Thursday, March 29, 2012

Limiting principles for the ACA

I feel a little less ignorant after reading some things about the idea of a limiting principle for the ACA and individual mandate in particular. It didn't make sense to me months back . Here's Matt Yglesias with a specific example as to why I was confused that this would be an issue:

I'm not a lawyer, but I have to say that I found the entire "limiting principle" discussion at the Supreme Court somewhat confusing. After all, if the government can charge you a 20 percent marginal tax rate what's to stop them from going to 39.4 percent or 99.7 percent? Nothing, it seems to me, and yet life goes on.

But Congress could, if it wanted to, completely vitiate economic freedom purely through the tax code. You would impose a statutory rate of 100 percent and then create deductions for the stuff Congress wants you to buy—houses, health insurance, broccoli, whatever. I don't think anyone would reasonably conclude from the fact that Congress could do that stuff that we do not in fact live in a free society in which individuals have a wide scope of choice over what to do with their selves, their time, and their money.

I think there was a stronger argument for a limiting principle for a broad power like a tax than there is against the more specific thing being asked for in the ACA. Anyway, for you ACA supporters perhaps there is some hope. Here are a few possible limiting principles that could be adopted. And here's the one I think mirrors what I've been arguing for:

1. The Moral Hazard/Adverse Selection Principle. Congress can regulate activities that substantially affect commerce. Under the necesary and proper clause, Congress can require people to engage in commerce when necessary to prevent problems of moral hazard or adverse selection created by its regulation of commerce. But if there is no problem of moral hazard or adverse selection, Congress cannot compel commerce. Courts can choose different standards of review to decide how much they want to defer to Congress's conclusion. Even under the strictest standard of review the individual mandate passes muster.

Explanation: The guaranteed issue and community rating rules prevent insurers from discriminating against uninsured people because of preexisting conditions. These rules create a moral hazard: people will wait until they get sick to buy insurance. (this might be better described as an adverse selection problem) Congress can require them to buy insurance early to prevent gaming the system. (Actually, it exacerbates an already existing problem in all health insurance, because insureds know more about their health condition than insurers).

Why not broccoli? There is no moral hazard or adverse selection problem created when people refuse to buy broccoli. It's true that buying and eating broccoli might make you healthier, but people don't wait until they are sick to buy broccoli. That's because broccoli is not going to do them much good at that point. In this sense, broccoli doesn't work like health insurance.

Why not cars? Under this principle, Congress can't make everyone buy a car in order to help the auto industry. There is no moral hazard or adverse selection problem that Congress is responding to that is caused by people strategically waiting to buy cars. Note, by the way, that if fewer people buy cars, the price of cars might go down, not up, as Justice Scalia thought.

Closest analogy: In United States v. Comstock, the Supreme Court held that Congress could create a civil commitment system for mentally ill prisoners following their criminal sentences when no state wanted to take them. Congress had created a situation in which after long prison terms connections to states were attenuated, and no state wanted to risk being stuck with the costs of civil commitment. As a result, Congress could create its own system.

Seems pretty straightforward to me. What this whole debate over what congress can and can't regulate pertaining to interstate commerce is about is just a difference of degree because it's as plain as can be that congress can regulate commerce. For you originalists, it's right there in the text of the constitution. And I don't hear anyone making the argument that health insurance isn't interstate commerce. Once you frame the debate in that way I think you do a lot of the legwork needed to justify the constitutional merits of the bill.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

More ACA arguments

In light of my attempt to convince the SC from my little desk in my little room I figured I would post some arguments from some people who have slightly better credentials than myself. And yes, this is also about patting myself on the back for coming up with similar arguments, which you can see in my previous post. Hey, I've got an ego that needs attending every once in a while. Here's former Reagan solicitor general:

But the business of insurance is commerce. That’s what the Supreme Court decided in 1944 in United States v. South-Eastern Underwriters Ass’n and the law has not departed from that conclusion for a moment since then. One need only think of the massive regulation of insurance that is represented by ERISA to see how deep and unquestioned is that conclusion.

If insurance is commerce, then of course the business of health insurance is commerce. It insures an activity that represents nearly 18% of the United States economy. (In this connection recall Perez v. United States, which held that a very local loan sharking operation was within Congress’s power to regulate commerce.) And if health insurance is commerce, then the health care mandate is a regulation of commerce, explicitly authorized by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.

A point on the economic nature of the policy (forgot to copy the link before I closed it, sorry):

According to tax economists, there’s no economic difference between the individual mandate and the policies leading Republicans support to give large tax credits to Americans who purchase health-care insurance and deny them to those who don’t. But while the mandate might get overturned, everyone agrees that discriminatory tax credits are constitutional. ...

Now, various conservative legal minds have argued that there is a profound difference between these two policies: One is penalizing a particular form of economic inactivity, while the other is encouraging a particular form economic activity. And perhaps that’s so. But it’s not a difference very many Americans would notice when it came time to pay their taxes.

About the limiting principle thing that I couldn't quite understand:

The only problem that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy expressed with the mandate is the lack of limiting principle on Congress’s ability to mandate the purchase of privately-made/issued products. If that’s really the concern of each Justice, and it sure seemed that it was, neither man is lacking in the self-regard and intellect necessary to craft such a limiting principle. And that’s where my money remains. The Government didn’t make their jobs easier, but it’s one thing to fault the Government for failing to articulate a limiting principle and quite another to overturn momentous legislation on that basis. Because to do the latter is to say that the Justices can’t craft such a principle either. Here’s betting both can, and Roberts will.

More from Fried, Reagan's solicitor general:

Activity and inactivity is not in the Constitution. Now, there are millions of cases that talk about the power to regulate activities that affect interstate commerce, from which Randy Barnett drew the conclusion inactivity is not included. It just hadn’t come up!

And if 95 percent of them are in that market every five years, they’re in it. They haven’t put that off. They’ve gone to a health-care clinic. They’ve procured a prescription for a prescription drug. Ninety-five percent of the population! So where’s the inactivity?

The other thing is I think it’s Justice Kennedy who said this fundamentally changes the relationship of the citizen to the government. That’s an appalling piece of phony rhetoric. There is an important change between the government and the system. It was put in place in 1935, with Social Security. And it said everyone has to pay into a retirement fund, and an unemployment fund. It was done when Medicare came in in the ’60s. That’s a fundamental change. But this? This is simply a rounding out in a particular area of a relation between the citizen and the government that’s been around for 70 years. ...

I’ve never understood why regulating by making people go buy something is somehow more intrusive than regulating by making them pay taxes and then giving it to them. I don’t get it.

More via The Dish:

How can anyone make the case that individuals should not be forced to buy insurance without also insisting that hospitals have the right to turn away anyone who can't prove they have the capacity to pay? Scalia asks if the government can force us to buy broccoli. Someone should ask him if it's constitutional for the government to mandate that grocers give it away?

Why not mandate burial insurance, too, as Justice Alito asked? The burial counter-argument is the strongest criticism I've heard. Its strength helps uncover why health care is special:

Burial Insurance vs. Health Insurance
One-time expense v. Open-ended, uncertain expense
Small cost for minimum service v. Potentially enormous costs

Nature of minimum service is simple and commonly replicated v. Nature of basic services are complex and highly individualized

Political branches have not identified unpaid burial expenses as major social problem v. Political branches have been debating solutions to this huge social problem for decades

There really is no market like health care. Its unique status justifies the unprecedented individual mandate prior to point of sale.

Update, more arguments:

But the most important problem with this argument is that it proves too much. If the federal government cannot be permitted any power it might potentially abuse, there would be nothing left. Utterly uncontroversial powers that are explicitly stated in the Constitution give the federal government the authority to pursue policies that would be far more foolish and destructive than even the dreaded broccoli mandate. Congress could, for example, declare war on Canada, or the president could use nuclear weapons to pulverize the entire European Union. The idiocy and gross immorality of such policies doesn't mean that Congress's power to declare war or the president's status of commander-in-chief of the military should be written out of the Constitution.

And the same goes for the power that Congress has to regulate interstate commerce. Ultimately, the best check against unwise legislation is politics. As the Constitutional was being deliberated, James Madison didn't believe that the specific powers of the federal government should be limited in advance -- not because he didn't believe in limited government, but because he felt that the multiple veto points within the federal government provided a more than adequate check on federal power. The fact that upholding the ACA might permit Congress to do something foolish down the road is neither here nor there -- the same is true of any government power. Arguments that the ACA is unconstitutional have to stand or fall on their own merits -- and the merits of the anti-ACA argument are ultimately weak.

The ACA oral arguments

They are underway at the Supreme Court. And apparently the pro-ACA side struggled with some of the questioning from the justices, particularly the limiting principles issue which I've talked about before. As we could have predicted, the broccoli question came up. So I wanted to give it a shot to see if I can make a better argument than the gov't did yesterday.

I think it was Scalia that asked, if the gov't can force you to buy health insurance, what can't it force you to do?. First of all, even conservatives like Scalia will admit that the gov't has the power to regulate interstate commerce. That's plainly in the constitution. I don't hear anyone arguing that the health insurance market doesn't fall under interstate commerce. So it would appear that the gov't has some sort of power to regulate said market. Why can the gov't exert the specific power it's putting forth in this case, that being a mandate that fines you if you don't acquire health insurance?

