Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Another voice on Afghanistan - who makes sense!

What he said!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What’s so wrong with Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize?

On October 9th, 2009, the Norwegian-led Nobel Peace Prize selection committee picked U.S. President Barack Obama to receive its highest honor. They awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize, from a field of 205 nominees. According to the Washington Post’s online edition, the Committee chose Mr. Obama because “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.”

Judging by the reaction in the press and punditry, the sense is that Mr. Obama’s selection was, at best, premature, and at worst some kind of insult to both Nobel Laureates and the three former U.S. President’s who have won the prize. After all, President Carter had to wait 22 years after he left office to be rewarded for his significant achievements in Mid East peace.

We all want to be rewarded for hard work, and like it or not the jury is still out as to how much Mr. Obama will accomplish. Given that he has occupied the White House for a less then 300 days, this selection does appear hasty (to say the least).

Still, Mr. Obama has done a few things that break from precedent. He has embraced Muslims on the world stage in a way that no American President in recent memory has – Mr. Carter being the notable exception. Mr. Obama has also rolled back many of the worst policies from the 2008 Bush Administration, while flatly refusing the take up any of the policies of the 2002-2003 Bush Administration (like torture). And in Afghanistan, he is taking the time to hear as many views as he can – which in itself represents a significant break with “business as usual” in Washington.

Beginning now, press accounts of Mr. Obama’s future success (I hope there will be many) will start with “President and Nobel Laureate Barack Obama . . .” and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Certainly, the Nobel Committee has laid down an accolade, but they’ve also laid down a gauntlet. Let’s hope that this carrot will lead Mr. Obama to fulfillment of all of his promises to America, not just the politically expedient ones.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Science you can use - Scientia Pro Publica #14

For all of you interested in science (and how can you not be?), Scientia Pro Publica is now up. This 14th edition of the wide ranging blog carnival on everything science goes from Climate Change to Astrophysics. I am honored to have been included in the Science and Society Section.

Check it out!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Healthcare Reform - The People Speak, but no one is listening

While I don’t like to get too steeped in analyzing polling data, these recent questions from CBS News on the healthcare debate fascinate me. I'm especially drawn to this one:

"Which of the following three statements comes closest to expressing your overall view of the health care system in the United States? (1) On the whole, the health care system works pretty well and only minor changes are necessary to make it work better. OR, (2) There are some good things in our health care system, but fundamental changes are needed. OR, (3) Our health care system has so much wrong with it that we need to completely rebuild it."

While the chart shows the most recent data closest to the Y or vertical axis, as opposed to farther away, its clear that for nearly all of 2009, 48 or more percent of Americans want Fundamental Change in our system, and over 50% have wanted it since the end of August, when the debate began to heat up again. So for the Senate to say that there is no groundswell of support for a fundamental overhaul of the nations healthcare system is to IGNORE the will of the majority of Americans. When you add in those who think the healthcare system needs Complete Rebuilding, you get:

Now call me nuts, but to get to those numbers you need Republicans, Democrats and Independents. And if consistently more then 70% of your citizens say you need to make either Fundamental Changes or Completely Rebuild, and you don’t, then what kind of leader are you?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The failures of Democratic "Leadership" In America

George Carlin was, like all truly genius comics, an astute observer of humanity. He was particularly good at observing Americans, and the fact that we will never again see a live performance of “The Five Things You Can’t Say on TV” is sad (though we can now say most of those things).

Carlin’s irreverent take on our society came to my mind as I was standing in the Buffalo airport last night, waiting to board a flight to Baltimore after dropping off my older daughters with their mother. There, on CNN, were yet another set of talking heads, rambling on about how the latest polling shows that Democrats are sagging in terms of respect for their “leadership.” While I couldn’t actually hear the words over our boarding announcement, I think they were discussing this poll, which shows that between 53% and 54% of Americans disapprove of how Democrats are "leading" in Congress.

Now I’m sure the very bright talking heads on CNN had good things to say about why, nine months into the Obama Presidency, Democrats are “falling” so fast. And I’m sure, sometime today, we’ll see something that will make them look . . . less bad . . . for a few minutes. The reality, however, for the Progressives and Liberals who banded together to create this ruling coalition, is that we’re back to losing the war, and losing it very quickly.

See, the Democrats have run squarely AWAY from the best traditions of true liberal politics, and into the sickening embrace of the oligarchs who currently fund today's political activities. Democratic national leaders (and their sycophantic talking head media “spokespeople”) have left behind the true caring for the less fortunate that motivated Johnson’s Great Society. Democratic “leaders” have run away from the prophetic wisdom of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, embracing instead what Professor Cornell West rightly dubs an imperial nihilism that seeks dominion and money over true Democracy and real freedom (both personal and economic as well as democratic). In short, Democrats have abandoned the long list of their accomplishments – all of which came from the best liberal traditions and all of which stood once in stark contrast to the conservative ideals supposedly championed by Republicans (but from whihc they are also running in search of mammon).

