Thursday, March 31, 2005

Guns, Germs, and Opium

Matthew Yglesias has a short post up over at Tapped regarding the US military's intention to become more involved in opium eradication efforts in Afghanistan. Naturally, he's skeptical of such an endeavor.
Unfortunately, there's every reason to think that mere military crackdowns and eradication campaigns will do little to improve the situation. These sorts of efforts may well reduce poppy cultivation (and hence improve the heroin problem in drug-consuming countries) but they'll do little to make things better for Afghans (indeed, they'll make things much worse) unless the inhabitants of that country are given non-poppy economic opportunities.
Of course, he's exactly right. Eliminating poppy farms through the direct application of force doesn't begin to address the longer-term issues. Once we get tired of fighting drug lords in Afghanistan, or we get distracted by events elsewhere, poppy production will bounce right back. It's basic macroeconomic theory. As long as the first world continues to maintain a voracious appetite for poppy based narcotics, poppies will bloom in Afghanistan.

Unless, says Matt, we give them "non-poppy economic opportunities." And again, he's right. This is just the next step in the macroeconomic equation. Right now, poppy production is the most profitable economic sector. Once another industry supplants poppy cultivation as an income generator, Afghanis will naturally transition to it. Problem solved.

Or is it? Once people realize the futility of eradicating drug markets through force, these sorts of solutions are a frequent next step. Drug producers, the thinking goes, just need to have their efforts redirected. If we could just convince them to grow coffee instead, they wouldn't need to grow whatever narcotic they are currently cultivating. In theory, this is a great idea. But, in practice, it isn't very realistic.

The geology of Afghanistan is not particularly well-suited to agriculture. It is an extremely mountainous land, with 49% of its territory existing above 2000 meters. It is also a relatively arid nation, with average annual rainfall reaching a mere 13 inches (compared with 40 inches for the United States). Estimates of the total amount of arable land vary between 12 and 22% of the total landmass. Additionally, they suffer from a host of environmental issues, such as soil degradation, overgrazing, deforestation, desertification, and increasing levels of air and water pollution. All of these factors make agriculture a difficult endeavor for the Afghanis.

Also, Afghanistan is a landlocked nation. The nearest seaport (in Karachi, Pakistan) is 1170 km away. Therefore, products destined for export must be fairly durable. They do trade with India and Pakistan, but their route to the remaining world markets is rather circuitous.

Considering the geology of the region, its distance from potential trading partners, and its relatively rudimentary agricultural technology, is there any crop that will make them economically competitive?

There sure is. It's called opium. And it's profitable there not because Afghanistan is a particularly good environmental host for this crop. It's profitable because few other nation-states allow its cultivation. The Afghanis, to their credit, have figured this out and are exploiting this advantage.

I think that when we talk about redirecting narcotic-based agriculture to other, more acceptable crops, there is a degree of first-world arrogance on display. There is an assumption that the locals are growing illicit crops because they don't know any better. If we swoop in and show them how it's done, they'll be making money hand over fist growing lettuce and tomatoes.

But, people in Afghanistan didn't just start farming last week. They've been doing it for thousands of years. The crops and cultivation techniques are what they are in Afghanistan because that is what works there. Knowing what they know about the productivity of the land, they have discovered the most profitable crop possible. Even if they adopted certain technological advances from the West, it wouldn't change the equation at all. They would just become more efficient opium producers.

So, when we talk about shifting their economy away from opium, we should really acknowledge what's going on. We're asking them take a gigantic pay cut. That's a pretty obnoxious request, considering our relative economic standing. And, moreover, it's never going to work in the long run. Any switch to nonnarcotic-based agriculture would have to be completely subsidized by donor nations for as long as we wanted the new system maintained. Once we take our hand off the scale, the forces that brought opium to Afghanistan in the first place would bring it right back.