In short, the gov't has a compelling interest in reducing the cost of health care. Hospitals are forced by law to treat all emergencies (I'm surprised this power hasn't come under attack), even those consisting of people without insurance. In some manner, those costs of treating the uninsured are passed onto people with insurance, thus driving up their health care costs (I'm assuming the hospital passes those costs onto it's paying patients, which has to get paid for by the patient's insurance company, which takes this into account when deciding how much the patient pays for their service).

So a solution to that problem would be for all of those people who don't have health insurance to buy health insurance. But because they either don't think they need it or can't afford it, millions of people don't. And as we can see from the facts, a lot of those people end up affecting health insurance costs. This has been going on for many years. Yet neither individuals on their own nor health insurance companies and hospitals have found a solution. And this is a problem that needs a solution because health care costs are extremely expensive. If those without insurance were capable of paying the costs out of pocket this wouldn't be a problem. But many can't and if they don't just pass on the costs to everyone else, they end up going into massive debt in order to pay it off.

The broccoli point is meant as a way to say that the gov't can force you to be healthy in order to reduce health care costs. But forcing people to eat broccoli is not a reasonable way by which the gov't can address the issue of cost. Eating broccoli is far from a certain way to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle. Even if it was, maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle is not a certain way in which you can avoid having to enter into the health care market. You can be the most healthy person alive but have to go to the hospital because of a car accident or some sort of genetic disease. Or you could just get old and need some end of care procedures, which are typically very expensive.

So to quickly wrap up because it's late and I'm tired, the gov't can't force you to eat broccoli because it's not a reasonable way in which to prevent you from entering the health insurance market. And the act of forcing people to eat broccoli would not address the problem of costs. These boogeyman examples of gov't power conservatives are trotting out aren't narrowly tailored to meet the government's compelling interest. Mandating health insurance is narrowly tailored towards that interest and thus probably should be a constitutional power of congress.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Mitt Romney, not just a liar

It seems as though he is also kind of clueless on the foreign policy front:

BLITZER: You think Russia is a bigger foe right now than say Iran or China or North Korea? Is that what you’re suggesting governor?

ROMNEY: Well I’m saying in terms of a geopolitical opponent, the nation that lines up with the world’s worst actors. Of course the greatest threat the world faces is a nuclear armed Iran and a nuclear North Korea is troubling enough. But when these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the UN looking for ways to stop them … and who is it that always stands up for the world’s worst actors, it is always Russia, typically with China alongside.

So in terms of a geopolitical foe a nation that is on the Security Council that has the heft of the Security Council and is of course a massive nuclear power, Russia is the geopolitical foe and the idea that our president is planning on doing something with them that he’s not willing to tell the American people before the election is something I find very, very alarming.

You could chalk this up to campaign rhetoric, which to at least some extent it is. But as you can see from the Russian president's response, he doesn't appreciate such rhetoric:

“I always get very cautious when I see a country resort to phrasings such as ‘No. 1 enemy.’ It is very reminiscent of Hollywood in a certain period of history,” Medvedev said, through a translator, at the nuclear security summit in Seoul, South Korea. [...]

“My other advice is to check their clocks from time to time,” Medvedev said Tuesday. “It is 2012, not the mid-1970s. No matter what party a candidate represents, he has to take the current state of affairs into account.”

That last sentence is why Romney appears clueless. He is correct that Russia can stand in the way of our interests in certain situations. But this isn't the cold war where they do so blindly and without any regard for our interests. So when you make it known to them that you think they are our biggest foe on the international stage you kind of put a damper on our diplomatic relationship with them, and during a time in which we are talking to them about nuclear stockpiles, something even the great Reagan wanted to reduce.

Political scientists will often caution about putting too much importance on what the president says. But that's less the case when it comes to foreign policy. The president has much more power to enact policy in this area than it does in domestic policy. And the president is the spokesperson for the US to the rest of the world. So when you label countries as part of an axis of evil or our greatest foe, they are probably going to listen closely.

Even if Romney believes what he said, and even if he were objectively correct to believe it, it doesn't make a lot of strategic sense to say it publicly. As much as many Americans want it to be, international relations isn't simply about the US displaying it's dominance and everyone falling in line. That's never been the case. And it's certainly not the case now given our recent track record. In order to get important things done we need to foster and take advantage of good relationships and find common interests. Throwing out bombastic charges against other nations probably won't accomplish that.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Secrecy and democracy

Democracy, in it's various incarnations, requires some level of citizen participation. Whether citizens are learning about an issue so as to show their support or not, or voting for a representative that will decide the issue themselves, a citizen needs some level of knowledge about the issue. It would be difficult to make a decision if we didn't have something like the press or if the gov't did let us know what it was doing. And it would obviously be difficult to hold representatives accountable and discourage corruption if we don't know what the gov't is doing. The Obama administration doesn't seem to care about these important aspects of democracy:

The ACLU is suing the Obama administration under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), seeking to force disclosure of the guidelines used by Obama officials to select which human beings (both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals) will have their lives ended by the CIA’s drone attacks (“In particular,” the group explains, the FOIA request “seeks to find out when, where and against whom drone strikes can be authorized, and how the United States ensures compliance with international laws relating to extrajudicial killing”). The Obama administration has not only refused to provide any of that information, but worse, the CIA is insisting to federal courts that it cannot even confirm or deny the existence of a drone program at all without seriously damaging national security; from the CIA’s brief in response to the ACLU lawsuit

Our gov't might be sending drones around the world to kill people and we can't officially know if they are doing so. We can't even ask a court to begin to question whether or not this is legal, not to mention the right thing to do. And it's not like this isn't an important issue. The core argument of the Obama administration is that it is so vitally important that it must be kept secret. I'm sorry, but that isn't how a democracy works. If something is that vitally important some base level of knowledge of it must be disclosed to citizens so that they can help judge the merits of it. Glenn does a good job of explaining why we need to know:

This is why the U.S. Government’s fixation on secrecy — worse than ever under the Obama administration, as evidenced by its unprecedented war on whistleblowers — is so pernicious. It not only enables government officials to operate in the dark, which inevitably ensures vast (though undiscovered) abuses of power. Worse, it enables the government to aggressively propagandize the citizenry without challenge: Obama officials are free to make all sorts of claims about how great and targeted the drone program is and how it Keeps Us Safe™, while simultaneously suppressing any official evidence or information that would test those claims and/or contradict them (even as some evidence suggests these assurances are false).

As Glenn points out, we do have some knowledge of what the Obama administration is doing. So some of what I was talking about in regards to the effects on democracy is a theoretical argument. But we don't know enough. And the fact that our gov't won't tell us officially speaks to what Glenn talks about. What they give us is more propaganda than anything. We need more in order to hold them accountable.

I know most people are focused on the economy and the ridiculous aspects of the GOP horserace to be the presidential nominee. And to be fair, we don't have a lot of info. But the fact that the Obama administration has largely gotten away with these types of things is shameful. The media gets some blame. But partisanship on the part of Democrats accounts for some. As does lack of partisanship on the part of Republicans. 99% of the time I will criticize Republicans for partisanship. But this is the one time I wish they would disagree with Obama simply because he is Obama. And Democrats have no reason to just trust that Obama will do the right thing. As democratic citizens we should never fall into that trap.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Community: the line between awesome and weird

This post contains spoilers from tonight's new episode.

Usually Abed is firmly on the awesome side of the line. But the show continued with it's theme of growth or growing up in this episode and showed Abed cross to the weird side, and even a dangerous side. We saw Troy and Abed choose to act normal for Shirley's wedding last week. And like many other fans, it got me a bit worried about how their growth could mean less awesome and funny things for the show.

Like only Community can, this episode went meta and addressed those very concerns. Abed has been hiring celebrity look-a-likes to help him reenact scenes. And now he owes 3 grand for those services. If he doesn't pay he will get his legs broke. But if the group dresses up as celebrities for a party his bill will be paid. Annie and Shirley see what this will lead to if the group helps and say they shouldn't do it. But Troy jumps in and says that they should help Abed continue to live in his fantasy land because it brings joy to the group, much like it does us as the audience.

Troy realizes that Annie and Shirley were right and Abed can't live in his fantasy world as much as he does. I think this is Dan Harmon and Co. saying that the show can't have Troy and Abed doing the awesome stuff they do all the time. The show has to move in a different direction. The characters have to grow at least a little because at some point dressing up like Jamie Lee Curtis from True Lies is not awesome. Actually, at no point is that awesome. And if the show can't move the characters towards graduation and fulfilling the reason they all went to Greendale it will continue to get less and less awesome.

I just hope the show remains as cool as Abed was when he acknowledged that he should listen to Troy sometimes about when to not live in fantasy land. But to Britta's dismay, Abed's problems might go deeper than Jeff's (Who did look fantastic in those aviators. The Dean's reaction was hilarious.) And even though Abed said he would listen to Troy, it looks that won't be easy for him.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

More on Republican budgets and taxes

Yesterday I discussed Republican budgets and some of the reasons they are constructed the way they are. Today, Bruce Bartlett traces the history of the main issue regarding Republican budgets, taxes:

Instead of worrying about the deficit, he said, Republicans should just cut taxes and push for faster growth, which would make the debt more bearable.

