Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hot enough for ya?

If not, just wait a while. Maybe not that long a while.

Just to be clear at the top, the Met Office is the UK’s National Weather Service. The Hadley Centre is the internationally-respected agency of that office that examines and studies global warming.

Well, according to a new study done for the UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change by scientists at the Met Office Hadley Centre, global temperatures could well rise by 4oC (7.2oF) by 2070 or even by 2060. Previously, 4oC was the high end of the IPCC's "most likely" range for future global temperature increase - and that was for 2100.

Put another way, the world not only could hit the upper end of the "most likely" range, it could do it as many as 40 years sooner than predicted. That increase is in comparison to the 2oC increase that most involved scientists label as the breaking point - that is, beyond a 2oC increase, the effects of climate change become "dangerous."
"We've always talked about these very severe impacts only affecting future generations, but people alive today could live to see a 4C rise," said Richard Betts, the head of climate impacts at the Met Office Hadley Centre, who will announce the findings today at a conference at Oxford University. "People will say it's an extreme scenario, and it is an extreme scenario, but it's also a plausible scenario."

According to scientists, a 4C rise over pre-industrial levels could threaten the water supply of half the world's population, wipe out up to half of animal and plant species, and swamp low coasts.
What's more, the model used for the prediction shows
wide variations, with the Arctic possibly seeing a rise of up to 15C (27F) by the end of the century.

Western and southern parts of Africa could warm by up to 10C, with other land areas seeing a rise of 7C or more.
Previous analyses, such as those presented in the 2007 report of the IPCC which suggested that possibility of a 4oC rise by 2100, were based on scenarios where the emission of greenhouse gases would continue to rise - but the studies assumed that scenarios where the use of fossil fuels actually intensified were unlikely and so they were de-emphasized. However,
[a] report last week from the UN Environment Programme said emissions since 2000 have risen faster than even this IPCC worst-case scenario. "In the 1990s, these scenarios all assumed political will or other phenomena would have brought about the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by this point. In fact, CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel burning and industrial processes have been accelerating," [Betts said.]
Which means, in turn, that things will get worse faster, including the reaching of "tipping points" where the rising temperatures themselves result in the release of more carbon into the atmosphere and the cycle starts to feed itself.

How bad is that? It could be "catastrophic." Which puts an accent mark on the latest round of negotiations toward a new international climate treaty aimed at limiting global temperature increase to 2oC. The plan for a "bigger, bolder" agreement to replace Kyoto is supposed to be finalized at a meeting in Copenhagen in December, a wrap-up to two years of negotiations.

And how is that going? Well, it appears that industrialized nations are going to be talking about reducing their rate of increase of carbon emissions rather than actually reducing them. And UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown says a climate deal is in peril. So you tell me.

But hey, so what? 2060? I'll be dead by then. What do I care?

Footnote: The Hadley Centre's release on the study is at this link.

Monday, September 28, 2009

I'm just getting warmed up

Gee, guess what - another winger responded to that last comment from the previous post. So I get to post an update!

The "reply" was a link to a website and a little blather about "the dire predictions of the AGW fan club." I think the comment is sufficiently self-explanatory.
This is pretty much what you'd expect from the nanny-nanny naysayers who would sooner believe in the Easter Bunny than the reality of global warming for fear it might require them to actually do something.

For those who won't follow the link, this has to do with a claim that a reexamination of tree ring data undermines, indeed "kills," the so-called "hockey stick," the graph that shows a dramatic increase in temperatures over the last few decades. The name comes from the fact that the data shows relatively stable temperatures over the last millennium (the "shaft"), punctuated by a rapid rise (the "blade") in recent times. The writer at the link charges two researchers whose work supported the "hockey stick," Fritz Hans Schweingruber and Keith Briffa, with deliberate falsification of results by cherry-picking of data.

That is an extremely serious charge and we will see how serious the accuser is - and how confident he is in his position - if he has the guts to pursue the matter beyond a blog post trying to find some means of attacking the idea of anthropogenic global warming. Frankly, I doubt he will, because while a colleague of the original author implies the same charge, the author himself does not make it, suggesting instead either unintentional bias or that using rings from live trees as opposed to dead ones might affect the results.

In either event, it's also worth noting that the original author in question is Steve McIntyre of the blog Climate Audit, which he founded with the avowed intent of disproving the "hockey stick." Not to examining it, not to considering the science, but to disproving it. As someone flippantly but pretty accurately put it, the "end of Climate Audit is to show that the vast majority of Climate Scientists are Socialists engaged in hoaxing All Of Mankind." Which seems to put his own reliability as a source under a cloud.

Getting more to the link and the argument, an immediate problem is that the linked site treats the tree ring data that was the main foundation of the "hockey stick" graph as if it stood alone with no supporting data and so challenging the tree ring data challenges the entire idea of a recent sharp rise in observed temperatures. But that is patently false. For one thing, nine additional reconstructions of temperature changes over the past 1000 years largely agree with the "hockey stick." The "shaft" gets warped, in two or three of the cases rather dramatically, but the "blade" is still there. More to the point, ice core samples, sediment layers, glacial advance and retreat, coral samples, historical records, and more tell essentially the same story - and, for the period since measurements began about 1850, so do observed values.

(It also bears mentioning that while the "hockey stick" is surely dramatic, it's just one graph of one method and a somewhat problematic method at that: Tree rings can be very hard to interpret since they can be affected by a number of local or transient factors like rainfall - just check out the size of the error bars on the graph, linked above. If the results had not been as similar as they are to results from other methodologies, the graph never would have survived in the literature as long as it has.)

So now McIntyre, who tried in 2003 and 2005 to shoot down the "hockey stick" and failed despite the assistance of 2006 Congressional hearings by Joe Barton, the House's global warming equivalent to the Senate's James Inhofe, is hoping the third time is the charm. But quite frankly, rather than it being up to others to accept his results or even to challenge them, I'd say it's up to McIntyre to explain why his result is such an outlier and why it runs counter not only to other analyses but to actual observed values.
Note that in this case, the link to background on Steve McIntyre was not in the original comment but those to the graphs were. The link to the original article cited by the nanny-nanny naysayer is included here for reference.

Footnote: McIntyre also said he started Climate Audit to "defend myself" against "attacks" at the climatologist blog Real Climate. He does come off a bit paranoid: He more than once has accused them of "dishonesty" and "censorship" because a comment of his got hung up in a moderation queue.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Running hot and cold

As I've done a few times before, I'm going to cheat and turn comments on a different site into a post, in this case on global warming.

The first two are comments from last Thursday and Friday in response to an item at MMFA on how Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity distorted the statements of Dr. Mojib Latif of the IPCC. He had addressed the issue of the need to consider decade-level cooling precisely because of the tendency of the nanny-nanny naysayers to use any short-term cooling trend to deny the reality of global warming - which Beck and Hannity immediately did, claiming that by discussing cooling, Latif had retracted claims about global warming and he had "pulled the rug out" from those warning about climate change. My reaction:
So what we have here is a typical response by right-wing know-nothing blowhards when faced with a real scientist approaching an issue in a scientific way: See what they want to see, hear what they want to hear, understand what they want to understand precisely because they don't understand, they don't understand science or scientific process.

Either that or they're just lying through their teeth. They're either ignoramuses or liars, if not both.

It has long been a basic premise of climatology that you have to look at data in chunks of 30 years or more to discern overall trends precisely because of the short-term variability that is natural to, inherent in, the planet's climate.

Latif said nothing new on that. It was, rather, that he had a different emphasis, suggesting that it's necessary to consider not only year-to-year variability but decade-to-decade variability and we need to do that expressly because of the media buffoons, pushed by the industry flaks behind them, who present global warming as a year-to-year event, so that if a new all-time record is not set every year, that "disproves" global warming.

