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Saturday, June 28, 2003

 
GAZA ON THE TIGRIS

Just read another depressing article chronicling the violence in the Middle East. How long, one wonders, will this endless cycle of guerrilla attacks and heavy-handed retaliations continue? Here's the latest:

Attackers killed a ... soldier in a convoy moving through the [city] and a gunman shot a ... soldier in the neck as he browsed a ... market Friday, part of a vicious cycle of ... attacks and ever-tougher ... crackdowns on resistance.

[Military] forces, meanwhile, accidentally killed an 11-year-old boy ...


The pattern is all-too familiar for anyone who's been paying attention to the decades-long conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians.

Except that in this case, the superior occupying military isn't the IDF and the desperate, occupied Muslims aren't the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. Here's the unedited version, from the AP's Jim Krane:

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Attackers killed a U.S. soldier in a convoy moving through the capital and a gunman shot an American soldier in the neck as he browsed a Baghdad market Friday, part of a vicious cycle of Iraqi attacks and ever-tougher U.S. crackdowns on resistance.

American forces, meanwhile, accidentally killed an 11-year-old boy in Baghdad.

The past two days have seen a torrent of guerrilla-style ambushes that have killed at least three U.S. soldiers, with a fourth dying in a non-combat accident. Two U.S. soldiers remained missing Friday night, three days after their apparent abduction from a guard post north of the capital.


The main difference between the American occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, it seems, is that nobody in Baghdad has a roadmap to peace.



posted by Fred Clark 4:22 PM

 
A DAY AT THE RACES

A tortured, obvious and over-extended metaphor.

Okay, so you're going to the track and your friend tells you to check in with this tipster before you place your bets.

So you find the guy and he tells you he's got a sure thing in the fourth race. So you put your money down, following his advice, picking Restored Honor to win, Dignity of the Office to place and Changing the Tone to show.

The fourth race comes up and you lose, watching Harken Hijinx and Partisan Pitbull in first and second, with Vandalism Fraud just edging out DUI Disclosure for third.

So you tell your friend the tipster lied to you.

"Lie is a strong word," your buddy says. "It was really just a matter of emphasis."

"The guy is 0-for-3," you say.

"Hey, these are picks," your friend reminds you. "They're not guarantees."

When you point out that the tipster said it was a "sure thing," your friend tells you that you don't understand how the game works. "That's just a term of art," he says. So you figure you'll give the tipster another chance.

This time he tells you to bet on Ongoing Surplus, Balanced Budget and Sacred Lockbox. You place your bets and you lose again -- this time to three ponies named Record Deficit, Prodigal Tax Cuts and $7 Trillion And Counting. Your wallet is really hurting and it looks like you've been had.

"That tipster is a liar," you say again.

"Go easy with the L-word," your buddy says. "Just because someone repeatedly tells you things that turn out not to be true doesn't make that person a liar. Maybe he just got some bad intelligence. Or maybe he was ideologically self-deceived. Or maybe he has secret, classified reasons for not telling you the truth -- you know, for matters of national security."

"National security?" you say. "Everybody who listened to this guy is broke."

"Calm down," your friend says. "You can't prove intent. He's no liar."

Thinking maybe you should have "sucker" tattooed on your forehead, you head back to the tipster for another try.

He tells you he's got a can't-miss scoop and you put your money on Domestic Security, Four Freedoms and Twin Towers. The three horses collide out of the gate. You've never seen anything so horrible. They end up having to shoot all three horses, plus the jockeys, the track announcer and several thousand people in the grandstands.

"That was the worst thing I've ever seen," you tell your friend. "It was an unprecedented calamity. I'm never trusting this guy again."

But your friend says that just because the disaster took place on the tipster's watch doesn't mean he bears any responsibility for it.

"You said yourself it was unprecedented," he reminds you. "So how could he have foreseen that?"

You're thinking that it's a tipster's job to foresee such things, but you let it pass.

"Sure, we're all broke and thousands are dead," your friend says, "but that just means that it's time to rally behind the tipster. At times like this we all have to band together for the good of the racing community."

This odd argument somehow strikes you as hypnotically compelling. You go back to relying on the miserable failure of a tipster, still feeling like a sucker, but somehow proud to be one. Following his lead, you blow your next paycheck on a horse called Dead Or Alive. It doesn't win, place or show, and you can't even get anybody at the window to tell you where it finished. It's like it just disappeared.

