Thursday, August 17, 2006

A terrible idea

Energy policy occupies a vile place in American politics. It's a consistent boon for energy companies who don't need the money.

In that sad tradition, I suppose Energy Secretary Bodman's recent commentary for CNN isn't so surprising. But it still is pathetic: it manages to make no consistent sense, articulate no clear policy, and generally appear to be written by a hack team of second-rate lobbyists.

This passage illustrates the essay's decrepit reasoning:

"We have more than 100 nuclear plants in this country, and they supply more than 20 percent of the nation's electricity, but we haven't built a new nuclear power plant in more than 30 years. To help spur the growth of nuclear power, I announced a $2 billion federal-risk insurance program that, I hope, will speed up the nuclear renaissance in this country."

Hmm... I wonder why we haven't built any nuclear power plants for three decades? Maybe because it's immensely dangerous, generates toxic waste, and isn't cost-effective?

When you look at it, Bodman's "logic" is just bizarre. Follow the steps:

1. We get a lot of power from nuclear plants.
2. No one wants to build nuclear plants anymore.
3. For some reason that I haven't the time to articulate, this is clearly a problem. Since I don't believe in economics, I'm going to solve it with another liability-limiting subsidy.

Incidentally, I'm not sure many people know about the massive subsidy the feds have handed the nuclear industry. As taxpayers, we're responsible for any damages above $10 billion incurred by a nuclear meltdown. Get that? The industry doesn't have to pay. It isn't required to buy its own insurance. Instead, our lawmakers wrote a blank check for however much nuclear power's horrific accidents cost.

And Bodman somehow thinks that we're not generous enough.

This is a case where we'd be wise to trust the wisdom of markets. The insurance industry, despite its annoying ads and sadistic agents, knows what it's doing. Its business is to evaluate risk, and it does an admirable job. So if the insurance premiums for nuclear plants would really be unbearably high, shouldn't that tell us something? Maybe that it doesn't make sense to gamble entire swaths of the country for tiny improvements in the nominal price of electricity?

Conversely, if nuclear power is actually safe, wouldn't the price of liability insurance be relatively low? And if that's the case, why shouldn't nuclear companies handle it themselves?

A nuclear industry shill will surely mention the threat of global warming, which is a bit amusing. Nuclear power has consistently battled environmental sanity for five decades, and now that its pitiful technology happens to be on the correct side of an issue, lobbyists won't shut up. But giving a completely unrelated subsidy to the industry in a vague attempt to combat climate change is just stupid.

Instead, we should incorporate the costs of carbon emission directly, through taxes or an equivalent "cap and trade" scheme. It's a solution for people who actually believe in economics. And here's the best part: if nuclear power is really such a great policy for the environment, this fix will give it a chance. But color me a skeptic.

There is absolutely no defense for capping the nuclear industry's liability. None. And as you can undoubtedly tell, I can't avoid boiling with rage every time I think about it.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Logical mix-up?

Confusing correlation with causation -- probably the most common logical fallacy in today's depressing discourse. Its frequency is almost paradoxical: when checking for a mix-up is so easy, why do so few educated people bother?

The war in Iraq -- and the neoconservative philosophy underlying it -- is a spectacular example of precisely this logical failure. Desperate for an ideologically comforting way to confront terrorism, naive intellectuals settled upon democracy promotion. The idea was simple enough: after all, you don't see Western democracies churning out suicide bombers.

But that's hardly reason to conclude that forced democratization will bring peace. Stable democracies don't exist thanks to some ethereal aura of "freedom." Rather, they have consistent precursors: a decent level of material prosperity, a reasonably well-educated population, and a basic sense of tolerance (domestically, at least). When there are "negatives," like secretarian divides, the aforementioned positives must be even stronger.

Might these contributing factors be the real keys to terror prevention? I suspect so. In fact, we've seen an intriguing recent test of the principle: the Palestinian Authority. It has none of the normal precursors to democracy -- Palestine is desperately poor, completely uneducated, and hardly tolerant. So what happened when its people were given an election? They endorsed Hamas, a terrorist organization.

Sure, the political situation was complicated -- it wasn't a straight-up, "do you support terror?" vote. Many justifiably thought that the PLO was too corrupt to deserve reelection. But whatever the circumstances, it's clear that democracy alone has not curbed terror.