Right now, we are in a natural decade-level cooling phase sufficient to for a time conceal or even overcome the anthropogenic warming trend. The thing to remember is that this cooling phase is temporary and when a natural warming phase returns, it will combine with the anthropogenic warming to raise temperatures to new heights.

And before anyone says it, yes, there would at some point be another natural cooling phase which could stall or for a time overcome the warming trend. But it would be doing it from a new, higher plateau. The overall trend is unaffected. The only way to stop it is to go after the anthropogenic warming.

As a footnote, I suspect that another reason people like Beck and Hannity rail against the science is revealed in an email I got some time ago from an acquaintance who said that all the predictions talk about the really bad effects hitting in 50 years or more and she'd be dead by then so what did she care?

So: Ridiculously ignorant of the science they would judge, liars, or incredibly selfish. Take your pick.
A nanny-nanny naysayer responded by accusing me of "ignoring the science" because "we've been cooling for a decade - unbeknownst to you of course" and "natural ocsillation [sic] explains it." What's more, "the whole premise of your arguement [sic] is 'but wait until the warming comes back.'" So I answered (please note the links were not in the original but are inserted here):
aren't you also ignoring the science

No, I'm citing the science and the consensus of predictions of climatologists and other relevant experts.

We've been cooling for a decade

No, we haven't. Stop just parroting right-wing deceit and get a flipping clue. That whole "cooling for a decade" inanity is based completely and solely on the fact that 1998 was something of an outlier, and driven by an exceptionally strong El NiƱo, it set the all-time record for average world temperature. In 1999, temperatures dropped back to the levels on the late 1990s - and then climbed again so that despite the slight cooling of the past three years (not 10), the decade 2000-2009 will still rank as the warmest on record.

As for new heights, I expect explaining it to you will be like trying to explain relativity to Mortimer Snerd, but let me try it this way. There are well-known, well-understood natural cycles of warming and cooling. In addition to that, there is now an additional, non-natural factor: anthropogenic, or human-created, warming, because in recent times our impact on the climate has become big enough to have a measurable effect.

That human-driven warming is a constant upward pressure. The cooling phases can temper or even temporarily conceal that upward pressure, but it is still there. Put another way and admittedly oversimplifying because this is a comment board, not a climatology conference, because of that additional factor, during the cooling phases temperatures won't go down as much as they would otherwise and during the warming phases they will go up more than they would otherwise. So yes, over time, temperatures will increase. Not in a steady unbroken pattern and not without dips along the way, but overall, they will go up unless anthropogenic warming is addressed.

Consider this number series, formed by a pattern of +3 -1 -1:

1, 4, 3, 2, 5, 4, 3, 6, 5, 4, 7, ...

You simply can't deny that the values gradually increase. But you are like someone who looks at that second 5, ignores everything else, and says "Aha! That is less than the number before it! Therefore, there is no upward trend!"

But there is an upward trend. That is what the science, which despite your ignorant fantasies is quite well aware of natural variations, says. That is what Latif said. Your refusal to believe it does not change it while your refusal to face reality, multiplied by enough others, can have serious consequences for hundreds of millions of people in the not-distant future.
The last comment is also on an MMFA item, this one from today. Sean Hannity misquoted a NY Times article to make it sound like it was saying global warming was not happening. In reaction, a nanny-nanny naysayer commented that he doesn't believe in global warming, citing a graph by and quoting a statement from the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition questioning the validity of temperature measurements because of the lack of standardization in type and location of measuring devices. Again, the links were not in the original.
As always, consider the source. Your first link is to, a site run by the Cooler Heads Coalition, a concoction of right-wing and industry groups formed by the Competetive Enterprise Institute.

The graph to which you refer is grossly misleading to the point of outright falsehood on two accounts: One, it treats the IPCC predictions as if they were for straight-line, year-by-year increases, which is so patently nonsensical that I have to regard it as deliberate distortion: No outfit even pretending to scientific understanding could be so ignorant. Two, it is based on less than 15 years data when it is a basic, first-grade level concept of long standing among climatologists that predicting long-term changes to climate requires at least 30 years of data to smooth out natural variations. That is, they have less than half the data they need to claim what they are claiming.

Even with that, and even with restricting their time line to a period of natural cooling (which is thought to have begun about 1995), their own data still shows a 0.9C (1.6F) per century increase. Let me repeat that to make sure it's clear: Even when they restricted the data to a period of natural cooling, it still showed a long-term increase.

As for the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition, a group which appears to exists only as a website (the site offers no mail address or phone number and there is no way to contact the group except through a form at the site), for all we know it may not even be in New Zealand: The web sites of the New Zealand Climate Science Coalition, the Australian Climate Science Coalition (created by a right-wing, corporate-funded Australian think tank called the Institute for Public Affairs), and the International Climate Science Coalition are all hosted at the same IP address: a single Internet service provider in Arizona. All three dip heavily into various conspiracy theories on climate change popular among the nanny-nanny naysayers, such as that the whole purpose of the Kyoto agreement had nothing to do with global warming but was actually about undermining "big, successful capitalist economies like America."

Finally, there is the recent grasping-at-straws argument of those nanny-nanny naysayers, that of measurement bias. Now, it is true that there hasn't been a lot of standardization of measuring devices and locations. But one, such standardization has been increasing. Two, it really doesn't matter. For scientific accuracy it does, but for generalized predictions of global warming it doesn't: Models and predictions are not based on data from one or a few such measurements, but from hundreds, thousands, of measurements from a variety of sources, the range of data being sufficient to generate a good deal of confidence that any measurement biases are smoothed out. (I also find it amusing that our knowledge of short-term climate variations is based on exactly the same sort of measurements they question - which means to question the measurements also means to question the existence of those short-term variations that they claim are what we're actually experiencing! Accepting their argument here means rejecting their other argument over there. Then again, intellectual consistency was never very high on their list of concerns.)

In fact, potential measurement bias matters even less than that and the whole business is a red herring. The issue is not what the temperature of the Earth is at any given moment or even whether you can meaningfully assign a single number to it. The issue is the average temperature of the Earth and how that average is changing over time. Even if there was a persistent, non-smoothed-out measurement bias, if that average is going up over time, there still is global warming. And if over time it's going up to an extent that cannot be accounted for by natural variations - which is exactly what it is doing - then there is anthropogenic global warming, the nanny-nanny naysayers and their self-interested corporate backers nitpicking and spewing bogus comparisons notwithstanding.
I try to do this - quote something I said somewhere else as a post here - as little as possible, but once in a while for one reason or another, usually either particular relevance or outside pressures, I'll go ahead. I hope no one minds too much.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What's old is new, again

Updated The so-called "state secrets privilege" is a McCarthy-era legal principle that enables the government to shut down suits challenging government actions on the grounds that pursuing the claim would require the release of information that would harm national security. Courts were not required to accept the assertion but they usually "deferred to the executive branch on such matters" and dismissed the suit even when the government had failed to back up its claim of harm to national security, even when the government refused to back up its claim, which it often did.

The Shrub gang invoked the privilege to an unprecedented degree: Between 1953 and 2000, forty-seven years, the privilege was invoked 65 times. Between 2001 and the middle of 2007, six and a-half years, it was invoked 39 times. As a result, it was one of the things candidate Obama pledged to "change."

After what seems like quite a long wait, the Obama administration has finally released its new policy on the use of the "state secrets privilege." Take it away, ACLU:
The thrust of the new rule: [Attorney General Eric] Holder must approve any invocation of the privilege.

