User Picture

Giving Aid and Comfort to Those “Beyond Working Years”

By: earlofhuntingdon Wednesday May 11, 2011 8:37 am

David Brooks hates the elderly, or at least spending government money on their health care.  It is a waste of national resources, drives up the deficit, delays economic recovery, and saps us of our precious bodily fluids.  My apologies for not being able to critique his column in the original German.

Bobo’s theme in The Missing Fifth is how the Fatherland’s vitality is being sapped by its elderly.  The fifth he’s talking about is not rye or vodka, but the 20% of American men aged 25-54 who are not employed.  The guys who “are not getting up and going to work.”  Not getting up for work is a personal failing that violates the Protestant ethic.  Getting up and looking for work but not finding it is a structural problem.  It might require government stimulus to overcome.  It might invite criticism of corporate policies that make it impossible to find meaningful work.  Those are not the roads Brooks wants us to travel down.

The comparable unemployment figure for 1954 was 4%.  Why the gap?  First, the actual figure was just over 18% age-related unemployed, not 20%.  The rate for recessions in the 1950′s and 60′s was 9%, for the Carter-Reagan recession in the early 1980′s, it was 15%.  Neither was as bad as this one.  Since 1980, outsourcing and offshoring were invented and have spread like the chestnut blight, denuding factories and staff departments across America.  GM alone has lopped off more than 400,000 jobs.  Discrimination against the middle aged and unemployed is common.  Older men looking for work are more likely to have been union members or to have worked in manufacturing.  None of those characteristics endear them to 20-something recruiters and 30-something hiring managers.

Part of that gap is also explained by the details Brooks left out, which his source, David Leonhardt didn’t.  The low 4% figure for 1954 reflects a post-war employment high.  It followed the Second World War and the Korean War, and the first draft of soldiers who had taken up their GI Bill benefits with open arms and earned the qualifications that gave them lifelong careers in a booming economy.  Careers that provided good pay, health care and retirements.

That’s not Bobo’s story.  His tale is about a dark and stormy night of spending on the elderly.  He focuses on the 4% figure, not the 9% or 15% figures from earlier recessions, to make the 20% 18% figure seem generational.  Brooks’ rounding is convenient, but distorts.  He aims to castigate the undeserving:

More American men lack the emotional and professional skills they would need to contribute….

The result is this: There are probably more idle men now than at any time since the Great Depression, and this time the problem is mostly structural, not cyclical. These men will find it hard to attract spouses. Many will pick up habits that have a corrosive cultural influence on those around them. The country will not benefit from their potential abilities.

Brooks also throws a spitball at Paul Krugman, arguing that we have a “big problem” that:

can’t be addressed through the sort of short-term Keynesian stimulus some on the left [Krugman] are still fantasizing about.

He acknowledges some structural problems, but in a way that excuses without informing:

manufacturing, agriculture and energy have been getting more productive, but they have not been generating more jobs. Instead, companies are using machines or foreign workers.

Bobo offers a hodgepodge of suggestions for lowering unemployment.   Like uncooked spaghetti thrown at the wall, they won’t stick.  Some don’t relate to the American scene, such as adopting German-style apprenticeship programs, which work in Germany because they come attached to different educational systems, labor laws and employer practices.  Some are useful, but ignore the employment side, such as increasing investment in “community colleges”.  He ignores public 4-year schools whose budgets Republican governors and legislatures are gutting.  Some suggestions are counter-productive.  Changing “labor market rules to stimulate investment” is GOP-speak for right to fire work laws, for lowering wages and for gutting union protections.

Like the rest of Washington, Brooks’ concern is not employment.  It’s not health care costs or how to control them.  His concern is to limit spending on health care and to redirect that money in order to “revitalize” America.  Apart from re-employing a few of those missing Fifth, his revitalized America is a nirvana he leaves safely undefined.

Eluding Bobo are four reasons we might have too little discretionary money.  His Republicans are in a frenzy to cut discretionary spending.  They are fighting attempts to reinstate tax cuts, to raise new revenues, to push the tax burden upward, to those not suffering in the current depression.  We are increasing spending on military and intel activities, with little or no oversight.  A similar bipartisan effort deregulated the financial sector, which led to a catastrophic depression.

None of that is news to FDL readers.  What is startling is Bobo’s Randian claim that health care for the elderly “provides comfort to those beyond working years”.  We can’t afford to spend on the unproductive:

Health care spending, which mostly provides comfort to those beyond working years, is expanding. Attempts to take money from health care to open it up for other uses are being crushed.

Spending on old folks’ health takes the bread from babies’ mouths and keeps their parents from getting the training they need to find and keep work.  Change that and we can preserve our national vitality and our purity of essence.

In the developed world, health care is a civil right paid for by taxes.  Costs are contained via government oversight, regulation and market power.  A retirement spent off the streets, in modest, heated and fed circumstances is a civil right, an earned right, and a sane expectation for social peace and social justice.

According to David Brooks, those are benefits companies no longer want to provide and which government can no longer afford to provide.  Government funds spent on health care for the elderly is a waste of money.  Better to throw momma from the train; let Atlas shrug and let nature take its course.

 

Royal Weddings and the Rule of Law

By: earlofhuntingdon Friday April 29, 2011 8:35 pm

Apart from taxes & tyranny, warm beer and the Beatles, Robin Hood and Royal Weddings, what has England ever given us?  For starters, the rule of law.

We talk about it here a lot, about how it no longer seems to apply to government and corporate elites.  Like a hole in the sidewalk on a snowy day, that creates a slush-filled pool. We can step in it day after Groundhog Day.  Or we can learn more about what “the rule of law” means and repair the crack.

