Friday, January 29, 2010

Your moment of Zinn

Howard Zinn has died of a heart attack at the age of 87.

Unlike, I suspect, a lot of folks, my first exposure to Howard Zinn - at least the first I recall - was not through A People’s History of the United States but through a small book called Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order, written in 1968 as a rebuttal to Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas' book, Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience.

As I was wont to do at the time, I wrote a lot of notes in the margins of both books. The Fortas book was all genteel legal posturing about "acceptable" protest. It impressed a lot of establishment types but not activists, especially when he went on about how actual civil disobedience (deliberate breaking of a law for a political purpose) was never ever - well, okay, maybe almost never ever - justified but that in any case the really really important thing was for all forms of protest to be for lack of a better phrase very polite.

Zinn would have none of that and went after Fortas point by point. There were, again, lots of marginal notes, but as I recall, the one area where I clearly disagreed with Zinn was his contention that protest need not be nonviolent. ("Nonviolent," realize, does not mean passive and it does not necessarily mean legal. It means nonviolent.)

My recommendation is that if you want to explore Zinn's life, go for You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train; if you want to explore his thought, The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy is what you want.

Footnote: If you want to check out a book by a Supreme Court justice that did impress '60s activists, you want Points of Rebellion by William O. Douglas, available online at this link.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Everybody's talkin', Part 3

Finishing up my criticism of Glenn Greenwald's seriously misguided and legally inadequate defense of the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, we come to the issue of corporate personhood. As Greenwald acknowledged, that was
the central principle which critics of this ruling find most offensive - that corporations possess "personhood" and are thus entitled to Constitutional (and First Amendment) rights....
But as before, Greenwald raises an issue only to dismiss it out of hand, saying that such personhood
has also been affirmed by decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence; tossing that principle aside would require deviating from stare decisis every bit as much as the majority did here.
That's a truly strange argument: It means he is bushing off those who objected to corporate personhood because doing something about it would require overturning precedent, which is exactly the course he approved in Citizens United. Yes, he's doing it to say that critics who objected to the Court overturning precedent in the case are being inconsistent, but he's doing that by being inconsistent himself in precisely the same way.

He also claims that "most commenters" who objected to his stand argued that corporations are not "persons" and money is not speech, arguments he calls "bizarre" on the grounds that none of the justices, including the dissenters, made either argument. Now, I did not read through the nearly 800 comments to see if people really were, as Greenwald asserts, consistently "pretending" that the ruling's dissenters took either of those stands. Perhaps some, perhaps "most," did. I don't know.

I also don't care because it's completely irrelevant. Both those contentions - corporations are "legal persons" and money is speech - are currently accepted jurisprudence. As Greenwald gleefully notes, quoting it twice, Justice Stevens said in his dissent "of course ... speech does not fall entirely outside the protection of the First Amendment merely because it comes from a corporation," and "no one suggests the contrary." But all that means is that the four dissenters were merely following precedent - that is, doing what the majority did not. Unless the general run of commenters actually did insist that the dissenters openly rejected corporate personhood, Greenwald is trying to win the pot with a pair of deuces.

What's more, the question raised in the case, the question before the justices, really had nothing directly to do with corporate personhood or money as speech. Those were not issues to be resolved. What was at issue was the authority of government to regulate speech in pursuit of a compelling state interest of establishing and maintaining the integrity and fairness of the political process. The dissenters, as is customary, focused on the issues in the case at hand and avoided wider ones. Sweeping judgments are not unknown in the history of SCOTUS, but they are rare.

Which means, in turn, for Greenwald to dismiss the relevance of corporate personhood and money as speech to the broader questions raised by the decision, questions such as, as I said earlier
its existence as precedent and the longer-term impact of the philosophy contained in it, one under which putting any restrictions on money in politics becomes an untenable limit on free speech,
is, yet again, intellectually dishonest. He's avoiding the issue by raising technicalities, trying to say in effect "corporate personhood is entirely irrelevant to the issue of the impact of this decision because the Court didn't address it."

However, that is simply untrue both logically and factually: Corporate personhood is relevant to the potential impact, so while it was unlikely to happen, such a direct challenge to that concept would have been welcome, at least to me. It does appear right now that it's an issue of which many people first became aware as the result of the Citizens United ruling. However, it's been around for some time and is the source of more than one egregious decision. I addressed the issue in this space once before, in February 2004, where I cited the work of progressive talk show host Thom Hartmann. I had been aware for some time of the notion that corporations are "legal persons" with (at least) many of the same rights as actual persons - I vaguely recall writing something about it in the mid-1970s - but it was from Hartmann that I learned about the origin of it, an origin that makes it an especially egregious notion. I wrote:
The "legal persons" doctrine supposedly arose from Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, a tax case the Supreme Court decided in 1886. However, Hartmann has learned that nowhere in the actual decision did the Court rule that "corporations are persons!" The phrase actually occurs in the summary written by a court reporter of the arguments presented in the case.

What apparently happened, based on letters reproduced on Hartmann's site, is that before arguments began, the Court said it didn't want to hear about whether or not the 14th Amendment applied to "corporations such as are parties in these suits" because the Court felt that it did. Court reporter J.C. Bancroft Davis asked if that should be included in his summary of the case. In reply, Chief Justice Morrison Remick Waite said it didn't really matter one way or the other "as we avoided meeting the constitutional questions in the decision." Davis chose to include it and on that was built an entire edifice of corporate-friendly decisions.
Writing in 2002, in a piece adapted from his book Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights, Hartmann suggested a darker possibility than a mere casual choice:
The claim that corporations are persons was added by the court reporter who wrote the introduction to the decision, called “headnotes.” Headnotes have no legal standing.

It appears that corporations acquired personhood by persuading a court reporter and a Supreme Court judge to make a notation in the headnotes of an unrelated law case. In Everyman's Constitution, legal historian Howard Jay Graham documents scores of previous attempts by Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field to influence the legal process to the benefit of his open patrons, the railroad corporations. Field, as judge on the Ninth Circuit in California, had repeatedly ruled that corporations were persons under the 14th Amendment, so it doesn't take much imagination to guess what Field might have suggested Court Recorder J.C. Bancroft Davis include in the transcript, perhaps even offering the language, which happened to match his own language in previous lower court cases.

Alternatively, Davis may have acted on his own initiative. This was no ordinary court reporter. He was well-connected to the levers of power in his world, which in 1880s America were principally the railroads, and had, himself, served as president of the board of a railroad company.

Regardless of how it happened, an amendment to the Constitution, designed to protect the rights of African Americans after the Civil War, passed by Congress, voted on and ratified by the states, and signed into law by the president, was re-interpreted in 1886 for the benefit of corporations. The notion that corporations are persons has never been voted into law by the people or by Congress, and all the court decisions endorsing it derive from the precedent of the 1886 case - from Davis' error.
As I wrote in that 2004 post, there are two salient points here: One, not only did the Court not say corporations are legal persons, it avowedly "avoided meeting" the question - so the subsequent assumption that it did say corporations are persons is just that: a false assumption. Second and more importantly to the present case, the issue on which the justices apparently agreed was not about if corporations have the rights of actual people but if they deserved due process under the 14th Amendment. So even what the justices agreed on did not really have anything to do with corporate "free speech" rights.