And so the poll numbers show it. Americans may well be dissatisfied with how the healthcare debate is going, and with the fact that we as a nation tortured people under the color of our national “security,” but I would argue that the dissatisfaction runs deeper. As a nation, we’ve bought into the dream that our Democracy will be, and once was, a debate between two opposing sides where policy flowed from the side that made the best, most realistic, case – but also tugged at our souls.

Professor West, in his seminal work Democracy Matters calls us to attend to this malaise, which he posits derives from the twin challenges of that imperial nihilism, and the distractions that are heaped on us to ensure that we, the People, do not notice how badly we’re being screwed by our own politicians. Republican "Culture Wars" that purport to take on abortion, gay marriage, and pre-marital sex are fine examples. After all, in the six years Republicans ruled both the White House and Congress from 2001 through 2007, not one Bill was passed overturning Roe vs. Wade, in spite of dozens of speeches to the Base about its supposed evils.

West notes that this psychic division is most pronounced in our youth, where the real roots of rap and hip-hop (protests of the still oppressive African American condition) are all but lost in the marketing that emphasizes gangstas rolling around in flashy cars with nearly nude women (with no references to overcoming adversity thorugh hard work in the face of real oppression). West believes that the solution to this is Socratic questioning of everyone and everything, and he’s partially right.

We do need to question more, both the assumptions that we make daily, and the drivel that is heaped upon us that passes for journalism. Glenn Greenwald does an inestimable job of this; Tavis Smiley and Bill Moyers are also strong voices crying out against the oligarchs of our day.

But we must do more, and we can do better. Democrats have always failed in their knee-jerk “I don’t want to be the unpopular kid” attempts to become Republicans. We can’t do it, nor should we waste our energy trying. If the current healthcare “reform” debate has shown us anything, it’s that we’ll never win by trying to co-opt the other side.

So let’s stop. Let’s take the Socratic questioning, and ask sternly what America has to gain from Republican efforts to stall real reform. Then let’s embrace our prophetic vision, and reclaim the Left side of the aisle as the place where America’s best moments and most enduring ideals are housed.

Or, let’s just keep our heads down and our voices quiet. Then George Carlin will have been all too right about us:

America has no now. We’re reluctant to acknowledge the present. It’s too embarrassing.

Instead, we reach into the past. Our culture is composed of sequels, reruns, remakes, revivals, reissues, re-releases, re-creations, re-enactments, adaptations, anniversaries, memorabilia, oldies radio, and nostalgia record collections. World War II has been refought on television so many times, the Germans and the Japanese are now drawing residuals.

Of course, being essentially full of S%&$, we sometimes feel the need to dress up this past pre-occupation, as with pathetic references to reruns as “encore presentations.”

We owe it to ourselves, clearly and simply, to see that Carlin’s word do not become the epitaph by which our nation is remembered.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Healthcare Reform & Bobby Jindal - Cracks in the Republican Armor

There are two very different views of the Republican Party running loose on America’s streets at the moment. I bring them to your attention because I think they illustrate – aptly – why so many ordinary citizens are so far withdrawn from the modern political sphere.

The first stream – call it Liberal Frustration – is best exemplified by Paul Krugman’s October 4 column for the New York Times. In it, commenting on supposed Weekly Standard responses to the loss of the 2016 Olympic bid, Krugman Writes:

“Cheers erupted” at the headquarters of the conservative Weekly Standard, according to a blog post by a member of the magazine’s staff, with the headline “Obama loses! Obama loses!” Rush Limbaugh declared himself “gleeful.” “World Rejects Obama,” gloated the Drudge Report. And so on.

So what did we learn from this moment? For one thing, we learned that the modern conservative movement, which dominates the modern Republican Party, has the emotional maturity of a bratty 13-year-old.

But more important, the episode illustrated an essential truth about the state of American politics: at this point, the guiding principle of one of our nation’s two great political parties is spite pure and simple. If Republicans think something might be good for the President, they’re against it — whether or not it’s good for America.

Not content with pointing this out, Krugman seeks to deal w final blow to his opponents:

The key point is that ever since the Reagan years, the Republican Party has been dominated by radicals — ideologues and/or apparatchiks who, at a fundamental level, do not accept anyone else’s right to govern.

Anyone surprised by the venomous, over-the-top opposition to Mr. Obama must have forgotten the Clinton years. Remember when Rush Limbaugh suggested that Hillary Clinton was a party to murder? When Newt Gingrich shut down the federal government in an attempt to bully Bill Clinton into accepting those Medicare cuts? And let’s not even talk about the impeachment saga.