Well, that’s not much different from the Bush administration’s policy, which was to invoke the privilege at the outset, before the case even got its foot in the courthouse door.
Ben Wizner of the ACLU's National Security Project, lead attorney in two cases challenging the CIA’s use of "extraordinary rendition," added:
On paper, this is a step forward. In court however, the Obama administration continues to defend a broader view of state secrets put forward by the Bush administration and to demand that federal courts throw out lawsuits filed by victims of torture and illegal surveillance.
Tom Parker, counter-terrorism and human rights policy director for Amnesty International USA, felt much the same way:
While this new policy sounds like an improvement in principle[, he said], it is patently at odds with the way the Justice Department has fought tooth and nail against litigation requests over the past eight months.
Now, yes, on paper it is a step forward. For one thing, it centralizes the authority to invoke the privilege in the Attorney General, advised by a team of DOJ lawyers. For another, it somewhat tightens the standard required from "harm" to national security to "significant harm." It also says the privilege can't be used to hide violations of law, bureaucratic foul-ups, or things that are merely embarrassing and that along with a motion to invoke the privilege, DOJ is supposed to attach a list of reasons, something often not done previously.

However, there are still some serious shortcomings. One is the last item in the memo, which reads:
This policy statement is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity, by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.
That's pretty much bureaucratic boilerplate, but the fact is what it really says is that "this is our policy, but if we ignore our own policy and violate our own declared procedures, tough shit, ain't nothin' you can do." Which points up the bigger problem: This is policy. It is not law. It's what the administration says it will do but it's not what it's required to do. And it can be changed at any time by a future administration - or, in fact, by this one. What's more, it's very likely the whole business of setting a new policy, from announced intention to release, was undertaken to head off binding legislation.

Last February, Obama invoked the state secrets privilege in a Bush-era case involving extraordinary rendition. The next day, bills were introduced in both the House and Senate to restrict and regulate use of the privilege. In response, the White House promised to "review" the practice and come up with a new policy. What came out on Wednesday tracked the bills fairly closely - but with two serious shortcomings: One, there is no way a White House policy could require judges to actually consider the justifications for invoking the privilege the White House would submit; two, again and related, it does not have the force of law, a force that can require the White House to stick to the standards and require judges to consider the submitted justifications before ruling.

But beyond all that, ultimately, as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words - and it's hard to have much faith in this policy when
[t]he Obama administration said Wednesday that it would maintain President George W. Bush’s state secrets position when it came to lawsuits leftover from that administration.
True to its word,
[s]ince February, a Justice Department task force of eight lawyers has been sifting through about a dozen pending cases in which state secrets arguments have been made.

So far, they have reversed course in only one lawsuit - a bizarre case in federal court in the District in which a former agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration accuses the State Department and the CIA of installing listening devices in a coffee table in his home.
Indeed, just hours later, just hours after releasing the memo with the new policy, the administration was in US District Court in San Francisco again invoking the state secrets privilege in an attempt to have a case dismissed.

This case is the one commonly known as the al-Haramain case as it involves illegal warrantless surveillance on the now-defunct al-Haramain Islamic Foundation. Two lawyers for the group
allege some of their 2004 telephone conversations to Saudi Arabia were siphoned to the National Security Agency without warrants. The allegations were based on classified documents the government accidentally mailed to the two,
which would seem to be pretty damn good evidence. However, in June, District Court Judge Vaughn Walker ruled in favor of a government claim that the documents are state secrets and found that the lawyers must make their case without reference to them.

(Savor that for a moment, as it is indicative of the bizarre netherworld of the national security state: Even though the lawyers have seen the documents, the court has seen the documents, and the government has seen the documents, they all must now act as if those documents don't exist. And the government can and did argue that the plaintiffs have no standing to sue because they can't prove they were surveilled - even though everyone involved knows for an absolute fact that they were because they have seen the documents that prove it.)

Walker did, however, say from the bench on Wednesday that the public record may suffice to prove the lawyers' case. But that is clearly not the point here. The point is that the Obama administration, presented with an obvious opportunity to reject an inane invocation of the privilege - inane because the parties have already seen what is supposed to be too secret to reveal - has refused to do so, preferring secrecy to sanity and presidential authority to public accountability.

(And please don't give me anything about scheduling and not enough time or any other crap - Holder, obviously knowing full well the memo was coming, could have told the US attorneys in the case to request a continuance so that the government could "reconsider its position regarding the state secrets privilege in this case in light of this new policy." Don't think for a second the plaintiffs, presented with the possibility of getting their denied evidence back, would have objected or the court would have refused.)

So let's sum up: In order to head off legislation, the Obama administration has adopted what amount to self-imposed voluntary limitations on the use of the notorious and often-misused state secrets privilege while it continues to invoke the same privilege in existing cases even though in those cases it was invoked under the old, somewhat weaker standards, the very practice candidate Obama called a "problem" that needed "change" - and, based on its record (one reversal in "about a dozen" reviewed cases), gives little indication that the new standards will significantly change practice.

I admit that in the area of secrecy and national security I have very little trust in the Obama White House - and, I think, with good reason. Even given that, I am unimpressed. At this point, neither words nor policy memos will move me. I want to see deeds. Until I do, I will remain unimpressed and distrustful.

Footnote: Filed under the heading of "Ummm, huh?" comes this from Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Judiciary Committee Republican and a member of its terrorism subcommittee, who called the policy "a promising development" because, he said, it keeps authority in the executive branch. He went on to say:
The privilege has been asserted judiciously and in a manner appropriately designed to protect our nation and its most vital classified information and programs. Simply put, legislation designed to curtail the use of this important privilege is unnecessary.
Aside from confirming that the purpose of issuing the policy was to head off binding legislation, since the information remains secret, um, just how would Sessions know the privilege has been "judiciously and appropriately" invoked?

Another Footnote: I like to mention this whenever the subject of the state secrets privilege comes up, especially in light of the memo's declaration, right at the top of page 2, that
[t]he Department will not defend an invocation of the privilege in order to: (i) conceal violations of the law, inefficiency, or administrative error; (ii) prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency of the Unites States government....
The very source of the state secrets privilege, the very reason the government sought to create it, was to conceal precisely that sort of government misconduct. It was built on lies, on labeling as vital national security secrets what turned out to be an accounting of inefficiency and sloppy maintenance that lead to the 1948 crash of a B-29 and the deaths of three RCA employees. And I see no reason so far to expect a radically different sort of intellectual purity from the Obama administration on national security and secrecy matters.

Updated to note that Dan at Pruning Shears makes some additional points on this, including some additional relevant links, here. A good point he mentions, which I didn't address, is about how this brings up the need for a process for automatic declassification.

A thought

Left as an exercise for the reader: Write an essay to compare and contrast the attitude of the Obama White House regarding the importance of investigating ACORN with its attitude regarding the importance of investigating the approval of torture and illegal wiretapping by high officials of the Bush administration.

What's old is new

Congress is in the process of holding hearings on the possible renewal of three provisions of the TRAITOR Act, the intrusive, "we'll search whatever we damn well feel like so suck on this, privacy advocates" legislation hurriedly passed in the fear-mongering-filled weeks following 9/11.

Those three provisions will expire on December 31 unless renewed - and, true to the George Bush form it has established on such matters, the Obama crowd wants all three "important authorities" renewed.

The three provisions in question:

- The FBI can get a warrant to secretly obtain a wide variety of information, including business and financial records, computer information, or even library records. The only requirement is that the information is thought to be "relevant" to a terrorism investigation; a belief that the person or organizations whose records are sought are engaging in illegal activity is not necessary. Not only is the target not informed of the search, it is illegal for the institutions from which the information is obtained to tell the target it happened.

