Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Top Ten Movies of 2005.

There are many ways to judge films, but I don't really know any good ways. Critics are fickle. When they review a film during the year, they may rave, but then omit the same film from their best-of lists (or vice versa). Metacritic, which assigns a score to each movie based on critics' reviews, found that the two most well-reviewed films of 2005 were Capote and The Best of Youth. Yet in a year-end summary of 65 top ten lists, these two movies only appeared in a combined 32 of them. Brokeback Mountain, on the other hand, was tied as the third rated movie, and it appeared most often on year-end best-of lists: 35 times. Also rans Wallace and Gromit, Murderball, and Grizzly Man, tied with Brokeback, got just 19, 4, and 12 mentions, respectively. Finally (and then I'll knock it off) A History of Violence, which wasn't in the top 20 best-reviewed, found itself on the second-most best-of lists (29).

My own criteria is pretty idiosyncratic, too. I tend to punish melodramas but not science fiction. I respond more to movies with great dialogue than those with gorgeous visuals (not surprising for a colorblind, myopic writer). I'm generationally biased. For the most part, I can't get excited about biopics, no matter how good they're purported to be (I missed Ray and Walk the Line).

So I offer the following top ten, my own subjective ten, in alphabetical order.** One will take home the coveted Grand Jeffy, and I've starred those that I considered contenders for the prize. The others are great movies, but just a cut below.

Brokeback Mountain* - Enough has been written about this film that I can just mention why I was so moved. I grew up in the intermountain west and witnessed first hand the kind of strangled isolation we see principally in the character of Ennis. Using a gay character to highlight this loneliness was effective, but it had the unfortunate side effect of causing most people to miss the point. (director: Ang Lee)

Capote - Capote gets an exception to my biopic rule because the story's arc is confined to the period he wrote In Cold Blood. We aren't fed a fake theme that is supposed to knit an entire life together. And not quite paradoxically, in its smaller scope, Capote manages to locate a much larger theme--the nature of art and the artist. Philip Seymour Hoffman is as good as everyone says. (director: Bennett Miller)

Crash* - An ensemble piece that revels in nuance. The film follows a series of scenes interconnected by characters and circumstances, all exploring various crashes--racial, class, cultural (but mostly racial). These kinds of movies are hard to bring together, but Haggis manages it, finding both a clear throughline and a consistent tone and emotion. The acting is fantastic across the board. Despite being released almost a year ago, it has held up very well in my memory. (director: Paul Haggis)

Good Night and Good Luck - The best liberal movie in years. Or the best movie for liberals. Or the best movie by a liberal. Anyway, the key word is "best," not "liberal." The story is a straightforward retelling of the interplay between Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joe McCarthy over the "McCarthy hearings" on Murrow's landmark See It Now. But Clooney, sly dog, has bigger halibut to batter: as news of Abu Ghraib, secret renditions, and secret NSA spying saturate the press, he draws a sharp parallel between right wing exploitation of midcentury red fear with Bush's exploitation of new millennial fear of terror. (director: George Clooney)

Hustle and Flow - This was the last movie to make my top ten, and I was close to going with Wong Kar-Wei's 2046, which was a less flawed movie, but also less accessible. I gave Hustle and Flow the nod because Terrence Howard's performance is so good. He plays a pimp who wants to make it as a deejay, though that storyline's a little misleading. His pimpdom is less about exploitation, and the relationship with his girls less vertical, than you mihgt imagine. It's a movie that really tries hard, just like its protagonist--so I had to include it. (director: Craig Brewer)

Kontroll* - I saw this at the Portland International Film Fest last February and it stayed with throughout the year (the US theatrical release started in April). The Hungarian subway functions as the stage for our hero Bulscu (pr. bull-shew), who wanders around as a "Kontroll" agent--a subway policeman. The film slides from semi-reality into allegory as it emerges that Bulscu, an accomplished architect, has consigned himself to the subway—a self-imposed purgatory. He wanders this netherworld among the damned, looking for a way out (and the intention there is the allegory). Despite the arty premise, it’s neither heavy or ponderous; the director, Nimrod Antal, keeps it lively with techno music, wry wit, comedy, and action. No one I know who saw it responded quite as positively to it as I did, but I think it will charm most people who seek it out.

Junebug* - This is one of those funny indies I wonder if anyone else liked. It's a film that deals essentially with families. It's looking for little-T truth, and finds it by looking sideways at the way families treat each other--sort of like being able to understand the sun better by not looking at it too directly. It's slow and personal, and has a few moments that show the first-time hand of director Phil Morrison, but it also succeeds on a larger level.

Murderball* - I've been slowly collecting a list of "the best movies you've never seen." This may be tops on that list. It won the audience award at Sundance, and everyone expected it to kill in documentary-crazy first run. Apparently people were scared off by the topic--quadrapalegics. (It made less than two million at the box office, after landing a $10 million deal.) Ostensibly about a kind of wheelchair rugby they play (nicknamed 'murderball'), it's actually about life and the way people treat each other. It's incredibly honest and fascinating, never pitying or voyeuristic. The best example: the discussion everyone wonders about, can quads have sex? (You'll have to watch it to find out.) I've searched my memory, and I can't remember a ever seeing a documentary this good. (directors: Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro)

Schultze Gets the Blues - This film barely got an American release, and may not be at a video store near you--but it's still well worth trying to find. The title character is a miner who is forced to retire, and begins to rot away in his small German town. One day he accidentally tunes in a radio station playing zydeco and he decides to go to Louisiana. It's a very gentle mosey of a film, and Schultze is a charming guide. (director: Michael Schorr)

Serenity* - Here's a potentially bold statement: Serenity has more in common with David Mamet than George Lucas. It's true: Joss Whedon's space-cowboy odyssey may have more superficially in common with Star Wars, but the themes are far more evolved. It's hard to give a thumbnail sketch of the film that doesn't do it an injustice, so I won't. I will say this: if you have a bias against sci-fi, this is one movie worth seeing anyway. (director: Joss Whedon)

**I recognize Kontroll and Junebug are out of order--it's because the pictures fit better that way.

The Soderbergh Effect.

If there is one identifiable element of an insurrection happening in Hollywood, it revolves around Steven Soderbergh, a big budget indie director with his own production company and a growing coterie of Soderbergh-tutored directors. Two of them, George Clooney and Stephen Gaghan, had Soderbergh-esque movies out this year, and they're up for a combined eight Oscars.

Soderbergh's personal renaissance began in 1996 with Schizopolis, which was a palate-cleanser following a couple of big-budget disasters. I saw him as he presented Schizopolis to the Portland International Film Festival that year, and he said that it was the creative spark he needed to rediscover his love of direction. (Schizopolis is a bizarre, very amateurish movie. Periodically he directs very low budget movies that seem critical to his process, but aren't great art. See also Full Frontal.)

He was at a moment in his career when he wasn't sure if he'd ever really make it as a director--which seems inconceivable now--because of the stultifying effect of the studio machine. He said, in an amused, philosophical aside, that although he was rejuvenated artistically, he didn't know how long it would last: he was about to start production on a film with George Clooney. We all chortled in comiseration at the prospect of having to work with cheeseball Dr. Green Ross from ER.

Whatever Soderbergh learned with Schizopolis, it served him well. He went on a tear, making Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brokovich, and Traffic in three years (1998-2000). In that phase of his career, the Soderbergh style emerged. It seems slightly paradoxical visually--he creates a spare, focused visual palate that is mannered and remote (and occasionally sterile), but at the same time, his style has a quality of naturalism about it. He doesn't create artificial gloss to delight the eyes (like Spielberg, for example), and gets his actors to give perfectly natural performances, as if in a documentary. So it is at once artificial and intimate.

