Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fast and Furious: what it is and what really happened

Are you curious? Have you been avoiding all the articles about it because it looks like more pointless Republican b.s.?

I had been. It turns out that there's actually a very interesting story in it, just not the one House GOPers are trying to write. Fortune Magazine, of all places, has released the findings of its detailed investigation. It's an amazing story, tragic on many levels. The story answers an important question about the connection between the evisceration of state and federal firearm regulation and the frightening bloodbath in Mexico, a question about the macro-level consequences of massive gun deregulation.

It all starts, however, from a much smaller question: how does ATF stop an alleged Sinaloa cartel gun-runner in Arizona, where it's legal to buy guns in infinite amounts, legal to turn around and sell them to whomever you want, illegal to construct a database to track gun sales and buyers, and the penalty even for getting caught selling guns to criminal organizations carries only a minor penalty?

Read to the end: the story has a killer punchline.

Monday, June 25, 2012

"The Newsroom" and ideological centrism

I can't speak to the problem with "The Newsroom" because I haven't seen it. That being said, David Carr's critique in The New York Times comments on the show as clearly inspired by CNN and Sorkin's vision for what cable news should be, and well, it's problematic. One should preface such a discussion by stating that discussing the "perfect" news show is a perilous path. There be dragons! Still, this sentence irked me:
CNN has stuck with, well, a version of the news, and gotten clobbered in the process. ... In Mr. Sorkin’s series, and out there in the big, bad world of television, there is a battle for the souls and eyeballs of the American viewing public, and CNN finds itself in a competitive business where simply delivering the news is no longer sufficient.
Except the CNN doesn't simply deliver the news, does it? Here I think is where CNN has been unable to fix itself: its board or producers or whatever haven't grappled with the fact it's every bit as ideological as any other channel, but lacks their convictions. It's the media version of the political centrist, and it's losing cache among the public for the exact same reasons.

FOX is a news channel full of conservatives and run by a conservative. They may be trying to make as conservative a news channel as possible, but more likely it's a group of conservatives covering the stories they believe is important in the manner they believe is most accurate and most fair. Thus, discussions and editorial choices on that channel display all manner of conservative assumptions, biases and philosophical points of view. That being said, those assumptions and biases and philosophy are probably unconscious at the time of newscrafting; rather, the reporters and producers are reporting and producing what they believe is The Truth.

I loathe FOX News as much as any self-respecting liberal. I believe it's deeply unbalanced and unfair, that it places low value on journalistic integrity and is as much as an arm of the Republican Party as a news organization, but I think the anchors and talking heads and producers on there generally believe what they're saying.

It's largely the same with MSNBC. When it's liberal, it's liberal because Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow are liberals conducting a news show in the way they believe is most accurate and fair and meaningful, not because the producers are thinking: "Hmm, what would be the most liberal stories to cover, and how can we make them as liberal as possible?"

This is the problem with centrism, whether practiced as a news organization or a politician. Centrists begin not with their own first principles, but with everybody else's. The answer to every question lies directly between what the conservative said and what the liberal said. It matters not if the conservative and the liberal are both more conservative than they were 20 years ago, or whether the conservative was arguing what is now the liberal line only 3 years ago, or whether one's facts are demonstrably false according to every nonpartisan source in the country.

This hermeneutic of looking at two arguments and crafting a middle one is hardly "simply delivering the news." In fact, in my opinion, it's ideological in a much more calculated way than either of the ideological networks.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Longer life, thanks to the government

Ezra Klein notes findings in The Lancet that the average life expectancy of the citizens of the New York City have gone from being the shortest lived in the country to the longest over the course of about 20 years. And what do New Yorkers have to thank this remarkable turnaround?
New York City, meanwhile, was accustomed to trailing the rest of the country in life expectancy by a full three years through the 1980s. That changed in the 1990s for two main reasons, according to The Lancet, a British medical journal: The city’s murder rate dropping 75 percent and new antiretroviral therapies that could combat the cities AIDS epidemic. The next decade saw the advent of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s public health crusade, replete with public smoking bans and restrictions on trans fats.
What Ezra isn't mentioning here is that the city's murder rate dropped precipitously in the '90's for one very specific reason: Mayor Rudy Giuliani's focus on aggressive law enforcement.* New York City's two liberal Republican mayors engaged in prolonged programs of government intervention in the life of the city, one relentlessly arresting and prosecuting offenders for even minor crimes and flooding the streets with police officers, and the other enacting a stringent program of government regulation of the marketplace in the form of health code tightening and enforcement. People complained about the "Disney-ification" of gritty old NYC, having to stand outside in the cold to have a smoke with your beer, and Nanny Bloomberg making people's decisions for them. 20 years later, however, the effects of those programs are not just undeniable, but transformative.

Who knows? Maybe New Yorkers would still argue that the benefits aren't worth the changes in the character of NYC, that they'd prefer old New York with its crime, drug dealers, trans fats, smoke-filled bars, and shorter life spans. I doubt it, though.

The lesson? Government policy can be a force for good. It can change things for the better. We saw it nationally in the '60's when President Johnson's Great Society cut the poverty rate in half in 10 years, and now we've seen it more recently in New York. Reagan's nonsense about how government can never fix anything just isn't true.