- The FBI can obtain an order for a so-called "roving" wiretap, allowing them to follow someone from phone to phone. That is, it is the person who is wiretapped, not the phone.

- The government can spy on suspected "lone wolves," foreigners suspected of some terrorism desire or some such thing but who have no apparent connection to any known terrorist group or foreign government.

There has been some low-level pushback by some liberals and moderates in Congress. Not much at least so far, but enough to register. During the hearings before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, both Subcommittee Chair Jerry Nadler and Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers questioned the need for the provisions; Conyers even compared Todd Hinnen, testifying for the White House, to people in Shrub's DOJ.

Another, related issue that has caused a stir is that of so-called "National Security Letters," or NSLs. These are essentially extra-judicial warrants that can be issued on their own authority by low-level FBI supervisors demanding access to a wide variety of records and requiring that the recipient of such a letter never even mention having been served with it. Nadler and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Pat Leahy want to put some limits (or, more exactly, what they fantasize are limits) on NSLs, such as requiring the FBI to state why the information is "relevant to an authorized investigation" and allowing for disclosure of the searches - sometimes. Leahy also wants the NSL powers to sunset after four more years. Considering that he also wants the expiring power extended another four years, we can see how well the idea of "sunsetting" works in practice.

I first griped about NSLs - and I just cannot see how these things can possibly be Constitutional - in January 2004. If you want to know why I think they are so bad, check this post from November 2005:
Summary: If you have any contact, even casual, even unknowing, with a suspect in any investigation involving "international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities," even if you are not suspected of wrongdoing, any FBI field supervisor can on their own authority, without any oversight by a prosecutor, grand jury, or judge - or even any after-the-fact review by the Justice Department or Congress - issue a national security letter which can be used to demand information on
where a person makes and spends money, with whom he lives and lived before, how much he gambles, what he buys online, what he pawns and borrows, where he travels, how he invests, what he searches for and reads on the Web, and who telephones or e-mails him at home and at work.
Employment records, credit records, banking records, phone records, travel records, and more, it's all there for the taking.
Russ Feingold (D-Sanity) and nine co-sponsors have introduced a bill (S.1686) to undo some of the damage done by the TRAITOR Act, including NSLs. It wouldn't ban them but would at least put some judicial oversight in place. In addition, as described to Democracy Now! by Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media & Democracy, it would reverse some of the egregious portions of last year's changes to FISA. Specifically, it would among other things
prohibit the bulk collection of Americans’ international emails and telephone calls and would require more specificity in obtaining international communications. That provision would also repeal the telecom immunity provisions that passed last year, at the urging of AT&T and others, that basically stripped the rights of citizens to pursue cases in courts against phone companies that engaged in warrantless wiretapping at the behest of the Bush administration.
Right now, the sponsors other than Feingold are Sens. Daniel Akaka, Jeff Bingaman, Dick Durbin, Bob Menendez, Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders, Jon Tester, Tom Udall, and Ron Wyden. If your Senator is not on that list, you might want to ask them why.

Important Footnote: In testimony, the White House admitted that the "lone wolf" powers had never been used but still urged they be extended. And Hinnen testified that
[a]t the time of the USA Patriot Act, there was concern that the FBI would exploit the broad scope of the business records authority to collect sensitive personal information on constitutionally protected activities, such as the use of public libraries. This simply has not occurred.
Okay, a question: How the hell can these provisions be "important authorities" if you haven't had to use them once in eight years? And I want an actual answer to that question, not a string of invoking-the-dark-side "what ifs."

This, however, is why this footnote is important: Hinnen is lying through his goddamned teeth.

The Connecticut Four were four librarians who were served with an NSL in July 2005 but who refused to comply and staged a year-long legal battle to lift the gag order imposed as part of it, a gag order so complete that they couldn't even be named in publicly-available court documents or acknowledge that they were the people involved. It was a fight they won in May 2006. During the time the case was going on, Lisa Graves said, the Shrub gang insisted that concerns about going after libraries were unfounded. And now, even with the case on record, Hinnen sits in front of a House committee and insists "This simply has not occurred."

The Bush White House was lying then and the Obama White House is lying now.

A Second, Quick Footnote: The ACLU released extended, detailed testimony. It's available in .pdf format at this link.

One bit of good news

This is from a couple of weeks ago but I only found out about it yesterday and I wanted to mention it 'cause I could use a bit of good news to post.

Nearly a year ago I wrote something about the case of Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh. He was a journalism student at Balkh University in Afghanistan who was arrested in October 2007 and charged with blasphemy on the grounds that he asked questions in class about the rights of women under Islam and supposedly distributed an article on the subject which he got off the internet.

He was initially sentenced to death, which was later reduced to the supposedly lenient 20 years in prison.

Earlier this month, the BBC reported that he's free.
Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh has been pardoned by President Hamid Karzai, the Afghan justice ministry confirmed.

Relatives of Mr Kambaksh said he had already left Afghanistan as he had been granted asylum by a European country. ...

"It is with considerable emotion that we welcome the release of Parwez Kambakhsh," the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said. ...

But campaign groups say that he has had to leave the country because of the threat posed by some who wanted to see him hanged.
It appears that news of his release was delayed due to fears of a backlash - not, to be clear, from the Taliban but from "our" side.

Gotta love that democracy-building.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Still more on privacy

In 2004, Google announced its Google Books project, which proposed to digitize some 10 million books in libraries around the country. In 2005, the Authors Guild sued, claiming the project amounted to "massive" copyright infringement. Last October, the parties reached a negotiated settlement that addressed in detail various financial issues such as royalties and book advertising.

Unfortunately, it did not address privacy concerns for readers or authors. That's bad. As the ACLU has noted,
[w]hat you choose to read says a lot about who you are, what you value, and what you believe. You should be able to read about politics, health, or anything else without worrying that someone is looking over your shoulder. ...

Currently, Google Book Service can monitor the books you browse and search for, the pages you read, and even the notes you write in the “margins.” Without strong privacy protections, all of your browsing and reading history may be collected, tracked, and turned over to the government or third parties without your knowledge or consent.
As a result of such concerns, earlier this month, EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, moved to intervene in the case.
The Google Books settlement would create a single digital library, operated by Google, but currently fails to limit Google's use of the personal information collected. EPIC stated that the settlement "mandates the collection of the most intimate personal information, threatens well-established standards that safeguard intellectual freedom, and imperils longstanding Constitutional rights, including the right to read anonymously." EPIC further warned that the Google Books deal "threatens to eviscerate state library privacy laws that safeguard library patrons in the United States."
The group also noted in its filing that
the settlement would allow Google to integrate sensitive personal information with other Google services, creating detailed profiles on Internet users.
EPIC is not alone in its concern: One day earlier, FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz said in a statement that
[t]he Google Books initiative could provide a wealth of benefits for consumers, yet it also raises serious privacy challenges because of the vast amount of user information that could be collected.
Besides the ACLU, EPIC, and the FTC, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at Berkeley Law School, the American Library Association, two other major library associations, and a number of academics have expressed concerns about the privacy issues involved.

On October 7, a judge in the District Court for the southern district of New York state will hear arguments on the settlement to determine if it's acceptable to the court. Hopefully, the court will take the concerns about privacy into account.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Footnote to the preceding

I haven't posted a lot about privacy issues lately but that doesn't mean the concern has lessened.