Mr. Kristol, who was very well connected to Republican leaders, quickly saw the political virtue in Mr. Wanniski’s theory. ...

Republicans didn’t immediately embrace the two-Santa theory, but began to after Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, when he ran mainly in favor of a big tax cut, with far less emphasis on deficit reduction. In office, Reagan pushed for domestic spending cuts but also sharply raised spending for favored programs such as the military.

Although the budget deficit rose to 6 percent of gross domestic product in 1983 from 2.7 percent in 1980, Reagan easily won re-election in 1984. This further convinced Republicans that the deficit was a losing issue and only tax cuts mattered for political success.

The final straw was George H.W. Bush’s support for a tax increase in 1990 to reduce the deficit, which many Republicans say sealed his defeat in 1992 by Bill Clinton.

Since then, fealty to tax cuts and lip service to deficits has become Republican dogma.

Politically you can see why this happened. People are always going to dislike taxes when you constantly frame the issue strictly about the gov't taking your money and never really mentioning the benefits you get from it. But it's gotten to a point now where they are making economic arguments based off their political belief that tax rates are the growth golden bullet and you only achieve growth through continuously lower rates. The person who helped get Republicans to that point says this shouldn't be dogma:

I worked for Mr. Wanniski in the mid-1980s and know that he wasn’t obsessive about never raising taxes. He wanted economic growth and thought tax-rate reductions were the best way to achieve it, at least in the 1970s. But if higher taxes would raise growth, then he would support them. As he explained in an e-mail to Ben Bernanke, at the time the chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, on Aug. 11, 2005 (on which I was copied):

I for one am always ready to listen to arguments for higher taxes, more regulation and restraints on free markets, as I might be persuaded that under certain circumstances they would “invite,” not “stimulate” (a Keynesian idea), long-term growth. I’m not “anti-government,” in other words. (The Grover Norquist idea of opposing all tax increases is dumb, and Grover knows I believe that.)

I'll go further and say that not only is Grover Norquist's idea dumb, but he is dumb for expressing it in the manner he does. How he became so influential is beyond me. It's a shame people like Wanniski and Bartlett don't have more influence than Norquist. If they did I think it would be more likely that we had an economic situation everyone would be happy with; one with reasonable tax rates, a more manageable deficit, and better prospects for growth. Until they get more influence I think we will be forced to hear about the never low enough tax rates of rich people at the expense of everything else.

Chipper Jones' last season and the HOF

I've talked about Chipper's place in baseball history before. Now that Chipper says he will retire after this upcoming season I wanted to bring it up again.

The new show on the MLB Network called Clubhouse Confidential, hosted by Brian Kenny, is fantastic. It focuses on statistical evaluations and predictions of players. And aside from yesterday's show where Brian suggested Tim Tebow was a good player, the show has been great. A few episodes ago they addressed the HOF status of Chipper Jones. They came to a similar conclusion that the link in my first link above did, which is that Chipper is among the 3 best 3rd basemen ever and thus should be a lock for the HOF. Today I ran across another link making the same argument. Here is an interesting fact:

For historical perspective, were he to retire today he would become just the seventh player to finish with a .300/.400/.500 career batting line, joining Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Mel Ott, Babe Ruth, Frank Thomas and Ted Williams. Cobb was the only other one who played a crucial defensive position.

That's an incredible list of players. What it shows is that Chipper was a patient hitter who could get on base by either taking walks or hitting the ball hard. So aside from his ability to switch hit, he was difficult to pitch to because he wasn't going to chase a lot of bad pitches and when you did throw him good pitches you had to be very careful.

I suppose you can never really know how innocent a modern player is when it comes to PEDs. So aside from the results from drug tests, which to my knowledge Chipper has passed, we can only really speculate. But Chipper doesn't to have much circumstantial evidence surrounding him. He has never been very muscular. He has aged fairly normally, both from a production standpoint and an injury standpoint. And as far as injuries go, he has had a lot of them since getting old, missing significant time because of them. So if he was/is taking PEDs, they don't seem to be doing a great job at helping him recover, that is unless without them he should have missed even more time that he did.

Being a player whose career overlapped with the steroid era, you can never be sure how the HOF voters will treat him. But it would appear that he would be a very difficult player to keep out. And then there is the whole first ballot thing, which I find a bit ridiculous. But it doesn't matter that much as long as you are voted in within a year or two of eligibility.

It won't matter for his HOF status, but it would be nice if he could be a big contributor to the Braves making the playoffs this season. It would be an appropriate sendoff for an all time great player.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dolphins QB situation, updated

Since I gave my thoughts on the Dolphins QB situation there have been a few developments. Peyton Manning signed with Denver. That made the Broncos trade Tim Tebow to the Jets. And before all of that happened the Dolphins signed David Garrard to a one year deal. It seems we flirted with Matt Flynn and Alex Smith. But after the free agency smoke cleared we are left with Matt Moore and David Garrard.

I'm fine with that. As you know, I'm ok with giving Moore another year to try and improve. Though I did overlook one thing about him and how he relates to our new head coach, Joe Philbin. Philbin comes from a west coast style offense in GB. There were a lot of 3 and 5 step drops which resulted in a lot of short timing routes. Matt Moore was his best last season when he took deep drops and was able to push the ball downfield. He wasn't so good at the shorter routes. This isn't to say that Moore and Philbin can't get along. I think Philbin will work with Moore to try and tailor the offense to what he does well. But I think they flirted with Flynn and Smith because those guys are probably more comfortable with the west coast style offense, which is probably what Philbin is most comfortable with.

I don't know what type of offense they ran in Jacksonville with Garrard. But I don't think it was a west coast style offense. Regardless, Garrard was about average as a starting QB. And if he is healthy I could see him being average if we choose to start him over Moore. But I think Moore should beat him out if they truly make them compete. If Moore were to get injured or play terribly Garrard should be able to step in and stop the bleeding.

So in the end I'm glad we didn't spend a lot of money to bring in an aging QB of questionable health (Manning), a guy (Matt Flynn) who has thrown only 132 passes in the NFL, and a guy (Alex Smith) who has only been about as good as Matt Moore has over his career. Now Moore has a chance to prove himself and we could still draft a QB. I still don't know what we plan to do at WR and whether we can improve what was a bad offensive line last season. But despite how this all looked to the media and a lot of fans, I'm content with how the QB situation played out.

TN legislature flings some poop

My home state's legislature is trotting out some oldies, just in case people weren't sure if the state was still conservative (cough nutty cough) enough:

The text of HB368 / SB893, sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) and Sen. Bo Watson (R-Hixson), requires all administrators and educators to work to teach “scientific subjects” such as “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning” as “scientific controversies“:

The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy . . . The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies.

And for good measure:

Also on Monday, a bill to permit the display of the Ten Commandments in public buildings (HB2658) passed the Tennessee House by a vote of 93-9.

Like I've said elsewhere, if they can display the 10 commandments then atheists, muslisms and all others should be able to display their own moral code. Let's see how many in the TN House would allow that.

And we should teach kids that evolution and global warming are controversial. But we should teach them that they are controversial to morons in the TN legislature, not that they are controversial to the scientific community. Because they aren't controversial to scientists.

The way we would teach them that is through explaining the scientific method, or basically explaining that theories need to be supported by evidence in order to carry merit. Evolution and global warming have such evidence, and a lack of evidence that would disprove the theories. (And it's not that those things aren't falsifiable, which I don't think you can say about the things the TN legislature believes.) On the other hand, the things the TN legislature believes don't have the evidence evolution and global warming do. Thus they don't carry much scientific merit, and thus you should think about whether you should believe such things.

If all of this weren't bad enough, as the link points out, we are having a really warm spring here in TN. Which means that the summer will probably be even more unbearably hot that it usually is. Though at least the heat will kill off all the shit in the air that is messing with my allergies and sinuses. That's good ol Rocky Top for you.

Republican budgets

Ezra Klein explains why Republicans like Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney have to try and balance their budgets by cutting funding to the poor:

The Republican plans we've seen share a few basic premises. First, taxes are too high, and must be cut. Second, defense spending is too low, and should be raised. Third, major changes to entitlement programs should be passed now, but they shouldn't affect the current generation of retirees. That would all be fine, except for the fourth premise, which is that short-term deficits are a serious threat to the country and they need to be swiftly cut.

The first three budget premises means that taxes and defense will contribute more to the deficit, and Medicare and Social Security aren't available for quick savings. That leaves programs for the poor as the only major programs available to bear cuts. But now cuts to those programs have to pay for the deficit reduction, the increased defense spending, and the tax cuts. That means the cuts to those programs have to be really, really, really deep. The authors have no other choice.

Since Ezra is mostly explaining things he doesn't get into why Republicans focus on taxes, the deficit and defense. So I'll give it a shot. First, taxes are relatively low, at least by American standards. As you know, Republicans are fanatical about tax rates and ignore their effect on revenue and thus the deficit. If they lived in reality, they would understand that cutting rates doesn't raise revenue and raising rates just a bit would probably raise revenue and help the deficit.