But Greenwald is not interested in any of that, indeed he won't have it. He not only accepts corporate personhood, he embraces it, he advocates it as a necessary part of the defense of liberty. In typical lawyer fashion, though, he doesn't defend it directly, instead he does it by arguing by extremes, that is, insisting if you believe A, you must also believe B, C, D, E, and so on. In this case, he says, if you believe corporations are not, doggone it, just like people, and therefore do not have the same free speech rights as people, then:
Do you believe the FBI has the right to enter and search the offices of the ACLU without probable cause or warrants, and seize whatever they want?

Do they have the right to do that to the offices of labor unions?

How about your local business on the corner which is incorporated?

The only thing stopping them from doing this is the Fourth Amendment. If you believe that corporations have no constitutional rights because they're not persons, what possible objections could you voice if Congress empowered the FBI to do these things?
Now, first off it is patently absurd to insist "the only thing stopping them" is the Fourth Amendment - the notable lack of this type of development in the nearly 100 years of living under the Constitution that preceded Santa Clara County should stand as proof enough even for Greenwald that more than the protections of the Fourth Amendment being offered to corporate "persons" is involved in that absence of tyranny. Indeed, even prior to that case it was apparently an accepted notion (because the justices thought it unnecessary to discuss it) that corporations deserved due process, which all of Greenwald's examples at the very least arguably violate.

On the other hand, while the lack of Fourth Amendment protections for corporate "persons" doesn't seem to have crushed political dissent in the 18th and 19th centuries in the US, in 1979 the claimed presence of such protections under the "corporate personhood" rubric essentially put an end to surprise safety and health inspections of incorporated businesses except under rather extraordinary circumstances. So I turn the question back to Greenwald: Is that okay with you? Another question: Do corporate "persons" have all the other rights of people under the Constitution? If not, how do you pick and choose? By your logic, I don't see how you can. So can a corporation reply to a demand for records by pleading the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination? Could a US corporation that's been around for 35 years run for president? How, once you say that corporations have the same rights as individuals, could you say no?

But let's not lawyer up and instead answer Greenwald's challenge directly: Does the Congress have the right to empower the FBI to do all the deliberately offensive things he suggests?

Potentially, yes, or no - depending on the nature of the responsibilities, protections, and rights of such a corporation as defined in corporate law and the corporation's charter.

It is important - it is vital - for us to remember that corporations do not actually exist in the physical world. Oh, various facilities owned by the corporation do - but the corporation itself is a legal fiction, a creation of the state, one which by design exists apart from any of the actual people involved in it. Corporations provide for those involved with them protection against certain kinds of risk - that is their whole point! And it is altogether possible for a corporation to exist without any facilities, officers, employees, agents, income, or debts, to exist solely on paper. It would be incapable of action - but legally, it would still exist.

This is why it was so incredibly outrageous for Greenwald, in the course of defending corporate personhood as some necessity of political liberty, some bulwark against tyranny, to refer to corporations as merely "organized groups of people." No, they are not and it is inane to suggest otherwise. Unincorporated groups, organizations, associations, clubs - that is, actual "organized groups of people" - whether political or otherwise, long-term or ad hoc, exist only as the aggregate of their members. No members, no group. If any unincorporated organization owns property, there will be actual people on the hook for actual debts. If there is a lawsuit, it is against people, not some disembodied legal formality. Corporations, by design, by their nature, are different.

That's the point here: Corporations are, again, designed to protect involved persons against certain types of risk. That is, by incorporating, those people gain special protections and that corporation occupies a special status, not available to others. It is entirely reasonable, logical, and Constitutional to expect that in return for that special status, that those corporations - not the individuals, the corporations - face certain restrictions on what they can do in the public arena as compared to what individuals can.

So could the FBI do all that crap Greenwald proposes? Could Congress, as he says in another hypothetical, pass a law to fine any incorporated business or organization $100,000 for each criticism it makes of the government? Yes - if we choose to define the nature of the authorities and duties of corporations in those terms. And no - if we define them in those terms instead.

We are entirely within our rights and authorities as a free people to define the rights, protections, and authorities of corporations in whatever way we choose, including imposing whatever limitations we care to place on them. We offer the privileges and protections, we set the conditions under which they are available. You don't want the restrictions? You don't incorporate.

We can and we damn well should find that corporations do not have rights of free speech even as we may well want to (and should) say they have rights of due process. If the concern is about the effect of limitations on advocacy groups, we can treat non-profits differently from for-profits (including saying that for-profits can't set up non-profits to evade the restrictions). The point is, we can choose.

To suggest otherwise, to suggest corporations, by definition, either must have all the Constitutional rights of people or they can have no rights at all, that our only choice is between allowing huge corporations to spend untold amounts of cash in support of political candidates and having the ACLU, labor unions, and the Ma-and-Pa store down the street be at constant risk of being crushed under the heel of jack-booted FBI agents, Is. Utter. Pathetic. Nonsense.

It is true that corporations are "legal persons." It is also true that they should not be.

Footnote: Just for the heck of it, check out this article on "10 Ways to Stop Corporate Dominance of Politics."

One Other Footnote: Before anyone raises it, I'm well aware that Greenwald said he is "deeply ambivalent" about the case because the question of the "compelling state interest" involved is a "hard" one. But the blunt fact is, no such ambivalence shows through in his arguments and I can't see where it was more than a passing thought with nothing "deep" about it.

Everybody's talkin', Part 2

The other big subject of conversation the past couple of days has been the announcement that President Hopey-Changey is proposing a three-year spending freeze on discretionary domestic spending - with increases limited to the rate of inflation thereafter. In all the discussion of the possible reasons why he's doing it - from political pant-wetting in the wake of the Massachusetts election to some naive belief in the chimera of "bipartisanship" to genuine commitment to just dumb-assery - I think there is one key quote that has been missed.

Note first, however and just for the record, that a spending freeze actually means a service cut: Over the past five years (2005-2009), the annual inflation rate has ranged from a low of 2.7% to a high of 3.8%. So for the moment, assume that over the next three years, inflation averages 3.2%, just below the mid-point of that range. A three-year freeze would thus equate to a 9.6% cut in real terms, that is, in terms of the ability of affected programs to deliver services.

Leave that aside for now since the White House insists that it's not an "across the board" freeze, that some programs will see increases and others cuts, creating a net "freeze," and the actual budget numbers won't be available for a few more days. But do keep in the back of your mind that "spending freeze" by definition means "service cuts."

The domestic discretionary part of the federal budget is about one-eighth the total budget and the WH has promised to save about $250 billion over 10 years with this "freeze" - which is peanuts compared to the deficit projected to accumulate over that same time. About three percent of it, in fact. An amount small enough that already some of the people with who some say he is trying to connect, such as Blue Dog Dems, have bad-mouthed it as obviously inadequate and GOPpers, to what should be no one's surprise, have openly mocked it.

So you've got a proposal that will tick off a variety of constituencies who will be hit with cuts, will further anger an already disgusted and distressed base by exempting everything involved with killing people and restricting liberties (even though they account for more than half the total discretionary budget), will not impress or engage political opponents, and will not even accomplish anything meaningful in its own terms. So why in heaven's name do it?