A good place to start is Tom Bingham’s short book, called simply, The Rule of Law (reviewed here and here). He doesn’t answer the question which laws apply when the police interrogate you, when you can’t read your phone bill, when you open that envelope marked, “Penalty for Private Use $300″. He answers the question what is necessary for those laws to mean what you and I think they should mean.

Tom Bingham was a trial lawyer.  He rose to become the senior judge, first, of Britain’s civil courts, then its criminal courts, and lastly, what is now its Supreme Court. Widely regarded as the best legal mind in a hundred years, he was down to earth. He didn’t sit on the veranda with a gin & tonic and admire the view.  He knew the shoveling and troweling, the hoisting and measuring it took to make the bricks of civil liberties and the mortar of policing hold together.

Bingham summarized his lifetime in the courts in a handful of rules for a civil society. They are ingredients.  They make our daily bread nourishing, rather than full of poisons or empty calories.  Like A People’s History, his work is a quick tutorial, in his case, on the meaning of a phrase we take for granted, but which is slipping from our grasp.

He starts with Tom Paine’s description “that in America, THE LAW IS KING”, and asks whether it is still accurate.  With eight quick strokes, he turns a rough meadow into a playing field. That gives direction, allows us to measure gains and losses, and lets us decide whether to believe the umpire, the coaches or our lying eyes:

1. Laws must be clear, predictable and public.

2. As far as possible, laws, not an executive’s discretion, should govern.

3. Laws must apply equally.

4. Laws must protect fundamental human rights, the rights of living people.

5. The cost to use the law, to defend our rights, must be reasonable, with public aid provided to make it so.

6. Public officials have a duty to act in good faith, to use restraint, to operate within the recognized limits of their powers.

7. Procedures in court must be open and fair.  They must bind the state in the same way they bind those in conflict with it.

8. Binding law inherently includes international treaties and customary laws.

Bingham considered those rules axioms, not open to serious debate, though he recognized they were all under political attack in Britain and the United States.  Legal aid in both countries was being cut back, even as legal costs rose.  The courthouse doors were being barred to some defendants plaintiffs, a paid meter was being put on them for others, and some would be defendants were free never to have to walk through them.  He knew that four or five of our present Supreme Court Justices would gag before treating international law on par with domestic law.  He would not have been surprised that those same Justices put corporate speech on the same – meaning superior – footing as personal speech.  He knew which views were more radical.

Bingham was an admirer, though, of US Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, a former US Attorney General and chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.  Bingham quotes from a speech Jackson gave in 1949.  It was a critical time in the Cold War – Russian troops were blockading West Berlin, forcing its resupply by the Berlin Airlift – and a critical time in the American journey to integrate its races – Truman decided in 1948 to desegregate the US military:

“I regard it as a salutary doctrine that cities, states and the Federal Government must exercise their powers so as not to discriminate between their inhabitants except upon some reasonable differentiation fairly related to the object of regulation. This equality is not merely abstract justice. The framers of the Constitution knew, and we should not forget today, that there is no more effective practical guaranty against arbitrary and unreasonable government than to require that the principles of law which officials would impose upon a minority must be imposed generally. Conversely, nothing opens the door to arbitrary action so effectively as to allow those officials to pick and choose only a few to whom they will apply legislation and thus to escape the political retribution that might be visited upon them if larger numbers were affected. Courts can take no better measure to assure that laws will be just than to require that laws be equal in operation.

(My emphasis.)  That quote is a reminder that not every public official thinks that trying times are a time to stop thinking, a time to take the gloves off; they may be exactly when we most need the rule of law and civil liberties.  I think that Jackson would have agreed with Bingham that the threat of terrorism is an inadequate justification to restrict civil liberties.  Like Bingham, Jackson would have been critical of,

“extraordinary rendition” (or kidnapping), torture (or what has been dubbed “enhanced interrogation techniques”), detention without charge or trial, and, of course, surveillance. In addition to the widespread interception of private communications by hundreds of public bodies, “the UK has been said to have more than four million CCTV cameras, and the largest DNA database in the world”. The public’s apathy in the face of this is plainly a mystery to him; he is not alone.

“Old-fashioned policing”, argued Bingham, not the intrusive, expensive, contractor-driven, accountability-free surveillance state,

has probably been more effective than anything else in heading off domestic terrorism in the UK. By contrast, and in concert with many other scholars and lawyers, Bingham’s argument is that to fight fire with fire is to do terrorism’s work for it by sacrificing the very rule of law, with its underlying regard for human rights, which makes our society worth defending.

Bobo’s Good Friday Sermon – South Park and Tolerance Are Right Out

By: earlofhuntingdon Friday April 22, 2011 6:00 pm

David Brooks went to the theatuh.  Actually, he saw a Broadway musical comedy called, The Book of Mormon.  Its plot summary might read, missionary meets bible at the School for the Performing Arts; a fan of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby yells, Road Trip to Uganda! Its theme is that kindly inclusiveness, tolerance, practicality, a few lies and some chutzpah is a way to know God in heaven and achieve peace on earth, or at least a way to make peace and improve your lot.   It’s the basis of every good religion, or should be.

The fuddy duddy David Brooks is decidedly Old Testament in his review.  He ignores the book and lyrics, and uses the play’s title to criticize the wishy-washy.  Impliedly, that could be Mormon presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the wishy-washier protestant Barack Obama, or liberals and reformists generally.

Brooks gives two thumbs down to the musical’s “kinder gentler” message, and two thumbs up to the exclusive zealotry of the Republican Party’s base – in the guise of its uncompromising religious rigor and its hard definitions of good and evil.  Hypocrisy, though, he leaves right out.

