Sunday, December 21, 2008

Bush's best line

"I suspected there would be a good size crowd once the word got out about my hanging."

In response to the unveiling of his presidential portrait. Now that he's leaving, I'm finally starting to appreciate his sense of humor.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Shoe-thower beaten

How deeply and truly boneheaded do you have to be, to abuse the guy in custody who threw his shoe at President Bush (al-Zaidi)? He's already a hero to many in the Middle East and around the world. It's not like they're even trying to extract intelligence from him. This will make the guy a freaking saint.

Five of these things belong together

Question: What do these five men have in common?

a) Their religious beliefs inspire them to love their neighbor and pursue peace with their enemies.
b) They believe that the separation of church and state is the foundation of a successful democracy.
c) They are conservative fundamentalists who believe that religious authority should trump public deliberation in policy-making, made evident in their anti-gay positions.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Worst predictions

Here's a good reason why political scientists should perhaps try to understand and explain events, but should be wary of trying to predict the future.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Universal health care equals socialism

As you know, I love reading Sullivan's blog, even when I disagree with him. And I'm not sure I've ever disagreed with him more than today, with his posts that are dismissive of a national health system that would provide universal coverage. In criticizing the British system, Sullivan praises of some kind of nebulous freedom that doesn't actually exist in health care for the majority of Americans.

I think the key phrase that he uses is, "if most Americans with insurance" had to live under the British system, they wouldn't like it. Ah, there's the rub. We have almost 50 million citizens -- roughly comparable to the entire British population -- without any insurance. Their "freedom to choose a doctor" consists of not going to a doctor when they're sick, or going to the ER when they get really sick, leaving them with the "freedom" to pay a big medical bill that they can't afford at the end.

At least an equivalent number of Americans are under-insured. Their "freedom" consists in choosing between a couple of employer-sponsored plans whose premiums (even when the employer covers half or more) are still more expensive than the cost to the average British taxpayer. The 100-page HMO documents are totaly incomprehensible unless you're a medical or insurance expert, leaving HMOs with plenty of legal loopholes to deny claims when they receive them.

Then there are the pretty-well-insured, like my parents, who are reasonably wealthy. They pay the high premiums, but can afford it. This year, when my dad had the audacity to need a quadruple bypass and heart valve replacement, he freely chose an excellent doctor and received high quality care. Thank goodness he is recovering -- no doubt, that is an advantage of the U.S. health system. And still, after the HMO paid their part, my parents are saddled with an almost six-figure bill that they're scrambling to pay.

It's no wonder that, according to a 2005 Harvard study, two million Americans go bankrupt each year (about half the total bankruptcies) because of medical bills. Seventy-five percent of those people actually have health insurance. The U.S. spends a whopping 16% of our GDP on health care, but our infant mortality rate is worse than Cuba, and our life expectancy is just below Bosnia. I love my country like my own family, which is why I find these figures so disgraceful.

Look, there are a lot of different ways to get to universal and equitable coverage, with or without a UK-style single payer system. But if universal health care equals socialism, then I say, guilty as charged.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Why gay marriage failed in CA

Look at these numbers, and tell me -- exactly how did the passage of Proposition 8 get blamed on black Obama voters?

Thailand: People power in reverse

I lived in Thailand for a year (a long time ago), and visited several times, but I'm no expert on Thai politics. So maybe someone can give me a good justification for the yellow-shirted PAD protestors' demands that the Prime Minister resign and the electoral system be changed?

I know there are reasonable charges of corruption and nepotism against PM Somchai, and I know that the rural poor (who are Somchai's base supporters) can be manipulated with populist rhetoric. So the PAD supporters have some legitimate grievances. But their response has been to shut down the main airports, thus setting back the Thai economy, and to demand an end to one-person one-vote, thus setting back the Thai democracy. Aren't there better ways to accomplish the "reforms" the PAD seeks, such as getting the courts to prosecute corruption (which eventually happened), and changing your own party's platform to make it more attractive to poor rural voters? In the absence of those measures, it seems that the PAD supporters are mostly fighting a class war to protect their own self-interests.

So this episode reminds us that nonviolent strategies can be used to effectively promote both progressive and somewhat regressive social change. People tend to associate nonviolence with progressive idealism, and that's a fair association, but certainly not a universal one.

One silver lining in this cloud: The protests on both sides have largely remained nonviolent. Even when the Thai military intervened in 2006 with a silent coup, there was little to no bloodshed, and democratic institutions returned quickly. So let's not lose the forest for the trees. For me, the forest is that a democratic culture and institutions continue to advance in Thailand, despite some setbacks along the way.

Back again

For my regular readers (both of you), apologies for the extended lay-off. Thanksgiving holiday, turkey food-coma lasting several days, end-of-semester stuff -- you know the drill. But I'm back.

Potato, Potah-to, Mumbai, Bombay

In a post yesterday, Sullivan agreed with Hitchens, saying that we should go back to referring to Mumbai as Bombay, since the city was officially named Mumbai to appease Hindu nationalists in 1996. Today, one of his readers corrects him, noting that Mumbai is not (or not just) a Hindu nationalist name, and that Bombay is a British/Portuguese colonial invention. So we've got a choice between a sectarian religious symbol and a Western imperialist one.

Yet again, like most things in international relations, things aren't as simple as they seem. We like to categorize the world into good and bad, but it's never so clear.