This isn't to say that opium production isn't a problem. Because it remains an illicit commodity, the industry tends to attract nefarious characters. Concentrating so much economic might in the hands of such individuals has a terribly destabilizing effect on the nation at large. But, outside of literally paying farmers to grow other crops, there's not much to be done about it.

What really has to happen is that Afghanistan has to move beyond an agrarian economy. Given the natural gas and oil resources of the region, such a transition might be possible. But it won't be easy. It would require major changes at all levels of Afghan culture. It would require a great deal of capital investment. And negotiating the transition so that the economic benefits were equitably distributed within the country (as opposed to a distribution benefiting only foreign investors) would be a great challenge. Most of all, it won't be quick. Change of this nature, even for those eager to accept it, requires an unwavering determination spread across many years. It is not for the faint of heart.

Until we accept the magnitude of the undertaking, no change of consequence will occur in Afghanistan. They will continue to produce opium. That opium will finance criminal enterprise, rather than the construction of a strong central government. As long as the central government remains weak, it will be unable to regulate its territory -- and thus Afghanistan will continue to harbor groups and individuals who threaten the security of the free world.

That's the situation, folks. Hopefully, we'll soon be ready to face it.

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Game Behind the Curtain

It appears that, in accordance with her wishes, Terri Schiavo's body will finally be allowed to die. This event was not accompanied by the dignity that she surely would have wished for, but nevertheless, the farce is ending. Surely, it is time.

But, though the body may pass, the issue clearly will continue to resonate as we move into the future. The rhetoric and demagoguery on display these past weeks have developed a self-sustaining momentum that will continue to energize those who battled on behalf of the Schindlers. The family itself may drop out of the spotlight, but those who thrust themselves into it will not let this fleeting moment easily pass. Instead, they will revive Terri as a martyr and invoke her name in service of whatever cause brought them out of hiding in the first place. The question now is where will all of this lead?

I have suspicions.

One of the most interesting aspects of this entire affair has been the wording of the law passed by Congress last week. While there was a lot of sound and fury surrounding this law's passage, ultimately it did no more than magnify the controversy. The reason for this is that they failed to require that the federal courts impose a temporary restraining order against the removal of the feeding tube. As Mark Kleiman notes:
The original bill as drafted by Sen. Martinez provided that the court "shall" grant a stay. At the suggestion of Sen. Levin, that was changed to "may." But the final text of the bill as passed omitted that provision entirely, and provided that relief should be given "after a determination of the merits." That led both the district court and the appellate majority to decide that the usual rules about TRO's applied.
Of course, without the TRO, there was never a chance that the Schindlers would eventually prevail. In fact, the TRO was inarguably the most critical issue facing the Schindlers once the feeding tube had been removed. Without it, Terri Schiavo's body would die before the federal courts could rule on the merits of their case.

If Congress was, in fact, serious about a federal review of the case, their failure to require a TRO was an amazing oversight. That would be quite a failure for a group that makes a living passing laws, is overwhelmingly comprised of former practicing lawyers, and has at its disposal enormous resources to determine the likely consequences of legislation. In light of that, how likely is it that this was just a mistake?

Consider, too, the explosive rhetoric that emerged once the first federal court denied the request for a TRO. First, we have Congressman Patrick McHenry.
We passed a law that specifically is worded for this case. Yet those judges aren't even talking about our original intent from Congress. What we have here is an out-of-control judiciary.
Then, we have our old friend Tom Delay.
Sadly, Mrs. Schiavo will not receive a new and full review of her case as the legislation required. I strongly believe that the court erred in reaching its conclusion and that once again they have chosen to ignore the clear intent of Congress.
(Hat tip to David Shuster).

The implication here is that the judiciary is actively defying the will of Congress and, in so doing, the will of the people. But, that claim is being made despite the fact that the judiciary is strictly following the law as it is worded. Both McHenry and Delay seem to be endorsing an intent-based interpretation of the law, something that they have strongly opposed in the past when criticizing so-called "activist" judges.