Jesus’ startling inclusiveness was a revolution in that it offered a path to God for all who truly believe.  It originally discarded lists of laws and sacred places, and substituted grace and the sacred heart.  That’s not Bobo’s vision.   He prefers the fire and brimstone of hard definitions of “salvation” and “damnation”.  For him, they provide a code of conduct “rooted in claims of absolute truth”.  They describe a “map of reality” along a route that avoids the desert of “mindless conformity”.  His religion sanctifies suffering and helps us tolerate evil in ways that arguably help perpetuate both.

Bobo makes an implied dig at Mr. Obama and liberals (two distinct groups), and returns to his critique of The Book of Mormon, by describing models of Christianity in Africa as so “doctrinaire and socially conservative”, they would “make Pat Robertson’s hair stand on end.”  He regards that as a good thing; it makes them more “persuasive” and therefore more effective in dealing with Africa’s scourges.  Tolerant do gooders, he says, are less persuasive and therefore less able to do good.

Tolerance may be less relevant than ignorance and inexperience.  Of all of Africa’s woes, I would place an abundance of tolerance lower down the threat list than despotism, imperial resource extraction, poverty, disease  and cultural barriers to equality and improved sexuality and health education.

I almost haven’t the heart to tell Bobo that The Book of Mormon is a satire from the writers of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone.  It premiered on Broadway last month to rave reviews.  The plot evolves around two young missionaries who travel to Uganda: Art Buchwald meets Joseph Smith on Lake Victoria.  Parker and Stone call it a combination of “Mormons, Disney, Rogers and Hammerstein”, an “atheist’s love letter to religion”.

The Book of Mormon pokes fun at religious shibboleths – stone tablets, golden tablets and sacred cows.  The important thing is let’s get practical.  What do we need to do?  How can religion help do it?  As this synopsis says, “the importance of religion is not truth, but whether it helps people.”  Loaves and fishes are as important as the sermon on the mount; one kind of sustenance without the other will not do, no matter how much we sanctify it.

In the play, the missionaries find a way to help the Ugandan villagers they set out to convert.  The villagers learn how to help themselves.  That binds them together and they stay together.  Surely, that need no longer be the secret that God revealeth unto his servants the prophets.  I wish Bobo and Barack would find ways to be as helpful.

Documents Show The US & Britain Held Talks With Big Oil Before The Iraq War

By: earlofhuntingdon Tuesday April 19, 2011 3:36 am
Night View of Oil Well Fires

Night View of Oil Well Fires by airborneshodan, on Flickr

The Independent* has a breaking story about suspected, but officially denied, discussions held between British government ministers and oil industry executives about how to carve up Iraq’s oil fields after the 2003 Iraq War.

More than 1,000 documents were released after a five-year battle under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act.  They provide evidence that British and US governments held talks with major oil companies in October and November 2002 about allocating contracts to develop Iraq’s oil after the war.

Plans to exploit Iraq’s oil reserves were discussed by government ministers and the world’s largest oil companies the year before Britain took a leading role in invading Iraq, government documents show….

The minutes of a series of meetings between ministers and senior oil executives are at odds with the public denials of self-interest from oil companies and Western governments at the time.

The memos document British concerns that the US would retain exclusive control over Iraqi oil development contracts and that it might cut out Shell and BP:

The papers show that Lady Symons [Trade Minister in 2002] agreed to lobby the Bush administration on BP’s behalf because the oil giant feared it was being “locked out” of deals that Washington was quietly striking with US, French and Russian governments and their energy firms.

Minutes of a meeting with BP, Shell and BG (formerly British Gas) on 31 October 2002 read: “Baroness Symons agreed that it would be difficult to justify British companies losing out in Iraq in that way if the UK had itself been a conspicuous supporter of the US government throughout the crisis.”

The Independent includes this chart, which shows Iraq’s principal oil fields and the foreign companies currently developing them.  BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon feature prominently.  Without a war, those contracts would have been controlled by Saddam Hussein, subject to the international trade embargo imposed by the UN.

In the run-up to the war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair became Mr. Bush’s staunchest ally.  Their stated goals were to “free Iraq” and to prevent its abuse of weapons of mass destruction.  They famously warned the world that its first awareness of such abuse could be a mushroom cloud from an exploded Iraqi nuclear bomb.

Through 2002 and into early 2003, however, the US and Britain publicly maintained that all options were on the table, that war was not inevitable, and that Mr. Hussein could avert it by admitting that he possessed WMD’s and by demobilizing them under international auspices.  Those claims were questioned at the time and frequently challenged afterwords, though rarely by the mainstream media.  No WMD’s were ever found.

Geraldine Ferraro is Dead at 75: She Ended “The Men’s Club”

By: earlofhuntingdon Sunday March 27, 2011 2:59 pm

Talking politics is, in some ways, like talking baseball. You talk about the history, the lore, the stats, the trivia. And you remember when barriers are broken.

Before there was Hillary, before there was Sarah Palin, there was Geraldine Ferraro. In 1984, at the height of the Ronald Reagan-Gordon Gekko greed-is-good era,  Ms. Ferraro was the first woman candidate for the Vice Presidency on a major party ticket.  She and Walter Mondale tried to defeat one of the most popular presidents in the 20th century.  They didn’t succeed.  But she helped make her ambition seem normal at a time when women still earned much less than their male colleagues because they were only women.

Ms. Ferraro died March 26, 2011, after a twelve year battle with multiple myeloma.  She was a teacher, lawyer, politician, author, and businesswoman.  She was a first generation American; her parents were working class Italian immigrants.  She was a first in a lot of things.

