 1st Amendment and the entire notion of a secular gov't were developed. The only fair way to make policy is to do so based on science. Making policy derived from one or the other religion would arguably violate the establishment clause. So while I agree with the satanists here, we can't repeal the abortion restrictions because they are against their beliefs. We should repeal them because they violate women's freedom over their body.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron review

No spoilers

The new Avengers movie is a typical Marvel movie, solidly entertaining but not a ton of depth. I felt a bit weird after it because I love Joss Whedon. I expect to love everything he does. But while Age of Ultron is a good, fun movie, I didn't love it.

There are no glaring problems with it. No "what about these potholes" bullshit. It feels a bit too big at times. But it's paced well and there's never really a dull moment. It's got a lot of the Whedon-style banter. And each character gets their due, which is probably enough to consider the movie a success in and of itself. But I just didn't have that gut emotional reaction to it. Maybe it's just me and my Batman blinders when it comes to superhero movies.

Though speaking of Batman, I think that gets at the problem I have with Marvel movies. Batman has great villains; the Joker, Bane, Ra's al Ghul, etc. Along with Batman's status as a vulnerable non-god, the villains really help pull up his movies because they're interesting in their own right. Marvel doesn't really have that level of villains. Loki is entertaining but there's not a lot of depth to him. He just wants power. Ultron is snarky just like Tony Stark but he's just a robot who wants to destroy everything. Captain America: Winter Soldier found a way around the lack of an interesting individual villain by making a secret, evil organization (Hydra) the big bad. No one else really stands out from the Marvel movie universe.

I guess what I'm saying is that a superhero, and thus a superhero movie, is only as good as its villain. That or you need conflict within the hero or heroes themselves. Internal tension with the group helped make the end of the first Avengers pretty satisfying (same with Guardians of the Galaxy). While it's nice to see them (mostly) bonded as a team in Age of Ultron, it kind of removes some of the tension with the plot. The movie tries to ignite some of that tension with two new characters. But I guess it either wasn't fully effective or it was resolved too quickly for me.

Another issue is that while there's a fairly complete arc to this movie, it's just like every other Marvel movie in that it's really a set up for another movie. The reason this is a problem for me is that I feel like it hampers Whedon and the directors of the other stand alone movies. I can't say too much without getting into spoilers. But when you have to worry about putting these characters into another movie in a few years, that limits what you can do with the story.

In the end this is a good movie that I think most people will enjoy. I'll probably see it again. And I'm pretty consistent in needing time and maybe another viewing to come to a full conclusion about a movie. I don't think I'll learn to love it. But I'm confident that it will be entertaining even with a second viewing and beyond.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

NFL draft: the Dolphins and things that annoy me

Something I found annoying:

ESPN’s Bill Polian, on ESPN2's mock draft show: “The Dolphins need to run the ball. That offense is an off-shoot of Chip Kelly’s and is a running offense. So if Todd Gurley passed their physical, take Todd Gurley and don’t look back. He changes their whole team.”

Polian seemed like at least a halfway competent GM. And I get that he has to be able to talk about 32 teams. But damn, they do pay you to be able to know something about all of those teams. So it would help to know that the Dolphins were 12th in total rushing yards last season while being only 22nd in rushing attempts. That's because they were 2nd in yards per rush attempt. Most of that was due to Lamar Miller gaining 5.1 yards per attempt. (Note: I looked that up in about 5 minutes. What excuse do Polian and other pundits have for not knowing that information?)

Miller had an excellent season as the Dolphins' primary running back. Ryan Tannehill even had a good year running the ball, gaining 5.6 yards per attempt on his own. So what about the Dolphins' production running the ball last year suggested that they couldn't do so effectively? And what makes him think they won't be able to repeat that again without Todd Gurley?

Even if we grant that Todd Gurley is an Adrian Peterson type talent, how does that change the whole team? I'll grant that Peterson probably changes the way defenses play his offense. But is Gurley going to do that in his rookie year? After the year Lamar Miller had, how can we be sure he won't change the way defenses play?

Did you know that only twice in Adrian Peterson's entire career he has averaged more yards per carry than Lamar Miller did last season? Sure, it's possible that with more careers Miller's efficiency would decline. But it's also possible that the Dolphins' offensive line was not very good and he could replicate his efficiency with a better line.