For example, there's the fact that local police and even private businesses are about to get access to classified military intelligence.
Fusion centers are hubs for local law enforcement, the private sector and the intelligence community, and were created in an effort to fight terrorism. There are more than seventy known centers across the United States.
And those centers are now going to have access to classified intelligence, even though as recently as July, Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department for the Protection of the Fatherland, said that fusion centers were not supposed to have a military presence. According to Michael Macleod-Ball of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office,
There is a stunning lack of oversight at these fusion centers and, as we’ve seen, these centers are rapidly becoming a breeding ground for overzealous intelligence activities. Opening the door for domestic law enforcement to gain access to classified military intelligence coupled with no guidelines restricting the military’s role in fusion centers is a recipe for disaster.
And yes, we have seen. In February, the North Central Texas Fusion Center said it's “imperative" for police to report the activities of lobbying groups, Muslim civil rights organizations, and anti-war groups in their areas. Also in February, a “Strategic Report” produced by the Missouri Information Analysis Center described a claimed security threat posed by underground militias - but connected them to various social, religious, and political ideologies. That same report
specifically cautioned police to be on the lookout for bumper stickers advertising third party candidates [such as Ron Paul or Bob Barr], or people with copies of the United States Constitution.
(Under pressure, the report was withdrawn in May.)

In April, a leaked memo from the Virginia Fusion Center, one which declared in its first paragraph that NO REPORT OR SEGMENT THEREOF MAY BE RELEASED TO ANY MEDIA SOURCES (all caps in original), labeled US universities as potential "radicalization nodes" for terrorists - and singled out two historically black colleges in its area for special note.

In a statement in April, the ACLU listed three other incidents:

- A May 2008 report by a private contractor labeled environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, the Humane Society, and the Audubon Society “mainstream organizations with known or possible links to eco-terrorism.”
- Department for the Protection of the Fatherland officials monitored and disseminated the communications of people affiliated with the DC Anti-War Network (DAWN);
- A bulletin issued by the DPF collected and disseminated information regarding legal, peaceful political demonstrations and labeled peaceful advocacy groups as “extremists.”

And now these same sorts of outfits - which, again, include not only local police but private interests - are going to get access to classified military intelligence, further increasing the amount of personal information about the rest of us to which they have access even as their own activities are hidden from view.

I feel safer all the time.

Footnote: The ACLU's December 2007 paper on these fusion centers can be found here.

Just breathe - or else

Okay, here's one from several days ago that I missed but is worth noting even at this late date. Link via RawStory.

On September 13, AP reported on a pilot federal project in which cops in Idaho and Texas are being trained in drawing blood and are thus becoming empowered to forcibly obtain blood samples from suspected drunk drivers who have refused breath tests.

To what end?
The federal program's aim is to determine if blood draws by cops can be an effective tool against drunk drivers and aid in their prosecution.

If the results seem promising after a year or two, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will encourage police nationwide to undergo similar training.
But here's the real rub: What constitutes "promising results?" Ada County (Idaho) Deputy Prosecutor Christine Starr "hopes the new system will cut down on the number of drunken driving trials" which arise from people refusing breath tests. In Arizona, where the practice has been going on for some time, that state's law enforcement phlebotomy coordinator, named Alan Haywood, said the breath test refusal rate dropped from about 20% to "about an 8 to 9 percent refusal rate." That result is "attractive" to other localities.

Here's the central point: Nowhere in the article does anyone suggest that this has reduced or will reduce the incidence of drunk driving. The only thing suggested is that it will give cops more power and make things more convenient for prosecutors and courts.

And when I say forcibly, I mean it: In Idaho, the cops will
use force if they need to, such as getting help from another officer to pin down a suspect and potentially strap them down....
Oh, is that legal? Well, of course it is!
The nation's highest court ruled in 1966 that police could have blood tests forcibly done on a drunk driving suspect without a warrant, as long as the draw was based on a reasonable suspicion that a suspect was intoxicated, that it was done after an arrest and carried out in a medically approved manner.
But Idaho appears ready to go beyond that: Of the cops being trained as rookie phlebotomists, the article says that
[o]nce they're back on patrol, they will draw blood of any suspected drunk driver who refuses a breath test.
In short, if you refuse to give evidence against yourself with a breath test, you can be grabbed, muscled, strapped down, and have blood taken by force. For the public good, of course.

Footnote: In Phoenix, they do 300-400 blood tests a month and up to 500 in a holiday month - which seems to me either to make Phoenix a pretty drunken city or this a case of "stick first, justify later."
Under the state's implied consent law, drivers who refuse to voluntarily submit to the test lose their license for a year, so most comply.
Uh-huh. Paraphrasing Arthur Dent, this is obviously some strange usage of the word "voluntary" that I hadn't previously been aware of.
For the approximately 5 percent who refuse, the officer obtains a search warrant from an on-call judge and the suspect can be restrained if needed to obtain a sample....
I repeat....

Another Footnote: I'm just waiting for the first case in Idaho of someone being tasered for refusing to submit to having blood taken.

Friday, September 18, 2009

RIP x2

* Mary Travers, surely one of the voices most closely associated with my generation, died on Wednesday. What increases the tragedy is that she had had a bone marrow and stem cell transplant that had successfully treated her leukemia - and then she died from a side effect of the chemotherapy.

For those of you old enough to remember the silly weirdness that was The Muppet Show, you may recall one occasional character of a woman with very long, straight, blonde hair who kept flipping her head to toss the hair behind her shoulders. I was always surprised at how many people did not realize that muppet was based on Mary Travers - and therefore also did not realize just how accurate a portrayal the head-flipping was.

* Henry Gibson, another voice, died of cancer a few days ago. He played a lot of different parts in his career - including both comedic and dramatic roles - but I suspect that for many folks about my age, he will always be associated with "A Poem by Henry Gibson."

Monday, September 14, 2009

Noted in passing

Just came across this via BuzzFlash: Glenn Beck, as I expect you know, recently spent an entire show ranting weirdly about the ostensibly "socialist-" and "fascist"-inspired imagery on the buildings of Rockefeller Center in New York City. It was sufficiently odd that even the folks at Hot Air (And was there ever a better-named blog?) seemed unsure of what the hell he was talking about.

Well, it turns out that the poster for the Beck-inspired-and-promoted 9/12 demo - one which didn't turn out nearly the way promoters hoped - included three raised, clenched, red fists.

Okay, that is funny.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


A few predictions (in no particular order) about The Speech tonight, just to put it on record to see how well I do. (My last prediction was that Joe Kennedy would not run for Ted Kennedy's seat, but no one knew about that one but my wife.)

1. The phrase "call to arms" will appear more than once in the coverage, which will focus on style and if Obama "succeeded at what he needed to do" without much attention to the question of substance and without, in fact, being clear on just what it was that he "needed to do" beyond bumper-sticker explanations like "moving the debate."

2. It will be long on rhetoric about how "we cannot wait" but short on specifics.

3. Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein will think it was terrific.

4. Part of the reason for that is that it will not be as disappointing as that against which various liberals and progressives have been steeling themselves. There have been so many hints and leaks on the "progressives will be disappointed" theme that I've taken it to be a deliberate attempt to lower expectations to such a degree that whatever Obama says will come as a relief, a relief the White House hopes will translate into a willingness to "compromise," i.e., capitulate.

5. If he mentions "triggers," it will be in passing without offering either support or opposition.

6. However, he will express strong support for a public option - but will also go out of his way to say it's not a deal-breaker. Which, in the current political context, is pretty much the same as not supporting it.

7. Which means that the speech will indeed be a disappointment for those among us whose bottom line, whose minimum requirement, is a bill that at least carries the potential to significantly increase access to adequate health care.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Jenny's question

In a comment on this post from the other day, commenter Jenny wrote:
And uh, while we're blah blahing (I mean so affectionately), what do you think of the anarchist ideology expressed on American Leftist? I don't think anything that Richard desires would technically be able to come to fruition successfully, not in our modern world at least.
I began to write a response but as has happened a couple of times before, it became rather long for a comment and I decided it merited being moved up to a post. So here it it:

Jenny -

I haven't read Richard much of late; it's one of a number of blogs that seem to drift up and down my mental list of daily reads.