The LA Times said of her candidacy, that it “shattered political barrier[s]“.  Amy Klobuchar, the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota,

praised Ferraro as “a shining role model for all women in politics.”…

Klobuchar recalled Ferraro’s nomination in 1984: “It made me think anything and everything is possible.”

And, Klobuchar noted, 27 years ago only one woman was serving in the Senate; today there are 17.

Increasing that number from 1 to 17 wasn’t easy.  As a Congresswoman from Queens, Ms. Ferraro spiced up the low-key Mondale.  But the economy was going great after years of recession and high inflation.  Ronald Reagan was the popular Hollywood president.  Their loss was not as dramatic as Al Gore’s in 2000, but it was devastating for Ms. Ferraro, who unfairly took much of the blame.  Nevertheless,

Over the next two decades, other women achieved milestones in national politics. Janet Reno became U.S. attorney general, Madeleine Albright was named secretary of State, and Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House.

Their path was eased by Ferraro, who believed that a childhood tragedy set up her moment in history.

“I’ve often said that if my father hadn’t died, I might not have done anything,” Ferraro once told Steinem in an interview. “I saw my mother left suddenly with kids and no money…. I wanted to be able to take care of myself and not miss a beat.”

ERA nowadays refers to a real estate broker.  When Ms. Ferraro was at her peak, it meant the Equal Rights Amendment, a decades-long effort to make gender equality an explicitly constitutional priority.  We’re still working on it.  When women like Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin claim to be feminist, it’s enough to make a grown man cry.  They adamantly oppose gender equality for anyone but themselves.  That’s not leadership, it’s hypocrisy.

Although they were dissimilar in their politics, Ms. Ferraro would have been a younger sister in the generation that included Associate Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.  When Mrs. O’Connor graduated from Standford Law School, having been a member of its prestigious Law Review along with class valedictorian William Rehnquist, no law firm would hire her.  She was only a woman.  She was offered a job as a secretary.   Building a career wasn’t any easier for Geraldine Ferraro.

Lucky for her she was New York City tough. She grew up poor in the South Bronx. She was first generation American born from Italian immigrant parents.   She was the first in her family to graduate from college.  While working as a second grade teacher in Queens, she went to Manhattan’s Fordham Law School at night, graduating in 1960, 1 of 2 women in a class of 179.

Her admissions counselor gave her the same warning that Ms. O’Connor would have received at Stanford, “I hope you’re serious, Gerry. You’re taking a man’s place, you know.”  She was serious.  She was also a mom in the days when Mad Men were real, not television characters.

She worked as a lawyer part-time while working full time as a mom.  After more than a decade, she finally took a job as an Assistant DA for Queens County in 1974.  If her cousin hadn’t been the DA, she probably wouldn’t have been given the chance to prove she was as tough and as competent as her male colleagues.

Nearly ten years before Nancy Paterson became a Manhattan DA and deputy head of a new special victims unit, Ms. Ferraro headed the new one established in neighboring Queens, an even tougher place.  She was paid less than her male colleagues, a national trend, because she was a married woman.  (As Lilly Ledbetter’s career demonstrates, we’re still fighting that one, too.)

One of Ms. Ferraro’s memories of her work as an ADA helps explain how hard it was to blaze the trail she did, in politics, for women, and for choice:

“You can force a person to have a child, but you can’t make the person love that child,” Ferraro wrote, reflecting on the child abuse cases she prosecuted. “I don’t know what pain a fetus experiences, but I can well imagine the suffering of a four-year-old girl being dipped in boiling water until her skin came off and then lying in bed unattended for two days until she died. And that was only one of the cases seared in my memory.”

Four years after joining the Queens DA’s office, Ms. Ferraro was in Congress.  She became a protege of powerful House Speaker Tip O’Neill, and became active on issues involving the environment, equal pay for women, and aging.  She opposed Reagan’s support for the Nicaraguan Contras, which later evolved into the Iran-Contra scandal that almost brought down his government and with it the political prospects of Reagan’s Vice President, George H.W. Bush.

Six years after first becoming a member of Congress, Ms. Ferraro worked her way onto the Vice Presidential ticket. Predating Barack Obama by 24 years, this was her introduction at her nominating convention:

“My name is Geraldine Ferraro,” the then-48-year-old declared, for once slowing her usual staccato style of speech. “I stand before you to proclaim tonight, America is the land where dreams can come true for all of us.”

It’s hilarious after watching the mind-numbing lack of awareness of Sarah Palin to reflect on how dismissive the press was about whether one of Queens’ first female prosecutors would be tough and knowledgeable enough to handle Soviets.  Ted Koppel’s question was only the most polite: “Do you think that in any way the Soviets might be tempted to try to take advantage of you simply because you are a woman?”

Regardless of how well she answered that and other questions, the Democrats lost heavily.

Reagan, one of the most popular presidents in history, wound up with an 18-point victory, aided in part by women, who supported him in greater numbers than they had the Mondale-Ferraro ticket. Post-election analyses found that Ferraro had neither greatly helped nor hindered the Democrats’ chances.

Republicans had hounded Ferraro over her real estate husband’s reluctance to disclose his tax returns.  The GOP used it to great effect.  Though their ultimate release proved there was no there there, that and other  issues ultimately damaged the ticket.   The LA Times:

[H]er four-month campaign almost immediately hit rough waters. She was bashed by critics who questioned the finances of her husband, John Zaccaro, a Manhattan real estate developer. A devout Roman Catholic, she was repeatedly assailed by New York’s archbishop, the late John J. O’Connor, for her views supporting abortion rights. She also endured insinuations of mob connections as the first Italian American on a national ticket.