This goes on for years. You keep staking your fortunes based on what the tipster says and you keep getting burned. In all this time only one of his picks even manages to show -- a skinny nag named Jobless Recovery -- but it doesn't pay very well.

Finally, you tell your friend you're about done. You're willing to give the tipster one last chance to prove he's even remotely worth listening to. One last chance and that's it.

Surprisingly, your friend agrees.

"Fair enough," he says. "See who he's picking in the Iraqi Stakes. If that doesn't work out just the way he says, you have every right to ignore him in the future."

So it all comes down to this. You take every dime you can scrape together and put it all down on the three horses the tipster assures you are a sure thing -- Terrorist Ties, Imminent Danger and Democratic Beacon.

You lose, tearing up your tickets as Nigerian Forgery, Doctored Intel and Gaza-On-The-Tigris win running away.

"That's it!" you tell your friend. "You said yourself that this race should be the deciding factor and it was. He lied again. The tipster is a liar!"

"Whoa! Calm down. Again with the L-word," your friend says. "He told you those horses would win, so you just assumed he meant today? You've just got to give it time.

"And remember you still can't prove he was lying. He may just have been mistaken. Or deluded. Or caught up in an exaggeration. He may have been given bad information himself. So you can't say he's a liar.

"Don't you see? Just because someone is consistently mistaken or deluded -- just because everything he tells you isn't true -- that doesn't mean he can't be trusted, does it? Does it?"


posted by Fred Clark 4:13 AM


Thursday, June 26, 2003

 
EVERYBODY IN THE POOL

What kind of America do you want to live in?

The newspaper that pays my rent features what we call "skyboxes" on its front page -- refer-ish teaser blurbs advertising content inside the paper.

Skyboxes usually highlight our special inside sections, such as today's Home & Garden feature on luxury swimming pools. The piece never uses the word "luxury," however -- instead seeming to assume or imply that spending "thousands of dollars for lavishly landscaped settings, spas and even waterfalls" is something within the reach of most families.

Our skybox for this story reads:

OWN A RESORT
A fancy pool can turn
your home into a getaway


This top-of-A1 item will be read by only two groups of people. The first group -- by far the larger -- constitutes those who cannot afford the thousands of dollars it takes to install and maintain a fancy, in-ground pool in their backyard. (This group also includes, of course, our tens of thousands of readers who don't have a back yard.) It seems unlikely to me that many of these people will see this blurb and think "Ooh, it's like 'Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous'!" and eagerly page to the Home & Garden section for the vicarious thrill of reading about how the other half-a-decile-at-the-top lives.

As for the second group -- that very small percentage of readers who can actually afford such a luxury -- it seems to me that the contractors and pool supply companies that cater to the very wealthy are probably already working hard to market their product to this niche and don't need the newspaper's assistance. Although I'm sure they appreciate what is, in effect, a complimentary advertisement on the front page.

The luxury pool skybox appears just above this article, warning of the elevated ozone levels expected today as the temperature climbs into the upper 90s here on the East Coast. Taken together, this skybox and story seem to be flipping the bird to the vast majority of the newspaper's readers. "Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyaaah nyah! It's 97 degrees outside and you can't afford a luxury swimming pool like the rich people can! Sucks to be you!"

"The politics of envy" is a phrase taken out of Republican Party strategy memos. It's the standard recommended response to anyone talking about "fairness" or "justice." Such people will also be accused of conducting "class warfare." These phrases are used to direct attention away from the fact that class warfare is exactly the point.

The upper class is fighting an undeclared war on everyone else, and it's winning. This war sometimes involves the use of weapons of mass destruction -- such as runaway federal deficits, massively regressive tax cuts and oxymoronic schemes to "privatize" Social Security or "privatize" public education. But just as often this war involves conventional weapons, including the "politics of envy."