The deficit is the next problem. Now that a Republican isn't president and they don't control all of congress they act like they care about the deficit. But they don't, or at least not for economic reasons. When they do choose to care about the deficit they do it to score political points and to signal to the public that gov't is too big and liberals are out of control. They don't care that deficit spending can help get out of recession, which is what we did, or that there was already a deficit when we decided to spend to help get out of a recession. So when Republicans talk about the deficit it's a boy who cried wolf situation.

And their dedication to more defense spending is more evidence of that. Defense spending makes up a significant proportion of the budget. That's fine. There are good reasons to have a big and powerful military. But, we outspend several of the next biggest militaries combined. We could significantly cut funding for defense and still be outspending those militaries. So cutting defense spending for the sake of helping reduce the deficit probably won't significantly hurt our military strength compared to the rest of the world. Even if it did, Republicans would need to explain why that is more important than the benefits from funding the poor.

But that's the thing, Republicans don't care about funding the poor. Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney don't. For the most part they either think it's not the government's place to help them or the poor are just a bunch of lazy people who don't deserve anyone's help. The latter is more ridiculous than the former. But I think both are fairly ridiculous. Regardless of the merits of their preference, their lack of concern for the poor is the main reason they don't mind funding their budgets by cutting stuff for the poor. If they cared they wouldn't want to increase defense spending while at the same time claiming there is a deficit crisis.

Usually I'm not big on simply looking back and playing the blame game. But the fact is we wouldn't be in the current situation if it weren't for Republicans and some Democrats during the Bush years. And they shouldn't be let off the hook for it, especially when they are so delusional that they don't think it's their fault and want to pin it on others.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Obama on Iran, via 2004

This would seem to explain his fairly aggressive stance towards Iran. From a 2004 interview:

"In light of the fact that we're now in Iraq, with all the problems in terms of perceptions about America that have been created, us launching some missile strikes into Iran is not the optimal position for us to be in," he said.

"On the other hand, having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse. So I guess my instinct would be to err on not having those weapons in the possession of the ruling clerics of Iran. ... And I hope it doesn't get to that point. But realistically, as I watch how this thing has evolved, I'd be surprised if Iran blinked at this point."

At least he recognizes that there would be problems with an attack on Iran. I'm sure he has an even better understanding of that now that he has the military at his disposal. But he falls into the conventional line of thinking that Iran with nukes would be worse than every other option, even the problems that could arise after a strike by the US or Israel.

Like many others, he doesn't explain why it would be the worst option. Does he think Iran would really use their nukes? The fact that he calls them a radical Muslim theocracy suggests that he is thinking along the same lines as neocons. In fact:

"With the Soviet Union, you did get the sense that they were operating on a model that we could comprehend in terms of, they don't want to be blown up, we don't want to be blown up, so you do game theory and calculate ways to contain," Obama said. "I think there are certain elements within the Islamic world right now that don't make those same calculations.

That is pretty straightforward. He thinks that the Iranian leaders could be suicidal. And again, as with most others who make this argument, he doesn't give a reason why he thinks the mutually assured destruction theory wouldn't apply to Iran. What is it about Iran's leaders that makes Obama think they are suicidal? I'll grant you the crazy and offensive rhetoric, at least on the part of Ahmadenijad. But I am unaware of any statements that can be regarded as suicidal or even any actions that would suggest they are aggressive actors towards other countries. In fact, they have a history of being invaded, not of doing the invading.

These statements from Obama in 04 seem to match up pretty well with who he has been as president. He hasn't bombed Iran so far. But he keeps the option on the table, at least publicly. And he has used air strikes in Libya in order to advance a preference. So I'll take him for his word regarding it being on the table until I see evidence that suggests he really wouldn't do it. And aside air strikes, he has helped impose strict sanctions on Iran. I regard that as an aggressive approach because it hurts the people of Iran economically and hopes their suffering compels the gov't to act in accordance with our interests.

If you've followed me for a while you can probably guess that I don't share many of Obama's views on Iran's nuclear situation. I would prefer they don't obtain nukes. But I don't think they should be bombed if they decide to continue towards obtaining them. And I think that the more aggressive Obama, conservatives, and conservatives in Israel are towards Iran the more they are going to want to develop nukes.

Can Biopolitics explain everything?

Probably not everything. But some think that a lot of political ideology is determined by genetics. Before linking to the article, I want to give you a heads up that it's on Playboy.com. So you might want to hold off clicking it if you're at work. Anyway, here is the NSFW article. The whole thing is fascinating. I wanted to focus on a few parts and give my personal experience as it relates to it:

Getting down to particulars, Alford and Hibbing found that people tended to be either “absolutist” (suspicious of groups that challenged the prevailing social order, seeking unity for their own particular group, desirous of strong leadership, unbendingly moral, willing to tolerate inequality and pessimistic about human nature) or “contextualist” (tolerant toward those challenging groups; less focused on rules; suspicious of hierarchies, certainties and strong leadership; and optimistic about human nature). As Alford and Hibbing put it, “All of these vexing perennial dichotomies are related cultural expressions of a deep-seated genetic divide,” and “the prospects for eliminating this divide are not promising.” In effect, part of the nation’s political polarization then and now was and is a result not of rationally argued philosophical differences but of genetics.

If you read the first page you will recognize that the absolutist group is conservatives. I often talk about how modern conservatives are very tribal and form their identities around religious and cultural norms, which in turn becomes their political identity. Thus when you criticize their political beliefs they take it personally. I think this confirms my assessment. And for most of my life, I fit into this group, though not fully or completely.

But as I got older and went off to college I shifted towards the contextualist group, which are the liberals. And currently I'm more fully in this group than I ever was in the absolutist one. I would like to believe that is because I thought carefully about life and political philosophy in general. I did take a lot of classes on those issues and thought about them at length. But did I come to the liberal conclusions because I rejected my fundamental genetic makeup? Or was my genetic makeup set up to accept those conclusions to begin with? Even with the research being done it's hard to say. Here is something else I found interesting:

Other studies, conducted by James Fowler at the University of California at San Diego with a graduate student named Christopher Dawes, indicated that the likelihood of voting was partly inherited and traced it to an individual gene that helps the brain synthesize molecules needed to reabsorb serotonin, which is released by stress. The idea is that people who can handle stress better are more likely to withstand the stresses of political participation.

I don't view many things as stressful, at least not political things. For instance, I had a job interview today and the interviewer asked if I supported medical marijuana. Without hesitation I said yes and gave reasons. The more stressful aspect of the interview was interacting with strangers. But do I tend to view things like voting as not stressful because my brain is good at handling it? I think so because the things I do find stressful can later be rationalized as not that big of a deal, things I shouldn't have been stressed about. So I think there is a lot of genetics going on when we talk about stress. Though I'd have to hear from people who don't participate in politics to know if there is a link between participation and stress.

MRI studies of the brain have even shown that liberals and conservatives evaluate information using different neural pathways. Looking at brain chemistry, Fowler and Dawes have found that a gene affecting the amount of dopamine in our brains may give a person not only a nudge toward political participation but also a nudge toward liberalism. One scholar, Rose McDermott, is even working on the relationship of testosterone to political conflict.

I don't have anything to add to this. I just think it's really freaking cool. I might have to get an MRI.

The article closes with a few different points of view on the central question of the article, whether we are wired to be conservative. They all make good points. I'm not sure how much further this type of research can go in explaining politics. But I think it's very fascinating and worthy of more attention.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Battlestar Galactica: dissention in the ranks

Spoilers ahead for those of you who are like me and either haven't seen the series or are following along on BBC America. Sorry for those of you who might have been spoiled previously. Though really, you should expect it at this point.

I've spent the whole series talking about how well the show addresses political issues. Tonight's episodes were no different. But the issue they addressed was different than any I can relate to modern or even history American politics, which is a coup. Lt. Gaeda (sorry if I fracked up that spelling, too lazy to look it up) and the vice president overthrow Adama and take over Galactica. Once they've done that an some of the crew tries to resist the VP has the council, the representatives of the 12 tribes, killed. So the rebels aren't fracking around.

Eventually Gaeda backs down and Adama retains command. It was very dramatic tv. I thoroughly enjoyed it. But when it comes to relating this to real world politics, this episode scares me a little. As far as I know, we've never had any attempted coup in the US. What these episodes showed was how difficult it would be the pull off. But what worries me a bit is that if even a small group of people wanted to, they could cause a lot of damage. And on the political side of things, I'm not sure what safety measures are in place in case a situation were to arise.

This also makes me think of the importance of the military. Gaeda succeeds initially because he gets an upper hand on the gun situation. The founders placed the 2nd amendment in the bill of rights because they wanted the people to be able to defend themselves if a foreign army invaded or if the gov't tried to impose itself on them. That was the right decision. And even though I'm not a fan of guns in today's society, I'll respect the 2nd amendment. But at this point, given the size and strength of our military, the fact that we can bear arms is fairly meaningless. There is no way the civilian public could defend itself against a military coup.

