Friday, March 04, 2005

A week-ending roundup of recent doings among our Republican overlords:
  • Alan Greenspan testified yesterday that the tax code has become overly complicated in the past 20 years, and needs to be simplified. He also said that he likes consumption taxes, and that many economists think that that's a better way to build a tax code if you're starting from scratch. But in subsequent Q&A he suggested that lawmakers not "try for purity" in switching to a consumption tax, but rather phase it in so that for a time, we'd have two federal tax codes rather than one.

    So Greenspan -- looking more and more like a political shill for the Republicans -- proposes to simplify the tax code by complicating it.

  • Alberto Gonzales reportedly told the Hoover institution that he'll be giving the same priority to fighting obscenity as he will to fighting terror. (Via Jim Henley).

    We already know from the torture memos that he doesn't have a problem with obscene things being done to suspected terrorists. I guess he just doesn't want us to talk about it.

  • Speaking from the bench of the Supreme Court, Justice Scalia proclaims that the government that does these things derives its powers not from the consent of the governed, but from God. I guess he'd know better than that Jefferson fella.

  • Dubya's crew is floating two candidates to replace James Wolfensohn as head of the World Bank: Paul Wolfowitz, who based his plans for the Iraq war on the premise that there was no ethnic strife in Iraq, and Carleton Fiorina, who recently got bounced out of HP when her ill-conceived merger with Compaq proved a flop.

    Put these two together, and we can see what they seem to be looking for in the position: a candidate who has ascended to a major leadership position, and failed in that position due to a loose grip on reality, but who is not currently under indictment.

  • And while the clown show goes on in D.C., the American military is packing 'em in to prisons in Iraq, and discussing the matter with reporters as if the supposedly sovereign government which is supposedly governing the country doesn't even exist.

I'm so glad we replaced what we had under Clinton with responsible, sober governance.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

I told you to go see the Dresden Dolls at a nice, small bar. I told you and I told you. But did you listen? No.

Well now, after getting nearly mobbed in Australia, they'll be spending a month this spring opening in concert halls for Nine Inch Nails -- and if you don't manage to catch them on the current leg of their tour, well, sorry Charlie, but you may have already missed your chance to see them up close in a small venue.

You don't want that to happen again. So if you're in Boston anytime near a Valhalla Kittens gig, see them now. (They wear more in concert than they do on the poster for their last gig, still featured on their web site, which may or may not be work-safe depending on where you work. See them anyway).

Republican voters complain that the Democrats are too sensitive to the needs of elites, and don't care about the little guy. Republicans are currently pushing a bankruptcy bill which eliminates protections for the little guy, while preserving a loophole that lets millionaires shield their most valuable assets from creditors. There will never be a clearer display of the difference between doing what's right-wing, and doing what's right.

You don't see Democrats on the steps of Congress every day, denouncing this piece of shit. Which raises an important question: Are they cowards, or idiots?

There's a line going around that you judge a society by the way it treats its least. Or weakest. Or worst. Well, here's how we do it:

Victoria Williams Smith, the mother of a teenage boy, was booked into another upstate jail, in Dutchess County, charged with smuggling drugs to her husband in prison. She ... had only 10 days to live after she began complaining of chest pains. She phoned friends in desperation: The medical director would not prescribe anything more potent than Bengay or the arthritis medicine she had brought with her, investigators said. A nurse scorned her pleas to be hospitalized as a ploy to get drugs. When at last an ambulance was called, Ms. Smith was on the floor of her cell, shaking from a heart attack that would kill her within the hour. She was 35.

This was not an isolated incident: another guy at a different jail in upstate New York, charged with taking skis from his ex-wife, had died earlier when the prison literally would not let him take the medicine to control his Parkinson's disease. And there were eight other deaths last year attributable to malfeasance by the same prison health service. Which is not the government, by the way. Under a Republican governor, New York State's prison health service has been privatized.

Zsallia Marieko had a few things to say about the state of our prisons a while ago:

The rantings of radio talk show hosts bring an end to education programs in penitentiary systems, or programs designed to reintegrate released prisoners in to the general public. As these trends progress they are exacerbated by laws, passed with public acclamation, which further ostracize and perpetuate the offenders' punishment far beyond the lawful prison term or probation served. You Americans are rapidly approaching a system of punishment in perpetuity that shall not only fail to curtail crime, but likely lead to even more social unrest and violence down the road.

... I submit to you that should you feel such punishment in perpetuity is a just and worthy thing, you might wish to be completely honest with yourself and begin to advocate execution for all but the most minor of offenses. It seems to me that such a system would in the end be far more humane than the abattoir-for-the-soul that currently enjoys such favor and support.

Of course, Zsallia does claim to have been living long enough to see people get hanged for petty theft. But that aside... well, I'm not sure I'd go as far as she does. But a society that routinely tolerates prisoner-on-prisoner rape ought to be willing, at least, to rethink its attitude toward formally sanctioned corporal punishment...

via Amygdala.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

There has been some controversy over a case in Florida, in which a girl was not permitted to wear a tux for her yearbook photo. The principal claimed that this violated the dress code, even though there is no written dress code. And he has supporters, one of whom said in a town meeting: "When uniformity is compromised, authority no longer holds."