In that 1998-2000 period, he also worked with a group of people who keep appearing in the Soderbergh constellation. He has now worked with Clooney a number of times, and Good Night and Good Luck is George's second directorial outing (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, his first, is unfortunately overlooked.) Stephen Gaghan, who wrote Traffic, is in his debut with Syriana.

They have the same focused-yet-remote quality, the feeling of peeking in on reality (despite the obviously mannered shots). I noticed that they used sound like Soderbergh does, too, emphasizing a single track (a voice, a specific background sound like a car, or ambient sound). It enhances the effect of intimacy and focuses the storytelling without intruding.

In content, too, these directors seem to share a vision. Soderbergh's films tend to have an element of social commentary (his glam movies like the Oceans franchise excepted), but they're not polemics. They address real issues without becoming political documents. Even Erin Brockovich, which was stridently anti-corporate, was commercially successful because it was subtle. Both Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck are political movies, yet both are subtle and layered, which makes them better art and more subversive politics.

(The Soderbergh effect may send further ripples out into the filmscape. Ted Griffin has emerged as a house writer for Section Eight. One of Soderbergh's assistant directors is directing Wind Chill now.)

In terms of commerce, Soderbergh may have an effect, too. His experimental Bubble (which I haven't seen) was released theatrically simultaneously with its DVD release and appearance on HBO. Despite being an obvious indie with no market, subverting the usual theatrical release to DVD to TV cycle shocked and scared Hollywood, who has once again declared the end of movies will result.

But right on cue, Soderbergh has Oceans Thirteen lined up, which is about as timid a commercial venture as Hollywood could design. So even while he steps out of the dessicated Hollywood formula, he remains a charter member of the club. Actually, his dual commercial/experimental approach probably makes Soderbergh appear all the more scary to Hollywood. Much as with his approach to social issues, this seems a subversive double standard which they can't interpret.

Who knows--the Soderbergh effect may already be over. It's never easy to know what a director's shelf life is going to be. But with Bubble following up Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck, I wouldn't bet on it.

Monday, February 27, 2006


2005, the Year of Nuance

Because nothing exists without a context (outside the White House), I think it's important to mention 2004, the worst year in movies in the 30+ I've been watching them. Generally I consider four or five movies for the coveted "Grand Jeffy"--last year, only one movie was good enough to even be considered (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). So it was with great trepidation that I stuck my toe into the waters of 2005.

Fairly early into the movie year (which of course starts after the Oscars), I wondered if things may have been changing. It was during a scene from Crash. Two young black men are walking down a street in LA ranting about how much it sucks to see white yuppies cringe when they passed by. The dialogue was crisp enough to make these observations fresh, but what was really striking was what happened next: they walked up to an SUV and carjacked it. Crash is a movie about racism and culture, and it revels in the subtle ways racism is expressed--and even more surprisingly, transcended.

The trend continued. One of the best movies of the year (and the best documentary I've ever seen) is Murderball, a film no one saw about quadraplegics who play a kind of wheelchair rugby. No one saw it because they thought it would be cloying or condescending or in some way inauthentic. Or maybe just because it seemed too hard. But in the hands of directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, it became a transcendent film of humanity. No one was spared from honesty, including a very unlikeable quadraplegic who was abusive to his son and unhealthily hyper-competitive.

Clooney managed a two-fer with Good Night and Good Luck, telling the story of Murrow and McCarthy straight, but commenting brilliantly on the current administration. The year's most famous movie, Brokeback Mountain, isn't actually, as it's famously billed, a gay cowboy movie. It's a film about isolation and loneliness, and the fact that the characters are gay is as minor a point as the location of the film. Partisans who politicize it have to do so extra-textually; Ang Lee gives them nothing to hang their hats on in the film, which assiduously avoids politics.

Syriana, Munich (which I didn't see), Junebug, Hustle and Flow, Capote--most of the year's best movies accomplished something absent in Hollywood's current fetish for risk reduction. They managed to tell rich, complex stories without forcing a conclusion on the audience, often opening up a discussion rather than going for a artistically polemic point.

I don't want to assert that this represents a trend, but there is something hopeful in all of this. The movies that I mentioned were all non-Hollywood films. The big studios were busy turning out the worst crap, comparable to last year. So while the year may have been an anomoly, it may also be a hopeful sign that a counterculture in serious filmmaking is returning--perhaps akin to the 70s, when independent vision sprang out of the vapidity of the studios. We can hope. In any case, it was a great year in film.
[Meta, Movies]

Welcome to Movie Week.

In celebration of that overripe spectacle of glam, the Oscars, I will post this week on movies--though I'll try to keep it on a little higher plane. As a part of the discussion, toward the end of the week I'll also give you my if-I-were-God, alternate Oscar awards, the ever-derided "Jeffies." If the Veep shoots someone again, I may dip into that other spectacle of theater--politics--but mostly it's going to be a government-free week.

And, since we're spiraling away from politics, I guess I'm also sort of launching Beervana. I mention this on the occasion of the first real post, which I thought some of you might like to see. (The name is relatively self-explanatory, but have a look, anyway.) Okay, enough meta talk, on to the movies...

Sunday, February 26, 2006

[Foreign Policy]

Iraq: Is It a Civil War?

The new question in Iraq is whether what we're seeing augurs war or is war. Since the tail end of foreign policy week yet wags, here's a two-minute opinion. The question is of course semantic--how you determine the answer depends on how you define war. So there's not an actual answer to be had.

That said, it's obviously a civil war, and has been a civil war for months. Sunnis and Shias have wanted to lop off each others' heads for decades, and a US-imposed "democracy" ain't gonna change that. Insurgent attacks on the colonial government were incipient shots in that war. Kurds were engaged in the democratic process to the extent that it protected Northern oil fields, which they have eyeballed since the invasion. Shi'ites wanted control of the government so they could replace Saddam as ruling oppressors (which reports of government-run death squads confirm), and Sunni's were busy bombing everything because it was the way a 20% minority managed to avoid getting whacked.

The US can stay or go, but short of re-installing a strongman or dividing the country in thirds, the cival war that began in March 2003 will play itself out. That no one in the US government could see it coming is illustrative that our great empire was in decline before it ever started.

Consign yourself to an Iraqi civil war--the Iraqi's did long ago.

Friday, February 24, 2006

[Foreign Policy, Ports]

Further Commentary on the Ports Controversy.

Who would have expected the great ports controversy to have become the wedge issue it is? In hindsight, it makes all kinds of sense, but I consistently fail to remember what panicked, bigoted lenses Republicans see the world through. So it is that the question of Dubai owning six American ports has become the most (only) divisive issue to hit the GOP in years.

There are a couple of nice pieces of commentary on the point. EJ Dionne has a go at the multilayered hypocricy in today's article, but I like this the best:
Republicans and conservatives would be aghast at the idea of our government owning a company that operated so many of our ports. That would be -- just imagine! -- socialism. But Dubai Ports World is, well, a socialist operation, a state-owned company in the United Arab Emirates. Why is it bad for the federal government to own our port operations, but okay for a foreign government?
And David Ignatius locates an serious point of economics I hadn't considered. While I'm still mostly untroubled by Dubai deal, he points out why it is a harbinger of much worse things to come, thanks to the destablizing effect of Bush's tax cuts.

The real absurdity here is that Congress doesn't seem to realize that an Arab-owned company's management of America's ports is just a taste of what is coming. Greater foreign ownership of U.S. assets is an inevitable consequence of the reckless tax-cutting, deficit-ballooning fiscal policies that Congress and the White House have pursued. By encouraging the United States to consume more than it produces, these fiscal policies have sucked in imports so fast that the nation is nearing a trillion-dollar annual trade deficit. Those are IOUs on America's future, issued by a spendthrift Congress.