I don't really have any profound solutions to put forth regarding those points. I just wanted to call attention to how fragile stability can be. And I can't wait for the rest of the show. There is so much left to address. I hope they can wrap it up in an effective way.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Duke embarrassed yet again

I've been saying it all year long, for years in fact. Duke doesn't have athletic enough players to consistently beat good teams and to go deep into the tournament. When Lehigh is more athletic than your team, you have problems. When Lehigh is getting into the lane any time they want, you have problems. When Lehigh is forcing you out of your offense and preventing you from getting a decent look or set shot, you have major problems. Yeah, Ryan Kelly was hurt. He might have been enough to win. But when you are supposed to be one of the top programs in the nation and your bench can't help your starters overcome the loss of one decent player and get you past a 15 seed, you have major problems.

Frankly, I don't know how the hell we won 27 games this season. Let's run down each player and evaluate them. I'll begin with the starting five. Tyler Thorton is a mediocre player. He is supposed to be a good defensive player. But if he is so damn good defensively how in the hell was the team so bad on defense the whole year? Why couldn't he keep Lehigh's guards out of the lane? The answer is that he just isn't that good of a defender, despite his good effort and toughness. I'm sorry, but effort and toughness can't overcome a lack of skill. Not to mention that he is a bad offensive player that adds absolutely nothing to the offense.

Seth Curry is a decent player. There is a reason he was playing at Liberty his freshman year. He is not a good athlete. His whole game is predicated on being a good outside shooter, which he is. But since he is one dimensional he is very easy to defend. And defensively I think he is about average. What is really telling is that I stick by what I said about Curry and this team earlier in the season, which is that the team goes as he goes. He had 7 points tonight and was thus a huge reason why we lost. Andre Dawkins is basically the same player as Curry, just less consistent, not as smart, and not as good a defender.

Austin Rivers is a decent player. He isn't quite as one dimensional as Curry. He is a decent outside shooter. And he is really good at getting in the lane. But he is such a poor free throw shooter that is makes his ability to get into the lane less valuable. So while he is the type of athlete I think we should be recruiting more, his game is limited.

The Plumlees are decent players. But they aren't as skilled as say, Tyler Zeller. They don't demand the ball in the post and they are fairly one dimensional in the post. They put up decent rebounding numbers. But I think they are mostly getting by with their athletic ability. I don't think they are that good at boxing out or out fighting opponents that are really dedicated to rebounding. I don't think their deficiencies are as bad for the team as the guards' are. But the fact that they don't live up to their potential makes it harder to on the guards.

I won't run through the bench players. Once you realize how average the starters are you can safely assume that the bench players are worse than the starters. Beyond the players, I think the coaches bear a lot of responsibility for how the team played. As coaches, they are supposed to realize the limitations of their players and come up with ways to work around them. We knew early on that this was not a good defensive team. But they never changed to try to make it better. After a while, teams started to defend us different, running us off the 3 point line. The coaches never adjusted to that either, which is why we struggled for the past month to score.

And for the past at least 10 years we have had these problems. The problems are always the same. We could point to 2010 and the national championship. But I think you can credit a lot of that to Brian Zoubeck and the fact that the 7 footer was finally health and playing well. So while you can't say he was a great athlete, he had freakish physical attributes that were unique. That freakish ability is what we don't have in guards and it's what I think we are sorely missing. But the coaches haven't adjusted and continue to not recruit the best athletes. And I'm not buying the "they need to be smart and good basketball players, not just great athletes" argument. UNC is a good academic school and they have fairly smart players at the same time as being a great athletic team. You don't have to have it only one way. Until Coach K realizes this or finds another 7 footer I think Duke will continue to be embarrassed like they were tonight.

Free speech, literally

Rick Santorum on the prospect of letting Puerto Rico becomes a state:

“Like any other state, there has to be compliance with this and any other federal law,” Santorum told the paper, according to Reuters. “And that is that English has to be the principal language. There are other states with more than one language, such as Hawaii, but to be a state of the United States, English has to be the principal language.”

I'll give him credit for the compliance with federal law part. He could have easily gone all 10th amendment on us and waxed frothily about the inherent value of state sovereignty. Though I doubt I'd have to wait more than a week to find a quote from him doing so. Anyway, I'm not sure what he means with the whole English as the principle language thing and it's relation to compliance with federal law.

Does federal law really dictate that states have English be their principle language? I thought Republicans liked to push for some kind of law or amendment that says English is the national language. Why would they do that if federal law already said such a thing, as Santorum suggests? Who the hell knows with these guys. When they aren't outright lying they are pulling stuff out of thin air. What I want to focus on is whether it would be necessary for Puerto Rica to make English their official or principle language, and whether our Constitution would even allow Congress to mandate such a thing.

I'll take the practical route first since it's the easiest. Obviously, in order to be a state just like all the others, Puerto Rico would have to engage in communication with those states and the federal gov't. And since the vast majority of the people they would have to communicate with speak only English, they would either have to be able to speak English or get a lot of interpreters. (Hey, there's an opportunity for a politician to say they created jobs by making Puerto Rico a state. You're welcome, politicians.) We wouldn't need the federal gov't to mandate that Puerto Rico does this. The free market would force them to comply. And being a conservative, this should be the route Santorum wants to go.

Constitutionally, I don't really see how we could pass a national language law or amendment. First of all, it's unnecessary. And second, the 1st amendment ensures that we can speak how we want and say want we want when we choose to speak. If you want to speak English or Spanish you are free to do so. What if a majority of people within a majority of states all of the sudden decided that speaking Spanish or German was more fun than speaking English and changed their primary languages? Would anyone argue that they don't have the right to do that? At that point the rest of the nation would have to adapt to that change and either learn those languages or get a bunch of translators (another job creation opportunity).

But if Santorum and Republicans had their way, this couldn't happen. They would be mandating that people had to speak one specific language as their primary language. And that would be an instance of the gov't abridging our freedom of speech. They could claim that the gov't has a legitimate or compelling interest in keep one language, the one that the vast majority of the population already speaks, the primary language. And economically I think they would have a legitimate interest. But I don't think there would be a compelling gov't interest. The fact is that people could adapt to a change in primary language. Or more likely, the minority of people speaking a different primary language than English will adapt and this won't be an issue.

What this is really about is conservative xenophobia. Santorum knows that conservatives are distrustful of people who speak languages other than English. So he thinks he can score some political points by letting people know he would mandate that everyone has to speak English as their primary language. And conservatives are xenophobic because their identity is completely wrapped up in the way things were, or the way they were raised to do things. Any change or even threat of change is viewed as a personal attack. That's why we get ridiculous things like English as the national language. Nostalgia is more important to them than everyone else's freedom.

Community returns from hiatus

Spoilers for tonight's episode will follow.

Our long national nightmare was officially ended upon tonight's airing of Community. And it once again proved that even an average episode of Community is better than most everything else. This felt like a setup episode for the most part. Shirley's wedding to her ex-husband was the main story. But each character was given solid parts that efficiently highlighted their core traits.

Britta and Jeff struggled with their emotional reactions to the wedding and relationships in general. Britta comes from a sociological perspective which focusses on the role of women in marriage and the fact that despite the history of problems with marriage, there is some value to it and she might one day feel compelled to engage in the activity. Jeff's perspective is mostly personal due to the fact that his father left him and his mother and thus broke the promise that marriage is supposed to be about. I think this aspect of the plot was to reintroduce the characters and set them on the course for hopefully resolving their issues.

Pierce's story was also about his father issues. Though I find his story less interesting than Jeff's. I think that's partly because Pierce isn't as redeemable a character as Jeff and I see less ability for Pierce to resolve his issues given that his father is dead and he is old. Annie didn't get much a story. But I have to mention her because I adore Alison Brie and she was her typical incredible self even without much to work with.

The Troy and Abed storyline was troubling. They tried to be "normal" for the sake of appeasing Shirley at her wedding. That resulted in them being really bland and thus not that funny. But thankfully Annie's Boobs showed up and saved the day. I gave an Annie-like squeal when Annie's Boobs popped out of the vent.

As I mentioned, Shirley was the main focus of the episode. She demonstrated a solid understanding of business, which was surprising to the Dean. I enjoyed that she had learned things in school and seemed ready to own and operate her own business. It was also nice that her husband came around to accepting her various roles as a woman and let her be a wife, mother, and business owner all at once. But there are still hurdles in her way since the board didn't let her have her own sandwich shop.

So aside from Annie, I think we were given the foundation for the rest of the season for each character. The rest of the season will probably revolve around whether or not they rise up to meet the challenges they face and grow as people or if they continue to be the same old people wallowing through community college. For me personally, I hope Troy and Abed find a way to grow without ceasing to be as awesomely weird as they are.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Dolphins' QB situation

I still don't know enough about the Brandon Marshall situation to give any further thoughts. I'll just say again that it makes for a lot of uncertainty about the team and what they have planned for the immediate future. One of those uncertain issues is the QB position. So I wanted to give my thoughts on it since there seem to be a lot of options.