Many on the right seem to be endorsing the view that the court are "out of control" in this situation. Sean Hannity has repeatedly argued that the courts are ignoring reams of evidence that would favor the Schindlers' position. He has paraded numerous "witnesses" before his audience who claim to contradict the conclusions of the trial court. He has disparaged the numerous medical experts who testified to the PVS diagnosis and claimed that only "hearsay" evidence has been offered to support the claim that Terri would have refused further medical intervention. Thus, his audience is led to believe that the judiciary is acting in a reckless and capricious fashion.

Some have taken this position to the next level. If the judiciary is acting in an improper and irresponsible manner, it should be ignored. Enter Bill Bennett.
the Florida supreme court…[has] failed Terri Schiavo. It is time, therefore, for Governor Bush to execute the law and protect her rights, and, in turn, he should take responsibility for his actions. Using the state police powers, Governor Bush can order the feeding tube reinserted. His defense will be that he and a majority of the Florida legislature believe the Florida Constitution requires nothing less.
Governor Bush was apparently persuaded by this argument.
Hours after a judge ordered that Terri Schiavo wasn't to be removed from her hospice, a team of Florida law enforcement agents were en route to seize her and have her feeding tube reinserted - but they stopped short when local police told them they would enforce the judge's order, The Miami Herald has learned.
Ultimately, nothing of substance has immediately come of this posturing. The authority of the courts was respected and the rule of law was followed. But, this last turn of events demonstrates how close many are to jettisoning the constitutionally defined powers of the judiciary. Had local police not stood their ground, that is exactly what would have happened.

And so, perhaps this shall be the legacy of Terri Schiavo. Congress could have acted in a manner that would have prolonged the status quo, but did not. In failing to do so, they allowed a simmering disenchantment with the judicial branch of government to come to a full boil on national television. People will for years recall the Florida court that condemned an innocent woman to death over the objections of her family, of numerous medical experts, and of the elected branches of government. This will be a powerful message for the right to wield as they move forward in their attempts to consolidate power in their tyrannical majority. I expect endless repetition of this theme.

Will this be a successful strategy for them? That is a more difficult question. It appears that polling is consistently showing the public at odds with the actions taken by Congress and Governor Bush. President Bush's numbers have also taken a hit over the last week (although, it is not clear that this case drove those numbers down). So, this may be a case where the right has overplayed its hand and will now face a backlash.

That's the situation as it is today. But, in the months and weeks ahead, the details of this case will fade from memory. As it does, the truly passionate will work tirelessly to keep alive their version of events. In this environment, those who opposed intervention will forget why they did and will slowly be drawn away from their convictions. The theme of "judicial activism," already so popular in many circles, will now have a concrete basis for those who rally against it. Should attempts to limit the authority of the courts make their way into the public sphere, they will find it far more receptive audience than ever before.

I can't say for certain how this will all turn out. But, I've been watching for long enough to know how the game is played. And, mark my words, there is a lot of play left in this game. Conservatives may have failed to win in the short-term, but it is far from clear that they ever wished for such a victory. In the past, they have demonstrated their ability to play for long-term advantage. Today is no different. For them, tomorrow is a brand new day.

I Have Arrived

When I began this blog, I had in my mind a few preconceived indicators of success. Obviously, one was establishing a readership (and as this milestone demonstrates, we're on our way there). But, another important measure exists. And recently, we achieved it.

Apparently, this post (and the comment thread that ensued) pissed someone off so much that he decided to dedicate some of his valuable blog real estate to the goal of demonstrating its folly.

What a badge of honor! You know, we bloggers toil in relative obscurity, hoping against hope to be noticed and, in some way, valued. The fact that an ideological opponent has deemed me worthy of such attention makes it all worthwhile. To this gentleman I would say many things. But, most of all, I would say the following.

Thank you!