That's where that missed quote comes in. One thing I expect everyone would agree on is that, assuming both that deficit reduction is a necessity and that military and "national security" spending is off the table, the only areas big enough to make a difference are the major entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Which brings us to the quote:
[O]ne administration official said that limiting the much smaller discretionary domestic budget would have symbolic value. That spending includes lawmakers’ earmarks for parochial projects, and only when the public believes such perceived waste is being wrung out will they be willing to consider reductions in popular entitlement programs, the official said.

“By helping to create a new atmosphere of fiscal discipline, it can actually also feed into debates over other components of the budget,” the official said, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity.
Bingo. The purpose is not to actually do anything about deficits, it's to convince enough people that they're serious enough about reducing the deficit, and that the need to reduce the deficit is serious enough, to lay the groundwork for attacking Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid - particularly, I predict, the latter because it's beneficiaries are poor people who lack political clout.

Happily, on Tuesday the Senate failed to overcome a filibuster against, thus killing, the move for Congress to essentially cede its responsibility for federal budgets to an appointed "budget commission" whose package of proposals would receive an up or down, now or never, "take it or leave it" vote with no amendments. That still leaves the O-man's (I keep wanting to call him "The Big O" but that's already taken and deservedly so) intention to establish his own commission, which won't have any legislative authority but still is a convenient means to push the "necessity" of slashing large - and quite successful, which is why the bozos and bankers, along with the reactionary greedheads, hate them - social programs.

Do not doubt for a minute that this is, ultimately, at root, what is behind the whole range of screeching rants about "unsustainable deficits" and "long-term stability" and assorted similar crap designed to trap us into accepting the inevitability of withered public programs. I recall hearing this same shouted refrain since the Carter administration, for pity's sake, a persistence across time and economic circumstance (here, for example, is one from six years ago) that the media for some reason which - I nearly said "which I can't comprehend" but which I do - the media appears unwilling to mention.

Just like in the "Social Security is going bankrupt!" fear-mongering of a few years ago, the intention is to develop a driving drumbeat overlaid with shrieking strings to create such a sense, such a feeling, of looming but unspecific doom that it will stampede people into contradicting their own best interests and undoing the gains of decades. The only difference now is that instead of a frontal attack it's a flanking move. We saw through it before, we need to see through it again.

Everybody's talkin', Part 1

"We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob." - Franklin Delano Roosevelt, October 11, 1936.

Something that has a lot of virtual tongues wagging of late is the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the Court both ignored precedent and went beyond the parameters of the arguments of the two sides to throw out over a century of law and jurisprudence preventing corporations from directly funding political campaigns.

Much of the reaction lines up the way you would expect it to: corporations and the right, i.e., the people with the money, are delighted, while clean government activists and the left are anything from upset to outraged.

While there may well be more than this, I'm aware to two exceptions to that pattern, two people normally thought of as being at least generally on the left who supported the decision on the grounds of being First Amendment absolutists: Jonathan Turley and Glenn Greenwald. As much respect as I have for each of them, I think in this case they are flat out wrong and their concerns severely misguided.

It is Greenwald's argument I'll address both because I think it falls well short of its goal of justifying the Court's decision and, more significantly, I was offended by the condescending arrogance with which he advanced it. (While I think Turley was equally wrong in his conclusion, he seemed both more concerned about the implications and less convinced of the unassailable righteousness of his position.)

The shorter and probably clearer way of doing this is not to go through both of Greenwald's columns on the decision via the quote-response route but just to discuss where I think he went wrong. So rather than include lengthy quotes from the columns, I'll say you can find the first here and the second here and leave it to you to read them if you suspect what I say here lacks proper context.

Greenwald pretty much divides up opponents of the decision into two overlapping camps: those who say it "will produce very bad outcomes" and those who say corporations are not people and should not be afforded the same rights.

In dealing with his arguments against the first group, let me say at the top that there is one important point on which I do agree with Greenwald: While I think the direct results of the decision will be bad, I don't think those results will be nearly as bad as some people fear precisely because corporations already wield enormous influence over our political process and the difference between a corporation being able to say, as someone (I can't remember who) said, "Ask Senator X why he kills puppies" and "Vote for Senator Y because Senator X is a puppy-killer" is not itself going to determine if democracy lives or dies. No, the problem with the decision, the danger of it, is not the immediate effect but its existence as precedent and the longer-term impact of the philosophy contained in it, one under which putting any restrictions on money in politics becomes an untenable limit on free speech.

Which is why, incidentally, Greenwald's proposed solution of public financing of elections is a pointless fantasy: If you have it, either you have public financing plus all that other money, which hardly reduces the influence of money (which means, of course, the influence of those that have the money), or you have public financing with restrictions on what other funding candidates can use, at which point some corporation represented by some well-heeled right-wing legal outfit says "Wait a minute! Are you telling me I can't give money to support Candidate So-and-So because they took public financing? That's a denial of my free speech!" Based on what the Court said here, who could object? Certainly not Glenn Greenwald.

Getting to the meat of it, Greenwald's reply to the "bad outcomes" group is to airily dismiss the point as irrelevant.
Either the First Amendment allows these speech restrictions or it doesn't[, he said]. ...

The "rule of law" means we faithfully apply it in ways that produce outcomes we like and outcomes we don't like. ... If the Constitution or other laws bar the government action in question, then that's the end of the inquiry; whether those actions produce good results is really not germane.
In fact, he describes the argument as "irrational" and equates it with what the right-wing "often" does. (Such equations appear several more times in the course of his arguments.)

Leaving aside for the moment the unnecessary slam, what strikes me as irrational is claiming that outcomes are irrelevant. We're not talking here about whether individuals "like" or "dislike" the law, we're not talking about personal preferences, we're talking about a potential harm done to the society as a whole, to the political process itself. For Greenwald to openly acknowledge - indeed tout his awareness of - that risk yet to say in effect that we're Constitutionally helpless to address it seems to me - to use another word he wields against those who disagree with his view - bizarre.

And in a general sense, if outcomes don't matter, if impact is "not germane," then how are slander and libel, how is child pornography, how is shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater, not free speech? How are laws against false advertising not unconstitutional? Please don't try to say it's because those laws aim to limit harm, that's exactly what the restrictions on corporate money in political campaigns are intended to do: limit harm to the political process. And please don't try to say that the protections of the First Amendment apply only to "expressly political" speech; that idea - popularized by Robert Bork - got shot down long ago.

Greenwald does admit there is a First Amendment-related argument to be made, that of a "compelling state interest" in limiting "speech" as defined as money in political campaigns. However, as in the "outcomes" argument, he doesn't actually deal with it but raises it only to immediately mock it with another of those equations.
Those who want to restrict free speech always argue that there's a compelling reason to do so ("we must ban the Communist Party because they pose a danger to the country"; "we must ban hate speech because it sparks violence and causes a climate of intimidation"; "we must ban radical Muslim websites because they provoke Terrorism").
So disagree with the majority of the Court (and Greenwald) and you're the same as people who would deny free speech to whoever is politically unpopular at the moment - and, it can be assumed by extension, support free speech only for those with who you agree.