Arrogant and irrelevant articles about the lifestyles of the rich and careless play a function in reinforcing and defending those lifestyles. They hold up the illusory promise that your life could be like this. They suggest that happiness is to be found by separating yourself from most people and ascending to join the pampered elite. They subtly encourage people not to work to improve life for the majority, for the neighborhood, for the community, for the country -- but to escape the bounds of such constraining ties and join the happy few who lavish themselves with decadent luxuries like:

A $350,000 pool [with] three waterfalls -- one of them emptying into a raised spa -- complete stonework decking, custom lighting, fencing and landscaping. The barbecue area alone cost $45,000.

That's one version of the American Dream. It's a narrow, individualistic and selfish vision that sees America as the land of the opportunity to acquire lots of stuff for me and mine. It's also a winner-take-all vision, a nightmare of community as a war of all against all. Life in this Hobbesian jungle may be nasty, brutish and short for most, but not for the winners. The winners get to cool off in their private, backyard resorts.

In It's a Wonderful Life Frank Capra rejects this version of the American Dream. He embodies this stunted selfishness in the person of Old Man Potter, the crusty banker and oligarch portrayed by Lionel Barrymore. Capra's own version of the American Dream -- of what America could and should be all about -- is embodied in Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey.

Old Man Potter, you can be sure, would buy himself a top-of-the-line landscaped pool for his back yard (even though he'd probably never use it). George Bailey, on the other hand, would be happier installing a less-ostentatious, but more accessible, pool in a park near the homes he was helping to build for the working people of Bedford Falls. Bailey's pool would be for the entire community -- publicly funded, publicly owned, publicly enjoyed.

The question is this: Which pool would you rather swim in? Or, to ask the same question in another way: What kind of America do you want to live in?

Bedford Falls and Potterville, Capra showed us, cannot exist in the same reality. If we work very hard to attain one, we cannot expect also to achieve the other. We must choose.

The function of luxury lifestyle articles in newspapers is to present the case for Potterville or, as the Old Man himself put it:

You wouldn't mind living in the nicest house in town, buying your wife a lot of fine clothes, a couple of business trips to New York a year, maybe once in a while Europe.

You wouldn't mind that, would you, George?


That's what the real "politics of envy" is all about.


posted by Fred Clark 4:44 AM


Wednesday, June 25, 2003

 
PROGRESS AND POVERTY IN ALABAMA

The GOP, the Bible Belt and the end of feudalism

The more I read about this story out of Alabama, the more interesting it becomes.

Short version: The new governor of Alabama has staked his governorship on sweeping, revolutionary tax reform to bring a measure of fairness to one of the most regressive tax structures in the country while also resolving his state's fiscal crisis. This governor, Bob Riley, is a Bible-thumping, conservative Republican and he has framed his tax reform effort in explicitly moral and religious language. The effort is receiving enthusiastic support from many Southern Baptists -- including the Alabama Baptist Convention.

This is all pretty astounding. The tax reform plan holds the promise of a radical, long-term improvement in the lives of Alabama's working poor and middle- and low-income families. (Here's a nice introduction, even if it's in -- ugh -- PowerPoint.)

And the way this issue arose, and the moral arguments underlying the debate, have the potential to inspire a serious rethinking of the political agenda of Christian conservatives and, at least in Alabama, of the Republican Party.

The national Republican Party, of course, won't stand for it. Gov. Riley's virtuous tax plan runs directly counter to President Bush's vicious vision of tax structure. Dick Armey has already been dispatched to Alabama (along with, I'm guessing, many other Republican operatives of the kind we never hear about) to scuttle Riley's effort. And you can be sure that back in Versailles, Kardinal Rovelieu is displeased.

Allen Brill is providing some good discussion of the religious right's role in Riley's initiative at The Right Christians. Alabama blogger Michael Bowen is all over this story at A Minority of One.

AMO's links helped me get a better understanding of just how appallingly regressive Alabama's current tax system is. Calling it "feudal" is more accurate than it is a rhetorical flourish.

Timber and agribusiness interests own 71 percent of the state's land, yet pay only 2 percent of the state's property taxes. Alabama's families and small businesses, in other words, bear 98 percent of the burden of property taxes, even though they own less than a third of the property. Gov. Riley's plan (shades of Henry George) would create a fairer sharing of the burden between families and the baronial corporate landowners. (This might be a model for other states where corporate interests control a disproportionate share of the property -- West Virginia springs to mind.)