The only difference now is that the G.O.P. is in a weaker position, having lost control not just of Congress but, to a large extent, of the terms of debate. The public no longer buys conservative ideology the way it used to; the old attacks on Big Government and paeans to the magic of the marketplace have lost their resonance. Yet conservatives retain their belief that they, and only they, should govern.

The result has been a cynical, ends-justify-the-means approach. Hastening the day when the rightful governing party returns to power is all that matters, so the G.O.P. will seize any club at hand with which to beat the current administration.

It’s an ugly picture. But it’s the truth. And it’s a truth anyone trying to find solutions to America’s real problems has to understand.

Sobering words – and they explain a lot about why Democrats attempts (feeble as they may be) to elicit bipartisanship in the Senate over healthcare reform have failed miserably. And rightly so.

Now, contrast that with the Op-Ed piece written by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal in today’s Washington Post. This might be an example of Conservative Frustration - but we've seen so little of that its hard to tell. Jindal, a former health policy wonk, might be expected to contribute something new and fresh to the debate – especially since his party has contributed so little.

And he does – but in a very strange, almost liberal way. Writing about where we stand on healthcare reform, the Governor says:

A majority of so-called Republican strategists believe that health care is a Democratic issue. They are wrong; health care is an American issue, and the Republican Party has an opportunity to demonstrate that conservative principles work when applied to real-world problems.

Right off the bat, one has to wonder how he got into a party that has to be reminded – by one of its own supposed rising starts – of what its core principles are. I know the answer to that one: Jindal decided at some point (after I knew him in middle school) that he wanted to be a politician. And since Louisiana’s Democrats are still controlled by families named Long, Landreau, Edwards, and Morial, Bobby had to move to the Republican side of the ticket. One also has to wonder why supposedly free market loving Republicans want to continue to stand in the way of small business growth by keeping in place the current health insurance scheme, which is a failed market at best.

Taking off from there, the Governor then intones:

To be clear, the Republicans in Congress who have led the opposition to the Obama-Pelosi vision of health-care reform have done the right thing for our country. If they had rolled over, the results could have been devastating for our health-care system and our nation's budget.

But Republicans must shift gears. Conservatives should seize the mantle of reform and lead. Conservatives either genuinely believe that conservative principles will work to solve real-world problems such as health care or they don't.

I believe they will.

Again, note the reform call from within. Few other Republicans are standing on the national stage saying these things. And it remains to be seen if anyone will listen. But if the Republican Party is pinning its Presidential hopes on Jindal for 2012 or 2016, then perhaps the party needs to think long and hard about what he has to say.

Of course, like a good Republican (at least these days), Bobby then disappoints greatly with his list of the Top 10 Things Republicans need to back to create meaningful reform:

-- Voluntary purchasing pools: Give individuals and small businesses the opportunities that large businesses and the government have to seek lower insurance costs.
-- Portability: As people change jobs or move across state lines, they change insurance plans. By allowing consumers to "own" their policies, insurers would have incentive to make more investments in prevention and in managing chronic conditions.
-- Lawsuit reform: It makes no sense to ignore one of the biggest cost drivers in the system -- the cost of defensive medicine, largely driven by lawsuits. Worse, many doctors have stopped performing high-risk procedures for fear of liability.
-- Require coverage of preexisting conditions: Insurance should not be least accessible when it is needed most. Companies should be incentivized to focus on delivering high-quality effective care, not to avoid covering the sick.
-- Transparency and payment reform: Consumers have more information when choosing a car or restaurant than when selecting a health-care provider. Provider quality and cost should be plainly available to consumers, and payment systems should be based on outcomes, not volume. Today's system results in wide variations in treatment instead of the consistent application of best practices. We must reward
efficiency and quality.
-- Electronic medical records: The current system of paper records threatens patient privacy and leads to bad outcomes and higher costs.
-- Tax-free health savings accounts: HSAs have helped reduce costs for employers and consumers. Some businesses have seen their costs decrease by double-digit percentages. But current regulations discourage individuals and small businesses from utilizing HSAs.
-- Reward healthy lifestyle choices: Providing premium rebates and other incentives to people who make healthy choices or participate in management of their chronic diseases has been shown to reduce costs and improve health.
-- Cover young adults: A large portion of the uninsured are people who cannot afford coverage after they have "aged out" of their parents' policies. Permitting young people to stay on their parents' plans longer would reduce the number of uninsured and keep healthy people in insurance risk pools -- helping to lower premiums for everyone.
-- Refundable tax credits (for the uninsured and those who would benefit from greater flexibility of coverage): Redirecting some of the billions already spent on the uninsured will help make non-emergency care outside the emergency room affordable for millions and will provide choices of coverage through the private market rather than forcing people into a government-run system. We should trust American families to make choices for themselves while we ensure they have access to quality, affordable health care.