The best quick analysis I've seen of the fiscal squeeze comes from New York University professor Nouriel Roubini, in his useful online survey of economic information, rgemonitor.com. He notes that with the U.S. current account deficit running at about $900 billion in 2006, "in a matter of a few years foreigners may end up owning most of the U.S. capital stocks: ports, factories, corporations, land, real estate and even our national parks." Until recently, he writes, the United States has been financing its trade deficit through debt -- namely, by selling U.S. Treasury securities to foreign central banks. That's scary enough -- as it has given big T-bill holders such as China and Saudi Arabia the ability to punish the U.S. dollar if they decide to unload their reserves....

Here's how bad it is: The worst thing that could happen to the United States, paradoxically, would be for Arab and other foreign investors to take us at our xenophobic word and decide that America doesn't really want foreign investment. If they pulled out their money, U.S. financial markets would plummet in a crash that might make 1929 look like a sleigh ride.


[Foreign Policy]

What About the UN?

The bete noir of conservative foreign policy is the United Nations. There are real reasons and fake reasons for this animosity, and the fake ones are worth mentioning. Because the UN was based on a democratic model, almost every state is represented. This means, in turn, that member states like Syria and Cuba have chaired the UN Commission on Human Rights. Few controversial measures pass in the Security Council because of deadlock between rival states. And anyway, there's no UN force, so resolutions are toothless (unless, say, the US wants to invade Kuwait).

(The fake reasons are that the UN constantly embarrasses the US, exposing our obviously unilateralist, empire-building, and Israel-coddling tendencies. For the autocratic right, this kind of embarrassment shouldn't be suffered by a country so righteous as the US.)

The UN performs a number of pretty amazing non-security related functions, including research, monetary assistance, peacekeeping, and human rights work. While the most hardcore of the rightwing fringe might have a beef with these activities, I think mostly criticism is focused on the toothlessness of the organization to mediate disputes.

Particularly following the credibility-destroying Bush years, it is in the US's interest to have a body that promotes stability and democracy, and one that can clearly make moral distinctions between totalitarian regimes and those committed to human rights and stable governments. Fortunately, we already have an exceptional model: the European Union.

The EU was initially designed to make commerce easier and make member states more competitive with the US and emerging Asian markets. An unintended outcome was that a host of unstable, dubiously "free" states wanted in, and were willing to meet demands set by the EU. For economists, I think this is called "incentivizing" to produce particular behavior--sort of like late fees encourage renters to return DVDs on time. Countries in the former Soviet Union, languishing in pre-EU poverty, had a reason to install better governments and modernize their economies. Turkey, still trawling for membership, ratcheted down its human rights abuses and strengthened the democratic process. All so they could receive the economic benefits of EU membership.

Some variation on that model seems like what the US needs to promote as an alternative to the UN. Membership would require the same things EU membership requires, and benefits would include economic and other incentives. It's good to have a UN that serves a social function that no states are willing to pick up (or have the credibility to pick up). But to promote behavior amenable to US foreign policy goals, something like a political EU would be far more effective.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Busy Week

Despite a full week's worth of ideas about posts, I have had a hard time getting to the computer, making something of a bust of this week's topic. Here's what I've so far failed to address:
  • Realpolitic vs. new Wilsonism
  • The United Nations/models of international cooperation
  • Real security threats vs. hype
  • Isreal
  • Security in the digital age
  • Foreign policy during global climate collapse
I may return to it at a future date, and I'll try to get some more posts up tomorrow. Or perhaps it's a bit dry. As a change of pace, next week, in anticipation of the Oscars, I'll do a week on movies. Featuring, of course, the increasingly famous "Jeffies." We'll see what has emerged or not then and decide whether to finish up foreign policy or postpone it for awhile.

You are now fully briefed.

A Disturbance in the Force.

This week, the Oregon Supreme Court overruled a lower court decision on a ballot measure we passed in '04. The measure guts Oregon's landmark land-use planning and creates a development free-for-all here. There are many grim details, all of which are fascinating case studies about group insanity, but that's not what I wanted to mention.

What I thought was most interesting were the comments we got on BlueOregon on two posts (news announcement and analysis) discussing the decision. As I write this, there are a combined 151 comments, and at least half are by right wing nuts. (By comparison, we normally get something like 30 comments on a post and just a few right wing nuts.)

What were they saying? Well, mostly, it was far over-excited gloating. At first I didn't think too much of that, but it was so apoplectic, all out of proportion to the actual decision, which puts into place a law that many rural, red Oregon conservatives also despise. (It was rammed through by wealthy developers and opposed by almost everyone else.) The language they were using was so piercing that I started to pay a little closer attention.

Boiled down, I think it was the displaced rage of righties being ripped from power. For over a year, almost every news story details some way in which a Republican has been incompetent, stupid, corrupt, or greedy. It is in such stark contrast to the alternate, bizarro world reality so carefully tended by Karl Rove over the previous four years. And a bizarro world, clearly, that the righties have bought into lock, stock, and barrel.

Righties are now in painful, psychic conflict as they try desperately to hang onto the bizarro world in the face of intrusive, abusive fact. All they have left is power, and so political victories amount to a kind of proxy validation. Thus do the Oregon righties stomp their tiny feet with glee--the Supremes' ruling in Oregon allows them to stop up their ears and continue to screech, for a few more months or years, "la la la la...tax cuts do create jobs, invasions do create democracy, Saddam did have nukes...la la la."

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

[National Security]

The Racism of the Ports Debate.

Upon hearing this proposed Dubai Ports deal, my first reaction was to side (I shudder to report) with Bush:
I think it sends a terrible signal to friends around the world that it's okay for a company from one country to manage the port, but not a country that plays by the rules and has got a good track record from another part of the world can't manage the port.
And then I settled down, assuming that I'd hear a few racy details showing Bush was not only wrong but morally bankrupt as well. That's how it usually goes. Well, I've done an exhaustive investigation (ie, read this post by Kevin Drum) and conclude ... that Bush is right. It's an ugly thing and not something I'm proud to admit, but there you have it.

According to Kevin's research, state-owned ports are common. He identifies China and Singapore, two countries with dubious leadership. Further, there appear to be a number of safeguards in place to stop owners (nefarious or neglegent) from letting their ports be entry points for terror. So why the worry?

When we invaded Iraq, we did so mainly because bigots in this country thought it all added up. There was only one link between the 9/11 bombings and Iraq, and that was skin color. (Okay, you may argue "creedist," but I don't buy it. Americans are way less alarmed by Indonesian Muslims than Middle Eastern ones.) A friend of mine compared it to having the Italians bomb your country and then you invade Ireland--hey, they're all white Irish.

The ports things smells of the same bigotry. I'm prepared to be convinced otherwise, but to single out the UAE for non-ownership while waving in the Chinese seems hard to explain otherwise.
[Foreign Policy, Military]

What your Fitty Buys.

For every buck you send to Uncle Sam, fifty cents goes to the Pentagon. This buys, we are told, the best military machine in the world, a sprawling behemoth with enough firepower to protect us from the baddies. Enormous effort is expended to sell this idea. But actually, our foreign policy is built on the needs of a Pentagon designed to defend us from threats that don't actually exist. They spend billions every year on the most sophisticated weaponry designed to defeat giant armies, which even the Pentagon's own analysts say aren't what really threatens us. So why do we buy useless weapons? Because that's what Lockheed Martin sells.