Alabama's income tax kicks in at less than $5,000 -- well below the poverty level. And the state allows a 100 percent deduction for federal income taxes -- a boon to wealthy Alabamans, but no help at all to the working poor.

The state also currently has a 4 percent sales tax, which allows no exceptions even for food, diapers, milk or infant formula. County and municipal add-ons to that tax put it as high as 10 percent in some areas. A double-digit flat tax on necessities is mind-bogglingly regressive -- it's serfdom, plain and simple.

Combine this plantation-era relic of a tax system with the state's massive budget deficits and you've got a good foundation for support for tax reform. But add to that the fact that Alabama is the buckle of the Bible belt and that this tax reform plan is being promoted as The Right Thing To Do because Christians aren't supposed to oppress the poor. (And, yes, "oppress" is Riley's word.)

Much of the credit for this effort's momentum and broad-based religious support apparently goes to Susan Pace Hamill, a law professor at the University of Alabama who took a sabbatical to attend divinity school. He master's thesis at Beeson Divinity School presented "An Argument for Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics" (big long 112-page .pdf file here of a version of that paper published in the Alabama Law Review -- you can read more about Hamill here).

From the introduction to that paper:

With hope that soon Alabama's leaders will find the courage to reform Alabama's tax structure, the author dedicates this article to Alabama's children, who today are "the least of these," the most vulnerable and powerless segment of Alabama's population, but who tomorrow hold the keys to Alabama's future.

This is a watershed political struggle for the heart and soul of Alabama -- with, I hope, national implications. Bookmark A Minority of One and keep your eye on this.


posted by Fred Clark 5:04 PM


Monday, June 23, 2003

 
NEITHER GUNS NOR BUTTER

Retail government reveals wholesale irresponsibility.

An old peacenik bumper sticker reads: "It will be a great day when the schools have all the money they need and the Air Force has to have a bake sale to buy a bomber."

I appreciate the guns-or-butter sentiment behind that slogan, and the point -- that the government always finds the funding for things it considers a priority -- is well-taken. But I've also always been kind of glad that our military is not forced to rely on the proceeds from bake sales.

Until now.

Throughout the "major conflict" in Iraq, charitable efforts to "support the troops" were inescapable. There were car washes, biker rallies, 10k's and tin cups at schools, offices, churches and shopping centers. Sometimes the events raised money for a specific effort -- like providing troops with pre-paid calling cards or "care packages." Other events were more generic, and less trustworthy. (These latter ones seemed to say: "Help support the troops by contributing to our P.R. campaign designed to position us as an institution supported by consumers who support the troops.")

Many of these charitable efforts are driven by a genuine patriotism desperate for a meaningful form of expression. Americans want to help out on the homefront. (The model for such homefront activity is Word War II, although the war on sanctions-crippled Iraq is hardly comparable to that yearslong, global struggle against formidable, imperial enemies.)

Ever since September 11, 2001, Americans have wanted to do something. Throughout the [ongoing] war in Afghanistan and the [ongoing] war in Iraq, people have wanted to help, to contribute in some way. Yet instead of a Kennedy-esque call to "bear any burden" for the nation, the Bush administration has repeatedly told the public that no contribution, no hardship, no sacrifice would be expected, needed or appreciated. Go shopping, the president said after 9/11. And here's another tax cut.

Taxes, it seems necessary to point out, are the civic obligation of citizens in a democracy. They allow our schools and our military to function properly without having to rely on revenue from bake sales. In a time of war(s), you cannot support both "the troops" and the tax cuts that undermine the preparedness of those troops.

We've ended up with the absurd situation of private citizens conducting charity drives to support the soldiers formerly supported by tax revenue from those same citizens. This replaces an efficient, concerted and sustained system with an ad hoc, occasional and erratic one. What's next? A national lottery to fund the war on terrorism? (We could call it SuperpowerBall -- proceeds supply uranium-tipped munitions for the war on Iran.)

Consider the charity that purchases prepaid calling cards for American troops stationed overseas. The goal -- keeping soldiers in touch with their families -- is laudable. But keep in mind that every dollar raised by this charity is a dollar of retail sales revenue for the telecom companies supplying these cards. This charitable model has the same industry-subsidizing inefficiencies as a canned food drive. (If your real goal is to provide food for the needy, you shouldn't be paying retail.)