Put another way, what Greenwald is saying is "If you disagree with me, you don't support the First Amendment like I do."

You think I'm overstating the arrogance, the condescension? Consider this, where he says that Bushites charged those who objected to Shrub's policies on legal and Constitutional grounds with being
caught up in "legalisms," absolutism and dogmatic purity at the expense of addressing a "real-world" crisis: the threat of Terrorism. "People are trying to KILL US and you're worried about due process." Those same name-calling accusations were made frequently ... last night about those who think the First Amendment actually means what it says and can't be violated in the name of good results ("your absolutism and legalistic purity ignores the real-world problem of corporate influence").
So again: Disagree with me and you're just the same as the people who justified torture, illegal wiretapping, warrantless searches, and denial of due process.

Then there was this:
When a court invalidates Law X or Government Action Y on constitutional grounds, it's always so striking how one's views about the validity of the court's ruling track one's beliefs about the desirability of Law X/Action Y on policy grounds.... Campaign finance laws are popular with readers here, and thus a court decision striking down those laws inevitably will be unpopular (though the public at large - including 2/3 of Democrats - overwhelmingly agrees with the Court's ruling).
Translation: It is just so common that people can't tell the difference between what they want and what's Constitutional. Not like me! "Arrogant" hardly begins to do justice to this.

While we're at it, that reference to the public "overwhelmingly" agreeing with the Court is, let's call it for the moment, problematic.

First, they didn't "agree with the Court's ruling." They couldn't have: The survey was conducted this past October. Next, it was 62% of Democrats, closer to three-fifths than two-thirds, but I suppose that's just some run-of-the-mill overstatement and not really important. What's important is that he didn't say what the rest of the poll said.
Fifty-seven percent of Americans consider campaign donations to be a protected form of free speech, and 55% say corporate and union donations should be treated the same way under the law as donations from individuals are. At the same time, the majority think it is more important to limit campaign donations than to protect this free-speech right. [Emphasis added.]
Indeed, majorities of Democrats and Independents and even a plurality of Republicans - 52% overall - said limiting donations was the higher priority.
More specifically, 61% of Americans think the government should be able to limit the amount of money individuals can contribute to candidates and 76% think it should be able to limit the amount corporations or unions can give.
For Greenwald to pluck out that one number, how many Democrats in hypothetical principle approved the decision, while ignoring the rest of the findings is more than problematic - it's bluntly dishonest.

There's another area where his argument, I say, is dishonest: his treatment of stare decisis (literally, "to stand by decided matters" - that is, to follow precedent). After calling the discussion of the point "intellectually confused," Greenwald allows as how
[i]t's absolutely true that the Citizens United majority cavalierly tossed aside decades of judicial opinions upholding the constitutionality of campaign finance restrictions.
But, he insisted, that's another irrelevancy because the Court has overturned precedents to the approval of liberals, citing Brown v. Board of Education and how that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). But contrary to Greenwald's implication, there was nothing cavalier about the Court's decision in Brown. It directly addressed Plessy and what was wrong with it: Plessy had declared that segregated ("separate") facilities were Constitutional so long as they were essentially the same ("equal"). As applied to public education, the issue before it, the Court in Brown specifically rejected that contention in so many words:
We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.
Equating that with the sort of "oh, never mind all that" dismissal given to precedent by the Roberts Court is worse than ridiculous, it's deceptive.

I am deeply distressed and the more so the more I think about it. And I haven't even gotten to the issue of corporate personhood. But it's late, I'm tired, and it deserves a better treatment than I can give it now, so that's going to have to wait until later. For now, there will be this and one other post, already written.

First Footnote: Greenwald later posted a podcast interview with ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero,
where he explains how these laws burden the ability of advocacy groups like the ACLU to have their views heard and why they find these laws so constitutionally troubling.
Apparently Greenwald missed the news that as a result of the Citizens United decision, the ACLU is considering revising its position on campaign finance laws.

Second Footnote: In discussing why he maintains that the decision will have little real impact because of the ineffectiveness of current campaign finance laws, he wrote that
[c]ampaign finance laws are a bit like gun control statutes: actual criminals continue to possess large stockpiles of weapons, but law-abiding citizens are disarmed.
Oh, puke! Did he really say that? What a pile of unmitigated crap.

Not only are "law-abiding citizens" not "disarmed," not with over a third of households owning their share of over 200 million guns, non-fatal gun crimes dropped by more than half between 1993 and 2005 while gun homicides dropped by over 40% over that same time.

Wow. Just - wow.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

On the other hand

One claim made by climate change naysayers involves the so-called "heat island effect." That's where temperature-measuring stations are affected by sources of nearby heat - such by being placed too close to an air conditioner or on an asphalt surface. The result, the deniers claim, is temperature readings that are too warm and thus unsuited to analyzing climate change.

Noted naysayer Anthony Watts has made something of a cottage industry of that, with volunteers taking photographs of poorly-situated stations and making up slide shows of the results.

I was never quite sure what their scientific point was in terms of dismissing global warming, both because it wasn't like no one knew about "heat islands" until these folks brought it up - it is, after all, why temperatures in city centers tend to be a bit higher than those in outlying areas - and even if the temperatures recorded were too high in absolute terms, if they're going up over time it's still evidence of warming.

But, um, it develops that there is a more fundamental problem with the enterprise, as reported by DeSmog Blog:
A recent peer-reviewed paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research looked at data from 114 weather stations from across the US over the last twenty years and compared measurements from locations that were well sited and those that weren’t.

They did find an overall bias, but it was towards cooling rather warming.

According to the authors,

“the bias is counter intuitive to photographic documentation of poor exposure because associated instrument changes have led to an artificial negative (“cool”) bias in maximum temperatures and only a slight positive (“warm”) bias in minimum temperatures.”
[Emphasis in original.]

That is, the "bias" was toward measuring minimum temperatures as slightly higher than they should have - but measuring maximum temperatures below where they should have, and to a greater extent. The net result was an average temperature slightly below where - slightly cooler than - it should have been.
This is latest in an expanding body of science that has looked at the urban heat island effect in excruciating detail and found nothing to undermine the observed and disturbing warming in the US over the last several decades,
DeSmog Blog concludes, citing studies that found, among other things, that "any urban-related trend is an order of magnitude smaller" - that is, about one-tenth as much - "than decadal and longer time-scale trends" and thus would be swamped by those longer-term trends.

But I doubt that will stop the naysayers from pushing the same line as they have. As someone noted in comments to the post,
Either way - the damage is done because optics count.
Which serves to drive home the point that, as I said just below, the naysayers are not engaged in science. PR, yes. "Optics," yes. Science, no.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Oh, effing terrific

On Wednesday, the IPCC retracted a claim made in its 2007 report that Himalayan glaciers were melting so rapidly there was a "very high" chance that they would be gone by 2035, leaving Central and South Asia in a state of severe, perhaps permanent, drought.