I don't know if Richard thinks of himself as an anarchist. I don't recall him ever specifically describing himself as one, but then again, by my own admission I'm an intermittent reader so I may well have missed it. I do know I never thought of him that way; he always struck me more as a rather doctrinaire Marxist, which is one of the reasons I tended to drift away. I suppose in fairness both to him and to accuracy it would be more proper to call him an "anti-capitalist" rather than a "Marxist" (and yes, there is a difference) but there is more to anarchism (and, indeed, to Marxism) than anti-capitalism or even anti-classism, so the question remains, at least for me.

As for what I think of anarchism, I'll start by saying I hope that something that is clear from the "About me" bit in the right-hand column is that I don't think of myself as an "ist" of any sort. I suppose the "ist" to which I come closest is "pacifist" in that for reasons of conscience I refuse to participate in or endorse lethal violence. Even there, the adjective "lethal" is a significant qualifier in that it means I would not forswear any and all violence of any sort.

I'm tempted to explain that in rather considerable detail, but it's not the subject here, so I'll let it go. But something that is more relevant is that I have in the past described myself as an "anarchist-socialist-communalist-capitalist eclecticist iconoclast," a description that generally drove the more doctrinaire leftist types nuts as they started ranting about the "Contradictions!"

Still, there was a meaning to it: "I am a capitalist in that I believe in the 'Ma and Pa' store, the community-level enterprise. I'm a communalist in that I believe that cooperative ventures are better than competitive ones. I'm a socialist in that I believe that beyond a certain size, profit-seeking enterprises cannot be trusted to be responsible to the communities in which they operate and at that point the community as a whole has the right and the responsibility to step in to exercise control and make decisions. I'm an anarchist in that I believe in doing that with as little government as necessary and in individual freedom and civil liberties being at the maximum possible consistent with social justice. I'm an eclecticist in that I believe you can put this together into a reasonably coherent social philosophy. And I'm an iconoclast in that I believe 'the only ultimate answer is that there is no other ultimate answer' and if we ever did build a society along the lines I envision the first thing I'd do is to try to figure out what was wrong with it and how it could be improved."

With that background and getting back to anarchism specifically, my main criticism of it is not the typical one of equating it with chaos but rather one of scale. Anarchism works fine at a small scale - in fact, we, without realizing it, tend to spend a good portion of our lives living anarchistically: Despite what the dark lords of the right (and sometimes the left) would have us believe, the real reason most of us do not, for example, steal from our neighbors is not because we're afraid of going to jail but because, well, we just don't. It's just not right and generally doesn't even cross our minds unless something - perhaps economic desperation - brings it up. The point is that anarchism as a practice works best at a level where people do, or at least based on proximity could be reasonably expected to, know each other.

But that also means that beyond a certain admittedly nebulous point, as numbers increase, distances get longer, and the ability to directly interact shrinks, that tends to break down into the "us" who are here and the "them" who are over there. The fact that making such sometimes geographical but equally often psychological divisions seems to be universal and has persisted across human history indicates to me that it is something in us, in humans, rather than in the standards of the society or the economic system in which we are educated. If you will, "the fault lies not in our economies but in ourselves" that we think "good fences make good neighbors."

However, even though I don't think anarchism can function above a community level, still I want to see it pushed. I was to see the communes, the intentional communities, the worker-owned businesses, all of it and more - because I want to see how far in that direction we can go. If some well-into-the-future government was limited to (because there was no need for it to be involved in more than) resolving disputes among various intentional communities, great. Terrific. That statement would likely surprise a number of folks who assume that because I call myself a "democratic socialist" (another term I'm tempted to explain in detail but which again is not the subject) that I am automatically an advocate of "big government" who thinks, as I have been accused here more than once, that "government is always the answer." (What I think, rather, is that government is a tool which at its best is a vehicle through with a people acts on its ideals and in the world in which we presently live, in matters such as - to choose an obvious example - securing universal access to adequate health care, government is the only existing social institution big enough to do the job.)

So let a thousand worker-owned businesses bloom! Let a thousand communes and co-ops bloom! Just, um, with a different outcome than the original.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Just in passing and of no particular consequence

Tristero at Hullabaloo notes the inane (and orchestrated) kerfullfle over Obama's intention to give a speech to schoolchildren, including the fact that it made the front page of the New York Times and complains about the wimpy Dimcrat response. In the course of that he said this:
[T]elling kids to study in school is a message Republicans don't want schoolchildren to hear?
To which I replied:
Insane, isn't it? They are outraged, outraged I tell you, insisting that if you work hard in school, if you study, if you learn, if you pay attention to the world around you, why that leads to, to - to socialism!

Which is, of course, non- ... um....

Actually, that's true. I guess they have a point after all. It's on the top of their heads, but they do have a point.
It comes out better spoken aloud with the appropriate inflections and dramatic pauses, so use your imagination.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A few footnotes to all that

1. You want to know how bad it has gotten? Group health plans now generally cover about 80% to 90% of a policyholder's medical bills, according to the Congressional Research Service. Even though that is now the industry standard, the Senate Finance Committee first discussed a requirement the plans cover at least 76% of such costs. Now, the LA Times says, the committee may set the rate as low as 65% - 15 to 25 percentage points below current industry norms.

The claimed purpose is to enable insurers to offer "flexible, more affordable plans." Which it would do by dumping more of the cost of health care directly onto the consumer. Which means the very people more likely to go for those "affordable" plans, that is, the ones who can't afford better ones, are going to be the same ones facing greater out-of-pocket expenses. Great for insurers, not so much for the insured.

2. A few days ago, the New York Times ran a fawning article all gooey sentimental about how the people who work in the health insurance industry - specifically, at Humana, which set up a series of interviews - are not "monsters." It may be
easy to demonize insurance companies[, the article said]. But Humana’s employees want the politicians to know that, in the words of Aerion V. Miles, a customer service team leader, “We are human beings, too.”
But even in that sort of controlled environment, the truth still slipped through.
“I believe we’re getting the pushback because we are standing up for what we believe in,” said Cheryl Tidwell, 45, Humana’s director of commercial sales training. “We believe there’s a better way to control costs by controlling utilization and getting people involved in their health care.”
"Controlling utilization." That's insurance-speak for telling your doctor that the company will not pay for certain procedures and tests because (although they wouldn't say this part openly) they're not profitable enough for the investors. That is, it refers to the on-going, present-day, routine business practice of faceless insurance industry bureaucrats getting between you and your doctor to make decisions about your care - the very same sort of interference the very vague possibility of it being done by the government was so horrifying it sent GOPpers and Blue Dogs howling and mobs at public meetings screeching.

(I have to mention parenthetically that yes, it is a good thing to be more involved in your own health, a good thing to take steps you can take on your own to get and stay healthy. But please remember that when insurance companies say this, it's not you they're concerned with. It's the hope of having to pay out fewer claims and thus obtain more profit.)

3. A point that has not been raised enough is that, as I noted in this post, you can't do half the calculation. Weiner and Osserman mention the other half.
Opponents keep citing the CBO's estimate that reform may cost $1.6 trillion. ... The health cost is not only reasonable [in comparison to other major costs such as the financial bailout and the Iraq war] and now includes major cost-cutting strategies but most importantly will save consumers significant sums.