I had planned to talk about Ike's old military-industrial cartel complex today, anyway, but the business with the ports* makes it all that much more pointed. Bush finds himself in a dogfight over a political no-brainer, an issue so obvious even Hillary Clinton and Bill Frist agree. So why would Bush support such a thing? For the same reason we build billion-dollar jets that will kill no terrorists: there's money in them thar ports. Turns out the UAE company seeking to buy the ports has a number of connections to powerbrokers in the Bush administration.

If you scratch very hard at any deals related to national security or the military, you will find very soon that a major contractor or a multinational with deep connections to the Republican leadership is set to benefit. It's business as usual, but previously, it had a less positive name: profiteering. There's quite a lot of information about how the modern GOP has rigged the system to send money flowing back to corporate sponsors, but here's one quote from a piece 60 Minutes did a couple years ago:
Lewis says the trend towards privatizing the military began during the first Bush administration when Dick Cheney was secretary of defense. In 1992, the Pentagon, under Cheney, commissioned the Halliburton subsidiary Brown & Root to do a classified study on whether it was a good idea to have private contractors do more of the military's work.

“Of course, they said it's a terrific idea, and over the next eight years, Kellogg, Brown & Root and another company got 2,700 contracts worth billions of dollars,” says Lewis.

“So they helped to design the architecture for privatizing a lot of what happens today in the Pentagon when we have military engagements. And two years later, when he leaves the department of defense, Cheney is CEO of Halliburton. Thank you very much. It's a nice arrangement for all concerned....”

Lewis says the best example of these cozy relationships is the defense policy board, a group of high-powered civilians who advise the secretary of defense on major policy issues - like whether or not to invade Iraq. Its 30 members are a Who's Who of former senior government and military officials.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but as the Center For Public Integrity recently discovered, nine of them have ties to corporations and private companies that have won more than $76 billion in defense contracts. And that's just in the last two years.

“This is not about the revolving door, people going in and out,” says Lewis. “There is no door. There's no wall. I can't tell where one stops and the other starts. I'm dead serious.”
We may have a decent military, but not great, as Iraq has shown. But we certainly have the most expensive military--with expenditures equal to what the rest of the globe spends on their militaries. Like so much else, we're paying to support massive multinationals, and indirectly, the GOP political machine.

But from a foreign policy perspective, what we've done is farm out policy decision to men who are more concerned with profiting personally than addressing actual threats. We spend so much, we'll probably have our bases covered, right? What's a little profit-taking among (old, white, well-connected Republican) friends?

That's where our fitty cents goes.

*Background: the United Arab Emirates may take over six US ports, a deal that has caused widespread, bipartisan panic. Arabs should not control US ports, say they. Bush has defended the deal and vowed to veto any legislation preventing the deal, though it was reported today that he was unaware of his own administration's approval until after the deal was made.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

[Foreign Policy]

Get on the Peace Train.

Dennis Kucinch is regarded as a flaky new-age vegan by most of America, and part of their proof was his "Peace Department" idea. There remain some decidedly new-agey aspects to the proposal (a full-fledged legislative proposal, now endorsed by a few dozen congresspeople), like peer mediation among school age kids. But the warm fuzz aside, the nucleus of the idea is revolutionary.

George W. Bush had this hypothesis that if you invade countries, kill a bunch of baddies (and unavoidably, some kids and innocents), and install American toadies, you'll get peaceful democracy. For some reason, this absurd approach, enshrined as our official National Security Policy, was regarded as "serious," despite the obvious fact that invasion is a piss poor way to spread peace. Even more fantastically, a bellicose foreign policy is still regarded as the only serious foreign policy.

Let's try an alternative hypothesis: in addition to a strong military, which the US might regard as a defensive military, we need an active, intentional process for spreading stability among dangerous regions. Is it so absurd? Yet that's what the Dept of Peace proposes. From the text of the actual legislation:
  • work to create peace, prevent violence, divert from armed conflict, use field-tested programs, and develop new structures in nonviolent dispute resolution;
  • take a proactive, strategic approach in the development of policies that promote national and international conflict prevention, nonviolent intervention, mediation, peaceful resolution of conflict, and structured mediation of conflict;
  • encourage the development of initiatives from local communities, religious groups, and nongovernmental organizations.
Bush took a lot of credit for the spread of democracy to the Ukraine, but the way in which that revolution evolved is an endorsement of the Kucinich approach--and a harsh rebuke of Bush's peace-through-war strategy.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy and a few other foundations sponsored certain U.S. organizations, including Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the Solidarity Center, the Eurasia Foundation, Internews and several others to provide small grants and technical assistance to Ukrainian civil society. The European Union, individual European countries and the Soros-funded International Renaissance Foundation did the same.
For over 50 years, US foreign policy has focused on military force. This had a moderating effect during the cold war (despite the fears of many liberals, who thought mutually assured distruction (MAD) was, well, madness), but it has the opposite effect now: it destabilizes our relations with far weaker countries. They quite naturally see us as an unstoppable threat, and the more we use our might to interfere violently with foreign countries, the more we will be mistrusted. Our military actually undermines our effort to create peace and stability.

Whether we adopt a Department of Peace or not, the truth is becoming all to clear that something like it--a serious, well-publicized commitment to peace--is necessary to offset the chaos our massive military has created.

Monday, February 20, 2006

[Foreign Policy]

Burying Neoconservatism.

"The Bush administration has been walking — indeed, sprinting — away from the legacy of its first term, as evidenced by the cautious multilateral approach it has taken toward the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. Condoleezza Rice gave a serious speech in January about "transformational diplomacy" and has begun an effort to reorganize the nonmilitary side of the foreign-policy establishment, and the National Security Strategy document is being rewritten. All of these are welcome changes, but the legacy of the Bush first-term foreign policy and its neoconservative supporters has been so polarizing that it is going to be hard to have a reasoned debate about how to appropriately balance American ideals and interests in the coming years."
That quote, rather surprisingly, comes from one of the neoconservative architects, Francis Fukuyama. Over the weekend, he completely dismembered neoconservatism, hitting the same points liberals have made since fall 2002, when Bush began promoting his war. It's a fairly fascinating read, not because he is uniformly correct, but because it's Fukuyama who's writing it. As such, it does give him a fair bit of credibility--probably credibility he hopes to use to remain relevant on the foreign-policy scene after the catastrophic blunder of Iraq.

Fukuyama argues that the neocons made several key mistakes of theory:
  • Liberal democracies are "a kind of default condition to which societies reverted once the heavy lifting of coercive regime change occurred, rather than a long-term process of institution-building and reform";
  • the faith in "benevolent hegemony"--the notion that conquered countries will submit to our dominance because of US wholesomeness;
  • democracies are always liberal and always lead toward more freedom.
He even makes admissions you'll never hear from the White House--the US overestimated the threat of terror, for example. All of this is good stuff, and before the crimes of this presidency (of judgment and deed) can be corrected, they must be acknowledged. This may well precipitate a debate two years late in coming (though I'm not seeing much chatter about it from true believers). But Fukuyama misses a key point in the neocon revolution that also needs to come out.

Neoconservatism flourished for reasons having everything to do with domestic politics. Bush came into office hoping for the excuse to try out the neocon experiment, and he got it with 9/11. Even then, it was a controversial effort, one that might have failed if not for how viciously proponents demonized its critics. In the '02 midterms and again in '04, anyone who did not give support to the Iraq war was literally labeled as traitorous. This was especially preposterous by '04, when evidence that violent imposition of democracy abroad was a disaster. (Verbally) violent imposition of neoconservatism proved to be more successful politically back home, however, and guaranteed the idiots would be back for another round.