* Yes, crime rates dropped nationwide during the 1990's, and yes, the drop in NYC's crime rate began during Dinkins' last term as mayor, but the drop in NYC's crime rate dwarfs the drops everywhere else. It's pretty clear nationwide factors don't sufficiently explain it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

personal experience as a crutch for empathy

I've wondered for a while exactly how a guy like Marco Rubio balances his beliefs on immigration with otherwise being a hardcore social conservative. Yglesias helpfully elucidates. Note this reporting here about the man's position:
Many people who came here illegally are doing exactly what we would do if we lived in a country where we couldn't feed our families," he writes in An American Son, which was released Tuesday. "If my kids went to sleep hungry every night and my country didn't give me an opportunity to feed them, there isn't a law, no matter how restrictive, that would prevent me from coming here." Rubio is the son of Cuban immigrants and has been among the more vocal members of the Republican Party about the need to soften rhetoric on immigration. He planned to introduce a bill that would help young undocumented immigrants gain legal status -- although he said Monday that the legislation is unlikely to come up -- but also opposes comprehensive reform that would grant legal status to many.
That quote is exactly, precisely the liberal critique of anti-immigration legislation. There are various reasons to favor more open immigration policies from an intellectual standpoint, but this is the emotional reason, the one that animates people to actively oppose rather than merely grumble. The people who are willing to brave the guns of soldiers and vigilantes, the high fences, the scorching Arizona sun, the tumultuous Atlantic waters, and the double-crossing coyotes for the chance to secure a better life for themselves and their loved ones are the very people we should want here the most. Their actions bespeak bravery, inner strength, an unwillingness to settle for less than they and their loved ones deserve.

How does he square the circle of opposing "path to citizenship" legislation for those who came here illegally? Well, as Matthew helpfully notes, it's always legal in American law for Cubans to come here; it's only illegal on the Cuban side. Thus, it's only Mexicans and Guatemalans and Hondurans who come here "illegally," not Cubans.

Here we are again: a so-called "thoughtful conservative" who wants liberal policy for himself and his own but conservative policy for everyone else.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

"morning after" pills don't actually prevent implantation

So says The New York Times. This question of conception/implantation always seemed like theological hair-splitting to me, to be honest. Does anyone out there really hang their opinion on women's medical care on such inane minutiae? Is anybody out there really trying to figure out when "life" or "humanity" or "ensoulment" begins, as opposed to just throwing a few bombs into that melee for your side?

Now that the supposed "medical" reason for hating on Plan B has been refuted, will this change even one single solitary person's mind? The fact that I haven't heard a word about this article since it came out probably answers my question.

I have a friend from high school whom I respect, but who has since gone "the full Ratzinger" on birth control. I found her argument rather illuminating: she said that birth control is sinful because it's an effort to thwart God's will. This isn't to say that one can thwart God's will; you'll never actually manage to prevent a conception that God wanted you to have, of course. It's the attempt itself that is the sin.

What's illustrative about this argument is that the line between thwarting/not thwarting is so easily erased and redrawn. Lots of Catholics have no problem putting abortion and Plan B and the pill on one side of that line and, say, the rhythm method or coitus interruptus on the other, with the only real distinction I can see being that the former group actually works.

Of course, that's probably the point.

One thing that makes absolutely no difference whatsoever in this calculus: the exact moment of conception or implantation or whatever. If the medical community gets everyone to agree that Plan B is morally equivalent to the pill, the result will not be Plan B becoming acceptable to these people, but rather the pill being further vilified.

breaking the insurance system

This is why it would be an extremely bad thing if either the Supreme Court or a Romney Administration and Republican Congress overturn the health insurance mandate in the Affordable Care Act but leave the stuff everybody likes. As Ezra notes here, we know exactly what would happen in that scenario because -- believe it or not -- we've already seen it happen at the state level.

Washington State passed an insurance mandate-cum-guaranteed-coverage-and-no-price-hikes bill, which is essentially what the ACA is, in 1993. The mandate was repealed in '94 but the rest left intact. The result: premiums spiked, consumers dropped their coverage since they could just buy the same coverage once they got sick, and 6 years later it was impossible to buy individual insurance plans at all in the state of Washington, because it was no longer profitable.

These are our choices if we're going to persevere in this asinine decision to have private middlemen greasing and fleecing our health care system. Either everyone has to pay in, and I mean everyone, or the middlemen have to be allowed to weasel their way out of paying for your health care and just let you die like they could in the days before the ACA. There aren't really any other options, that is, short of doing the obviously correct and sensible thing and putting everyone on Medicare, and even then everyone will have to pay in.

As it is, overturning the mandate is going to mean causing premiums to spike as healthy people game the system, dropping coverage until they get sick. Overturning the whole thing means a return to the days when insurance companies were gaming the system, the days of "pre-existing conditions" and insurance companies giving people the run-around in order to keep from fulfilling their obligations.

Monday, June 04, 2012

the financially unfriendly skies

This is interesting. We all know that airlines have had a lot of trouble being profitable over the last 10 years. It turns out, however, that according to the GAO airlines have never been profitable. Notice that the graph goes all the way back to 1968. Makes one wonder whether we'll eventually be faced with either the disappearance of broadly available passenger air travel, or government taking it upon itself.