And yet we've pinned our forces in a crumbling nation, all in pursuit of this desperate dream.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Government and college tuition

Some pundits argue that the current regime of state college pricing is unfair. We subsidize every student, regardless of ability to pay or field of study. And they have a point: the thought of rich kids cruising in their newly minted BMWs to Flagship U, all on the taxpayer's dime, certainly lends itself to anger.

But are all policies that "benefit" the rich unfair? We could easily obtain cash for the subsidy, after all, through a slight hike in upper bracket tax rates. This policy wouldn't hand any overall advantage to the "rich" -- just to whoever decides to have kids.

Fertility rates above replacement level are crucial for the long-term health of our nation, and it's a miracle that we still have them. Why bristle at subsidizing the decision to procreate?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Behold: militarist logic

There is a revolting and altogether bizarre argument spreading through the right-wing universe. It has roughly four parts -- let me lay them out:

Couplet of rhetorical questions: Shouldn't any remotely civilized society believe in the equality of human life? Does the Arab world consider Israeli lives equal to Lebanese ones?

Reasonable answers: Yes, and no.

Subsequent inference: This is a war of cultures, between a plural, democratic nation and a medievalist swarm bent on religious tyranny.

Utterly absurd conclusion: We must fight the hatemongers and terrorists in Lebanon and accept the deaths of innocent Lebanese.

When you consider the complete, unembellished argument, its nasty hypocrisy becomes clear. Feverish militarists start with Arab disregard for Israeli life, churn it through partisan rhetoric, and ultimately conclude that Lebanese lives aren't that important. Their statements, indeed, mirror revenge screeds from the other side. Sure, there's more intellectual sophistication: nebulous references to human dignity abound. But the logic is nothing beyond a slimy heap of non-sequiturs, babble from apologetics with no goal but proving themselves right.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

This makes sense

If civilians don't leave Southern Lebanon, they will become collateral damage in the IDF's war against Hezbollah. But if they leave, their travelling vehicles will be bombed.

What an insane war.

Might this be good?

Lieberman's insistence on an independent run is certainly frustrating, but is it bad for the Democratic Party? According to conventional wisdom, the Lamont-Lieberman saga will distract attention from the state's Democratic House candidates, dimming the the party's overall chances of victory.

But I'm not so sure. A continued fight between Lamont and Lieberman has only one clear implication: it will bring Democrats out to vote in droves. The notion of "infighting" is intuitively discomfiting, but it may be the ultimate GOTV tactic.

Just wouldn't listen...

I don't agree with Steve Sailer very often, but his take on tonight's events is both prescient and hilarious:

"Oh, the horrible lèse majesté of it all! A very important person has been fired from his very important job over a little thing like a war. How dare the Democrats of Connecticut be so impertinent. As Steven Colbert tried to explain to them: 'You had your choice in 1988.' But they wouldn't listen..."

Monday, August 07, 2006

Inefficient markets in everything is a fascinating experiment in prediction markets, but its prices belie the hypothesis that it's efficient. Take a look at the Democratic primary field.

A Clinton victory currently trades at 41.9% while Edwards is only 7.6%. What??? When Edwards has a poll advantage in Iowa, the consensus upper hand in Nevada and South Carolina, and a New Hampshire pollster is stunned by the anti-Hillary sentiment among his state's Democrats?

Edwards should be priced at least as high as Clinton. I'd lay money on it (if I had any money).

Don't they like hypocrisy?

Gleen Greenwald is guest-blogging at Salon this week; the results are wonderful. Here is an excerpt from a post where he notes both the right's lynch-mob mentality and its own rather considerable hypocrisy:

"Ironically, one of the anti-Reuters lynch mob leaders, Little Green Footballs, defended Fox's publication of false Kerry quotes by arguing that Fox 'pulled the article down and apologized for it the same day. That is, of course, how a responsible news organization handles a situation like this' (emphasis added). That, of course, is precisely what Reuters did with the altered photographs. In fact, the agency went much further by removing all of the photographs and announcing it will never use that photographer again. Fox, by contrast, refused to remove Cameron from covering the Kerry campaign and continues to employ him. Worse, Fox excused itself by claiming that publication of the fake quotes 'occurred because of fatigue and bad judgment, not malice.'"

Nuclear policy and Hezbollah

Some threats are more dangerous than others. Much more dangerous.