There should be a bloodletting for the neocon experiment. It was plainly a war crime. Worse, it was a war crime standing on the legs of lies: the Bush administration cooked the intelligence and sold Iraq on the massive gamble that there would be WMD; all to try out this idea that a few academics had concocted around beers in the early 1990s about spreading democracy. (Okay, there were other, more sinister aims as well: market colonization of the Middle East; payoffs to military contractors; strategic positioning in a destabilized region. But these hardly acquit Bush.)

But there ought also to be a bloodletting for the anti-democratic speech- and dissent-stifling the administration conducted to sell its war. Scaring the shit out of a population and manipulating the opposition through political force into accepting without debate dubious wars is also criminal. We will find ourselves attacked again. If we don't learn the lesson of the political chicanery of the Bush White House, whomever is in power at the time may cynically use the moment to force a unilateral agenda. That ain't democracy, even if--or especially if--that's what the ruling party calls it.
[Foreign Policy, Meta]

US Foreign Policy Week.

Paradoxically, perhaps the biggest domestic political issue is US foreign policy. Despite gross incompetence, the Republican Party is regarded by Americans as the safety party. Each election cycle, we must watch as rich, coddled white men vamp as warriors and scare unsophisticated voters with talk of the latest foreign bogeyman. (Do you recall which one Bush used in 2000? It wasn't Osama.*)

But US foreign policy, the bizarre melange of neoconservative idealism, market colonization, and strategic positioning, now puts US at far greater risk thanks to GOP mismanagement. Unfortunately, for a country weened on policies of testosterone, where even the Dems agree invasions and strategic bombings are preferable to diplomacy, there's little in the way of alternatives. US foreign policy may be summed up thus: we either get cooperation from Europe before invading and spreading the faith (Dems), or we play on anti-European sentiment, tell Europe to screw itself, and invade and spread the faith (GOP).

Yet there are other ways. I'll look into some of them, and of course, gleefully pore over the failures of neoconservatism (et. al.) in a autopsy of the Bush years. Holler if you have thoughts.

*Bush, third presidential debate with Al Gore: "Saddam Hussein still is a threat in the Middle East. Our coalition against Saddam is unraveling. Sanctions are loosened. The man who may be developing weapons of mass destruction, we don't know because inspectors aren't in."

Saturday, February 18, 2006



I finally got around to reading Freakonomics, the most-hyped book in recent memory. You may detect in my characterization high expectations, and indeed I had them. Everybody on the planet--readers, reviewers, my officemates--seemed to regard this book, about Steven D. Levitt's economic theories, as some kind of oracle. Even the book itself, in which chapters begin with little hagiographic bits about Levitt--did its best to hype the theories as just short of devinely insightful.

It was ... all right. Actually, it was better than that: it was a good, interesting guide for the uninitiated reader into the world of statistical analysis. What people who work with piles of quantitative data know--and what few people who don't work with data recognize--is that research isn't about good math. It's about good questions. The best (catty readers might say only) example is a hypothesis Levitt has that the drop in crime is not related to any of the direct efforts to address it--more cops, tougher laws, more prisons. It's the unintentional result of abortion, which removed millions of unwanted babies (who are disproportionately likely to become muggers) from the streets.

I have no idea if this is true, because Levitt doesn't show his work. He seems pretty successfully to show the effects of other efforts to dull crime had weak or no correlations with the dropoff--though again, we're getting the made-for-TV numbers. The exercise is good at showing how you can use piles of numbers to test hypotheses, and how the results are little correlated with conventional wisdom.

What the book doesn't do is offer anything near the kind of revolution readers, reviewers, and the book itself promises. Levitt may be an interesting guy, and his mind is lively and unexpected, but don't pick up the book expecting to find answers to life's great riddles.

Friday, February 17, 2006

[Politics, Global Warming]

Global Warming's Silver Lining.

So there is one positive thing to say about global warming: it presents an opportunity. Although we know the earth is warming, there's no real way to predict how things are going to play out. Scientists are agreed, however, that the earlier we address things, the more likely we are to be able to prevent the worst catastrophes.

I think we may be getting near a tipping point in cultural recognition that this is a problem (I'm doing my part!). But one of the main barriers is in having solutions to deal with it. Mostly it seems far to grim to contemplate. So we go along, like so many frogs, stewing until we croak (whoo, sorry about that).

Politically speaking, this is a great opportunity. There are options. We could begin immediately to stop burning fossil fuels and coal and shift to alternative fuels and nuclear power (perhaps even transitionally). In this shift are not only remarkable benefits to the environment, but to the economy as well. In the 90s, our economy boomed principally because new technologies were a massive engine (both commercially and in terms of productivity). Shifting away from oil and fuel is expensive in the short run because the avenues of bring those sources to the market are so long-established. But in the long run, developing new technologies could create an economy akin to post-war times.

If we focus on the benefits of addressing the issue rather than the consequences of sitting on our thumbs, we have a far better chance of creating the popular will that will lead to political change. (And of course, the Dems are poised to lead this charge, should they ever pull their heads out of their butts.)
[Global Warming, National Security]

The Real Security Risk.

The greatest risk to national security is not terrorism. It's not rogue states, it's not nukes in North Korea, Iran, or Pakistan. This being "global warming week" here at Hog, you know where I'm going with this one. In the short term, al Qaida suitcase bombs are a pretty big threat. But long term, as the consequences of global warming start destablizing regions of the world, lack of water, famine, rising seas, and the political chaos that results will be far more dangerous.

To take one example, today the magazine Science reports that Greenland's glaciers are melting far faster than anyone knew. (You notice that with global warming, the outcomes are always far worse than predicted, never better. A cautionary tale.) Currently they're going at twice the pace previously predicted, and as melting begets faster melting, there will be a geometric progression to the greening of greenland.
In 1996, the amount of water produced by melting ice in Greenland was about 90 times the amount consumed by Los Angeles in a year. Last year, the melted ice amounted to 225 times the volume of water that city uses annually.
Greenland's contribution to rising seas, combined with antarctica's are likely to raise sea levels--prepare yourself--more than 20 inches in the next century. At one meter, much of Bangladesh will be covered with water, coastlines will be ravaged, and massive resettlement will be necessary. Political consequences for the enormous social effects these changes would cause--well, it's not going to help bring democracy to anyone.

And this is just one item that I chose because it happened to be in the news today. For a fun experiment, go to Google news and search on "global warming." The reports we hear about on a regular basis are--pardon the obsolescent cliche--the tip of the iceberg.

So why isn't the Pentagon worried about the security risks of global warming? Well, turns out they are.
Climate change over the next 20 years could result in a global catastrophe costing millions of lives in wars and natural disasters.

A secret report, suppressed by US defence chiefs and obtained by The Observer, warns that major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a 'Siberian' climate by 2020. Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world.

The document predicts that abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water and energy supplies. The threat to global stability vastly eclipses that of terrorism, say the few experts privy to its contents.
(The whole article is well worth a read.) Here's the ghastly truth, so grim that it's a political nonstarter: thanks to the willful blindness of our leaders, we are dooming ourselves to death and war within (some of) our lifetimes. Unlike other issues, this one can't be cleaned up by responsible adults once the greedy, stupid, corrupt frat boys leave Washington. If we don't create some political will soon, we're all going to pay the price.

As a last word, I'll mention that the US currently spends 1.1 trillion dollars on defense--49% of the national budget. A fair amount of that services past military adventures, like paying for amputees wounded in Bush's grandiose experiment. But let's say we actually did consider global warming the threat it is. Let's say, with visions of climate apocalypse in our minds, our blood runs as cold as it did when we watched airplanes fly into buildings. Could we muster, say, $500 billion a year in addressing this threat? In fifty years, we'll regret it if we don't.


Thursday, February 16, 2006

[Housing Bubble]

Zillow is Amazing.