My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of authority,
Of thee I sing.

Land where our fathers died,
Land of the Pilgrims' pride.
From every mountainside,
Let uniformity ring...
The Republican leadership -- Dubya and Congressional leaders alike -- are speaking with one voice: Europe should not sell weapons to China. (Heck, even Democrat Joe Biden is says that European weapons sales to China are "a nonstarter with Congress." Pity, then, that Congress doesn't have much to say about it). And so, from Washington, comes a stern warning to the Europeans: do not lift the ban.

Europe may not be inclined to listen. Perhaps because of four solid years of calculated snubs in which everyone in that crowd from Dubya on down painted the Western European powers as "old Europe", out of step and irrelevant. And perhaps because the threat they're making -- restrictions on technology sales to European companies -- just isn't that impressive. An immediate export ban might be enough of an inconvenience long enough to slow things down -- until the Europeans can find alternate sources for whatever technology they need. And how much is there for which some Asian country doesn't have, or couldn't develop, an alternate source? And do we really want to run up the trade deficit, by encouraging people to find alternate sources for the few American products they're still willing to buy? At best, that'll slow things up by a year or two, which will be fine with the Chinese leadership -- they think about decades. In the long run, these threats are self-defeating. It's just bad policy.

But our Republican overlords in Washington seem to have a uniform approach when one of their pet policies runs into an inconvenient fact: they refuse to believe it:

  • Tom DeLay would like to see the Ten Commandments posted in courts, and prayer in public schools. When people try to tell him that our constitution forbids the establishment of religion, he refuses to believe it. (via The Poor Man).
  • Before the Iraq invasion, Republicans desperately wanted to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, so they'd have an excuse to invade. And so they brushed aside the failure of weapons inspectors to find any, even when the CIA was telling them where to look. Now, an authoritative report has been published saying that there were no weapons to be found -- and seizing on a newly discovered collection of perfume bottles in the Iraqi desert, a highly-ranking member of the House leadership recently proclaimed the report to be wrong. He just will not believe it.
  • Republicans are all worked up over a "fiscal crisis" in social security -- a "crisis" which, according to the worst projections, might result in fractional benefit cuts decades from now. Meanwhile, they continue to defend tax cuts which are causing a far more serious crisis in the much nearer term -- like right now. When anyone asks about this, they trot out phony budget estimates which show the deficit shrinking by half, once their "temporary" tax cuts expire and tax rates revert, as scheduled, to where they were under Clinton. And, out of the other side of their mouths, they argue that we need, for some reason, to make the tax cuts permanent. Don't bother trying to educate them about the real fiscal consequences -- they'll refuse to believe it.
  • Another, slightly lower ranking Republican is out bragging about how he recommended directly to Dubya his one-step solution to several nasty problems in the Middle East: nuke Syria. If you try to explain why broiling millions of people, most of whom bear no responsibility for the actions of their government, is not the sort of thing that a country that wants to be well-regarded ought to do... do you think he'll listen?

And so on.

By the way, they believe that things are going just great in Iraq.

Of course, as Biden illustrates, denying reality is, to some extent, a bipartisan thing in Washington these days. Witness the continued efforts of Senator Palpatine Lieberman to find a bipartisan non-solution to the non-problem of Social Security, for no apparent reason other than a desire to be seen as Nice Folks by the loons in power...

Acknowledgment that the threats to Europe might seem to work for a year or three added late...

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Ah, what a difference eight years makes. Back in 1997, Bernard Ebbers was portrayed in the press as a sharp-eyed visionary whose keen, out-of-the-box thinking was "showing industry veterans what the new era in communications is all about." (Apparently, it was about highly leveraged buyouts based on inflated revenue projections). He was the man who knew better than anyone else what was happening in the industry. Which brings us to Ebbers's current trial. Where the prosecution is trying to prove that Ebbers knew at least what was going on inside his own company. And where Ebbers himself is trying desperately to deny it:

Mr. Ebbers ... said he was ignorant about accounting in general. "I know what I don't know," he said, referring to his lack of understanding of the technology WorldCom sold as well as its finances.

He testified that he did poorly in college, where his "marks weren't too good," and that he bounced from one job to another, working as a milkman, basketball coach and warehouse manager, before he and a small group of investors started the predecessor of WorldCom in 1983. ...

Mr. Ebbers, who is accused of fraud, conspiracy and filing false financial reports, said that he was "shocked" when he heard in June 2002 that an internal auditor had unearthed billions of dollars in buried expenses. "I never thought anything like that had gone on," he said. "I put those people in place, and I trusted those people. I had no earthly idea that that would occur."

So, what does he say he was actually doing all this time, to earn his keep as the titular head of a company he didn't understand?