Today we see the consequences of Israel's actions to confront a relatively minor threat: Hezbollah and its store of rockets. Although Hezbollah certainly has the capacity to cause damage, that damage has never been particularly severe. It can kill, at most, a few hundred Israelis -- I don't want to minimize that, but it certainly doesn't amount to an existential threat. Meanwhile, the campaign to expunge Hezbollah has already killed and maimed perhaps a thousand Lebanese civilians.

But the continued radicalization of the Islamic world poses far more destructive consequences. As I mentioned in the preceding post, Pakistan has a dangerous and growing nuclear arsenal. You simply can't have those weapons fall into the hands of Muslim extremists. They could cause hundreds of thousands, even millions of deaths. Luckily, we're safe as long as Musharraf stays in power -- so shouldn't Israel be crafting its policy to avoid any fundamentalist revolt?

Absolutely. But at the moment, it's following the worst possible strategy. Israel's campaign to eject Hezbollah is both incapable of achieving its aim (an 18-year ground occupation didn't work) and a powerful catalyst for further Islamic radicalization.

The Lebanese government plans to deploy 15,000 soldiers to the south of the country as soon as Israel withdraws. I can't see any better deal on the horizon -- the United States and France should alter their Security Council resolution to demand an Israeli pullout and end this horrible war.

Is it okay to strangle someone?

Why would we want to pass a deal giving nuclear assistance to India? It turns the Non-Proliferation Treaty into a worthless scrap of paper while offering no clear benefits. Meanwhile, Pakistan is constructing a heavy-water reactor -- a reactor whose only conceivable purpose is the manufacture of plutonium.

Question: are we even considering the possibility that the Musharraf regime might not exist forever? That he might be assassinated, or fall victim to an Islamist revolution? That a country whose people are overwhelmingly anti-American shouldn't be handed a reason to build better nukes?

This isn't some political game. It's not just another silly bill passed by a Congress with infinite appetite for silliness. It involves nothing less than the prospect of a mushroom cloud over Manhattan.

Twenty percent?

This is incredible. It might be a fluke, but it reports that only twenty percent of Americans age 18 to 24 approve of President Bush's performance.

There's a sizable "no opinion" population, but even if we make the exceedingly charitable (to Bush) assumption that its leanings split 50/50, that's an eventual breakdown of 34 vs 67. (the combined rounding error makes the numbers fail to add to 100)

This result has an intriguing relationship to my last post. In that post, I mourned the widespread obsession with the propriety of the welfare state at a time when it's not really an issue. But young people, by their very nature, rarely live in the past. Perhaps they're better at evaluating job performance because their allegiances depend on the current political situation, not the battles of yesteryear.

A question

Why do so many people vote based on their beliefs about the propriety of the welfare state? Especially today, when actual welfare spending is a trivial fraction of the federal budget? When there is no political debate over the issue and no sign that the status quo is going to change?

We're stuck in the past.

Smaller, more effective government

What? A political slogan that could both mobilize Americans against Republican excess and have actual content?

Yep: "Smaller, more effective government."

With just four words, the Democratic Party could make itself a real challenger to the Republicans' fiscal recklessness. What would the platform underlying the slogan involve?
  • Slash agricultural subsidies. These massive payouts distort markets, cost taxpayers billions, and benefit only a privileged few. See here for details.
  • End earmarking. This is an issue that will require real sacrifice for Democrats, most of whom don't seem interested in eliminating such a potent source of political pork. But it is both tremendously important from a fiscal perspective and an excellent way to demonstrate courage in tackling the deficit.
  • Cut funding for NASA. Everyone loves space flight, but NASA receives far more tax money than it can justify. Those $16.8 billion requested for fiscal 2007 would be better spent reducing the deficit or supporting basic research.
  • Eliminate subsidies to the coal, oil, gas and nuclear industries. Government interference of this sort is both counterproductive and completely unnecessary: it perversely discourages energy efficiency while ignoring the market's capacity to deal with supply problems on its own. Legislation can and should exist to correct market failures -- for instance, to incorporate the costs of pollution -- but subsidies to fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources have no such justification.
  • Stop wasting billions of dollars on missile defense. If you need any convincing, read Matthew Yglesias's excellent piece on the subject. Money quote: "How an attack that didn’t involve ballistic missiles perpetrated by people who don’t have ballistic missiles underscored the threat of ballistic missiles is hard to say."
  • Force Congress to account for true costs by the same standards it has imposed on business. This makes a big difference: it more than doubles the size of the deficit. If you don't believe me, consider the hard-right National Center for Policy Analysis's take on the subject.