"Supporting the troops" through such a system is like trying to stock the Library of Congress through public donations of Barnes & Noble gift certificates. The library would suffer, the people would pay more than they need to, and Barnes & Noble would make a killing.

Back during the "major conflict" in Iraq (i.e., the first months of the war, during which Iraqi casualties actually outpaced American casualties), newspapers and TV news programs were full of reports on how to send care packages to troops overseas. Care packages are a greatly appreciated, time-honored way for private citizens at home to support the troops. While the government -- "We the people" as a powerful whole -- is far better positioned to supply cash or calling cards to support the soldiers, there's still a valued role for private citizens to supply the personal touch of a traditional care package.

So what should be in such a package? For troops stationed in Muslim countries, the military cautions against sending booze, porn or Bibles. (From what I've heard, the first two are treasured, but unlikely to reach the troops. The last isn't largely appreciated -- veteran soldiers develop a knack for avoiding Bible-shaped care packages.)

According to the USO, one especially valued ingredient for care packages to Iraq is sunscreen.

That's right -- sunscreen.

It seems we've sent hundreds of thousands of American troops out to fight in the desert without supplying them with sunscreen. Apparently President Bush's $80 billion price-tag for the war is not sufficient to include sunscreen. One wonders which is more expensive: sunscreen for 250,000 troops in the desert? Or the president's just-for-kicks photo-op jet flight?

The point here is not that citizens ought not to send sunscreen or prepaid calling cards to troops overseas -- please do, these things are needed. The point here is that private citizens shouldn't have to.

Thanks to three tax cuts in three years, a record-setting federal deficit and ballooning national debt, America can no longer afford either guns or butter. Our schools are still dependent on bake sales, and will be for years to come. The Air Force has not yet held a bake sale to supply its troops with bombers, but if those troops want sunscreen in the desert, or an affordable way to keep in touch with their families, then bake sales may be their only hope.

This inefficient, costly, retail government is a direct result of the wholesale irresponsibility of the Bush administration. The president's contempt for taxes is really a contempt for taxpayers, and for those supported by our taxes -- from our schoolchildren to our troops overseas.

The good news is that the American people are still organizing bake sales to support the PTA and the USO. By doing so, they demonstrate a deeper patriotism and a wiser leadership than that of the so-called leaders in the White House.




posted by Fred Clark 2:31 PM

 
CLEANING THE ATTIC, 3

Here are some more hopelessly out-of-date items from my still-overflowing bookmark folder.

= = = = = = = = = = = =

Delaware, terrorist target: The Free State Project hopes to destroy Delaware's schools, bridges and roadways. Yeah, calling them "terrorists" is inflammatory hyperbole, but do they really think they can dismantle a state's cultural and economic infrastructure without violence?

Dick Allen Syndrome, Here and here are further examples of how Philadelphia has a hard time keeping certain talented professional athletes. It's a long, sad history. More here.

Dick, Big Time: In case you missed it, read Josh Marshall's devastatingly accurate portrayal of Vice President Dick Cheney. Anyone who's considering supporting Sen. Joe Lieberman in the upcoming Democratic primaries should remember this: Lieberman's debate with Cheney was a virtual tie. If you can't clearly win a debate against a prickly and inept man like Cheney, you shouldn't be running for president.

DiIulio, John, bush-whacking of: Here's the infamous apology letter in Esquire. And here's a more flattering portrait of the man from the Pennsylvania Gazette (the U. Penn. publication, not the elegant blog). I've met and worked with John DiIulio on several occasions. He's whipsmart and a good guy -- a devout Catholic who takes the social teaching about a "preferential option for the poor" very seriously. I feared for him when he accepted a position in Bush's faith-based office, but was encouraged when he loudly condemned the administration's stated desire to abolish the estate tax. That would, DiIulio pointed out, devastate the very charitable groups he was supposed to be creating support for. That stance put him in the administration's doghouse. The rest of the story is pretty depressing, of course, but you still have to give him props for the "Mayberry Machiavellis" crack. That was so apt that no amount of groveling apology could take it away.

Dillard, Annie: After I posted a few quotes from Annie, George sent along this picture, taken outside of a church in uptown Manhattan the week of Sept. 11, 2001.