“I was constantly being asked, ‘Was it worth it?’ Of course it was worth it!” she wrote in “Framing a Life, A Family Memoir,” published in 1998. “My candidacy was a benchmark moment for women. No matter what anyone thought of me personally, or of the Mondale-Ferraro ticket, my candidacy had flung open the last door barring equality — and that door led straight to the Oval Office.”

Proving that some cats never change their spots, Poppy Bush’s wife and mother of George W. Bush, Barbara, attacked Ms. Ferraro for being “that four-million-dollar—I can’t say it, but it rhymes with ‘rich’.”  Which proves that the political apple doesn’t fall far from the bush.

Barbara Bush and her husband come from two of America’s wealthiest families.  The Bushes first went to Yale in 1850 and were wealthy enough to travel with John D. Rockefeller in his private railroad cars two decades later.  Barbara’s son George admitted that he was an Ivy League playboy drunk until he was 40.

Ms. Ferraro was a first generation Catholic Italian American who never had a dime her first three decades.  She earned honors in college.  She attended law school and graduated with honors while working full-time as a second grade teacher, as a mother and as a spouse.  She publicly disagreed with her bishops over birth control and a woman’s right to choose.  George Bush sauntered into Yale and Harvard as his daddy’s son.

Nonetheless, the Democrats lost heavily in 1984 and they looked for a scapegoat.  Hey, what about her!?

It was hardly fair: Mondale, after all, was doomed long before he turned to Ferraro. If he’d opted for Henry Cisneros or Dianne Feinstein or even Gary Hart – the man he’d barely edged out in the primaries and didn’t want to put on the ticket – he still would have lost to Ronald Reagan in a rout. That was just the nature of the ’84 campaign: Voters believed the economy was roaring back to life, liked Ronald Reagan personally, and remembered that Mondale had been vice president when things seemed much worse. Moreover, Ferraro had actually been an able public performer on the campaign trail – strong and resilient when the press zeroed in on her husband, and willing to call Vice President George H.W. Bush out to his face for his “patronizing attitude” when he offered during a debate “to let me help you with the difference, Miss Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon.”

Ms. Ferraro left Congress, but later twice ran for a Senate seat from New York.  She lost a bitter primary in 1992 by a fraction of one percent.  She lost a second primary fight in 1998 against Chuck Schumer, who outspent her 5 to 1.  Shortly after that, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which is ordinarily terminal in 3-5 years.  Geraldine Ferraro survived twelve.

In between her two contests for a Senate seat from New York, she was  appointed US ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights, serving from 1993-96.  She later worked for Hillary Clinton in her primary contest against the junior Senator from Illinois.

Former Texas governor Anne Richards once said this about what Ferraro’s 1984 vice presidential candidacy meant:

[A]fter the Ferraro nomination, “the first thing I thought of was not winning in the political sense, but of my two daughters.”

“To think,” Ms. Richards added, “of the numbers of young women who can now aspire to anything.”

Salon news editor Steve Kornacki‘s epitaph seems accurate.  After noting her later work on corporate boards, her fight for funding for multiple myeloma and other cancers, and her work as a commentator on Fox News and elsewhere, promoting women in politics, he says:

Democrats who came of age in the post-impeachment/post-Florida era probably see Geraldine Ferraro as little more than a Fox News Democrat. It’s truly a shame. She deserves so much more than that.

Gitmo Psychologist Larry James Appointed to White House Panel on the “Well-Being” of the American Military Family

By: earlofhuntingdon Saturday March 26, 2011 4:19 am

Barack Obama is worried about the “psychological well-being” of the American military family.   He should be.  His and Mr. Bush’s wars are generating tens of thousands of physically and mentally wounded  veterans.  PTSD rates are high.  Families living with multiple deployments are sometimes at wits end to meet expenses, and by month’s end are on food stamps.  Multiple deployments severely strain marriages and parenting relationships, which will have generational effects.  Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress raise the specter of cutbacks for veterans and veterans’ health programs.

Mr. Obama has responded with a classic technique: create a White House-led task force.  This one is entitled, “Enhancing the Psychological Well-Being of The Military Family.”  It was to have met Friday with Michelle Obama.  One of its lead members is Dr. Larry C. James.

It is an Orwellian choice and another example of Mr. Obama doubling down on CheneyBush’s GWOT.  Before he retired from the Army, Dr. James, along with Drs James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, was at the center of the controversies involving the use of torture and inhumane techniques against prisoners held by or for the US.  In Gitmo, most of those prisoners were later determined to have done nothing at all except become swept up in a panicked frenzy.

According to complaints filed with his licensing authorities in Louisiana and Ohio (both of which determined they could not act on them), this is what happened at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib during Dr. James’ tenure:

During his tenure at the prison, boys and men were threatened with rape and death for themselves and their family members; sexually, culturally, and religiously humiliated; forced naked; deprived of sleep; subjected to sensory deprivation, over-stimulation, and extreme isolation; short-shackled into stress positions for hours; and physically assaulted. The evidence indicates that abuse of this kind was systemic, that BSCT health professionals played an integral role in its planning and practice. . . .

(Emphasis mine.)  Dr. James claims he was sent to Abu Ghraib to fix it.   But this is how he describes his role, from his book, Fixing Hell, An Army Psychologist Confronts Abu Ghraib:

“It was clear to me that I was no longer a doctor but rather a combatant with the sole purpose of helping the Army kill or capture the enemy.”