And, for the rest of you who may not be so interested in such blogospheric-cattiness, never fear. New content of substance will appear later today.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Real World Calls

I've got some business to take care of for the next few days, so there's going to be a brief hiatus. I'll probably have something up again on Monday. Until then, check out the THOUGHTS OF OTHERS or maybe the Carnival of the Vanities.

See you soon.

Carnival of the Vanities

I'm becoming quite the carnival junkie. At any rate, the most recent Carnival of the Vanities is up and running at CodeBlueBlog. Naturally, we're featured. But so are a lot of other great writers who deserve your attention, so stop by when you can.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

1000 and Counting

We passed a milestone today here at Threading the Needle. Sure, 1000 lifetime visitors relegates us to the absolute bottom of the blogospheric food chain, but it will still make my mother proud.

Thanks to everyone who has stopped by so far. And remember, it's a long road -- so keep coming back.



PS. For the record the winning visitor arrived at precisely (visitor's time) 12:11 p.m. PST. Please contact the management to receive your commemorative plaque.

PPS. Just kidding. Prizes don't kick in until we reach our millionth visitor. But, once we get there, look out...

Bill Frist: Quack

In an ideal world, we would all be knowledgeable enough about the relevant issues of the day such that we could independently evaluate and assess the related arguments. This would elevate the debate and eliminate the sway that charlatans have over us. But, as we all know, we live in an incredibly complex world and it is simply infeasible for us to consistently formulate opinions from a position of personal expertise. As a result, we are, more often than not, being led to conclusions by trusted individuals who claim authority on a given subject. Without this reliance on trusted experts, our most important decisions would be decided by processes no more accurate than the flip of a coin. It is the only way to rationally proceed in such an expansive universe.

But, as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, with great power comes great responsibility. Thus, those who claim expertise must be willing to employee it honestly. Failing to do so is a deep betrayal. It is no mere act of deception; it has the potential of leading people against their own beliefs and away from the path that they would follow if they knew the truth. With consequences so severe, we must forever guard against the expert who uses that title to mislead the masses. They must be marked so that no man or woman would ever believe a word crossing his lips.

That brings me to Senator Bill Frist.

Senator Frist has never made a secret of his medical pedigree. Before joining the United States Senate, he was indeed an extremely talented heart surgeon. There is no question that his knowledge and expertise places him among the elite in the medical profession. His accomplishments in the field are indeed impressive and, were I in need of a surgical cardiac intervention, I would not hesitate to place myself in his care (although I might opt for someone who had practiced more recently).

Therefore, he clearly deserves the "medical expert" descriptor so frequently assigned to him. I would not begin to challenge this claim.

However, having achieved his current position on the national stage, he has consistently invoked his medical background in service of ideological goals that are at odds with medical science. Let's observe.

On March 11, 2003, Bill Frist took to the floor of the Senate to rail against the practice of "partial-birth abortion."
Mr. President, I rise in support of the Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003. And I do so with a deep passion not only for the protection of life, but also for the ethical practice of medicine. Before coming to the Senate, I had the opportunity to study and practice medicine for 20 years… I know there are ethical bonds to the application of surgical procedures -- bonds that in a moral sense should never, ever be crossed by a surgeon. Indeed, I took an oath to treat every human life with respect, with dignity, and with compassion. But abortion takes life away. And partial-birth abortion does so in a manner that is brutal and barbaric and morally offensive to the mainstream medical community… The fact is that partial-birth abortion is a repulsive procedure…
In this excerpt, he is clearly attempting to establish his right to argue from a position of authority. Having done so, he describes the procedure in a fashion intended to inflame passions. Thus, observers would reasonably conclude that the procedure is considered both unnecessary and barbaric by the medical community at large.