Via Kevin Drum, there's a new site that has both personal and national political implications: zillow. It is a catalogue of 60 million homes and their value over time. For homeowners--buyers and sellers--there's a feature that allows you to see the appreciation (or, I suppose depreciation) of a single property, neighborhood, or county. This is enormously useful to learning how to price a home or whether the price on a home you're looking at is reasonable. Plus, it's packed with data on individual homes.

In terms of a larger political context, have a look at the national graph. This charts the housing prices across the country since mid '01. You can see the prices start really ticking off there in 2004--but look what happened at the end of last year--the trend flatlines.

Regional markets, however, are behaving differently. California's graph looks a lot like the nation, but Oregon's is still ticking up. Michigan's is declining. Weirest of all, Massachussett's is flatlining, except for a weird little dip around December of last year.

So we can get a real-time sense of what the markets are looking like, which will make armchair prognosticators like me very happy.
[Global Warming]

Test Your Understanding of Global Warming.

The EPA has a pretty cool quiz on global warming that incorporates its own data into each question. For example:
Question 4: If warming forces trees to migrate, what kind of trees will have the best chance of survival?
  • Tall trees with thick trunks
  • Trees whose seeds are carried by the wind
  • Nut-bearing trees
  • Trees whose seeds are spread by birds
Hint: The Forests page has the answer.
It's a nice guide through the expected effects of global warming. Take it here.
[Global Warming]

The Fake Global Warming "Debate"

Despite overwhelming scientific agreement about the facts of global warming (it's happening, it's happening faster than we expected and accelerating geometrically, and it's caused or worsened by human activity), certain vested interests still argue it's a concocted phenomenon. Like proponents of intelligent design, the position is political, not scientific, and the political aim is to place fake counterpoints in news reports to create the appearance of controversy. All to slow the reaction away from burning fossil fuels and other carbon-producing energy sources.

I prefer not to give the arguments face time here, but you can scan through them in a couple of places. The Cato institute has an energy industry hack named Patrick J. Michaels, who has parlayed oil and coal money into a cottage industry attacking global warming. His articles are here. Another is Richard Courtney, editor for a coal trading industry magazine, who is a "greenhouse skeptic." He has no background in science, but does have a very good reason to resist changes to the carbon-producing energy grid. Read a sample of his self-serving "science" here. The Heartland Institute is another group devoted to "common sense environmentalism" (aka environmental destruction). They don't even bother to come up with fake arguments--they just baldly lie.

And so on.

For anyone who wonders what the truth is (which is probably no one reading this blog), the facts are actually unequivocal:
The scientific consensus is clearly expressed in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Program, the IPCC is charged with evaluating the state of climate science as a basis for informed policy action. In its most recent assessment, the IPCC states unequivocally that the consensus of scientific opinion is that Earth's climate is being affected by human activities: "Human activities . . . are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents . . . that absorb or scatter radiant energy. . . . [M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations."

The IPCC is not alone in its conclusions. In recent years all major scientific bodies in the United States whose members' expertise bears directly on the matter have issued similar statements. A National Academy of Sciences report begins unequivocally: "Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise." The report explicitly asks whether the IPCC assessment is a fair summary of professional scientific thinking, and it answers yes. Others agree. The American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all issued statements concluding that the evidence for human modification of climate is compelling.
The "controversy" is a political one. Oil and coal producers and their political patrons (many of the most powerful of whom run the US) are unsurprisingly opposed to the science not because it's bad science, but because it's bad for their bank accounts.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

[Cheney Shooting]

Cheney Speaks to Fox News

This will be all the news for the next couple days, so I'll just post the bit I found most interesting. The entire transcript is here.
But one of the things I'd learned over the years was first reports are often wrong and you need to really wait and nail it down. And there was enough variation in the reports we were getting from the hospital, and so forth -- a couple of people who had been guests at the ranch went up to the hospital that evening; one of them was a doctor, so he obviously had some professional capabilities in terms of being able to relay messages. But we really didn't know until Sunday morning that Harry was probably going to be okay, that it looked like there hadn't been any serious damage to any vital organ. And that's when we began the process of notifying the press....

I do think what I've experienced over the years here in Washington is as the media outlets have proliferated, speed has become sort of a driving force, lots of time at the expense of accuracy. And I wanted to make sure we got it as accurate as possible, and I think Katherine was an excellent choice. I don't know who you could get better as the basic source for the story than the witness who saw the whole thing.
So the delay was just to ensure that all the facts were correct. Okee doke.
[Global Warming]

What About Nukes?

Despite Cheneymania, let me try to return to the week's topic for a moment. There's one source of power that is totally emission-free, is currently readily available and requires little infrastructure, and which could easily produce the world's energy: nuclear power. The question of safety is also relatively answerable, which leaves only one drawback (but it is a doozy)--waste.

Well, no less than James Lovelock, who (correctly) describes global warming as the "greatest danger that civilisation has faced so far," favors nukes. Here's how he measures the costs and benefits:
Opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media. These fears are unjustified, and nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources. We must stop fretting over the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation. Nearly one third of us will die of cancer anyway, mainly because we breathe air laden with that all pervasive carcinogen, oxygen. If we fail to concentrate our minds on the real danger, which is global warming, we may die even sooner, as did more than 20,000 unfortunates from overheating in Europe last summer.
Lovelock is variously regarded as a visionary or a crank, but no one doubts his commitment to the environment. In fact, the degree to which you regard him as a visionary probably depends on your view of the seriousness of global warming. If you think it will, like Republicans argue, increase only gradually, so that compensatory technologies can be found to reverse its worst effects, he's a crank. No reason to mess with nukes in that scenario--plenty of time for wind and nitrogen.

But llovelock's position is extreme: "the Earth is already so disabled by the insidious poison of greenhouse gases that even if we stop all fossil fuel burning immediately, the consequences of what we have already done will last for 1,000 years." He thinks the world is already destined for catastrophic disaster. In his scenario, the dangers of nuclear power are incredibly small.

So it really comes down to which model you go with. If Lovelock's scenario is anything close to as likely as the "no worries" model (and science says it is), which way should we hedge our bets, for or against nuclear power? I think it's time good liberals and environmentalists begin to reconsider nukes.

[Cheney Shooting]

Was Cheney Drunk? Let Us Count the Lies.

Poor global warming--it's getting short shrift this week due to various stories, not the least of which is shooting-my-78-year-old-friend-in-the-facegate. So, a roundup of various observations as the story unfolds, nearly every one of which stems from a lie coming from the White House (yet further evidence that it ain't the crime that gets you, it's the cover-up).

It was Whittington's Fault
Expectedly, the White House's first strategy was to shift blame--in this case, trying to claim that the shifty 78-year-old had snuck up behind Cheney and imitated a quail. To anyone who's been quail hunting, this was an obvious lie. As my partner (some call her wife) pointed out last night, that means not everyone. So okay, here it is: for obvious reasons, bird hunters are taught from an early age to be extremely careful about where their hunting partners are. Whenever there's a shooting incident, the suspicion always falls on the shooter. It's like a rear-ending car accident--it's possible for the rear-ended (or shootee) to be at fault, but it's pretty damn rare. But, when something like this happens, hunters don't usually pile on to the shooter because everyone assumes it was a horrible accident--and one they all have good reason to fear.

It Was an Honest Accident
Okay, so maybe it was. But there are two reasons why the events indicate something else. 1) Cheney dodged the cops. If, as would be expected in a hunting accident, the shooting had been inadvertent, the police and the shooter would be relieved to clarify that. So why did Cheney dodge the cops? Larry O'Donnell suggests he was drunk--as does RJ Eskow. Maybe. Maybe he was also grossly negligent. Either way, it doesn't look good. 2) The White House delayed reporting the incident for 18 hours. Again, if it were accidental, why didn't it come out immediately? The White House knew about it almost immediately, but contrary to regular practice, sat on the info.