It all sounds great, doesn’t it? The problem for Jindal and the Republicans is that there is nothing new in here. Each of those ideas is already on the table in most, if not all, of the legislation in the Senate. I think all of those are in the legislation passed by the House. And most of it came from Democrats. So if the best that Republicans can do is to pick up Democratic ideas and champion them, then Mr. Krugman may be right, but for the wrong reason.

Republicans are engaged in the politics of spite, but only because they don’t actually have anything new to offer. Since that would show them to be the intellectually bankrupt Party – and drastically cut the chances of their return to power – they lash out. And America suffers for it.

If Republicans are to lead – and I think Jindal is right to call on his Party to do so – they need to LEAD, which means developing and championing the best ideas for America - regardless of the source of the idea, and with full attribution for the idea. To do less, frankly, is to demean the actions and successes of their predecessors, and that is as much a travesty as the state of current healthcare in this country.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Science of Evolution - Still Trumped by Emotional Appeals

One thing about the scientific enterprise that seems to bother many “ordinary” people is the lack of definite conclusions that science draws. We scientists go running around, so it seems, proclaiming that “This discovery answers That question . . . “ Only to have the NEXT discovery answer THAT question, or blow That Question right out of the water. This one of the primary tools of Creationists – deny evolution as the explanation of life because the scientific take on evolution keeps . . . well . . . evolving. The Bible, on the other hand, has a consistent description of how the world was made, so it must be right.

So, then, what is a non-scientific society to do with Ardi? This newly described “human” skeleton is being interpreted as a protohuman of some kind – and evidence that chimpanzee behavior and evolution is not actually a good stand-in for human evolution (Ardi's describers conclude that modern chimpanzees may have co-evolved with Ardi, but not from Ardi). Rather, it seems that Ardi may have been the first ape ancestor to go try bipedalism for reasons of transferring food from males to females to create a monogamous or mostly monogamous relationship. In other words, Ardi’s male counterparts started walking upright to make sure they could get, and keep, the girl.

This wouldn’t be a huge thing – anthropologists have been speculating for years as to what drove the apes out of the trees and into upright positions. The change comes, however, in that Ardi points to this trait appearing a full 1 Million years before Lucy, who was described previously as the hominid ancestor who shows this trait. Lucy and Ardi, then, may well be close cousins in the human evolutionary tree – but it remains to be seen how their relationship is worked out and how that changes the description of the evolution of humans.

For Creationists, however, Ardi represents yet another turn in the evolutionary story – and thus another reason evolution is wrong. Because Ardi predates Lucy, they will no doubt argue, we have to reject everything that we supposedly learned about humans from Lucy. This means, to Creationists, that science isn’t delivering ANSWERS about how humans came to be but questions and contradictions (never mind that good scientists never claim to have definitive answers). Thus, the Creationist crowd will crow, we must reject science.

How will science respond? Will we rise to the occasion by pointing out how such deterministic thinking is, inherently flawed? Wills scientists describe the joy of discovering an expanded narrative to our ancestral tree, thus blunting Creationists emotional appeals for certainty with our own emotional appeals to the wonder of discovery? Or will we retreat to our probabilities, our R2 values and our caveats? If we do the latter, we will lose the debate just as surely as when we debate climate deniers with facts and figures, instead of blunting their underlying emotional appeals. And I think if we lose this debate, we do Ardi little justice.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

HEalthcare reform - the battle joined!

As you can guess, I've been following the healthcare "reform" debate closely. It still floors me that Democrats, with 60 seats in the Senate, a veto-proof majority in the House, and a willing President, are willing to let the insurance industry dictate what reform comes out of Washington, just as they used to dictate to Republicans. Democrats are supposed to be better then that.

So today I added my voice to a petition at FireDogLake. This isn't just a healthcare petition, mind you, it's a petition to get Senate Majority Leader Reid to name those conservative "Democrats" (or DINO's as I think they really are) who are threatening to fillabuster with Republicans over any bill that includes a public option. In signing the petition, I wrote this:

Senator Reid,
You lead Democrats in the Senate. Our Party has control of the Hill and the White House. Speaker Pelosi has already said the House bill on healthcare reform will contain a public option. So why let our fellow Democrats derail an effort that has been a central plank of our party for over 20 years? So we can all play nice with the
Republicans? How's that working out for you so far?

Look, we get that you are worried about "a handful of Democrats owned by the insurance industry." So what. Either make public their names so we can give them a good public shaming, or let them filabuster. In the end, they'll look foolish either way, and we will eventually find out.

The American People are tired of all this dithering. Do your jobs - represent us, not insurance companies. If you can't, then have the decency to step aside for someone who can. Just make sure to pass a public option before you go.

There is just no good reason, other then slavery to campaign donations, why Democrats should oppose a public option. It just shows us to be the spineless wimps that Republicans have always accused us of being. If you feel the same way, go to FDL and sign the petition. The Senate, afterall, still works for us!