What he fails to mention is that the term "partial-birth abortion" has no meaning in the field of medicine. The correct term is "intact dilation and extraction." Moreover, this term does not describe a distinct procedure.
The recently crafted political term partial-birth abortion loosely means "partially vaginally delivering a living fetus before killing the fetus and completing the delivery." This definition broadly includes all methods of second-trimester abortion (done after the first 3 months of pregnancy).
From the position of someone who claims to be an expert, these are not subtle distinctions. While it may be to the advantage of an ideologue to misrepresent the opinion of the medical community, one claiming the mantle of medical expert should strive to make these differences clear. Senator Frist knows these distinctions exist, yet chooses the path of political expediency. Those who trusted him to speak as a medical scientist were undeniably misled.

More recently, he appeared on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" to discuss, among other things, administration policy regarding abstinence-only sex education programs. Apparently, some of these programs were making wild and misleading claims and Stephanopoulos wanted to get his opinion on the subject -- especially since he is a medical professional.

(Off Camera) Okay, let me switch to another subject. There was a bit of an uproar in Washington this week about this issue of these abstinence programs that are funded by the Federal government, the funding has doubled over the last four years but there was a report by the minority staff at the House Government Affairs Committee that showed that 11 of 13 of these programs are giving out false information. I want to show some of the claims they identified in the curricula…A third [claim] suggested that tears and sweat could transmit HIV and AIDS. Now, you're a doctor. Do you believe that tears and sweat can transmit HIV?


I don't know. I can tell you ...


(Off Camera) You don't know?


I can tell you things like, like...


(Off Camera) Well, wait, let me stop you, you don't know that, you believe that tears and sweat might be able to transmit AIDS?


Yeah, no, I can tell you that HIV is not very transmissible as an element like, compared to smallpox, compared to the flu.
For the record, there has never been a recorded instance of HIV transmission via tears and sweat. Never. Moreover, this is not some obscure piece of medical trivia known only to specialists in the field. This is a widely known and well accepted medical fact. Yet, Frist equivocates furiously, admitting only that HIV is less transmissible than the wildly contagious smallpox and flu viruses. While what he says is true, it vastly understates the difficulty of transmission. And it obfuscates the matter at hand: HIV transmission through tears and sweat. He never answers this elementary question and leaves his trusted viewers with the impression that such transmission is possible.

Finally, the recent case of Terri Schiavo has afforded Frist another opportunity to make political hay from a position of authority. According to the Washington Post:

Bill Frist…went to the floor late Thursday night for the second time in 12 hours to argue that Florida doctors had erred in saying Terri Schiavo is in a "persistent vegetative state."

"I question it based on a review of the video footage which I spent an hour or so looking at last night in my office," he said in a lengthy speech in which he quoted medical texts and standards. "She certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli."

As I noted above, Bill Frist is a cardiac surgeon. In the real world, he would never be called upon to diagnose a patient in Schiavo's condition. His expertise on this matter is of no greater value than any other medical school graduate. You might as well call upon a dermatologist or a podiatrist to render an opinion. But diagnosing outside of his specialty is hardly his greatest sin in this situation. That's because Frist has never actually examined the patient in question. He has merely observed heavily edited videotape provided to him by those challenging the prevailing diagnosis. If he engaged in such behavior during the course of his medical career, he would almost certainly have been sued for malpractice and seen his license revoked.

Despite behaving in a manner that, if practiced by a physician, would represent a grave violation of his Hippocratic oath, Senator Frist continues to capitalize on his medical background. He frequently dismisses the arguments of the opposition by asserting, essentially, that "I'm a doctor -- who you gonna trust?" And surely, on the strength of his supposedly medical expertise, many do. But, as these examples demonstrate, that trust is misplaced. His first responsibility to "do no harm" has been amended to read "do no harm to conservative ideology." His adoring public should be made aware of these shifting priorities.

On one level, he is certainly free to practice the political arts in the manner of his choosing. As a politician, he employs his professional and personal assets exceptionally well. Those who support his agenda are well served by this style of play. But, once an individual makes clear that his political goals supersede all others, we should not accept claims of unrelated expertise. A politician like Frist is a politician first and, therefore, a politician only. He serves one master, not two. Claims to the contrary should be seen for what they are: naked attempts to con his trusting public.