Responding to another question at the July 28 news conference, Pelosi confirmed that "of course" CBO should measure consumer savings. Ways and Means Committee Chair Charles Rangel has said, "The CBO does not score savings of people in their own pocketbook that could be $2 trillion."
I've tried to make this same point in the past. Arguing with someone who'd object to single-payer or a national health care system by saying "It'll make my taxes go up," I'd say "Yes, it will. But just suppose for the sake of argument it made your taxes go up $2000 a year. It's very unlikely to be that much, but just suppose. You think you're $2000 behind. But suppose those same taxes saved you $3000 a year in reduced insurance premiums and reduced health care costs. Are you $2000 behind - or $1000 ahead? You've got to do the whole calculation."

That's something else that too many proponents - including me - have often forgotten this time around.

4. This thus becomes a good spot to note another shortcoming in my arguments, one I to which I confessed yesterday in a comment over at Lean Left. After noting that I "simply have no faith that any 'reform,' lacking at least a strong public option, will succeed in significantly expanding access," I went on to say:
I have too often in the past slipped up and talked about “increased coverage” or “reducing the number of the uninsured” when the real goal is expanding access to adequate health care. The key difference is that the latter refers not only to the uninsured but to the “underinsured,” those who have insurance but who still do not have access to regular health care and/or are not protected against the choice of financial disaster or going without treatment in the event of a serious illness because the insurance they have is inadequate to the task.

I do not see the situation arising where an individual mandate will require more than bare-bones coverage – which means that the very most I think will come out of this in the absence of some countervailing force to private insurance is to move the bulk of the uninsured into the ranks for the underinsured via what amount to federal handouts to the insurance companies (those subsidies to lower-income folks). That will make us feel better but will not significantly advance the cause of universal access to adequate health care.
Even at that, I think I put too much emphasis on the quality of health insurance you might have - but it does serve, hopefully, to clarify the point that the real goal has nothing to do with "insurance." It has to do with universal access to adequate health care. That is the goal.

In the heat of debate, it can become easy to confuse a means - which is what insurance is in this case - with the ends. That's a mistake I am now determined to make no longer, particularly because, I believe, pointing out the goal will also point out the inadequacy of the means.

A strong public option at least has the potential to make a significant move toward that goal. Nothing else on the table does and so nothing else is acceptable.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Why we will never have universal health care, Part Four

So in the post just below this one I asked if our misleaders just care less about health care reform than about something else and if so, what would that something be. The graph to the left, put together by noted number-cruncher Nate Silver of, charts the likelihood of a Senator of a given political persuasion supporting the "public option" against the amount of campaign funds they'd received from health insurance PACs since 2004. (He explains his methodology here.)

There is the core of the "something."

As Robert Weiner and Jordan Osserman, writing originally in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, declared,
[t]he opposition to health reform is a tangled web of vested interests with major financial stakes in maintaining the status quo, no matter how broken it is.
Just consider that, as the Washington Examiner reported,
[h]ealth insurers have lavished $41 million in campaign contributions on current members of Congress since 1989, with more than half going to lawmakers on the five House and Senate panels writing this year's health bills, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Since the beginning of 2008 alone, they have spent $145 million on lobbying....
Beyond that, there are additional direct let's call them personal considerations. Weiner and Osserman again:
According to recently published Congressional financial disclosures, 30 key lawmakers involved in health care legislation total nearly $11 million worth of personal investments in the healthcare sector.
And then there are the lobbyists, lobbyists who are so wired into Congress that they may as well have cots in many members' offices. And they are spending lavishly this year to make sure those cots come with a mattress and a couple of pillows.

In just the first quarter of 2009, USA Today said a bit ago, the 20 largest health insurance and drug companies and their associated trade groups had already spent nearly $35 million on lobbying, a 41% increase over 2008 - at a time when overall lobbyist spending was declining. Weiner and Osserman note that
[t]he health care industry [as a whole] is spending $1.4 million dollars per day to lobby against reform, and spent $126 million on lobbying in the first quarter, leading all other groups. Three of every four major health firms hire at least one lobbyist who previously worked for a congressman; 49 of the 136 lobbyists employed by PhRMA are former congressional staffers who retain cozy Hill relationships.
And if you think the "Nope, no lobbyists here, no siree" White House isn't dancing to the same tune, you'd better think again. The leading health insurance company trade group is called America's Health Insurance Plans. As it's head, Karen Ignagni - whose own health plan is to be treated like some kind of state secret - has been a central figure in the lobbying campaign against health reform. In the course of that, she has complained about efforts to "demonize" the industry and has claimed that the public option is actually a means to undermine private companies and replace them with a government program. Despite that, she has been to the White House at least four times this year. (Just out of curiosity, has any single-payer advocate been there even once?)

What's more, the Obama gang is so much in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry that it made
a behind-the-scenes deal to block any Congressional effort to extract cost savings from them beyond an agreed-upon $80 billion.
The Obamaites admitted to the deal - which they had previously denied existed - to "reassure" the industry in light of a House health care bill that would allow the government to negotiate drug prices.

The result of all this, coupled with the insurance industry's tactic of pretending to be for reform by "offering" to "give up" things (like pre-existing condition limitations) so unpopular it's extremely unlikely they could have kept them if they tried, has lead to a point where, according to the LA Times from last week, the industry
is poised to reap a financial windfall.

The half-dozen leading overhaul proposals circulating in Congress would require all citizens to have health insurance, which would guarantee insurers tens of millions of new customers - many of whom would get government subsidies to help pay the companies' premiums.

"It's a bonanza," said Robert Laszewski, a health insurance executive for 20 years who now tracks reform legislation as president of the consulting firm Health Policy and Strategy Associates Inc. ...

Laszewski said the industry's reaction to early negotiations boiled down to a single word: "Hallelujah!"

And that, friends, is what is more important than enacting actual, meaningful, health care reform.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Why we will never have universal health care, Part Three

Updated No matter how many times the right-wing runs the same game on them, the "liberals" never seem to get it. Every time, the same now-old cliches are trotted out, the same now-tired claims are rehashed, the same bullshit and lies are spread in the prettiest packages the current state of PR artistry allows.

The first Congressional bill to establish some sort of national health insurance program was introduced in 1935. But it seems the first serious attempt at doing it came in 1943, with the introduction of the Wagner-Murray-Dingell bill. Despite support from labor and farm groups, it went nowhere under the onslaught of AMA-driven propaganda that is was - yes, indeed - "socialized medicine."
The AMA pressed several arguments against the bill. It asserted, first, that the United States already had the highest standards of medical care the world had ever known; great strides had been made in the preceding decades and, while there still were deficiencies, these were being greatly exaggerated. Second, it was claimed that National Health Insurance would lead to Federal control of medical care, which would undermine the existing system and help destroy free enterprise. Third, it was maintained that a universal health insurance program would be exhorbitantly costly to operate. And finally, the AMA felt it was unnecessary; private insurance was growing rapidly and was believed capable of doing the job.
Sound familiar? Sixty-six years later and Congress and to some extent the public are still falling for the exact same crap.

A few years later, Truman tried and again it got cut down. A good catch by the great Tom Tomorrow at This Modern World was an image of an editorial from the May 2, 1949 issue of "Life" magazine that assailed Truman's proposals for universal access with exactly the arguments the AMA had been using, presented, creepily enough, as if they were the magazine's own invention.

It was another 16 years before Medicare and Medicaid were founded - and even though they obviously fall far short of universal coverage, they, too, were denounced as "socialized medicine."