All these actions taken together, of course, wouldn't come close to solving our fiscal problems. But they would provide a great start and, more importantly, an atmosphere of seriousness in dealing with our self-imposed budgetary crisis.

One might say that by co-opting the language of "smaller government," the Democratic Party would risk an irrevocable shift of the political middle and a destruction of its long-term prospects. It's a valid point. But I think that the party also has a great opportunity to improve its long-term image. By casting itself as a principled group ready to fight wasteful spending, the Democratic Party would improve its credibility for those situations where new programs are truly necessary.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Changing the rules

I've had my time as hack dietician; now I'll play hack media critic. As I examine the media's torrent of written output, I'm drawn to a depressing but inescapable conclusion: past a certain level, there is no relationship between cogent thought and clever writing. Indeed, an essayist's effortless stream of wit often obscures the lack of logic underneath.

Writing is in many respects a game of dress-up. Although the argument of an essay might be just as sound with only a few precise sentences, our aesthetic impulses drive us to embellish. Add a clever allusion here, a chilling adjective there—it's all part of the fun. And when a line of reasoning demands more than a few token attempts at deduction, should we really care? These people must be brilliant, right? How else could they tickle our minds with such sparkling prose?

We should care. But I don't want this to become a blanket condemnation of the media when my real goal is more introspective. As an amateur blogger, I don't have much time to craft my posts, and I'm ultimately forced to make a choice. Should I aim for snappy posts—eminently readable bits of opinion that sometimes lack intellectual nuance? Or should I bring my tortured mental process into full view, style be damned?

My verdict? I'm going to try the second approach. There is no shortage of passionate or clever writers -- millions of them are far, far better than I. But there is a dramatic deficit of rational thinkers, and that deficit is really what I entered the punditry business to address.

The Becker-Posner blog is one of the few online examples of the type I'll seek to emulate. No one will ever hand the two Chicago intellectuals an award for creative writing. But their blog is awesome because it doesn't waste time with clever trivialities. Its thought process is in full view: precise, analytical and smart.

So if you see a decline from the already lamentable standard of writing on this blog, please try to look beyond it. I want to stop caring about my posts' snappy structure. Let substance come before style.

Math and dieting

This evening, while crusing through town in my hopelessly staid set of wheels, I started thinking about the math of dieting. I've encountered many people who, despite claiming a diet for weight loss, eat whatever unhealthy grub crosses their plates. I don't blame them—hey, dieting is hard! But the tension interests me: how do we square the evident desire to lose weight with the almost total lack of discipline in getting there?

We could simply say that our species has no discipline. And that's partly true. As any soul unfortunate enough to share my living space will discover, I have the attention span of an THC-addled hippie. Maybe I'm one myself? Whatever.

Mathematical modeling suggests another possibility. What if we aren't hopelessly incontinent, but simply can't appreciate the dietary effect of otherwise insignificant indulgences? Several sodas, after all, don't seem to make a dent after you've been munching all day. And yet those precious minutes of syrupy comfort might be worse than the Porterhouse you ordered at Sizzler.

Food's impact has two dimensions: effect on the appetite and actual calorie content. A successful dieter will try to feel full without taking in too many nasty fats and carbs. We can crudely approximate the difference between these forces. In the simplest model, "appetite calories" represent food's contribution to making you satiated. The fuller a dish makes you feel, the more numerous its appetite calories.

The process is simple: take appetite calories minus real ones. Higher is better. Celery, whose fibrous stalks border on indigestible, claims the loftiest territory. Soda dawdles in the cellar—its countless molecules of fructose are hardly filling.

How might Coke be worse than a steak? Let's do the math. An average cola has plenty of calories: we'll say 160. But it will make very little progress toward actually filling you. In fact, if a can only provides 20 appetite calories, you're left with a deficit of 140. Drink three times and you're down 420.

Compare this with the Porterhouse. Sure, that massive slab of cow and fat packs a mean caloric punch. A sizable portion—a pound—contains more than 1100 calories. But here's the difference between meat and sugar water: although a pound of beef has enough metabolic muscle to support you for half a day, it'll also make you really full—full enough that you won't be wanting many other meals. And if it has even 700 appetite calories, it's ultimately no worse than those three cans of soda. Slightly better, in fact.

The model is undoubtedly an oversimplification. I can't help but wonder, however, whether it explains many of the perverse dieting results we see today. Many foods seem innocuous because their contribution is just so small. A Pepsi takes less than a tenth of the 2000 calorie pie—it's easy to discount the effect of indulging once or twice. But even a few indulgences, so apparently trivial, can ruin an entire day of effort.