Ultimately, we cannot prevent him from presenting himself as a medical professional when he finds it to be politically expedient. But, if he claims to be a doctor, we must judge him as one. That judgment leads one to a singular conclusion: Bill Frist is a quack.

So, Senator Frist, pick your poison. You are either a politician or a quack. Only one of these roles has any honor -- I suggest that you select it.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Do-Nothing Congress

I was speaking to a good friend of mine today about some of the recent goings-on in Congress. He's a big baseball fan and had spent a good part of Thursday observing the congressional spectacle surrounding the steroid controversy. His reaction?
"It was kind of like picking up a rock and seeing two bugs fucking. You know that it’s part of what makes the world go ‘round, but it ain't pretty to watch."
I couldn't have said it better myself. The only thing that I would add is that there is a hell of a lot more beauty, grace, and purpose in entomological coitus than was on display in the halls of our federal legislature this week. A lot more.


I don't follow baseball the way I once did, but the sport will always have a special meaning to me. It was the sport that I grew up on. I admired professional ballplayers and aspired to join their ranks one day (a fantasy that persisted far longer than it should have, if you must know). And so when Mark Maguire and Sammy Sosa raced to break Roger Maris’s homerun record in 1998, the spectacle overwhelmed me. When Barry Bonds broke the record again only four years later, in what was arguably the greatest offensive display in the history of the sport, I was transfixed, unable to believe that what I witnessed was the accomplishment of a mere mortal.

Needless to say, recent revelations have tarnished these memories. It is disappointing, to say the least, to learn that these achievements were almost certainly aided by performance enhancing drugs. While my indignation fails to reach the hysterical heights expressed by many, I can honestly say that I am crestfallen in learning the truth. My heroes are not dead, but they are far more mortal than I ever thought they would be.

Enter Congress.

Wait. What the fuck?! Why is this happening? I mean, logistically I understand. Due to baseball's antitrust exemption, Congress does have far more regulatory jurisdiction over the game than it otherwise would have. So, I understand that it can intervene. But really, should it? Is this truly a problem of such great national importance that it requires that Congress table a large portion of its pressing agenda to address it? Or is this simply an opportunity to grandstand, to unnecessarily inflame passions, and to interject confusion and chaos into the issue?

Make no mistake -- I desperately want this issue to be resolved. But, I want it to be resolved appropriately by people who are actually interested in understanding the systemic issues that have created it, not by those wishing to use it to establish their relevance to the common man. Especially when those people have other, far more serious issues to address. If baseball somehow fails to get its act together, life will go on. That fact alone should remand it to the very bottom of any rational list of priorities.


But as outraged as I am by those misdirected energies, it pales beside the disgust I have experienced watching the Terri Schiavo spectacle evolve.

Where do I even begin? How about right here: Terri Schiavo is already dead. Pulling her feeding tube is a formality. There are few certainties in life, but this is one of them. If this assertion seems questionable to you, step over here for a moment. Every conceivable rationale for keeping her alive has been debunked (excellent summaries here and here). The situation is from start to finish a tragedy, exacerbated by a familial dispute that has been laboriously adjudicated over several agonizing years. Now, at long last, it's over.

Or, rather, it should be.

Instead, realizing the political opportunity before them, congressional Republicans have seized the issue and are attempting to push through legislation that would allow the entire process to begin from scratch in the federal courts. And as they nod to their supporters in the Christian right, they set a dangerous precedent that threatens to undermine the authority of every state court in the nation. It is a shortsighted strategy designed to consolidate power at the expense of a desperate family who cannot accept the hand fate has dealt them.

Tom Delay has seen fit to question the character of Terri's husband. Well, take a look in the mirror, prick!