Coming from a senior health care practitioner, that’s called an admission against interest.  As Army Major General Antonio Taguba, who investigated Abu Ghraib, has said,there was no doubt that war crimes occurred there; the issue is whether anyone will be held accountable.  Greenwald:

Of all the psychologists to choose from, why would they possibly choose to honor and elevate the former chief psychologist of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib at the height of the Bush abuses?  More disturbing still, among those most damaged by detainee abuse are the service members forced to participate in it; why would the White House possibly want to put on a task force about the health of military families someone, such as Dr. James, who at the very least is directly associated with policies that so profoundly harmed numerous members of the military and their families?….

Whatever the explanation, the symbolism here is as ugly as the mindset underlying it.

Dr. James is currently head of the psychology department at Wright State University in Dayton, OH.  As it has in San Diego, the military has several operations in Dayton and has sway in the local economy.

We had several discussions yesterday at Emptywheel about the domestication of GWOT policies.  Coincidentally, one of Dr. James’ workshops at Wright State is a program to train local “law enforcement officials, members of the Department of Homeland Security, DOD, and the Border Patrol” in the use of psychological techniques he developed.  Its aims:

Define Psychological Terrorism
Identify Types of Psychological Terrorism
Discuss the role of the media in counter terrorism efforts
Identify how demographics are used to recruit teenage terrorists
Understand the psychological make-up of the suicide bomber
Discuss strategies to prevent psychological terrorism

I hope that Jeff Kaye will have more on this shortly.

David Brooks: In Search of Social Animals

By: earlofhuntingdon Saturday March 19, 2011 5:34 am

David Brooks is a Social Animal.  The subtitle of his new book with that title is more revealing, but still a teaser: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.   That’s not a Danielle Steele bodice ripper or the Eighth Secret of Success.  It is Bobo’s survey of recent work on cognitive and neuroscience about how humans think and behave.

Bobo contends that our social connections to each other are what matter, not rationality, wealth or toys.  That might seem commonplace to people hanging onto their communities, jobs and families in the face of a Republican disaster capitalist tsunami.  It is a novelty to Brooks.  He has devoted columns and a new New York Times blog to it.

In hopes of enlivening what might seem a dry subject, Bobo wraps it in a novel about two energetic, successful, Upper East Side dinks (double income, no kids), named Harold and Maude Erica.  Their fictional journey through life – Harold’s from birth to death, Erica’s via her relationship with Harold (formed from a rib, as it were) – is the gift wrap that Bobo hopes will make his science interesting.  Stephen J. Gould attacked the problem by writing better.

Social Animal is likely to be all the rage and become a New York Times best seller.  You’ll hear and see much about it, some of it true. Here is a sample of the reviews.  They may help evaluate whether the book’s popularity is a function of genes, intelligence, writing ability or social standing among the haves.  (You can read an excerpt of Social Animal for free at the New Yorker website here.)

Publishers and publisher friendly media have given it hyperbolic praise.  Kirkus Reviews gave it a star, calling it,

An uncommonly brilliant blend of sociology, intellect and allegory.

Typical understatement of the genre.  The Christian Science Monitor was more measured:

In his new book… David Brooks declares that neuroscience “helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy” and that by telling us more about how we think and what we crave, it stands to revolutionize the way we live our lives. For a man who believes in good conservative fashion that “Wisdom begins with an awareness of our own ignorance,” this is a heady claim. There is nothing intellectually modest, however, about “The Social Animal.”

*snip*

[Brooks writes] “[W]hen you look deeper into the unconscious, the separations between individuals begin to get a little fuzzy,” … leaving one to wonder whether the author believes that there is such a thing as a human essence, a soul.

The more fawning reviews marvel at how Brooks uses a literary technique made famous by one of Bobo’s heroes, French philosopher, political theorist and essayist Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  It’ s called the 18th-century didactic narrative.  The Rousseau connection seems self-conscious, as if it were Bobo’s bid to be regarded as a great thinker, or at least as someone capable of Deep Thought.  His answer isn’t “42″, but at least he didn’t take 7 1/2 million years to calculate it.

PZ Myers, a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota and author of the science blog Pharyngula, excoriates Brooks for getting his science wrong. He calls his novelized excursion into cognitive and neuroscience “didactic”, an “arid wasteland”, a “bizarre chimera”,

an unholy grafting together of a novel, the story of Harold’s and Erica’s lives, and an ideological, psychological, neurological and pseudo-scientific collection of materialist explanations for their happy situation.

Bobo’s Harold and Erica live from birth to marriage, through success and death, to infinity and beyond, all in the present day.  That device is less Ground Hog Day – his characters don’t to learn to love, only to be companionable – than a sop to the wish for immortality that sells high-priced surgeries, nutritional supplements, exercise routines and amorous dalliances.  For Myers, Erica and Harold are “a complementary pair of androgynous droids”.

What does it mean that their lives are lived outside of time?  Are we unbound by history?  Genetics is biological history.  Is it that we live, grow old and die, and life goes on without us unchanged?  Brooks says it is that all that matters is the connections we make today.  But he doesn’t make connections among his litany of facts, nor in the lives of Harold and Erica.  Without history, they have no growth, learning, joy.  They are unable to ponder Robert Frost’s, The Road Not Taken, because their regrets are too few to mention:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

*snip*

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Life passing but always in the present is a metaphor: the present is the only time we have to live it.  In Bobo’s hands, it leaves his characters without friends won, lost, regained or lost forever.  It’s an odd framing for a work that hopes to teach us that our social connections are what count, not our “hyper” rationality, our technical prowess, or our wealth.