It turns out that the claim was based not on peer-reviewed science but on the speculation of an Indian glaciologist named Syed Hasnain, who made the statement in a 1999 interview published in New Scientist - a respected popular journal of science but not a peer-reviewed one. While those glaciers are melting, they aren't doing so at nearly the pace the 2007 report indicated - and some of them may even be expanding. The statement should not have appeared in the report. So the IPCC has retracted it.

Just how long do you think it will take for the nanny-nanny naysayers to get all bug-eyed, to start screeching and pointing fingers about this? Oh, wait, they already are.
Climate change skeptics have lapped up the scandal, which they've already dubbed "Glaciergate," saying that it further erodes the credibility of climate science already damaged by last year's Climategate e-mail scandal. Global warming denier Peter Foster, writing in Canada's National Post, said the error showed how the "IPCC's task has always been not objectively to examine science but to make the case for man-made climate change by any means available."
There are so many things wrong with that paragraph that it's hard to disentangle the nonsense from the rest of it. One thing is that I have really gotten sick of the lazy, sloppy way that supposed journalists string together claims made by the naysayers in a way that makes them sound like accepted facts rather than the wild, unsubstantiated bullshit that they represent. In this case, how many casual readers are going to realize that "erodes the credibility," "already damaged," "Climategate" (presented without, be sure to note, quotation marks), and "scandal" are the words of the naysayers spouting their already-debunked garbage rather than a recitation of conventional wisdom - especially when the sentence starts out by embracing the too-easily-employed description "scandal?"

(I can't help but compare this to my experience some years ago of writing press releases for a political campaign, during which newspapers insisted that everything I stated had to be punctuated with some form of "he said," even when it was, indeed, a statement of routine fact that was not disputed by anyone involved.)

But the other thing involved here is more important: The IPCC initially defended the assertion - but when it was shown that it did not come from peer-reviewed work, that it could not be firmly substantiated, it was retracted.

So what "scandal?" What the hell are they talking about? In fact, that's part of how science is supposed to work: When you're proven wrong, you take it back. As IPCC Vice-chair Jean-Pascal van Ypersele said,
"Some people will attempt to use it to damage the credibility of the IPCC; but if we can uncover it and explain it and change it, it should strengthen the IPCC's credibility, showing that we are ready to learn from our mistakes."
But that, of course, is not how the nanny-nanny naysayers will see it, nor how they will seek to use it. Instead, they will use the very self-correction that is part of science as a weapon against it. And they will do it, and do it with neither pause nor shame, because they are not engaged in science. They are engaged in PR. Some in service to corporations, some in obeisance to corporate ideology, some because it's just easier to close their eyes than to see, some because any mention of the UN sends black helicopters flying in their skulls. But whatever the reason, what they are doing is, again and quite clearly, not science. And it never should be regarded as such.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Karma can be a bitch

Nearly five years ago, back in February 2005, as part of a post on privacy matters I addressed the "unbelievably slimy" effort by Phill Kline, then the attorney general of Kansas, to force abortion clinics turn over the complete medical records of nearly 90 women and girls, claiming he needed them for an investigation into underage sex and illegal late-term abortions.

Not just information actually necessary for such a weirdly-combined investigation, but the complete, unedited medical records - records which would include the patient's name, medical history, and details of her sex life, birth control practices, and psychological profile.

He initially won in court but eventually the effort failed.

That wasn't Kline only claim to infamy: If the name sounds familiar it's probably because he was also the man who persecuted Dr. George Tiller for years.

Which gives me not one but two good reasons to take open delight in the fact that TPM reports that he is now facing an ethics complaint charging him with a large-scale abuse of office. He stands
accused of dispatching staff to record license plates of women entering George Tiller's abortion clinic, getting records from a motel where patients stayed, and obtaining state medical files under false pretenses, then retaining them after his term as AG was over and repeatedly lying about it in court. ...

Kline is also accused of violating professional standards by appearing on the O'Reilly Factor five days before the 2006 election to talk about his pursuit of Tiller, flouting a warning from the state Supreme Court not to publicize legal positions.
The complaint was filed by the state's disciplinary administrator, who reports to the state Supreme Court. Kline will appear before a state board in May and could lose his law license. That wouldn't make up for what he put Dr. Tiller, Planned Parenthood and other agencies, and a number of Kansas women through - but it would be sweet nonetheless.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Finally Fixed

Yes! After going through pretty much what I expected - some tedious hours of cutting and pasting (and re-doing when formatting went weird) - the new look is here with comments.

I still liked Haloscan better that what I've got now but I just don't like Echo, which seems more geared toward "Hey! Tell all your 'friends' on Facebook et. al. that you said something somewhere!" rather than an actual exchange at the comment site.

No matter. I got what I got. Moving on.

Comment irritation

Updated Okay, comments are going to be a problem here for a bit.

Haloscan, as you know, was bought out and converted to some little monstrosity called Echo. I don't like Echo. I don't like the look, I don't like that there is no way to have a link to your website (that isn't written out in the body of the comment), I don't like that there is no way to link directly to a comment, and I really don't like the idea of being expected to pay more for something that gives me less than I had before.

So Echo nee Haloscan is gone, no longer working here.

I tried to set up comments under Blogger but they don't work, either. It appears now that the only way I can get them to work is to "upgrade" to one of the inane color-by-numbers "layout" templates, which will lose everything in the right-hand column here, requiring me to reconstruct it by hand.

So it's going to require a bit of time (and, I suspect, a lot of irritation) before that's done. You'll know it's done when you see an obvious change in color or design or some such here.

In the meantime, I encourage anyone who has something to say to email me; the address is right over there on the right. If you do, I'd strongly suggest a subject line something like "Re Lotus" or "About your blog post" or some such thing to make sure it doesn't get mistaken for spam.

This post will be kept at the top for about a week.

Updated with something else I don't like about Echo: If you follow a link in a comment, the link opens in the same window - and there's no way to get back to the comment thread. You have to go back to the original post and re-open the comments to continue reading them.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Life and death

There is too much death.

Too much loss, too much pain, too much despair. Too much death.

Haiti overwhelms the senses; death closer to home overwhelms the soul. In between lies all the death that once flared across our awareness but is now mostly forgotten.

Death in Darfur, where famine and disease have become unimportant or at least invisible to us because they are not as bad as they once were even as attacks continue and 2.7 million people remain "displaced."

Death in southern Sudan, where people are murdered for their cattle and a peace agreement between south and north is on the verge of collapse.

Death in DR Congo, where over 100,000 people have been driven from their homes just since October in the face of an upsurge of violence.

Death in Somalia, where because of threats and violence the World Food Program has pulled out of the southern part of the country, leaving up to 1 million people without assistance.

Death in Iraq, a place where our attention faltered as soon as it was Iraqis doing the dying and no longer Americans.

Death in Afghanistan, where civilians killed are a quickly-forgotten headline about how the latest "incident" affects US "objectives" and exist only as guesses and estimates - even as those estimates were up by a third in 2009 over 2008.

Death in the rest of the twenty-one on-going conflicts around the world, most of which involve people who have been killed by the hundreds, the thousands, the tens of thousands and more, in fights of which we are but dimly aware - if at all.

And beyond even that, far beyond even that, there is the death that comes in bits and pieces, draining away life not in sudden huge chunks but steadily, like an opened vein, a life at a time, so steadily that we allow ourselves to forget it's happening, like a drumbeat in the distance that blends into the audio wallpaper - forgetting because to think of it too much is like opening our own veins.