The first option I want to address is the only one that is currently on the team, Matt Moore. I was increasingly impressed with Moore after every game last season. He started out a bit slow. But given a new team with an offensive line that had struggled to protect Henne, that could be expected. He wasn't much better than Henne at avoiding sacks. But one thing he was unquestionably better than him at was throwing the long ball. Moore was top 5 in Air Yard %, which is a stat from AdvancedNFLStats that shows what % of your total passing yards came from the air as opposed to receiver yards after the catch. Basically what the stat shows is that Moore was aggressive in trying to get the ball downfield and was pretty successful in doing so.

While Moore was good downfield, I think Henne was better with the shorter routes. This matters because you can't always force the ball downfield. And if Moore wants to become a complete QB he has to be able to take the short stuff and let the receivers get some YAC. I'm not sure how capable Moore is going to be at this and his overall game going forward. But since Henne has singed with Jacksonville (good signing for them) and we have Moore for another year, I would be comfortable giving him the chance to improve. If he improves and turns out to be a good QB we can sign him long term and have a guy who is still fairly young. If he doesn't improve we can move on to finding another QB.

Who might that other QB be? It increasingly sounds like it won't be Peyton Manning. So I won't waste much space discussing him. If healthy he would have been nice to have. But that's an uncertainty. And even if he was, it was a short term solution because of his age and injury history. So beyond Manning and Moore, we are left with looking to free agency and the draft. The most talked about FA QB is Matt Flynn, the back up from Green Bay.

The Flynn correlation to the Fins is easy to see. The new head coach, Philbin, was Flynn's offensive coordinator in GB. So they are comfortable with each other and Philbin probably has as good idea as any as to what a team can expect from Flynn as a potential starter. My problem with the idea of signing Flynn is the price and the lack of production, which are related. Flynn has thrown only 132 passes in the NFL. Plus he only started one year at LSU. Statistically speaking you can't really say much about a player with that kind of sample size. We can't know if his production is indicative of who he is as a QB or whether it's a big outlier and he is much better or worse than his number indicate.

So from the standpoint of trying to predict what kind of QB he will be moving forward and thus compensating him based on that production, we can't really say. And the prospect of investing a lot of money into that situation scares me. If we can get him for a relatively cheap price I would probably be ok with taking the chance. But given what little I've seen from him, at this point I would be more comfortable given Matt Moore that money.

The other option is to draft a QB. Luck was out a long time ago. And now RG3 is gone. I was on the suck for Luck bandwagon early on. And I'm still of the mind that we made a mistake by not being able to get a better shot at one of those QBs. But all may not be lost. There are still some QBs in the draft that merit attention, Ryan Tannehill probably being the most intriguing.

I don't pay much attention to college football. So I can't break down Tannehill. But I will say that the same thing worries me about him that does Flynn, which is that he has very little experience. He started out as a WR at Texas A&M. That at least shows he is athletic. But having only started, I think, 18 games is not a great indicator going forward. One of the more predictive things for successful QBs in the NFL is having started a lot of games in college. The reason is rather obvious, being that even the great QBs need time to learn the position. So if we were to draft Tannehill he would probably need more time to learn than most rookies.

Given that we have Matt Moore under contract for another year, it might not be a bad idea to let Tannehill sit and learn under Moore. This would allow us to further evaluate Moore while giving us a prospect that we can develop for the future. I would be ok with this situation. But a problem with going this route is that it prevents us from using that first round pick on another position. We now have a need at WR, along with needs on the offensive line, pass rusher, and safety. Though I heard we signed a potentially good safety yesterday. Still, Yeremiah Bell is getting old. So I guess it all boils down to how highly you think of Tannehill and the other QB prospects the draft. If you think they can be good starters I think it makes sense to draft one of them in the first round. If not, I think you can address another need with that pick and stick with Moore for another year. I prefer one of those options over spending a lot of money on Flynn.

Obama presses to keep journalist in jail

Via Glenn Greenwald, here is a link to a video that explains the entire situation. If you don't feel like watching the video here is a summary:

The Obama administration is facing scrutiny for its role in the imprisonment of a Yemeni journalist who exposed how the United States was behind a 2009 bombing in Yemen that killed 14 women and 21 children. In January 2011, a Yemeni state security court gave the journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, a five-year jail sentence on terrorism-related charges following a disputed trial that was condemned by several human rights and press freedom groups. Within a month of Shaye’s sentencing, then-Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced he was going to pardon the journalist. But Saleh changed his mind after a phone call from President Obama. Thirteen months later, Shaye remains behind bars.

These drone strikes are ridiculous. Beyond the question of whether the targets are really terrorists and have committed crimes, which is a very important question, the fact that such strikes are killing so many innocent people is unacceptable and arguably counterproductive. Think about the reaction this situation would get if the roles were reversed. If the British gov't bombed a suspected IRA member living in the US and happened to kill 20 innocent American women and children in the process, the American public would be outraged, and rightfully so.

Yet this situation in Yemen is probably not even known about by most Americans. And I'd wager that most of those who do know about it don't have much of a problem with it because the Obama administration is largely given a pass with whatever they do in the name of the war on terror.

At least they haven't tried to kill this journalist. That's something considering the Obama administration claims it can kill people they suspect of being a terrorist. I guess they don't try to use that power because this guy is already in jail and probably doesn't meet their standard for "imminent threat". Still, keeping a journalist in jail for being suspected of being a terrorist without providing any evidence is an abuse of power. And the fact that Obama himself made the call to persuade the Yemen gov't to keep him in jail puts the criticism and accountability directly on him and demonstrates just how hands on he is in these abuses of power.

I've been extremely critical of the GOP candidates for president. But just because I think they would be worse presidents than Obama (though at this point, on these issues, I'm questioning that assumption) doesn't mean Obama should escape criticism and accountability. We need to hold his feet to the fire on these issues which not only might harm our interests in countries like Yemen, but also results in the crimes of killing innocent people. It's unacceptable no matter who does it and under the vast majority of situations.

Former 10 commandments-loving judge getting his job back

He refused to comply with a federal court order to remove the 10 commandments from his judicial building. People would flip their shit if a judge did the equivalent of this guy's actions but with a different religion or some sort of atheist thing. And as far as the 1st amendment is concerned, they would be correct to dislike it. But this type of thing with the 10 commandments is tolerated obviously because most of this country is comprised of christians. But that is why we have the 1st amendment, to protect minority rights.

So I think it's a shame that this guy will get another seat on the bench. He clearly has a distorted view of the first amendment. Hopefully his biases don't affect other areas of law for the sake of the people he is presiding over.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mitt Romney's soul is the one at stake

Well, if I believed in a soul it would be. But I say that because this is what he claimed about his campaign:

Mitt Romney calls his campaign "a battle for the soul of America."

I know every candidate thinks that and in some way or another says that. But coming from a guy who has a very weak political identity, or soul if you believe in that kind of thing, this seems extra ham-handed. (Speaking of America's fate, I saw this question asked a few days ago around the political blogs. If Obama was the person Romney and the right says he is, why hasn't he implemented the radical, socialist, Muslim, secular, anti-colonial policies that are all part of the liberal conspiracy to destroy the country yet? And when does he plan on doing it?)

What politicians really mean when they say "the soul of America" is control of the gov't. And losing it's soul simply means that Democrats have control and Republicans don't. However, the war never really ends because the battle will rage on even when Republicans have control because there is always an election around the corner. But to take him at his word for a second, what issues does Romney believe are an important part of ensuring the survival of this American soul?:

"The test is pretty simple. Is the program so critical, it's worth borrowing money from china to pay for it? And on that basis of course you get rid of Obamacare, that's the easy one. Planned Parenthood, we're going to get rid of that. The subsidy for Amtrak, I'd eliminate that. The National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities," he said.

So it's the deficit. Ok, that's debatable. But right away you see how unserious he is about the deficit when he can't bring himself to mention the biggest aspects of the deficit; Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the military. The ACA actually cut spending to Medicare and raises taxes on expensive insurance plans to pay for the stuff it does. So it's unclear how that would help the deficit.

Planned Parenthood? I doubt the funding for that makes up half of 1% of the deficit. And worse than that, he says that it isn't a critical program because he knows Republican voters want to hear that. Never mind that he previously supported it, and it provides important health benefits to women. This is what I was talking about earlier with Romeny's soul. He is selling it out to try and gain power.

The rest is all conservative fodder that has very little to do with objectively good policy. What is the difference between funding Amtrak and funding state highways? Yet I doubt Romeny or most Republican voters want to cut funding to state highways. It's all bullshit pandering from him. I guess that's better than what seems like genuine nuttiness from the other candidates, aside from Paul most of the time. But I doubt his level of hypocrisy is good for the soul. So I guess it's a good thing he doesn't have one.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Dolphins trade Brandon Marshall

For two 3rd round picks. I have no idea why they would want to trade him. And I have no idea why they thought two 3rd round picks was good value for a pretty good receiver. I could write a few paragraphs speculating on what they are thinking. But really, I have no idea. And depending on what their plan is, assuming they have one, I'm likely not going to be a fan of this trade.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Duke: the tourney and some fun with the past

I was pretty frustrated with the way Duke played this weekend. Not having Ryan Kelly hurts. That's 11 points and 5 rebounds a game we had to make up for. And Florida State is a really good defensive team. But I don't think that explains the poor offensive performance in the two games of the ACC tourney. Rivers and Curry were ok. But both of them struggled from the outside. And no one else stepped up to make up for it. The Plumlees were also ok. But they were inconsistent on both ends of the court. And to be fair to them, I don't think they got the ball enough to get comfortable.