(Which as a lengthy parenthetical note brings me back to something John Avalon said. In attempting to support his "surrender is central" thesis, he argued that "the architect of Medicaid and Medicare, Lyndon Johnson," was never so "self-defeating" as to fail to kiss his own ass in order to accommodate right-wingers.
[He] understood the need for bipartisan support for any major social reforms: His Medicare bill received the support of 70 House Republicans and 16 Senate Republicans.
What Avalon, due to either deceit or delusion, fails to note is that this came after 22 years of effort, was narrower in scope than the original proposal, and was passed in the wake of a defeat of the right-wing-dominated Republican party so crushing that there were serious discussions of if the GOP would survive as a party. But none of that was relevant to Avalon. Only the fantasized ability to cede conscience was. I say again: Fool.)

So it's been that way, it's always been that way. The only difference now is that the big guns behind the lies are no longer wielded by the AMA; while it still hopes to torpedo health care reform it simply doesn't have the clout in this fight that it used to, in part because a growing number of physicians and other health care professionals actually support single-payer. No, the howitzers are now under the direction of the insurance and drug industries. But the blather and bullshit are the same.

And the other thing that has usually (not always; there have been some advances, but usually) been that way is the reaction of the, um, "liberals," which is to back up, concede, back up some more, concede more in the guise of "compromise," accommodate and concede, until they're left with symbolism and sometimes they don't even bother with that.

And they're doing it again.

At the White House, Barack Obama, who once called a strong public option a necessary part of reform, has more recently called it "just one sliver" of health care reform. Which I suppose it is. And a keystone is "just one stone" in an archway. Why get "fixated" on that?

In the Senate, Dick Durbin - the No. 2 Democrat - is another on the list of those invoking the memory of Ted Kennedy in order to give away what he worked for.
[Durbin] listed his four top priorities for the bill and the “public option” government-financed health plan was not among them. ...

Asked if he supports naming the health care reform legislation for Kennedy, Durbin said, “I support that. ... More importantly we have to negotiate now in his spirit, try to find a bipartisan way through this. Usually at the end of the day, he would make a compromise that his most loyal fans would be disappointed with. ... [B]ut he would know just how much you needed to give up to pass the bill. And that’s what we have to try to figure out as we get closer to the finish line.”
Put more simply, according to Durbin, Kennedy was actually all about bipartisanship and passing a "bipartisan" bill is more important than passing a bill which will do any good - and we must continue to strive for that even in the face of people who have made it clear they want no bill at all.

And then there is Harry "The Dynamo" Reid, who stood passively by as the so-called "Gang of Six" - consisting of two right-wing Democrats, two reactionary GOPpers, and one at least sort of moderate from each party - hijacked the health care debate and made it their own little feifdom.

Now he says supports a public option - so long as it's private.
Reid said he doesn't think the public option ought to be a government run program like Medicare, but instead favors a "private entity that has direction from the federal government so people that don't fall within the parameters of being able to get insurance from their employers, they would have a place to go."
In other words, co-ops. Private co-ops. I swear, fog has more of a spine than this man.

Oh, but that's not fair: He does have a spine and so does Obama. They just have to face the right foe. A couple of weeks ago, Marc Ambinder wrote in "The Atlantic" that
[t]he White House and Senate Democrats won't buckle to demands from liberals that they revise their health care strategy, officials said today. ...

A White House official conceded today that Obama would have to weather anger from liberals for a while. ...

In private, White House officials are selectively attending to threats that interest groups will work to defeat Democrats who oppose a "public option" in the House and Senate. Richard Trumka, likely the next president of the AFL-CIO, threatened over the weekend to withhold union support from those politicians. The White House isn't scared. An AFL-CIO official close to Trumka said that no one from the administration has been in touch with him to protest his words or endorse him.
In fact, according to Ambinder, what the White House is really concerned about is that "Obama's brand is being tarnished" and they're looking for couple of wins to get him on the upside again.

(Thanks to Jay V at Blazing Indiscretions for that link.)

This was such idiocy, idiocy, idiocy. In an article in the new Rolling Stone (not yet available online), Matt Taibbi writes about the failure to get a decent bill.
Taibbi breaks down the five steps Congress took to be sure no bill would pass - aiming low, gutting the public option, packing it with loopholes, providing no leadership and blowing the math.
I want you to notice that first one. Notice it carefully. In a video where he talks about the article, Taibbi says:
Where they could have, maybe, pressured the Republicans into concessions by saying "Hey, we're gonna - we're gonna push for some really, really radical reforms and if you guys want something less nasty you're going to have to give a little bit." Instead of that happening they gave away their strongest bargaining position - single-payer - and suddenly they were on the defensive because now the Republicans know "If you guys don't pass something it's going to be a political disaster."
Validation, dammit, validation! Haven't I been saying that from the beginning? Didn't I say it here? And here? Haven't I said it even as I was dismissed as "too idealistic," as "not understanding the realities?" Haven't I said it in comments at Hullabaloo? At Crooks & Liars? At MMFA? At Lean Left?

Didn't I say this:
I never said single-payer would pass. I said if that’s what you want, that’s what you propose and be prepared to negotiate from there. So a shitstorm in response to single-payer? Then you (as the political party that introduced it) damn well (symbolically, of course) slam you palm down on the desk and say “Dammit, there is a problem! There is a crisis! We have a proposal to deal with that crisis! It’s on the table. There it is. We’re ready to discuss it, we’re ready to hear other ideas, but you need to have some! What’s your plan? What’s your proposal? Put up or shut up!
And this:
There would be that sort of organized, provoked reaction no matter what was introduced. What are we supposed to fear, that they’d lie louder? That they’d scream “socialized medicine?” Then you defend single-payer as a proven efficient way to provide access to health care for the greatest number, and then you not only defend, you attack: You demand to know why they find 50 million uninsured acceptable, why in the country with health care as good as anywhere in the world it just doesn’t matter to them that so many millions do not have access to that care. You follow that up by noting that Medicare is a government-run single-payer plan and demanding to know why they are against Medicare and Social Security.

And then you, as I said, put it to them: “You don’t like it? Then tell us what you’d do! Tell us or admit that you like the current system of skyrocketing costs, loss of and unavailability of access, bankruptcies, overpriced prescription meds, and insurance company bean counters telling your doctor what procedures they can and can’t do based on what’s most profitable for their employer’s investors. How can the American people trust people who approve of all that to determine health policy?”

The fact remains that if you start by pushing for single-payer, something like the public option becomes the moderate compromise. Start by pushing for the latter, and ineffectual “co-ops” become the supposed compromise before those, too, become “too radical.”
Are our political misleaders just that ignorant of history? Or just that inept? Or just that stupid? Or is it that they care less about health care reform than about something else? And what would that be?

Footnote: Something I keep wishing Obama would do and which I'm sure he hasn't and won't: I picture him having one-on-one meetings with the Blue Dogs and during the course of the conversation saying something like "I understand your concern about the cost of the program, I really do. We do need to consider economies and how to cut the deficit. So I wanted to give you a heads up on some of the things we've been thinking about." At which point he hands the senator a sheet of plain paper on which is listed all federally-funded projects in that senator's state.

Lyndon Johnson, another name being invoked as a great "compromiser," was actually a hard-nosed politician whose "negotiations" often involved a lot of schmoozing and a good deal of threat: Helen Thomas tells the story of when Senator Frank Church of Idaho began to diverge from Johnson on the issue of Vietnam, LBJ is supposed to have asked him where he got his ideas on the subject. When Church named famed columnist Walter Lippmann, Johnson replied "Well, the next time you need a dam in Idaho, you just ask Walter Lippmann."Johnson was quoted as saying of fellow legislators "I don't trust a man unless I've got his pecker in my pocket." Right now, I think health care reform need a little less Dalai Lama and a lot more LBJ.

Updated with the Footnote and a few extra links; also to correct the date of the first Congressional bill on a national health insurance program.
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