Given the way Congress has been spending its time of late, you'd think that no other issues required their attention. But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The deficit is exploding with no plan for eliminating it in sight. The economy is still sluggish. A major debate over the future of Social Security is simmering. Health care expenses are soaring, resulting in an imminent Medicare crisis. Nuclear weapons technology is proliferating across the globe. Energy expenses are skyrocketing. Environmental degradation is progressing unabated. And that's just the list off the top of my head. I could go on.

But no. This week it's steroids and corpses. Rather than beginning the work on the tough issues in the day, issues which cannot be reasonably addressed by anyone else, they've chosen to stick their nose where it does not belong and where it can only make the problems worse. And lest you think of this is a partisan rant, let me be clear that this indicts every member of Congress. True, Republicans are driving the Schiavo fiasco. But no one of either party has stood up to question their involvement in either issue. No one has questioned the body's priorities. Well, someone should.

There is, to my mind, no excuse for this situation. There is no counter argument, no explanation that provides justification. This is, plain and simple, a meaningless circus, accomplishing nothing. If we're lucky, that is. Nothing is the best that could come out of these recent endeavors. But as we aim for the lofty goal of maintaining the status quo, the walls crumble around us. If only there were somebody whose job it was to address these other, more pressing issues.

Oh, that's right. There is. It's called Congress.

There's work to do, people. Get on it.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Opposite of Buyer's Remorse

Just before heading out on vacation, Publius of Legal Fiction briefly revisited a deeply troubling topic to all of us in the "reality-based community." It appears that, despite enormous evidence to the contrary, many Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction immediately preceding the American-led invasion. To explain this phenomenon, Publius refers us back to a post written nearly a year ago, wherein he argues that individuals approach issues such as this only after they have determined the position of their political affiliates. Rather than evaluate the evidence, they consider the impact of any conclusion to their "team" and respond accordingly.
…[I]n modern, ultra-polarized America, this process [of evaluation] has been reversed. People seem to picking political parties or labels first, and then relying on the parties (or “liberals” or “conservatives” in the media/blogosphere) to tell them what to think about all other issues. For example, let’s assume that Joe can only perceive the world through a clear glass window. He cannot observe the world any other way – everything is seen through the window. Now let’s assume that with respect to a given issue (let’s say welfare reform), someone has come along and splashed some red paint right on the part of the window through which Joe sees welfare reform. Joe can now only see the issue by looking through the red paint, which twists and distorts the way he sees it.

Essentially, this is what happens when people lose themselves in partisanship. The entire window becomes either blue or red. So, it becomes impossible for them to see any issue as it actually is – they can only see through the lens of partisanship which will necessarily distort their view. Again, try to imagine it on the most basic epistemological level. When looking at external events, Americans see the color of the window first, and then the actual issue, which always appears to them in that color. Or, to put it another way, when Americans perceive the world, they first reaffirm their political affiliation in their own minds, and then view the issues through the tinted lens of that political affiliation.
I completely agree. Clearly, many have abandoned the vagaries inherent in the personal consideration of available evidence for the comfort of answers provided by trusted authority. However, I also believe that something else is going on that shouldn't be ignored.

The WMD issue is, at this point, as resolved as something can be. Since the invasion, two separate large-scale search operations were conducted by David Kay and Charles Duelfer and both concluded that, while a desire for the weapons existed, the weapons themselves did not. The administration has responded by calling off the search and redefining the invasion's rationale. Unable to produce a single piece of affirmative evidence, they have abandoned the case and are hoping that no one will notice. True, they haven't fully admitted the error, but they have gotten as close to doing so as a political operation will.

Yet, despite the fact that the party with the greatest interest in discovering weapons has tacitly acknowledged the futility of that quest, many of their followers continue to cling to that discredited claim. You would think that their partisan allegiance would lead them to abandon the old talking points and move on to the new ones. However, many refuse to do so and are soldiering on under their own initiative.