I think the #2 seed was fair. We beat a lot of good teams and had mostly tough losses. But I'm not very confident in this team going into the tourney. Even with Kelly healthy we were inconsistent if not downright bad defensively. You can get away with that in the first few rounds, assuming you aren't equally as bad offensively. But if Kelly isn't healthy I think we could struggle in the second round. And beyond that we either need to find some solutions on defense or hope our offense finds itself again. If this team wants to get the chance at Kentucky every single player has to step up and play well.

I wanted to end this post with something fun to take my mind off the bad weekend. Plus there were two shows about the 91/92 Duke teams that got me in a nostalgic mood. So I wanted to give you my all time starting five Duke team. Feel free to criticize the fact that it's a very current list. But even with my youthful bias, I think this team would hold up against any.

PG: Jason Williams
SG: JJ Redick
SF: Grant Hill
PF: Shane Battier
C: Christian Laettner

Probably the most obvious one is Laettner. What more needs to be said about him? Battier is basically Laettner but a nicer version. He was a great leader who could defend multiple positions and shot the 3 very well. With him and Laettner as your leaders you aren't going to have an unfocused team that doesn't play hard.

Think about some of the games these two played in. Laettner had to play UNLV in the 91 Final Four after they had lost to them by 30 points in the national championship the year before. And obviously the Kentucky game in 92. Battier was in the Maryland game in 01 when they came back from being down 10 points in one minute. He was also down to Maryland by 20 points in the Final Four that same year and came back to beat them. These two guys would be fearless in any situation you gave them.

Grant Hill is kind of a more athletic Battier. The guy's last year at Duke was in 94 and he is still playing in the NBA right now. He could also guard multiple positions, could score in multiple ways and is a good leader. He rounds out a front court that all shot at or above 50% from the field for their career. So they give you great production on both sides of the floor.

My last two guys aren't exactly great defenders. But they are two of the more talented Duke players I've ever seen. Jason Williams could get to the basket almost any time he wanted. He was so quick with the ball that most defenders couldn't stay in front of him. On top of that he could pull up from anywhere and shoot the ball well, 39% from 3. It didn't matter if he went 0-15 for the entire game. If we need a basket he would have the guts to take the shot.

JJ Redick can't jump very high or run very fast, at least compared to the other guys on this list. But he is a great shooter who has just as much guts as JWill and just as much determination as Battier and Laettner. I can't believe he only shot 40% from 3 for his career because just about every time he shot the ball I expected it to go in. And it's nice to have a 91% free throw shooter on your team. I'm surprised that % isn't higher too.

That's a starting 5 that can score inside and outside. They can spot up and shoot, drive to the basket, and create shots for their teammates. And none of them are afraid to take tough shots late in games. Defensively the back court might struggle. But the front court can more than make up for their deficiency. And all of them encompass the toughness and will to win that makes Duke great. Some day I'll post my next 5 off the bench.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Dennis Kucinich's 'wackiness'

I didn't follow his career very closely. Most of my recollection of him is from the 08 Democratic primary. But from what I've read he was a good liberal. And now he is being mocked by some liberals. I don't have much to add to Glenn Greenwald explaining why he is being mocked. I'll just quote at length:

So let’s recap the state of mental health in establishment Democratic circles: the President who claims (and exercises) the power to target American citizens for execution-by-CIA in total secrecy and with no charges — as well as those who dutifully follow him — are sane, sober and Serious, meriting great respect. By contrast, one of the very few members of Congress who stands up and vehemently objects to this most radical power — “The idea that the United States has the ability to summarily execute a US citizen ought to send chills racing up and down the spines of every person of conscience” — is a total wackjob, meriting patronizing mockery.

Both the Prospect and Post recite the trite case demonstrating Kucinich’s supposed weirdness. He’s friends with Shirley McLaine, who believes in reincarnation, and he once (according to McLaine) claimed to have an encounter with a UFO. Is any of that really any more strange than the litany of beliefs which the world’s major religions require? Is Barack Obama “wacky” because he claims to believe that Jesus turned water into wine, rose from the dead and will soon welcome him to heaven? Is Chuck Schumer bizarre because he seems to believe that there’s some big fatherly figure sitting in the sky who spewed fire and brimstone at those who broke the laws he sent down on some stones and now hovers over him judging his every move? Is Harry Reid a weirdo because he apparently venerates as divine the “visions” of a man who had dozens of wives, including some already married to other men?

Neither the Prospect nor the Post would ever dare mock as “wacky” the belief in invisible judgmental father-figures in the sky or that rendition of life-after-death gospel because those belief systems have been deemed acceptable by establishment circles. ”Wacky”, like its close cousin “crazy,” is a term of establishment derision exclusively reserved for those who deviate from such conventions. And that’s the point worth making here: the real reason anyone with D.C. Seriousness, including many establishment liberals, relished mocking Kucinich is because he dissented from the orthodoxies of the two political parties. That, by definition, makes one wacky and weird, even when — as is true for the Obama assassination powers and so many other bipartisan pieties — the actual wacky and crazy beliefs are those orthodoxies themselves (we’ve seen this repeatedly with those who stray from two-party normalcy). In reality, the actual crazies are those who fit comfortably within that two-party mentality and rarely challenge or deviate from it, while those who are sane, by definition, dissent from it (just today, the Super Serious Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, a prime co-sponsor of the indefinite detention bill passed late last year, called for a naval blockade of Iran

I'll just add that he probably doesn't have many big legislative accomplishments because it's difficult to get big coalitions to support you on the issues he cared about, those issues he is mocked for speaking up about. Remember, Iraq and Afghanistan were supported by large proportions of both parties. The same is true of the Patriot Act and much of the civil liberties issues involving the 'war on terror'. And the same is true of the drug war and many issues regarding corporations and the economy. Kucinich chose to speak against the majorities on these issues instead of compromising his beliefs in order to gain big legislative accomplishments. If that's wacky then I'm just as wacky as him.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Random thoughts of the night

I enjoyed the season of Top Chef: Texas. I don't care much for the manufactured drama and the judging. But it's interesting to see the plates they come up with and how they get through the challenges. And Padma is gorgeous. I'm about to watch the newest episode of Happy Endings. I've been lukewarm towards this show since I started watching it very recently. But last week's episode was great. Hopefully they have a good follow up.

Speaking of good tv, The Soup had a great trailer for Community. If you haven't seen the Community/The Dark Knight Rises mashup you need to finish reading this post and go to YouTube. In case you don't follow me on Twitter and haven't heard, Community returns on March 15th. It will be a great way to distract me from the fact that two days before that I will turn 28 and be closer to fully embodying George Costanza, minus the paranoia.

The president of Planned Parenthood was on The Daily Show tonight. If I had any money I would gladly donate some of it to PP. The recent contraception debate was just one part of the larger issue of women's health/rights. I'm really saddened and aggravated by what seems like the inability of significant portions of this country to move out of the same conception of women that exists in the society depicted on Mad Men.

The other subject on The Daily Show was the never-ending Republican primary. I have been tired of it for a while now. I get a lot of mileage out of the crazy things the candidates say. But it also makes me sad that these people are being considered for public office. And I wish we could at least just have to focus on the ridiculous nature of only one person.

And now, to lift my spirits, I'm going to watch the incredibly beautiful Kate Upton on Jimmy Kimmel's show. And I'll probably switch over the Cruel Intentions to check out one of my all time favorites, Sarah Michelle Gellar, a brunette SMG at that. I adore her. She was my first big crush. And of course, she played one my favorite super heroes of all time. If someone can give Batman a run for his money, I think it's Buffy.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Obama's AG says the gov't can kill you

If you are an American citizen and some secret panel decides that you are a terrorist and believes you pose an "imminent" threat to the US, they can decide to kill you, if you aren't on American soil. That's the most basic point in Eric Holder's speech he gave yesterday. I'll direct you to Glenn Greenwald for more of the facts and analysis. What I wanted to focus on is one of the reasons the Obama administration claims it can do these types of things, which is the fact that we are at war. I won't go too "Man, the State, and War" on you. Even I found some of that poli sci stuff dry. Plus I don't feel like dusting off articles to try and sum up the relevant IR literature.

Traditionally, wars are conflicts between either two or more states or two or more groups within a state. And a state is basically a geographic location that has widely recognized borders that encompasses a group of people who share a common identity as a nation. On top of that, those people within the borders generally have some level of autonomy, meaning they make their own decisions on how their gov't or society should be run. This is kind of a point for another post, but I question the merits of full autonomy of a state in regard to human rights. But at a fundamental level I'm ok with it.