To really diet, you need to avoid more than steak. Cut the soda, juice, cheese and ice cream. And don't even think about chocolate.

Friday, August 04, 2006

A clarification

I should clarify the last post. The Elements of Style is still quite useful, but only because no modern and comparably succinct guide to usage exists. At the same time, it's not indispensable: I, along with many others, acquired a decent sense of English prose solely through osmosis and the complete lack of a life.

Um... is this really that valuable?

I know that Strunk and White are canonized as the prophets of good writing, but look at their actual work. The first "elementary rule of usage" in The Elements of Style:

"Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names in -es and -is, the possessive Jesus', and such forms as for conscience' sake, for righteousness' sake. But such forms as Achilles' heel, Moses' laws, Isis' temple are commonly replaced by the heel of Achilles, the laws of Moses, the temple of Isis."

The heel of Achilles? And this is supposed to improve our style?

Um... can anyone say out of date?


I've suffered enough from Marty Peretz's writing. Now this does it. I'm killing my outgoing link to The New Republic. Behold... Slate, listed first!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

If Allen wins, I'm relocating to a remote Pacific atoll

A thought crossed my mind today. What's the absolute worst possible outcome of the 2008 election?

Consider the candidates with a solid chance of winning. On the Democratic side we have Clinton, Edwards, Warner and (less plausibly) Feingold. The Republican roster includes McCain, Giuliani, Romney and Allen.

Let's take these one by one.

Clinton: Of the likely Democratic nominees, Clinton has easily the worst chance of winning a general election. Although I wouldn't be particularly happy with another Clinton presidency, I'd have no serious cause for grievance.

Edwards: His heart seems to be in the right place, unencumbered by the Machiavellian cynicism strangling official Washington. My fear, however, is that he'd be a bit of a lightweight -- obviously not as bad as the current officeholder, but still lacking the complex grasp of issues that would be ideal.

Warner: I really don't have a clue. He strikes me as the quintessential "New Democrat," an ambitious politico seeking to follow in Clinton's footsteps. Fitting, then, that he doesn't appear to have any ideology beyond the focus-grouped drivel the DLC regularly excretes.

Feingold: My favorite. Yes, as my friend and commenter remarked on a previous post, he doesn't have any real legislative accomplishments to his name. The campaign finance bill was a messy farce. I'm not sure, however, that this should define our perception of the senator. Color me a cynic, but in a relentlessly partisan and conservative Senate it's very difficult to achieve anything progressive. Aside from a few short intervals, Feingold's tenure has been a Republican-controlled nightmare where "compromises" herald messy, meritless boondoggles, and I don't discount him for his lack of "accomplishment." In a race where no one possesses unquestionable merit, a man who voted against the Patriot Act and the Iraq war is a solid option.

McCain: Better than any of his Republican rivals. That's all I'm prepared to say at this point.

Giuliani: Yuck. It's hard to see how this ill-tempered, vapid blowhard could win an election. But that's precisely what he managed to do for many years in New York. Let's hope that if God is veangeful enough to give us four years of Giuliani, he'll at least kill the "broken windows" lunacy. Please?

Romney: He's the anti-Giuliani. Handsome, intelligent and even-tempered, Romney is one of the Republican Party's better faces. And I still can't stand him -- the bluster on same-sex marriage speaks volumes about his paleolithic core.

Allen: Cue head explosion. Despite my obvious lack of enthusiasm for the other Republicans in this race, I truly hate George Allen. He would be a Bush repeat -- a know-nothing spoiled child who spent a lifetime playing cowboy and now wants to be president.

Don't let it happen.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Isn't this more than a little scary?

Matthew Yglesias on Bush:

"He did, one assumes, actually meet with Maliki. And they must have talked about something. But Bush doesn't seem to have been listening. Instead, he sounds like a college kid bullshitting in section because he didn't do the assigned reading. 'We talked about security in Baghdad,' Bush observed, delving into specifics. 'No question the terrorists and extremists are brutal.' "

And then:

"Two days later, with Tony Blair standing at the adjacent podium, things went from bad to worse. One is used to hearing Bush say things that aren't true. He appears, however, from the look on his face and from the baffling nature of the untruths he uttered, to have lapsed from dishonesty into confusion. (Sheer boredom may have sent him tumbling to new depths of ignorance.) 'There's a lot of suffering in the Palestinian territory,' Bush mused, 'because militant Hamas is trying to stop the advance of democracy.'