Mr. Ebbers, 63, said his role was largely that of coach. He said his main job was to motivate the sales and marketing team.

"I focused on the area I thought I could handle," he added, referring to his role managing the sales force.

Before you scoff too quickly, compare the two portraits, then and now. The 1997 profile acknowledges Ebbers' oddball background (with a degree in Phys. Ed.), and says that he has more fun riding tractors than talking finance. Is it all that implausible that a really good salesman could get in the habit of reciting a pitch made by others, without really understanding it? That he could train himself to rattle off impressive-sounding figures without understanding what they really mean?

Or that, when the accountants came to him and tried to tell him that they couldn't make the numbers work for his pitch, he might demand better numbers, without understanding that he was actually asking for criminal fraud?

I don't mean, here, to be insulting to the other P.E. graduates, college dropouts, and the like, who actually do manage to apply and better themselves. Some of them do -- an erstwhile failed haberdasher named Truman did a pretty good job of running a larger organization than Worldcom. But some of them don't. Ebbers might be one of those.

In which case, there would not be just one fraud here -- the cooked books which led to the current trial -- but two. One: the accounting fraud. The other: the fraudulent portrait of the CEO as mastermind, even though he now claims he didn't understand the business at all.

As to Ebbers, he's clearly a very fine salesman. In the 1990s, he sold the portrait of himself as a mastermind, A lot of CEOs these days spend a time doing that sort of thing. And for selling himself as a mastermind, he got a lot of money -- even though he now says he didn't know much about the business. Should he be liable for knowingly peddling such a flawed product?

Monday, February 28, 2005

The March Harper's has an article on American soldiers gone AWOL. There are a few, I think, who went to Iraq and (for whatever reason) don't want to go back. But what strikes me more are the ones who went into basic training and immediately found themselves desperate to get out. Part of the reason for that is what basic training has become, and why. First, the why:

Despite our entertainment industry telling us otherwise, it is not easy to kill. In his groundbreaking and highly influential study of World War II firing rates, S.L.A. Marshall ... interviewed soldiers fresh from battle and found that only 15 to 20 percent of the combat infantry were willing to fire their weapons ... even when their life or the lives of their comrades were threatened. When Medical Corps psychiatrists studied combat fatigue cases in the European Theater, they found that "fear of killing, rather than fear of being killed, was the most common cause of battle failure in the individual." ...

And the effect of his findings on the military has been profound. As Lietenant Colonel Dave Grossman notes in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, "A firing rate of 15 to 20 percent among soldiers is like having a literacy rate of 15 to 20 percent among proofreaders. Once those in authority realized the existence and magnitude of the problem, it was only a matter of time until they solved it."

By the Korean War, the firing rate had gone up to 55 percent; in the Vietnam war, it was around 90 to 95 percent. How did the military achieve this? As Grossman writes, "Since World War II, a new era has quietly dawned in modern warfare: an era of psychological warfare ... conducted not upon the enemy, but upon one's own troops. ... The triad of mechanisms used to achieve this remarkable increase in killing are desensitization, condition, and denial defense mechanisms."

So, there it is -- for the grunts, that's what the modern army does: it efficiently strips away their inhibitions against killing, and gives them ways to rationalize it, by intense psychological manipulation of the recruits. It's no wonder that troops who recognize what is happening to them, and don't like it, find themselves desperate to get away. The process is new enough, and little known enough, that they really didn't know what to expect.

I won't start preaching here about how evil this is, because I'm not at all sure that's right. If you're going to have an army at all, the people on the front lines have to be effective killers. That's what armies do. And having them trained to do it effectively has benefits for the rest of us: the more efficient they are, the fewer of them we need, and the less the rest of us need to get dragged into it. To a point.

The point where this logic reaches its end is when the army is deployed for tasks where efficient killing machines are not what is wanted -- where the normal hesitation to kill would be useful, and where hair-trigger firing and the "us against them" view of the world which the modern army demands cause far more problems than they solve. To put it bluntly: in combat, that attitude breeds success. In peacekeeping and law enforcement, in a society where any misstep is likely to start a blood feud, it's a bloody disaster. And that bloody disaster has played out repeatedly, by now, in Iraq.

If "supporting the troops" means anything at all, it means that the rest of us should work to make sure that when they are deployed, it is in a way that maximizes the chances that they can succeed. That obviously hasn't been a concern of Dubya's crew -- witness the laggardness and continued profiteering "contract anomalies" on armorplate for Humvees.

But to succeed, the troops need to be mentally, as well as physically, equipped. Dubya and Rummy sent an undermanned crew of trained killing machines into a nation-building exercise demanding the peacekeeping, diplomacy, and mediation skills of a good community policing squad. I've argued elsewhere that as an anti-terror measure, the attack on Iraq was bad strategy -- Saddam wasn't supporting anti-American terror much if at all, and it was a distraction from, among other things, continued action in Afghanistan which matters far more. It's just their way, I guess, to back up their bad strategy with phenomenally bad tactics.