Indeed, the other supposedly "clear" example of renaming that Sullivan points to is the change from Burma to Myanmar that the military dictatorship (the SPDC -- another Orwellian name, but I digress) imposed in 1989. Most Western and Burmese human rights activists still call the country Burma, in order to oppose the military regime and stand up for democracy. (Hell, I still call the airport in Alexandria "National Airport," but again, I digress.) But alas, it's not so simple again. There are some good reasons to call it Myanmar rather than Burma. For example, when I was on the Thai-Burma border last year with a group of AU students, we spoke to a few Burmese human rights activists who preferred "Myanmar," because "Burma" is associated with one of the dominant ethnic groups (Burman) rather than the nation as a whole.

So anyway, I guess the bottom line is: Names matter, because people associate ideas with them, and those ideas shape actions. But it's always complicated; names mean different things. And despite the complication, you still have to pick a side. So until further notice, I remain opposed to the dictatorship in Burma and the terrorism in Mumbai.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The punditry on Obama's appointments

As a recent glutton of political news, I've been reading some of the analyses of Obama's possible appointments to the Cabinet and other administration posts. Lots of ink is being shed over Emanuel, Clinton, Daschle, Holder, Gates, Hagel, Napolitano, and most recently, John Brennan as possible CIA chief. (Sullivan is livid about that last one.)

Here are my thoughts. First of all, do you notice the word "possible" a couple of times in that last paragraph? Most of these people haven't even been officially offered positions yet. So I'm not getting too worked up.

Second, whoever is eventually appointed to these positions will have some degree of autonomy in carrying out their executive (and sometimes legislative) functions. So it is absolutely fair to analyze their past behavior and the likely actions they would take in the upcoming administration. So, for example, it's reasonable to be concerned about whether a SecDef Gates would be inclined to start withdrawing troops from Iraq, since he has largely overseen Bush's surge strategy.

Third, it's also fair to speculate about what these possible appointments tell us about Obama's own plans for the next four years. The appointees' positions probably reflect a little bit on Obama's positions. But I want to emphasize, "a little bit." That's my main point here. Ultimately, Obama is the boss, and the buck stops there. So he will (and should) be appointing people who can help him accomplish his goals. Sometimes, those people might disagree with him on particular policies, but they are fundamentally contracted to implement Obama's policies.

So that's why my reaction to a possible Brennan appointment to the CIA is mixed. If Brennan is as ambivalent about torture and illegal detention as Sullivan claims, then we should absolutely be concerned. Indeed, if Brennan was legally complicit in Bush-Cheney-Tenet war crimes at the CIA, he should be disqualified, period. But if Brennan does eventually get selected, I wouldn't interpret that as a clear and convincing sign that Obama has backtracked from his commitment to end human rights abuses. Obama is the boss, and Brennan would have to obey his directives. If the directives change, or Brennan goes rogue, then let's talk.

Am I being too credulous of Obama here? Do I have "Yes We Can" blinders on? Perhaps.

Happy Thanksgiving, from Gov. Palin

Just when you thought that wearing a blue suit in front of a blue backdrop was the ultimate press conference faux-pas, here comes Governor Palin to the rescue!

(Warning: Cover the kids' eyes.)

Obviously, this doesn't make Palin "cruel to turkeys" or anything silly like that. Many of us eat dead turkeys for Thanksgiving, and I know I'll eat more than my share next week. But doesn't it say something about her judgment and common sense?

Or maybe I'm not giving her enough credit. Maybe she did this intentionally to convey a subliminal message to all of us... The mainstream media are a bunch of turkeys? The presidential campaign was a bit like slaughtering turkeys? (Wait, who would be the turkey in that analogy? OK, forget that one.)

Man, it sure was funny though.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The cultural left and piracy

I've figured out who's responsible for all of this new piracy off the coast of Somalia: Disney! Those cultural leftists in America have romanticized the profession and made it seem cool.

You know, kinda like what D'Souza argues about Islamic terrorism.

Lost in translation

I'm trying to figure out why al Qaeda provided English subtitles on their latest rant by al-Zawahiri against Obama and the Crusaders. (Hey, that sounds like a cool band name.)

Does al Qaeda believe that we don't have any Arabic translators here? Or maybe they're taking classes in strategic political communication, and really want to make sure that "house negro" isn't mis-translated as "house slave"? Or maybe they're just trying to be culturally sensitive by making it easy on us?

I don't get it. Do they seriously think they can win American hearts and minds by communicating in English? Their target audience is clearly not English-speaking folks.

Christianism XII: It's not our fault the GOP lost

Self-described member of the religious right, Joe Carter, isn't so happy about recent claims that evangelicals contributed to the GOP election defeat by alienating moderate voters. His rationale? After all these years of patting their own backs about how much influence they had in government, now they really didn't have any influence at all:
"Evangelicals constitute the largest single voting bloc in America, yet what do we have to show for it? Can Parker (or anyone else) name the significant achievements of evangelicals over the past few years? I can’t think of anything."
Really? Here's a short list off the top of my head in under 90 seconds. I'm sure others can add dozens of other examples.
  • George W. Bush, 2000
  • George W. Bush, 2004
  • Samuel Alito and John Roberts
  • Successful anti-gay marriage resolutions in 30+ states
  • Successful limitations on abortion at the state level
  • Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003
  • The invasion of Iraq
  • PEPFAR and the MCA (on the good side, for a change)
  • etc...

Were evangelicals the only constituency that made these things happen? Of course not. Were they a key constituency? Yes.

But now that they're in the minority, I suppose it's time to trot out the old victim mentality again.