All of this is to say that I hear a lot of people saying that the Dolphins should take a running back with their 1st round pick while completely ignoring what the team did last season with a player who is still playing on his rookie deal and who wasn't drafted in the 1st round. If you're going to buck the trend of not taking running backs high in the draft you're basically expecting them to be Adrian Peterson. But even if you are and they turn out to be him, it's not at all clear to me that those resources shouldn't be spent making sure your QB doesn't get sacked 50 times or that your defense doesn't collapse again.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Batman v. Superman teaser trailer

There's a lot of speculation out there about the movie based on the teaser trailer. That's fair up to a certain extent. But I want to point out that there seems to be a lot of preconceived notions about what the movie and characters should be. Snyder invites that to some extent by saying he's drawing from The Dark Knight Returns. But drawing is not adapting. And I don't think we should expect the same things we've seen from these characters and their stories.

The cinematic universe Batman and Superman share doesn't have decades of friendship to build upon like Miller did in The Dark Knight Returns. So, along with the fact that we don't know how it will play out, it's not completely fair to hold Snyder to that expectation. I also don't think it's fair to hold Snyder to the expectations of what Superman is/should be while also expecting him not to just remake the original Donner Superman movie.

I'm as adamant as anyone that Batman shouldn't kill. But we all overlooked the fact that he killed Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. We overlooked it because Nolan laid the groundwork for the character and set up a scene in which Batman had no other choice. But Snyder sets up a similar scene where Superman has the choice to either kill Zod or let innocent people die and he doesn't get Superman because he chooses to save innocent people.

Sorry, but I find that to be a more compelling look at Superman than a movie where, failing to save the girl he has a crush on he reverses the orbital rotation of the earth, thus reversing time, and then deciding to save the innocent people he couldn't get to before. And while I probably enjoyed The Avengers more than Man of Steel, once again that movie gets a pass for destroying a city while Snyder doesn't.

I guess what I'm saying is that maybe if people check their expectations they might have a different perspective of what this movie and these characters can be. Plus, regardless of the plot, Affleck as Batman looks badass. Dude is huge.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Indiana's religious freedom law

Peter Steinfels asks if there's any liberals left that will protect religious freedom. Sure, to a certain extent. I'm all for allowing some of these things:

They may include refusing to fight in defense of the nation, rejecting certain foodstuffs or medical treatments, discouraging young people from secondary or higher education, honoring celibacy or condemning a variety of sexual practices, sacrificing animals, drinking alcohol, or ingesting hallucinogens for ritual purposes, prescribing certain head coverings or hairstyles despite school or occupational rules, insisting on distinct roles for men and women, withdrawing from friends and family for lives of silence and seclusion, marching in prayer through neighborhoods on holy days, preaching on street corners or otherwise trying to convert others to these persuasions.

I'd be many liberals would be open to allowing them as well. Then he specifically he asks that liberals:

let the question be debated and the legislation framed with as much sensitivity to acknowledging, harmonizing, and balancing the rights on both sides rather than dismissing one set of concerns out of hand.

I'll grant that many liberals have been too quick to condemn Indiana's law and have basically rejected it without giving much of a in depth response. But I think what Peter is asking for has already happened in regard to most if not any discrimination against gay people. The debate is over for liberals. We see no reason to discriminate against gay people.

I'm not sure how much sensitivity we've given to the balance of preventing discrimination and protecting religious freedom. I do take the principle of religious freedom seriously. But you have to have a reasonable argument behind it. And frankly, I don't think any religious reason I've heard for being able to discriminate against gay people makes any sense whatsoever.

If you're talking about the religious freedom to take an hallucinogen, I don't think the argument needs to be very strong. You're probably not hurting others and you might not even be hurting yourself. You certainly aren't discriminating against anyone. So go ahead and practice your religion. But while it may be minor, refusing a gay couple service from your business is a harm. And the reason for it is.....what, exactly?

It seems like the problem is less that liberals aren't sufficiently respectful of religious freedom. It's that the arguments offered up in defense of religious freedom don't merit much respect. And at some point we have to start drawing lines as to what arguments merit respect because we can't allow people cart blanche to do whatever they want in the name of religious freedom.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The sick health care market

Here's a great reminder that the health care market is not very comparable to traditional markets:

The charge for a lipid panel ranged from $10 to $10,169. Hospital prices for a basic metabolic panel (which doctors use to measure the body's metabolism) were $35 at one facility — and $7,303 at another ... Hsia's previous research looked at the cost of an appendectomy in California and found similarly gigantic variation. For an appendectomy with no complications, she found that hospitals in the state would charge anywhere between $1,529 and $186,955.

Different grocery stores tend to charge different prices for my favorite Haagen Dazs ice cream (chocolate chocolate chip). But the price varies from about $4 a pint to $5 a pint, not $4 to $4000. And if there was such a difference, I would be able to easily tell because the price would be indicated on the product before I bought it. And unlike an appendectomy, I could choose not to purchase it and still go about my day not dying, despite what my stomach is telling me.