PZ Myers reserves his harshest words for Brooks’ science, the other half of his book:

The special quality of “The Social Animal” is billed as being its melding of information from neuroscience into the story, to help us better understand how the unconscious mind forms our characters and helps us achieve success.

The book fails neuroscience, too.

His “science” is a discussion of “ideological, psychological, neurological and pseudo-scientific collection of materialist explanations for their happy situation.”  It is composed of “factlets” dropped into the narrative as if they were raisins in a vanilla pudding.  They are “polysyllabic magical incantations that allow shallow people to pretend to have knowledge.”

The technicalities don’t illuminate the story in any way, and the story undercuts the science. Ultimately, the neuroscience in the book feels a micrometer deep and a boring lifetime long, with the fiction of Harold and Erica giving the impression that it’s built on a sample size of two, and both of them utterly imaginary.

Social Animal receives similar treatment in a review by Will Wilkinson, in Forbes.  Perhaps it’s the Welsh strain in him: Wilkinson seems willing to tell us, wanting to tell us, waiting to tell us how good a book this is.  He can’t seem to find the evidence for it.

“This is the happiest story you’ve ever read,” Brooks begins. It isn’t. It is depressing. “It is about two people who lead wonderfully fulfilling lives.” Actually, it is about two boring people who lead muted, more or less satisfactory lives in the successful pursuit of achievement as it is narrowly defined by their culture…. More baffling still is that Brooks’ intends this chilling portrait to offer consolation, to persuade us there is much to gain, and little to fear, in losing our unscientific illusions about human nature. Something in The Social Animal is badly awry.

Wilkinson knows the material Brooks uses.  He makes arguments Brooks could have made but didn’t.  He cites sources, possible origins for some of Brooks’ ideas, and makes connections between observed behavior and research that escape Brooks or which don’t fit inside the proscenium arch of his narrative.  Ultimately, though,

Brooks’ characters are constantly saying and thinking the sort of thing Brooks says and thinks in his opinion columns. They’re constantly made to express… the author’s conception of human nature, sociality, and political life. But this stuff often has little or nothing to do with the “revolutionary” [scientific] discoveries Brooks says he’s attempting to pull together into a coherent conception of human nature, sociality, and political life.

As the Christian Science Monitor observed, it’s not clear whether Brooks believes in the “human essence, a soul”, that he seems to want to sell us.  Alternatively, like Ross Douthat lost in a sorority house at midnight, he is afraid to explore or reveal what he finds.  Wilkinson:

Brooks wants to show us the real unconscious, but then he draws a veil over the undercurrents of ambition, sex, and violence that make our breed of social animal so dangerous and so interesting.

The final comments come from Brooks’ old haunt, The Wall Street JournalChristopher F. Chabris’, a professor of psychology at Union College, writes a masterly review.  His initial praise is frothy:

Mr. Brooks is among the most elite of public intellectuals, and one of the few who even attempts fair-minded, evidence-based argument in day-to-day political discourse.

He puts Social Animal in context: the literature of popular books on science.  He mentions Stephen Hawking, for example, but not Stephen J. Gould or Richard Dawkins.  He then ventures into territory many reviewers fear to tread: Bobo’s references to the scientific literature.  He fact checks him, which is where things come a cropper.

Curiously or with malice aforethought, Chabris praises Brooks’ powers as a social observer, citing his popular earlier work, Bobo’s in Paradise.  He calls it “a modern classic that deconstructed every signifier of millennial upper-class life, from Restoration Hardware catalogs to New York Times wedding announcements.”  He doesn’t mention Sasha Issenberg’s, Boo-Boo’s in Paradise: “David Brooks is the public intellectual of the moment. But… he doesn’t check his facts.”

Chabris then makes the observation about the Social Animal similar to those Issenberg made about Bobo’s in Paradise.   First, he finds it witty, full of “vintage comic sociology”.  He admires Brooks’ ability to sketch “archetypes” and coin phrases: the composure class, sanctimommies, and extracurricular sluts (referring unconvincingly to kids who do too much, not to their sanctimommies).  Brooks’ aim is,

to explain what makes the “composure class” tick. His premise is that the secrets of high achievement—in work and in life—are being revealed through a “revolution in consciousness.”…a revolution in the scientific study of consciousness, …[of] all aspects of our brains, minds and actions.

Brooks’ theme is that we, “overvalue cognition, analytical reasoning and autonomous will as the motors of success and undervalue emotion, intuition and social influence.”  That fits with Brooks’ general disdain, much discussed in his columns, for Democratic, but not Republican, technocrats and their technocratic presidents.  The kind of people who believe government is part of the solution, not the problem.  Like a don at Cambridge University in the 1920′s, dismissing a world beater athlete for being coached en route to an Olympic gold medal, he prefers the cult of the amateur to that of the professional.

There may be some truth to this claim, but while building his case, Mr. Brooks too often misreads or distorts the science, and sometimes he just gets it wrong.

Chabris finds that some of Brooks’ assertions are untestable, and that he fails to relate his “factoids” to one another or to the narrative in his novel.

Repeating such factoids—as Mr. Brooks does throughout the book—is tantamount to spreading urban legends. Mr. Brooks also exaggerates already-startling findings in a direction that favors his theme.

According to Chabris, Brooks panders to social stereotypes.  He repeats outdated, superseded claims.  He fails to correct for his confirmation bias – an elemental error in scientific research – and selectively promotes research that others have been unable to duplicate – another elemental error.

In some cases, as in his discussion on the social utility of intelligence, he misstates the science. In others, the studies he cites for his conclusions do not support them or support opposite conclusions.  That reads like a John Yoo legal opinion. Tenure has been denied for less.