Friedman, Thomas, naivete of: I forget what I was thinking when I originally bookmarked this Friedman column. Reading it now, all I can think is "sucker."

Gambling: Internet gambling is a really bad idea. If it can do so much damage to a wealthy guy like Jaromir Jagr, imagine the damage it can do to someone who doesn't have all that money and income as a cushion. According to Kathy Kristof, the House of Representatives passed a bill last year "that would have barred banks from funding Internet bets. The measure failed to pass the Senate." This is a worthy effort to protect poor people and people with poor judgment from a certain kind of predatory scam. (Plus, it pits the corporate-puppet wing of the GOP against the family-values wing of the GOP, and it's always fun to watch them fight it out.)

Good news to the poor: I bookmarked this post from Matthew Yglesias as one of many examples of Mr. Y's commendable concern for those in poverty. I'm not complaining -- I'm just saying that if Matt keeps arguing on behalf of the poor and the powerless, he's going to have to forfeit his title as "antichrist."

GOP, appalling ethical behavior of: Dec. 3, 2002, President Bush restores cash bonuses for political appointees.

Great American Philosophers, saddened by passing of: When Ted Williams died, the answer became "Willie Mays." But now that John Rawls is no longer with us, who is the greatest living American philosopher? Yes, as Jim Holt pointed out in Slate, Rawls rigged the game a bit, but he did say it was just a theory after all. Dr. Alterman framed the critique more graciously -- if Rawls' notion of justice was partly wishful thinking, he did at least call on us to live up to the better angels of our nature, which is something.

Great American Philosophers, strange facts about: From Christian History magazine: Jonathan Edwards died from an inoculation to ward off smallpox, just after taking the presidency at Princeton. At the time, most physicians followed some variety of a practice called variolation when vaccinating patients. In one method, doctors took scabs from an infected person and blew them down the nostrils of a healthy one. Two to three percent of those variolated died. Forty years after Edwards's death, English physician Edward Jenner vastly improved the vaccine when he discovered that people exposed to cowpox, a less serious disease, more effectively resisted smallpox.

Heimbach, Daniel, court prophet. (See 1 Kings chapter 22. Hint: Heimbach ain't Micaiah.)

Hybrids and incentives: In a Jan. 26 article on fuel-efficient hybrid cars, GM's Bryon McCormick offers the Detroit party line -- it's all about free markets and choice: "The people decide. ... Every time we've tried to tell the consumer, 'You will buy this,' there's been a backlash." Same paper, same day, this article, titled "Bush tax plan boosts loophole for SUVs." Ah yes, free markets and choice.

Jackson, Reggie, limited range as actor: Hall-of-famer's page at the Internet Movie Database. (Note: the character "Larry" in Diff'rent Strokes episode #2.10 wasn't much of a stretch either.)


posted by Fred Clark 10:59 AM


Sunday, June 22, 2003

 
WHERE I WAS LAST WEEK

"In deep distress I groaned and wept, and as I groaned I prayed: 'Thou art just, O Lord, and all thy acts are just; in all thy ways thou art merciful and true; thou art judge of the world.'"
-- Tobit 3:1-2


Last Wednesday my sister gave birth to her first son. Thursday morning in a New England hospital I got to hold all 8 pounds, 5 ounces of him -- from his nearly bald head to his perfectly knit, uncalloused soles.

My sister got the royal treatment at that hospital. It's the same one where my nieces -- a quiverful of uncalloused souls -- were born. My father also was treated there a few years back when he had one of those cancers the doctors have learned how to beat. And, more recently, my mother has been a patient there as she battles one of those cancers that has no remedy.

My new nephew is named Tobias, which my sister tells me means "God is good." So the first lesson my sister has for her son is the same first lesson my mother had for me: "God is good." That's also the final lesson she's teaching me now.

Last Thursday we took Mom for one of those rare occasions, a happy trip to the hospital. I have of a picture of her holding her grandson -- one nearly bald head bending down to kiss another.

Little Toby barely opened his eyes during our visit to the hospital. He won't ever remember sleeping in the arms of his grandmother. But someday, when he is older and able to walk and talk better than his grandmother ever will again, he will see this picture and maybe learn a little bit more about the meaning of his name. God is good.

posted by Fred Clark 8:18 PM


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