Death like that of hunger, of malnutrition, of disease - of poverty. According to UN estimates, someone dies of hunger or a related cause every second, 36 million a year. Every six seconds, a child under five dies of hunger or a related cause. That's over 14,000 a day - and if the recent estimates of the earthquake's devastation prove accurate, that's a Haiti every week of the year. Every week. Every year.

There is too much death.

Yes, yes, yes! I know all about the "cycle of life." I know all about the philosophy of how if nothing died, nothing could be born. I know all about the fact that even in the face of all the wars and hunger, world population is still increasing and about the increased pressure on resources that is producing and will produce.

But when coming home to a rapidly blinking light on the answering machine can cause the heart to accelerate to match, when through that, that same heart is reminded anew that every death stabs at some heart, every death opens a wound in some soul, every death leaves a hole in some life, it still seems to be that there is just too much death.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I can think of nothing else to say

Updated - I don't believe in curses, but if I did, I would think the nation of Haiti is cursed. How much poverty and hunger, and how many natural disasters, is one nation, are one people, supposed to experience?

- This is one of the very few good reasons, perhaps the only good reason, for a military: having on tap a significant number of people organized and trained in moving large amounts of materiel and setting things up on the fly. (For example, I understand that the cockpit of an Air Force transport jet on the ground at the airport in Port-au-Prince is now acting as a flight control tower.)

- Pat Robertson is a senile, paranoid bigot and Rush Limbaugh is a disgusting skin-bag stuffed with maggots.

- For those who can offer assistance, my first pick for a donation would be Doctors Without Borders, but a list of some other worthies is here.

Updated to say that this is a link to some before-and-after photos showing the extent of the damage.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Unhealthy compromise

Just as perfection must not be the enemy of the good, compromise should not abet the inadequate. - Dave Colavito, writing at The Huffington Post on Friday to urge disinvestment from the health insurance industry until reforms are made.
Updated So Digby makes reference to a "provocative" post from Tuesday by Chris Bowers at OpenLeft, who wonders aloud if any of the "supposed opponents" of the health care deform bill, "whether lefties or teabaggers," will work for GOPper Scott Brown in the special senatorial election in Massachusetts later this month and thereby "seize this newfound opportunity to defeat the bill."
Brown has a chance, even if only an outside chance. If Brown wins, he would probably be sworn in on January 21st. While there is an off-chance the final vote on health care reform will have already taken place by then, odds are that negotiations on the health care bill will still be ongoing.
Brown would be a 41st GOPper vote, enough to block final passage, and thus his election "would bring a sudden and surprising end to the health care reform legislative process." Bowers goes on:
For lefties, working for a Republican might be more difficult to swallow [than it would be for teabaggers]. ... [But] this might be the best remaining chance to stop a trillion dollar giveaway to the insurance industry. And what of all those calls to run primary challenges against Progressives in Congress who vote for the health care bill? Here is an opportunity to pre-emptively take out an incoming progressive Senator before she even votes for the health care bill.
Digby called that "a very interesting strategic argument" but it is, in fact, nothing of the sort. Not only was there nothing "provocative" about Bowers' post, there was nothing about any real "strategy," either. It was, rather, a pathetic attempt at Swiftian satire, intended as a sneer at anyone opposed to the mockery of health care "reform" that has emerged by saying in essence "Then why aren't you working for Scott Brown? Huh? Huh?"

Look, the idea, even the suggestion, that progressives would further empower reactionaries in order to defeat the health insurance bill is idiotic nonsense. But it's the kind of thing those of us who are aware of the longer-term defeat what is happening now represents have had to abide: Besides being considered everything from foolish to "living in a dream world" to being ready to see people die in order to express a dislike of Joe Lieberman (Or was it Blue Dogs? Depends on the day, I guess), now we are either closet right-wingers or useful idiots.

There are two ways the legislation could be stopped, neither of which I expect to happen: One is if it is defeated by GOPper and reactionary opposition, the other is if it is rejected by a sufficient number of progressives voting it down avowedly because "This is just not good enough." Short-term, the result is the same; longer-term, that is, in terms of strategy, the conviction among progressive opponents such as myself is that the latter simply is more likely to advance the goal of actual universal access to adequate health care than accepting the pending legislation is, especially considering its likely final form - that is, something close to the Senate bill.

That form is one that even as its advocates avidly, breathlessly, declare its vital, indeed "historic," nature, even they have to admit is seriously (although, they insist, not fatally) flawed. In fact, it's so flawed that National Nurses United, the largest professional organization and union of registered nurses in the US, with 150,000 members, came out against it last month.
“It is tragic to see the promise from Washington this year for genuine, comprehensive reform ground down to a seriously flawed bill that could actually exacerbate the healthcare crisis and financial insecurity for American families, and that cedes far too much additional power to the tyranny of a callous insurance industry,” said NNU co-president Karen Higgins, RN. ...

“Sadly, we have ended up with legislation that fails to meet the test of true healthcare reform, guaranteeing high quality, cost effective care for all Americans, and instead are further locking into place a system that entrenches the chokehold of the profit-making insurance giants on our health. If this bill passes, the industry will become more powerful and could be beyond the reach of reform for generations,” Higgins said.
I haven't heard much - anything, actually - about that source of opposition among the oh-so-"realistic" portions of the lefty blogosphere busily chiding the rest of us for our unwillingness to concede defeat via a false claim of victory; maybe it's because even the must hypnotized of the Obamabots can't bring themselves to claim that registered nurses don't care about patients and health care.

It just seems that every time I hear something new about this business, it gets worse. We're already heard, for just a few examples, that there's an individual mandate but no real cost controls, that the "ban" on recissions is bogus, being no stronger than what has existed since 1996, and that there are restrictions on abortion rights. And then there's the fact that the Senate bill continues the bizarre anti-trust exemption for the health insurance industry. And despite - or equally likely because of - all the compromises, over 40% of the uninsured will still be uninsured 10 years from now when the program is "fully in force" (as of 2019, 23 million uninsured under the Senate bill versus 54 million uninsured under "current law" - CBO figures).

More recently, we (or at least I) have learned about the "wellness" provisions, under which, no, you can't be turned down for insurance (after 2014 when the provisions go into effect, that is), but you can be charged up to double it you fail "wellness" programs because you are overweight or smoke or don't exercise enough - or have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or any number of other chronic medical conditions.

Double? How about triple, quadruple, rates based on age or having certain conditions. Remember, you are required to have insurance, so you can't refuse to pony up. Meanwhile, insurers will be able to sell policies “across state lines,” with the result the same as it was for credit cards companies' ability to avoid usury laws: Insurers will set up shop in the states with the fewest, weakest, consumer protections and sell from there, effectively avoiding the stronger laws in other states.

Oh, and here's one I just learned about a couple of days ago, via California Progress Report:
Under the Senate version of the healthcare bill, caps are NOT eliminated for existing policies. If you have health insurance now, your caps remain in place, unless you can get a new health insurance policy. But since most new (and affordable) plans are only going to the young and healthy, this leaves most of us out in the cold. ...