Cheney Just Winged Him
Not only did the White House minimize the severity of the accident (actually, continue to minimize), but so did the doctors. Yet Whittington was actually hit so hard that the shot from Cheney's small-gauge shotgun got all the way to his heart. That means one thing: Whittington must have been just beyond the end of Cheney's barrel. This adds further mystery to Cheney's claim that Whittington had steathily snuck up on him.

We Were Concerned About Whittington
The White House, in response to questions about why they delayed reporting the shooting, absurdly claim that they were too busy tending to Whittington to report back to the press. Let's just let that explanation lie there a moment. So the White House is unable to care for a "lightly-wounded" man and report the accident to the press at the same time? That's your story? I actually believe the White House is that stupid and incompetent, but as far as excuses go, I would have expected better from Karl Rove.

Who knows where this is headed. The sheer volume of lies, however, makes one wonder if there's not a serious crime at the bottom of all of this.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


More Evidence of the Conservative Media.

One other non-global warming item. Media Matters recently completed a content analysis eight years of Sunday morning talk shows and found conservative bias. In both Clinton and Bush administrations, conservatives ideologues, conservative politicians, and conservative journalists outnumbered their liberal counterparts.
Media Matters for America conducted a content analysis of ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, and NBC's Meet the Press, classifying each one of the nearly 7,000 guest appearances during President Bill Clinton's second term, President George W. Bush's first term, and the year 2005 as either Democrat, Republican, conservative, progressive, or neutral. The conclusion is clear: Republicans and conservatives have been offered more opportunities to appear on the Sunday shows - in some cases, dramatically so.
What's even more revealing is Meet the Press's response. They admit that the proportion of Democrats/liberals has been less since 1997. They justify this by arguing that before then, Dems/liberals outnumbered conservatives/GOPs--unwittingly confirming that they have fallen sway to the unrelenting onslaught of conservatives against "the liberal media." As to MTP's direct claims, Media Matters destroys those, as well:
Overall, we see that Democrats held a 53-percent-to-46-percent advantage on Meet the Press during Clinton's second term (or a difference of 7 percentage points), not very different from the 56-percent-to-44-percent disparity you have cited from your own figures for his first term. But Republicans held a 62-percent-to-38-percent advantage during Bush's first term, a difference of 24 percentage points. This difference was even larger in 2005. Assuming your figures are correct, including Clinton's first term would have only strengthened our conclusions.
[Cheney Shooting]

The Daily Show on the Cheney Shooting Incident

There are a couplethree items of non-global warming interest today that I feel the need to pass on, and none is more amusing than the Daily Show's take on the Veep's shotgun mishap. Crooks and Liars has the whole ten minute clip, but the following exchange is the highlight. Such magnificent satire.

Jon Stewart: A very unfortunate incident; how is the Vice President handling it?

Rob Corddry: Jon, tonight the Vice President is standing by his decision to shoot Harry Whittington. Now, according to the best intelligence available there were quail hidden in the brush. Everyone believed at the time that there were quail hidden in the brush. And, while the quail turned out to be a 78-year-old man, even knowing that, today Mr. Cheney insists that he still would have shot Mr. Whittington in the face. Jon, he still believes that the world is a better place for his spreading buckshot throughout the entire region ... of Mr. Whittington's face.

Stewart: Rob, why, why, if he had known that Mr. Whittington was not a bird--if he'd had that information, Rob, why would the Vice President still have shot him in the face?

Corddry: Jon, good question. In a post-9/11 world, the American people expect their leaders to be decisive. To not have shot his friend in the face would have sent a message to the quail that America is weak.

[Global Warming, Politics]

Evangelicals and the Warming Wedge?

Last week, a coalition of 86 evangelical Christian groups joined together to promote the Evangelical Climate Intiative (ECI). I know of a couple of fairly anti-Evangelical readers of Hog--but hold your fire. This is really cool. In their call to action, they do not equivocate nor ignore science, observing:
  • Human-Induced Climate Change is Real
  • The Consequences of Climate Change Will Be Significant, and Will Hit the Poor the Hardest
  • Christian Moral Convictions Demand Our Response to the Climate Change Problem
  • The need to act now is urgent. Governments, businesses, churches, and individuals all have a role to play in addressing climate change--starting now.
The person leading the charge is Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, and one of the most popular preachers in the country. It is exactly the kind of support global warming needs to become a serious issue in American politics.

It's also a controversial issue that appears to be dividing the impenetrable "values" caucus. Following the announcement of the ECI, the National Association of Evangelicals--the largest evangelical organization--put the kibosh on it:
The National Association of Evangelicals said yesterday [Feb 1] that it has been unable to reach a consensus on global climate change and will not take a stand on the issue, disappointing environmentalists who had hoped that evangelical Christians would prod the Bush administration to soften its position on global warming.
Other dissentors include the always-wacky Jerry Falwell, who calls global warming "junk science." His view seems to pretty nicely summarize the position:
In addition, I believe that so-called solutions to global warming — and particularly the Kyoto Protocol, which is the politically-correct international agreement to fight greenhouse gas emissions — would devastate the American economy if adopted by our nation. Further, studies have shown that costly efforts to stem greenhouse gas emissions would just barely reduce global temperatures.
For many stalwarts in the Bush wing of the oil party, this is no time to start understanding science. Worse, for Republicans who peeled off labor Democrats with the abortion issue, the "values" compenent of global warming looks a lot like a peel-back. This, along with the further values component of the living wage debate and health care, may prove to be winning wedge issues to bring evangelicals back to the left. Lord knows--ahem--the GOP has been hammering social wedge issues long enough; time to fight back.
[Global Warming]

The Challenge of the 21st Century

The Pew Research center recently did their year-end "issues" report for 2005. Mirroring political inaction, none of the top ten issues on the list was global warming. Some of it was the usual flotsam that clogs public consciousness (be interesting to look back through the years and see what idiotic issues captivated us in, say, 1987)--Terri Schiavo, evolution--and some of it was more substantive. Yet despite pretty spectacular findings, the issue of global warming has been slow to stir our fear.

It is, nevertheless, the great challenge of this century. Depending on what we do in the next decade, the effects could be catastrophic. There's a lot of data out there (in almost every case, in various flavors of catastrophic), but to take one example, here are a few findings from the Union of Concerned Scientists about the changes that will effect California in the next century. The scientists looked at two scenarios: one charting effects if no changes in fossil fuel use, and one with reduced emissions. Both are grim:
  • By mid-century (2020-2049) summer temperatures are projected to rise 2-4 °F under the lower emissions scenario and 2.5 ­ 5.5°F under the higher emissions scenario.
  • Toward the end ( 2070-2099) summer temperatures are projected to rise 4-8.5°F under the lower emissions scenario and a dramatic 7.5-15°F under the higher emissions scenario.
  • Winter precipitation, which accounts for most of California's annual total, decreases 15 to 30 percent before the end of the century in three out of four model runs. However, in one model run, winter precipitation increases approximately five percent. These results differ from some projections developed using earlier models, which suggested that precipitation could double by the end of the century. The precipitation projections described do not differ between emissions scenarios.
  • Depending on the climate model used, sea levels could rise at a rate similar to the historical rate of about seven inches per century or almost four times faster. The rate is consistently higher under the higher-emissions scenario.
The effects of these changes will be severe. Drought, famine, and disease will emerge first. Habitats will change more radically than animals can adapt, causing mass extinctions. Already water rights through much of the West are matters of dispute. While Arizona may not declare war on Colorado over water, India's response to Pakistan and Iran's response to Iraq, to take two examples, might be more violent. Storms will wreak havoc. Economies will be wrecked; democracies will crumble; instability will flourish.