In a traditional sense, I'll grant the Obama administration that we are at war with Afghanistan and Iraq. Part of the problem with Afghanistan was/is that they were shaky with regard to the common identity and autonomy aspects of a state. The Taliban was causing it to be a very unstable state. But for sake of argument, I'll grant that Afghanistan fits the statehood model and we were thus able to go to war with them. Iraq was run by a sociopath. But it was a fairly stable state, at least compared to Afghanistan. So I think also fits the bill.

Defining what constitutes a war is important because under those circumstances, the president has more power to do things it normally wouldn't for the sake of national security. That's why in speeches such as Holder's the point is always made that we are at war. And it's also used to ratchet up fear and invoke loyalty to the administration. But this thing about killing terrorists wherever they are in the world is beyond the scope of the Afghan and Iraq wars. As long as we are legally at war with those states the administration has stronger claims to not use due process when in Afghanistan in Iraq. But they are going beyond those states and into states we aren't at war with in order to find and kill their citizens.

When arguing that they can kill someone they deem a terrorist, even an American citizen (though I don't think that matters), they are claiming that as a country, we are at war with every terrorist or terrorist group in the world. Thus they have the same powers they enjoy in a traditional war. Right away you can see the differences between this new type of war and traditional wars. Terrorists aren't state actors. A terrorist living in France who tries to attack the US is no more a state actor than if I tried to attack France. Thus under those attacks, neither country would declare war on each other. But if the French or US military attacked on another, war would be declared.

When dealing with terrorism, we are dealing with individuals and fairly small groups of individuals. And we are dealing with people who attack civilians as part of a their strategy, which is also a slight difference in traditional warfare. So really, these terrorists aren't much different than someone like Timothy McVeigh. Here's Robert Farley asking why someone like McVeigh couldn't be killed just like we killed al-Awlaki in Yemen:

The story might be different for such opponents of the government as Timothy McVeigh or John C. Breckinridge. Were capture of McVeigh deemed infeasible, and were he deemed to play a senior operational leadership role in a terrorist organization, a drone strike might just fit under Holder’s rules. Much would depend on whether the authority to order such a strike depends on Congressional authorization or is inherent to the power of the Presidency; Holder dances around this issue, although he does argue that groups not specifically affiliated with Al Qaeda (and thus not subject to the AUMF) are exempt from military commissions. Nevertheless, it is not impossible to imagine the Justice Department finding some statutory support for executive action against a suspected domestic terrorist such as McVeigh. With regards to Breckinridge, the United States obviously believed itself at war against Southern rebels, which would presumably allow the targeting of rebel leaders regardless of their status as American citizens.

I'm not familiar with the McVeigh case. But it raises the issue of whether we are at war with a specific terrorist organization like al-Qaeda, or with terrorism in general. Because if we are at war with terrorism in general (which would be ridiculous and maybe impossible), I think Holder's reasoning would extend to being able to use drones to stop an accused terrorist in the US just like they did with al-Awlaki. I somehow doubt Holder or Obama would say they have this power. To answer Farley, I think Holder wasn't clear on the point because he knows the American public would likely have a problem with it. Thus he frames it in a way that makes the issue about terrorists in foreign countries because he knows Americans don't care about the rights of foreigners, despite my efforts to convince them they should.

Back to the idea of what a war is, I don't think a "War on Terror" or a war on al-Qaeda is the same as traditional wars. I think it's a little more similar to organized crime. The main difference is that there is a political component to it. Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda have directed their attacks and rhetoric on the US as a state. So even though they aren't state actors in a traditional sense, they are attacking our state with a similar purpose that a state in a traditional war would. I think this is the strongest case the Obama administration has.

But we also treat it differently than organized crime or a case like McVeigh's because it originates in foreign countries, it's difficult to stop, and it can cause massive damage. Because of that and the purpose of al-Qaeda, I do think we can go further in extending executive power than we could if we were talking about organized crime or just plain old murder. But I think what the Obama administration proposes goes too far. We aren't at war in the same sense that we were at war with the Japanese and Germans in WWII or the British in the Revolutionary War. The very existence of our nation is not at stake, which is why the executive was given more power in those situations. Protecting the public from terrorist attacks is obviously of vital importance. But it doesn't mean we can do away with rights as if the British were on our shores and the fate of our freedom was hanging by a thread.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Lebron can't pass the buck

Lebron James has been getting heavily criticized for passing to Udonis Haslem for the last shot in a game over the weekend. I don't feel like doing a full breakdown of why I think the clutch narrative in modern sports is overblown. But aside from that, I thought Lebron made the right play.

He was dribbling into a double team, meaning he probably wouldn't have made it to the basket, which is the highest % shot. I guess he could have dribbled into the second defender and tried to create a foul. But that's risky. And he could have pulled up before that second defender got right up on him and attempted a mid-range jumper. But that would have been a more contested shot than the one he got Haslem. Haslem isn't a very good shooter, 40% this season. But from that range and pretty open, I think the odds of him making that shot were around 50%.

Some have argued that Lebron should have at least forced a shot because he is a great player and he was hot at that moment. That just undermines the whole clutch thing. He had 17 points in the 4th quarter. He did plenty to help his team win that game. To focus on the pass is to ignore the great quarter and good entire game he played. And it's to gloss over what was at the very least a reasonable move to pass the ball to an open player.

I want Lebron to hit a game winner or two just to get everyone off his back. But it's unnecessary. He does more to win games than any other player in the league. Thus he is the best player in the league. Just because you don't win a game in a memorable fashion doesn't mean you are not those things. And what's worse, Lebron has hit those shots. The media and fans just choose to ignore it.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

How Rush Limbaugh could change his legacy

I'm breaking my unwritten rule of mentioning the talk radio host by name. But I felt compelled to do so after reading this post by Andrew Sullivan. Usually Rush doesn't apologize. And I'm sure this time it was mostly about the advertisers pulling away from his program. So he is probably just trying to save face with them and keep earning the huge money he does.

But if the man has any decency at all, he could really improve his standing with the country at large and use this opportunity to support the woman and this issue he has spoken out against. If he came out and genuinely had a change of heart about these types of women's issues I think he could do a lot of good. I don't think that would mean he has to become a liberal. He could still believe in conservative principles when it comes to governing. But when it comes to women's rights and how women are perceived of in our society he could help his large audience see how women are marginalized and try to solve the problem.

That's not to say it would wipe his slate clean. He would still have a lot to answer for. But it would at least force most of the country to say "but" when discussing his contribution to our society. I doubt this will happen. But if he does have some shred of decency, wouldn't that be something worth trying to accomplish? Hell, even if he doesn't have any decency, this would still be a good idea simply for purposes of his ego. To force liberals to say "but" when discussing him would probably be the best thing he could do for his image of himself.

Duke vs Carolina

I'm too frustrated to write a long post. I'll just say what I have said about this team and this program for years now, that we aren't athletic enough to play the kind of defense Coach K wants to play. Sure, we missed quite a few open shots in the first half. I think that did affect how we played. And people can say we live and die by the 3. But we aren't a 28% 3 point shooting team. If those shots fall like they normally do it's at least a close game.

But that's the thing with modern Coach K teams. We no longer have the athletes who can just use their skills to overcome an unlucky shooting performance. We don't have a Brian Zoubeck who can get rebounds and protect the rim if the other players don't shoot or defend well. We don't have a Jason Williams or Shane Battier than can carry the team on their backs on either end of the court when the team isn't playing well. The Duke teams of old could beat good teams despite not playing well. This Duke team can only beat the Carolinas and Ohio States if they shoot 40% from 3 and play a good overall game. That's not to say we can't go on a run like UConn did last season and go deep into the tourney. But our odds of doing so are worse than those of Carolina's or Kentucky's.

Battlestar Galactica: finding Earth

Wow. They've built up to the reveal of four of the final five cylons for the entire series. Like with just about everything in the series I thought they did a really good job with revealing the four to Adama and the rest of the crew. Not to mention that they finally found Earth. But it's not exactly what they thought they were looking for, if that is indeed Earth.

I've tried to relate the stories to real world politics. Since the third season they have done too many stories that are directly relatable. But for the sake of me posting about these two episodes I'll try to relate it to politics. In the US it takes big coalitions to get legislation passed. Madison and the founders wanted it this way. They didn't want small factions having too much control over policy. That was the problem with true democracies, small groups that could be extremists had too much power, which meant they could help enact bad policy or prevent good policy. So that's why we have a majoritarian democracy and an electoral system that is winner take all.

The humans and cylons finally decided to work together because they both shared the same interests. They wanted to survive and find Earth. Before the humans destroyed the main resurrection hub the cylons didn't have to worry about survival. Once they became mortal their incentives changed to coincide with the humans. When that happened there was a large enough coalition that policy was changed and a different outcome was achieved.

We are still left with a lot of philosophical questions. Though I think we are more clear on the status of cylons compared to humans. Now that they are mortal they share just about every trait with humans. Something I found interesting was Baltar talking to the centurion about being a slave. I have a feeling that won't be a random conversation. And speaking of Baltar, I'm glad Roslin saved him because not only is he a compelling character, I want to see him find redemption. He has done some bad things. But he is obviously important in the grander scheme of things and I think he has fundamentally changed from the person he started out as.

This has become one of my favorite shows of all time. I've thoroughly enjoyed the journey. And I can't wait to see how it ends.