This problem is so severe that an estimated 300,000 Americans will reach their lifetime limit by 2019. And since most people reaching this limit have chronic conditions, any lifetime limit on their healthcare policy could be an actual limit on their lifetime.
(Sidebar update: In my December 8 post, linked above, I referred to caps being maintained so long as they were not "unreasonable." In a subsequent manager's amendment, that was removed, eliminating caps. But as California Progress Report now makes clear, that only applies to new policies.)

But wait! What about all those good effects? What about the "expanded coverage?" Well, as NNU Co-president Deborah Burger put it,
“Those wishful statements ignore the reality that much of the expanded coverage is based on forced purchase of private insurance without effective controls on industry pricing practices or real competition and gaping loopholes in the insurance reforms.”
Or as I put it recently, it's not 30 million more people with health insurance, it's 30 million people forced to buy health insurance - some number of who will
find themselves with low-cost, high-deductible policies that still leave them without access to health care because even as they can afford the premiums, they can't afford the deductibles.
Well, maybe, but still this is a First Step! A Good Start! One that will be Improved Upon in the Years To Come! I'll leave aside the fact that Medicaid and Medicare (passed nearly 45 years ago) were also supposed to be "first steps" as well as my confusion about how the same federal government that I am branded some kind of fool for thinking could be forced into a true universal coverage program will eagerly embrace one if we just pass this half-assed bill first, which together leave me wondering about just how many years are in a "to come," and defer once again to NNU.
NNU Co-president Jean Ross [said] “the bill seems more likely to be eroded, not improved, in future years due to the unchecked influence of the healthcare industry lobbyists and the lessons of this year in which all the compromises have been made to the right.”
Again, that's an argument I've previously made, that future efforts will not be directed to expanding or improving the program but to defending it against attacks. Indeed, it's already happening, Talking Points Memo reports:
With Democratic senators united on the health care bill ... their campaign arm has settled on an attack plan for 2010: Republicans would "repeal" it if they win control.
The damn thing hasn't even been passed yet and already the Dems' focus is not "we'll make it better" but "we'll keep it from getting worse."

But I think the thing that gets me off more than anything else about the whole crappy business - not necessarily the worst or most damaging aspect, but the bit that just gripes me the most - has been the attitude of the O-crowd, that is, the White House. Even some who accuse me of believing in "magical ponies," claiming with utter conviction and exquisite stupidity that I believe that if progressives reject this bill that next year national health care will be created, even some of them have openly agreed that I was right in saying that the Democrats (and particularly the White House) screwed it up at the very start by tossing single-payer into the trash heap before the issue was even engaged, compromising and backing up even before the debate began.

So what is the one thing the White House has weighed in on? What is the one thing that has moved Barack Obama to say "I want this in the bill?" Not a public option, not ending antitrust exemption, nothing about recissions or caps or Medicare expansion or abortion rights or quality standards or regulatory enforcement mechanisms. No, the one thing the O-man has specifically endorsed is the plan to finance the program via a whopping 40% excise tax on employer-provided insurance plans worth more than $8,500 a year for individuals or $23,000 a year for a family for four - the so-called and often-misnamed "Cadillac" insurance plans. The House bill calls for the program to be paid for by a surtax on those individuals making over $500,000, and couples making more than $1 million, a year - but we can't have that, oh no! Tax the rich? Out of the question!

No, we've got to finance this largely on the backs of the middle class, most particularly union members who gave up wage increases and oftentimes bargained away other gains or benefits in order to protect and improve their health insurance coverage. Doing that is the one thing that Barack Obama has specifically endorsed.

Why did I use the term "often-misnamed" in referring to "Cadillac" plans? The Washington Post reported on Thursday that
[h]ealth analysts recently questioned the assumption that the tax would target only the most lavish insurance packages, nicknamed "Cadillac plans." The analysts, writing in the journal Health Affairs, found that some less-generous plans could be taxed because they are costly for other reasons. The location of an employer and the type of industry, for example, have as much to do with the cost of plans as the generosity of the benefits and the kind of plan. Smaller businesses, especially those with a preponderance of older workers, tend to have higher premiums, as do certain industries, including the health-care sector.
The same WaPo article notes that
[w]hen the legislation would go into effect in 2014, only a small fraction of all plans would be taxed, but more would be captured over time: roughly a quarter by 2019, collecting about $150 billion over 10 years.
So in less than 10 years from now, one-fourth of employer-provided insurance plans would be subject to a 40% excise tax because they would be considered, in effect, luxurious. Just like the quarter of us who drive Cadillacs and other luxury cars.

And just what is the point of this? What about this hit-the-middle-class-and-union-members tax has got the White House all hot and sweaty? Why, it's the "cost-containment potential." The tax is levied on the insurance companies, who will pass the cost along to employers, and then
employers and employees would shift to less-generous plans that would make patients more sensitive to costs, slowing the growth in health-care spending.
Do you get it? Do you see? The problem, according to the White House and the health-care economists they listen to, is you. You "overuse" health care. You are insufficiently "cost-conscious." It's all your fault. You don't comparison shop for a cardiologist. You don't independently investigate and evaluate treatment options for your cancer or your diabetes or your hypertension and generate a cost-benefit analysis. You don't personally compare the clinical trials for Avapro and Diovan. And the way to (I love this phrase) "bend the cost curve" is to reduce your coverage and make you spend more out of pocket for what remains through higher deductibles and co-pays - so you'll use less health care, thus keeping the cost down. In other words, the way to make health care more affordable is to make it less affordable.

No wonder economics is called "the dismal science."

And it's trash. It won't work. The vast majority of people simply do not have the skills, do not have the requisite knowledge, to do the sort of cost-benefit comparison shopping this crap necessarily envisions. Rather, in the face of higher costs, people are just as likely to cut back on needed care as unneeded care, making health outcomes worse, not better, and potentially increasing health care costs in the long run as conditions go untreated until they become crises.

And they have to know it won't work. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services of HHS reported that the "cost bending" effect of the excise tax would be to reduce national health expenditures in 2019 by - hold on to your hats - 0.3%! That's right, reduced coverage and higher out-of-pocket costs will together succeed in cutting overall spending by less than one-third of one percent. That's the cost-containment to be achieved by paying for this whole pile on the backs of union members and the middle class.

But we have to do it that way - because fer god's sake, we can't tax the rich!

The thing now is, at the end of it all, I'm resigned to the fact that this bill is going to pass. It's too important to too many Democrats, too important to too many faux progressives, too important to President Hopey-Changey, and as usual the concerns of real progressives are mocked or dismissed or ignored or trampled while the Dimwits and the reactionaries must be appeased. I hope that it can be improved at least in some ways before final passage but I have little faith it will be.

Still, defeat need not mean surrender. Even as Rose Ann DeMoro wrote at The Huffington Post of "An Inglorious End to the Promise of Reform," Jean Ross of NNU said
“nurses will continue to work with the thousands of grassroots activists across the nation to campaign for the best reform, which would be to expand Medicare to cover everyone, the same type of system working more effectively in every other industrial country. The day of that reform will come.”
While I think "Medicare for all" is more of a slogan than a program, I do agree the day of reform, real reform, will come. But I am convinced that passage of this bill, by allowing every enabler of the health insurance industry to say "Health care reform? We did that already," pushes that day further off rather than brings it closer. And that is a real tragedy.