After describing what would amount to academic misconduct, Chabris executes a stunning intellectual contortion of his own:

In “The Social Animal” Mr. Brooks surveys a stunning amount of research and cleverly connects it to everyday experience. The lessons he draws are often insightful, but they are not reliably correct. Perhaps experiencing his own surges of dopamine and overconfidence, he too often abandons his stance of “epistemological modesty” and instead peddles frothy notions that probably won’t last long.

Then, as if he were Alan Greenspan describing a portfolio of junk credit default swaps as a great buy, Chabris recommends the book:

[I]n observing the broader trends of social science—and of contemporary life—he gets a lot right. His own achievement here signals a plateau in the market for social science, not a peak.

Perhaps that’s Chabris’ tongue-in-cheek way of damning Brooks with faint praise – the sort of cool swipe common to faculty lounges and cautious recommendations – while remaining in the good graces of Rupert Murdoch’s WSJ.

Quake Responses: Do People Help Or Are They The Problem?

By: earlofhuntingdon Friday March 18, 2011 3:39 pm

Japan’s triple calamity of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster is one week old.  450,000 are homeless in freezing weather.  Water, food, heat and medical help are rationed.  340,000 are still without power.  Whole towns have been washed out to sea, four trains remain buried beneath the rubble, many of the missing will never be accounted for.

Stepping away from the minute-by-minute updates, I found this essay on human behavior during disasters by the Independent’s Jonathan Hari.  Unlike David Brooks, Hari understands human nature.  He writes about the real behavior people show in the immediate aftermath of natural and man-made disasters.  He contrasts it with the “people are the problem” stereotype that’s become a fetish in governments and large corporations.

It turns out that the stereotype put out by governments, Hollywood and neocon think [sic] tanks about the beastly, selfish ferocity of people in the midst of a catastrophe is wrong.  It is almost a Randian projection:

After the 2005 tsunami, the Ayn Rand Institute – set up by the philosopher-queen of the American right – issued an appeal entitled: “US Should Not Give Help to Tsunami Victims.” Even the people who every day take this callous view of victims within our own societies – the poor, the homeless, the ill – felt the need to distance themselves from this sociopathy.

In January 2010, David Brooks infamously echoed that Randian sentiment.  An earthquake and resulting landslides in Haiti left 50,000 dead, and many more injured and homeless, without food, water or medical care.   Mr. Brooks urged his reader not to give aid to Haitians, citing it as a “moral hazard”.  Haitians needed to learn to pick themselves up and to “internalize” personal responsibility. The racial undertone was unmistakable.

Matt Taibbi called Brooks’ OpEd a masterpiece of “cultural signaling” – for those living “between 59th st and about 105th”, in Manhattan’s ritzy Upper East Side.  Brooks was issuing an ignore-your-conscience-for-free card and Taibbi rightly called him on it:

I’m probably going to wait at least until they’re finished pulling the bodies of dead children out of the rubble before I start writing articles blasting a foreign people for being corrupt, lazy drunks with an unsatisfactorily pervasive achievement culture whose child-rearing responsibilities might have to be yanked from them by with-it Whitey for their own good.

Fortunately, Brooks and his patrons are outliers.   Sadly, they have grown in number since Ronald Reagan dismissed government as the problem, not the solution.  That sentiment now absorbs the Beltway elite and the companies whose lobbyists keep them flush with caviar and campaign cash.

They tend to apply Reagan’s arrogant attitude toward government to their own people.  Be it disasters, grab ‘n grope screening at airports, terror attacks or proclamations that we must go to war over there to save ourselves over here, they seem to feel that people are the problem, not the solution.  Jonathan Hari’s response:

“If you imagine that the public is a danger, you endanger the public.” They are the allies of public safety, not its enemy.

New York’s Rep. Peter King should contemplate that.  The famous reaction of Londoners to the Blitz was not exceptional, it’s the rule:

The evidence gathered over centuries of disasters, natural and man-made, is overwhelming. The vast majority of people, when a disaster hits, behave in the aftermath as altruists. They organise spontaneously to save their fellow human beings, to share what they have, and to show kindness.

Similar behavior occurred in the immediate aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.  It leveled the city and led to fires that destroyed more of it, but it brought an intensely racially divided city together, with people literally giving others the shirts off their backs.

It happened in New Zealand a few weeks ago, and after the rains and flooding in northern Australia before that.  It happened after Katrina, in spite of the government’s grossly incompetent disaster response.  And it happened after Three Mile Island:

After the Three Mile Island meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979, nearly 150,000 people were evacuated. The government was not in charge. Ordinary people spontaneously co-ordinated it themselves, without panic.

The trouble is holding on to that self-sacrifice and communal feeling afterward. That’s where governments come in.  Feelings can’t be sustained, but they can be channeled.  Governments can plan, institutionalize best practices, build physical and human resources, and  apply them where they are most needed for each large-scale emergency.  They can levy taxes to make sure all that’s paid for and ready when it’s needed.  Or they can dismiss the need, hire horse breeders to run national emergency response agencies, and then hire mercenaries to “maintain order” when things go belly up.

The Bush administration is best seen as an example of how not to do it.  As for David Brooks’ comments on the earthquake in Japan, unlike those about Haiti last year, they have been muted.  He’s selling his new book, The Social Animal.  Meanwhile, Jonathan Hari’s takeaway is upbeat:

From this disaster, we can learn something fundamental about our species. It should guide how the Japanese authorities behave today – and kill off right-wing ideologies based on the belief that humans are inherently selfish tomorrow.