It is? Has Bush forgotten that Hamas came to power as a result of elections that he insisted the Palestinian Authority hold? I happen to think the White House made the right call on the question of Palestinian elections -- even in retrospect, even knowing that Hamas won -- though many observers think his policy has merely backfired. Rather than defend the policy, however, Bush seems to have forgotten all about it."

Yep... as if we needed any more evidence that the President subscribes to a ridiculously incoherent "democracy versus terror" worldview.

We need to remember that statement: "militant Hamas is trying to stop the advance of democracy." That is so dumb, so wholly inaccurate and absurd that it's hard to fathom. Hamas is in power thanks to the democratic process, not in opposition to it. Our President has the short-term memory of a binge drinker.

The "center"

There remains, firmly embedded in the Washington zeitgeist, a very strange sense of political strategy. Its proponents, generally lazy journalists and Democratic consultants, believe that the path to electability always runs through the "center." Fair enough. But where, pray tell, does this mystical center lie?

That's the problem. I can't locate any deductive process leading pundits to their sagely conclusions about the "center." There remains a basic lack of foundation. Consider this fantastically bad piece in today's Washington Post, charmingly entitled "True Blue, Or Too Blue?"

"No matter what happens, the Lamont surge looks and sounds like a towel snap at the status quo. This is not merely about the war, say strategists with both camps, but the larger question of what Democrats should do to regain power -- and in the absence of power, how they should behave in opposition. Should they move to the center and accommodate the red-state voters who have sidelined them two elections in a row? Or move to the left and fight, consequences be damned?"

This betrays a simple lack of analysis. Why did John Kerry and Al Gore lose? Certainly not their positions on the issues - Democrats have long possessed the polling advantage on nearly every topic of substance. No, they lost because people didn't like them. Gore failed to convince voters that he was a real person: although he pigeonholed Bush's ignorance in the debates, his sighs and weird mannerisms (lockbox, anyone?) rattled destructively through the media spin cycle.

Kerry compounded this weakness with an incoherence and lack of focus that alienated everyone, not least his supporters. He closed the campaign with vague rambles about outsourcing, even when Iraq had become the undeniably decisive issue. Left-wing ideas didn't doom Kerry's candidacy - he didn't even articulate them.

Rhetoric about left and right paralyzes American journalism. An idea might be putatively "left-wing," but that doesn't stop clear majorities from supporting it. According to the latest poll data, fully 62% of Americans express disapproval of the President's handling of Iraq, versus only 32% in support. When Lieberman expresses the latter view, he's the one outside the center, not Lamont. Joe's continued proclamations of progress apparently don't sit well with Americans: a mere 4% believe that "Iraq will become a stable democracy in the next year or two," versus 41% who say it "take longer" and 53% who literally say never.

When political writers depict crazed Democrats abandoning the political center, it's important to recognize their punditry for what it is: dumb and uninformed. The real key to elections is startlingly simple. Voters want candidates with actual beliefs, candidates that sound passionate and consistent, candidates that make sense.

Gore and Kerry just didn't get it.

How nice

From the New York Times:

"Unions representing thousands of staff scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency say the agency is bending to political pressure and ignoring sound science in allowing a group of toxic chemicals to be used in agricultural pesticides.

"Leaders of several federal employee unions say the chemicals pose serious risks for fetuses, pregnant women, young children and the elderly through food and exposure and should not be approved by Thursday, the Congressional deadline for completing an agency review of thousands of substances in pesticides."

Occasionally, the casual observer reads something so outrageous that it doesn't really seem possible. In this case, we're witnesses to an actual revolt by rank-and-file scientists in the Environmental Protection Agency against their political paymasters. The Administration has so callously trampled over science that it doesn't seem to care about chemicals that "pose serious risks to fetuses, pregnant women, young children and the elderly."

But paradoxically, this makes me just as angry at the Democratic Party. Years of accumulated political intuition tell me that its response to this news will be emasculated, ineffectual and barely visible. The party is tactically clueless.

This is the perfect issue for Democrats: populism in its most genuine incarnation. It doesn't involve taking some stupid stand ("oil prices are high because we have oilmen in office") for the sound byte. Instead, we're seeing genuine science crushed by narrow corporate interests, to the detriment of very nearly everyone. In fact, I can't think of a more universally attractive list of groups to defend: "fetuses, pregnant women, young children and the elderly."


Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Okay, time for a personal gripe. Last night I realized that the office of Residential Life and Housing Services (RLHS) at Duke placed me in an air conditioned dorm for my first year. What's wrong with that? Two things: first, air conditioned rooms cost $1000 more per year. Second, I had absolutely no say in the matter.

Let's review this sequence of events:

1) Duke admissions shows prospective undergraduates only the lower cost of non-air conditioned rooms in its "Cost of Attendance" figure.

2) Matt chooses to attend Duke and not Harvard or MIT because Duke gave him a much cheaper, more affordable deal.

3) RLHS arbitrarily assigns Matt an air conditioned room and expects him to happily fork over an extra $1000.

This indicates either sheer incompetence or abuse of power. Why?

There are two possibilities. Perhaps many students consider $1000 a fair price and would voluntarily select air conditioned dorms. In this situation, RLHS is merely incompetent: it has neglected to provide a reasonable choice to its trapped customers.

The other possibility is that most students view $1000 as excessive. In this scenario, RLHS can't offer $1000 as a market price because not enough students would accept. If so, RLHS abuses its power: it forces students into an uneconomical deal that few would otherwise enter.

Ah, university bureaucracy—my first, sweet taste.

Tragically counterproductive

I peruse conservative blogs on a fairly regular basis, and I've noticed that the right-wing blogosphere defines itself through two mutually reinforcing storylines:

1) The evil people are really evil.
2) The mainstream media (snidely labeled the "MSM") is incompetent and hopelessly liberal.

These notions are responsible for over fifty percent of its posts. When you consider the arrogance and self-infatuation that inevitably ensue, it's not hard to see why this swath of the internet - Little Green Footballs, Powerline, Michelle Malkin - is so intellectually bankrupt.

The furor over the recent Qana massacre is a prime example. I'll admit that my snarky dismissal of the right-wing bloggers' theories may have been misplaced. There are some serious questions: why don't the photographed dead children have hair covered in concrete dust, which would be a more or less immediate byproduct of building collapse? How did Hezbollah churn out an incredibly slick poster condemning the events at Qana within a few hours of the collapse?

But this is where the conservative blogosphere falls apart. Yes, if the Qana collapse was faked, the media should investigate and broadcast its findings to the world. The bloggers, unfortunately, have seized the opportunity to partake in a narcissistic orgy of self-congratulation and personal triumph. It's an incredibly easy way to avoid real thinking - thinking about, for instance, what Israel should actually do.

And the situation isn't pretty. The Lebanese prime minister was recently reduced to praising Hezbollah as a patriotic force of national defense. Hezbollah's military capacity has not been damaged a whit: it recently fired its biggest volley of rockets yet.

Israel must face a hard and uncomfortable fact: unless it literally destroys Lebanon, it cannot disarm Hezbollah by force.

Moreover, although a strong multinational force is appealing in principle, it sure doesn't seem to be close. Olmert needs to drop the fantasies and pursue an immediate end to the fighting.

What might a peace plan look like? It must provide every party with a "victory" - in politics and war, image is everything. Perhaps it can include:

1) An immediate end to military hostilities.
2) The IDF's withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
3) A prisoner exchange that frees both Lebanese and Israeli inmates.
4) Promises of negotiation, or perhaps even territorial concessions, over the Shebaa Farms.
5) Deployment of Lebanese forces down to the border, along with the annexation of Hezbollah into the Lebanese army and an end to its status as independent militia.

This is probably the only way Israel can escape with an outcome that is remotely favorable. Otherwise it will be mired for months in an inescapably deteriorating situation, a pointless war with no winners save Syria and Iran. And Iran's culpability should remind us all of our priorities: its nuclear program is infinitely more significant than Hezbollah's antics. In fact, the current conflict seems intended as an Iranian feint, a gambit to distract attention from nuclear stonewalling while further galvanizing Arab sentiment against America and Israel. Given the outside interests in play, can this peace plan possibly succeed? I don't know, but we have to try.

But this brings me back to my starting topic: right-wing punditry. Most of these observers appear to realize that Iran is a major player in Hezbollah's actions. Yet, somehow - and this is really terrifying - they proceed to advocate strategies that play right into Iranian hands. I want to be clear: continuing a war with no exit strategy and no feasible objective is tragically counterproductive.