Footnote: The Washington Post article I cited includes a quote from one Jonathan Gruber, identified as "an MIT economist and a leading proponent of the new tax." He dismisses concerns about the effect of excise tax, saying "slightly higher" deductibles are
enough to make people more cost-sensitive but not enough to make them skip necessary care. ... "There's literally no evidence out there that people are going to suffer."
Turns out that Jonathan Gruber has been paid nearly $400,000 in sole-source contracts with HHS since March to consult on the "President’s health reform proposal." Um, isn't commenting as "an MIT economist" on a program about which you have are being paid to consult something of an ethical conflict of interest?

Updated with two corrections: Based on a USA Today report, the post originally said "don't feel left out if you don't have employer-provided insurance: Another part of the Senate plan is an 0.9 percentage point increase in Medicare withholding." However, according to the New York Times, that increase would only apply to individuals with incomes over $200,000 a year or families with annual incomes over $250,000. The reference has been deleted.

Also, the incomes affected by the proposed surtax in the House bill has been corrected. Previously the post said it applied to "those with incomes in excess of $1 million a year." The correct figure is $500,000 a year for individuals and $1 million a year for couples.

Just a geek before I go

One last bit of geek news from an oldster before getting back to the daily world.
The Hubble Space Telescope has captured the earliest image yet of the universe - just 600 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was just a toddler.

Scientists released the photo Tuesday at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. It's the most complete picture of the early universe so far, showing galaxies with stars that are already hundreds of millions of years old, along with the unmistakable primordial signs of the first cluster of stars.
The galaxies are so young they haven't formed spiral or elliptical shapes and are seeds of the later, larger galaxies of today.
The new Hubble picture captures those distant simpler galaxies juxtaposed amid closer, newer and more evolved ones. The result is a cosmic family photo that portrays galaxies at different ages and stages of development over the course of more than 13 billion years.
In the image, the earliest galaxies are the small, faint, blue ones.

The Hubble was launched in April 1990 and so is approaching 20 years of service. In addition to a boatload of spectacular images, it has helped resolve a conflict over the age of the universe and was instrumental in demonstrating the presence of supermassive black holes at the centers of most if not all galaxies and, perhaps most dramatically, in discovering the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. The Hubble should be in service until at least 2014 and quite possibly beyond.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Happy Geek Year again!

Okay, this is kinda complicated so I'm not going to go into all the details. But it displays two of the things that I like about science.

Here's the deal: The solar system is now passing though an interstellar cloud known as the Local Interstellar Cloud or "Local Fluff" for short.
It's about 30 light years wide and contains a wispy mixture of hydrogen and helium atoms at a temperature of 6000 C.
The thing is, this cloud is surrounded by a giant bubble of interstellar gas at a million degrees, formed by supernova explosions - and the cloud should have either been crushed or dispersed by the higer-pressure surroundings.

In other words, according the the laws of physics, it shouldn't exist.

Science mysteries are way cool. Stuff that makes scientists scratch their heads are one of the best ways to new discoveries.

Well, they mystery has been solved by a pair of 32-year old spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, launched in September and August 1977, respectively. (That's not a typo: Voyager 2 was launched first. They were numbered the way they were because Voyager 1, by virtue of having a different trajectory, would pass the other craft and reach the original prime targets of the missions - Saturn and Jupiter - first.)

The solar system is enveloped in a bubble formed by the solar winds - charged particles flowing outward from the sun - called the heliosphere. The outermost layer of the heliosphere, where the solar winds are being slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas, is called the heliosheath. That is where Voyager 1 and 2, nearly 11 billion and 9 billion miles from Earth respectively (more than twice the distance to Pluto) are. Beyond the heliosheath is the Local Fluff. So the probes are
on the verge of entering interstellar space - but they are not there yet.

"The Voyagers are not actually inside the Local Fluff," says [Merav] Opher[, a NASA Heliophysics Guest Investigator]. "But they are getting close and can sense what the cloud is like as they approach it."
And what they have found is that
"the Fluff is much more strongly magnetized than anyone had previously suspected - between 4 and 5 microgauss," says Opher. "This magnetic field can provide the extra pressure required to resist destruction."
A gauss is a measure of the strength of a magnetic field; a microgauss is one millionth of a gauss. By comparison, the Earth's magnetic field is about 0.5 gauss, or 500,000 microgauss.

And that's the second thing I like about science shown here: Resolving those head-scratching conundrums with new discoveries and new understandings.

Solving puzzles leading to new learning. What's not to like?

Happy Geek Year!

Okay, time to get the new year started. Considering that the old one was pretty crappy, it seemed wise to get the new one off on a more fun footing. So - geek news!

Actually, it's a bit sad as geek news goes: NASA is concerned that the upcoming Martian winter could spell the end of the career of Spirit, the Mars rover whose planned 90-day mission is now a few days over six (Earth) years long.

It's not the first time the end has been feared: Just 18 days after landing, even before its twin rover Opportunity came down, it stopped transmitting data. It recovered from that near-death experience two weeks later, only to have a problem with a steering brake crop up some months later. Its right front wheel stop working in 2006, so since then it's been driving backwards. In the fall or 2007 a dust storm left the solar panels so covered with dust that it was feared Spirit could no longer function - and the same thing happened again in 2008.

But this is bad: Nine months ago one of its wheels broke through a crust layer and sank into loose sand. It has been stuck ever since. Every effort to get the rover free has failed; the last attempt actually would up with it sunk deeper into the sand. Remember that the rover uses solar power to operate. Unless the team can get the rover free or at the very least improve its tilt to angle the solar panels toward the sun, Spirit may well not survive.

However, science is not short on serendipity, and Spirit has provided some.
"Spirit had to get stuck to make its next discovery," says [Ray] Arvidson[, deputy principal investigator for the rovers].
The very churning of the wheels in the loose soil has uncovered sulfates,
"minerals just beneath the surface that shout to us that they were formed in steam vents, since steam has sulfur in it[," Arvidson explained. "]Steam is associated with hydrothermal activity – evidence of water-charged explosive volcanism. Such areas could have once supported life."

"And most amazingly, the boundary between the sulfate-rich soil and the soil with just the generic concentration of sulfates runs right down the middle of the stranded rover."
By getting stuck and by getting stuck just where it did, Spirit
has given scientists material evidence of past water on Mars on two time scales: ancient volcanic times, and cycles ongoing to the present day.
Even if the rover can't get loose, if its tilt can be improved enough to get enough sun to keep working, it can provide double serendipity: It could use radio transmissions to measure the wobble of Mars's axis of rotation, which would tell scientists things about the interior of the planet - something that is only possible for a rover which is no longer a rover, that has a reliable fixed position. And it could still provide additional information about Martian weather.

Still, Arvidson says, "we’re ready to leave." Now it just remains to be seen if they can.

Footnote: Meanwhile, on the other side of Mars, Opportunity just keeps on keepin' on. NASA's rover mission page is here.
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