The shocking thing is that these aren't theoretical effects: they're almost certain outcomes. In best-case scenarios, they're just not as severe. How we respond will effect the worst of those changes. And, if there's some currently unforeseen way to mitigate the worst of the problems, we'd better be at work on it ASAP. But the truth is, our lives and our children's lives are going to be colored more by global warming than any other condition or event this century.

We must start taking it seriously.

Monday, February 13, 2006

[White House]

This is unfair, but...

Okay, seriously, I'm on to more important things...
[Global Warming]

Celebrating the Winter Olympics: Global Warming Week

I knew introducing my new plan of discussing a new topic each week would be fraught with difficulties. Little did I imagine that, barely a week after initial implementation, Veep Cheney would shoot his hunting partner in the face. Or that there would be an apparent White House coverup. Come on--shooting-in-the-face-gate? How can a respectable blogger ignore that? I mean, come on--the irony could carry me for a week. Nevertheless, I soldier on in the face of adversity. Hog may be tested by distraction, but it will not stop to wallow in the mire.

So anyway, on to the more subtle irony I planned to lead the week with. As the Winter Olympic games kick off in (your choice) Turin/Torino, it emerges that Italians have been having to wrap their glaciers in vast fleece vests to keep them from melting. Seriously:
The glaciers, some warn, will all but disappear in 50 years. Already, melting permafrost threatens glacier ski stations and lifts, leaving resort officials in a critical race against the elements....

So, over the summer, something revolutionary was rolled out — giant strips of white fleece the size of football fields. It’s an Austrian and Swiss experiment. The polyethelene foil acts like a giant picnic cooler, keeping the sun out and the cold in. And, it works.

Of course, the effects of global warming will have consequences more dire than the loss of alpine ski resorts. Several major medium-term possibilities emerge: rising oceans that threaten large coastal populations; weather patterns become more volatile, making Katrina-like disasters common; geopolitical turmoil over decreasing food and water supplies. Long-term possibilities? Hard to contemplate.

So, at this moment of winter sports celebration let us stop to ponder how many more downhill races we have left.

Friday, February 10, 2006

[Islam, Cartoon Riots]

Further Perspectives.

It seems like a fairly-well covered topic, but I see that the cartoon analysis continues. On the odd chance you're dying for more (and since I'm running out of opinions on Islam), here we go:

Charles Krauthammer, who's commentary almost ceaselessly fails to enrage, has an interesting, if compromised, editorial today.
What passes for moderation in the Islamic community -- "I share your rage but don't torch that embassy" -- is nothing of the sort. It is simply a cynical way to endorse the goals of the mob without endorsing its means. It is fraudulent because, while pretending to uphold the principle of religious sensitivity, it is interested only in this instance of religious insensitivity. [itals his]
Seems fair to point out that Krauthammer is hardly unbiased in the debate. To adopt his own formulation: it seems a cynical way to indict Muslims whom he's long indicted, because the baby-with-the-bathwater approach ignores nuance within the outrage Muslims are expressing.

For those who are interested in the righty blogosphere's hypocrisy (and who's not?), an interesting development has emerged the Anne Applebaum's editorial in which she opined:
Remember the controversy over Newsweek and the Koran? Last year Newsweek printed an allegation about mistreatment of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base that -- although strikingly similar to interrogation techniques actually used to intimidate Muslims at Guantanamo -- was not substantiated by an official government investigation. It hardly mattered: Abroad, Muslim politicians and clerics promoted and exaggerated the Koran story, just as they are now promoting and exaggerating the Danish cartoon story. The result was rioting and violence on a scale similar to the rioting and violence of the past week.

But although that controversy was every bit as manipulated as this one, self-styled U.S. "conservatives" blamed not cynical politicians and clerics but Newsweek for (accidentally) inciting violence in the Muslim world: "Newsweek lied, people died."
To this, a ruling member of the righty blogosphere (Capn Ed) posted a rebuttal--and shock of shocks, managed to induce Applebaum into responding. He has her email and his response here. (Andrew Sullivan, fellow righty, sides with Applebaum.)
[Islam, Religion]

Religious and Political Pluralism.

Yesterday's post inspired a fair amount of interesting commentary on the subject of politics and religion, and the extent to which the latter influences the former. We fall necessarily into the morass of confused causality in this kind of formulation. To use Christianity as an example, the influences on the US were wildly contradictory--from the strength, wealth, and institutional autocracy of the Catholic Church (and the Holy Roman Empire), to the individualistic, mercantile Protestantism that seems to have guided much of the founders' thought. Does Christ's message encourage individual "agency" (call it the liberty argument) or the opposite--a refutation of temporal power and submission only to God?

The morass is obvious: the influences create a feedback loop and trying to identify causality is a fool's errand. Just so with taking Islam and pretending to understand how it might influence politics.

But one thing occurred to me as I read through the comments: countries with homogenous populations--linguistically, culturally, religiously--don't have to address pluralism's messy implications. Let's pull it out of the Muslim context. At independence, India and Pakistan split in half. Pakistan did better at religious homogeneity--97% of the population is now Muslim (it was lower at independence, but still high). India was far more heterogeneous: India had substantial minorities of Muslim and Sikh citizens (and important, though statistically small minorities of Jains, Christians, and Parsis). As a result, India's democracy has been far more vibrant and stable. The push-pull of those perspectives created one of the more sophisticated judiciaries of new democracies, and it has served India well. Pakistan, despite broad national agreement, has been a zoo.

This isn't a perfect metric. Japan managed to successfully democratize despite homogeneity, while Iraq's diversity looks to be one of it's principle destablizers. There are a lot of factors. But how a country deals with minorities is an important metric about how successfully a country has democratized. In countries where diversity is an accepted reality--never mind religious imperatives--this seems to be a big advantage.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

[Civil Rights, White House]

Coretta Scott King's Funeral.

Allow me to deviate from this week's topic for a moment, and spend a post on the fracas that Coretta Scott King's funeral has caused. Several speakers took the opportunity to hammer Bush--who was in attendance--which unsurprisingly caused the right wing scream machine to, well, scream. The screamers felt it was "inappropriate" to politicize the funeral, apparently forgetting who the funeral was for. (See Froomkin and Kurtz for media round-ups of the event.)

I'm not going to go into the issue of whether we should take the argument of rich white people seriously about what's "appropriate" for a civil right leader's funeral. What I will say is this: Bush had it coming. No politician has more successfully exploited race than Bush. During the 2000 election, he alternated between appearing with black people at stump speeches and appearing at Bob Jones University. He secretly smeared McCain in South Carolina, appealing to white racists with a push poll alerting them to a "black" baby McCain had adopted (she was Bengali). He filed an amicus brief in the suit to eliminate race considerations at Michigan. And all the while, he keeps appearing with nonwhite, working class people to appear openminded.

And what about all the blacks he's appointed? Again, don't ask idiots like Rush Limbaugh whether that's good for blacks, ask blacks. Down the line, folks like Condi and Rod Paige push proposals blacks overwhelmingly disapprove of. Sure, they're black, but they don't represent black views. That's cheap exploitation.

And finally, you have to ask whether Coretta would have minded a little politicization. Here's Bush, a huge enemy of the Kings' activities, appearing at Coretta's funeral, purely for appearances. Do you really think she would have minded, on the sole occasion Bush chose to poke his head out of the echo chamber, that people used it to crack him publicly for his crimes and misdemeanors? I don't think so, either.