Consider how many reacted to this story from the New York Times.
In the weeks after Baghdad fell in April 2003, looters systematically dismantled and removed tons of machinery from Saddam Hussein's most important weapons installations, including some with high-precision equipment capable of making parts for nuclear arms, a senior Iraqi official said this week in the government's first extensive comments on the looting. [Emphasis added]
"Equipment capable of making parts" is a far cry from a WMD. And nowhere does the article state that the existence of this equipment meant that WMDs were within Hussein's grasp. Apparently, those "nuances" were lost on the faithful. The post at LGF was titled " 3/14/2005: NYT: Saddam Had WMD Capabilities” and claimed that the story was "an amazing reversal" for the paper of record. Many smalltime conservative bloggers went even further. One in particular headlined his post "NYT admits it: Saddam DID have WMD." Several conservative commenters over at Legal Fiction also pushed this canard (among others). And lest you think this was just a hot topic among fringe wingnuts, have a gander at the king of conservative radio.
LIMBAUGH: The New York Times reports that there were horrible weapons in Iraq and they got secreted out of there after we invaded.
This isn't just partisanship. Well -- maybe for Limbaugh it is. But he wouldn't be going down that path if there wasn't a fairly substantial audience for this kind of misinformation. And clearly, there is. Why do so many cling so tightly after even Bush himself has let the ship sail?

As it turns out, another commenter over at Legal Fiction is, I believe, on the right track. A few days ago, in the midst of a post on a completely different subject, I described the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance.
Normally our behavior is informed by our attitudes and beliefs. We strive, as much as we can, to conform to the constraints laid it down by our knowledge, experience, and conscience. However, there are inevitably times when our behavior strays from the path defined by our better selves. While this misbehavior is generally driven by a degree of self-gratification, it is also accompanied by a measure of discomfort. This discomfort is referred to as cognitive dissonance and you can witness it in your own life any time you act against your better judgment. For example, every smoker knows how unhealthy his habit is, yet he lights up anyway. When he does so, he feels guilt and shame because he knows better.

This dissonance can be extremely uncomfortable. Therefore, we will usually take steps to try to resolve it in some fashion. To do this, we have two options. First, we can avoid the behaviors that trigger it. Unfortunately, we will often find ourselves in situations where that option is untenable. In the example of the smoker, his addiction prevents him from changing his behavior. This leaves us with the only other option: changing our beliefs.
The disparity between behavior and believe is, however, not the only type of dissonance requiring resolution. There is also what is known as post-decisional or, as Bluewave describes it, post-purchase dissonance.

There's also the phenomenon of reconciling post-purchase dissonance; essentially this means (for the non jargonistas out there) that once you've bought something, you convince yourself you made the best choice by downplaying both negative information about the product you did choose, and positive information about the products you DIDN'T choose. It's just basic human behavior, and we all do it to one degree or another, and the bigger the perceived decision, the more we do it… That we didn't find WMDs doesn't cause people to think the war was unjustified (and therefore we made a bad purchase decision), it just causes them to change their recollection of the basis for the purchase.
Thus, for many the war was still about WMDs, but they've changed their opinion as to what constitutes a WMD. No longer is it simply chemical weapons or nukes. Powerful conventional explosives, WMD components (even if crucial pieces are still missing), and the equipment for WMD construction all now qualify as WMDs. In extreme cases, Saddam Hussein is himself a WMD. This may be extremely frustrating for those of us who remember what a WMD was before the war began, but for those suffering from post-decisional dissonance, that reality no longer exists. It's simply gone.

Unfortunately, this makes rational debate that much harder. Partisanship drives the two sides apart and post-decisional dissonance divides their realities. This is a serious problem because, as Publius says:
If people are disagreeing about these most basic facts, everything else is a waste of time.
Yep. Again, I don't have any answers. But, this is what we're up against. Just so you know.

Update: There's a great case study for this phenomenon in comments. Check it out if you have time. I wouldn't necessarily describe the discussion as informative, but it is entertaining -- if you're into that sort of thing.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Delta Deficit Equals Zero

One of Bush's greatest achievements has been his ability to be all things to all people, especially with respect to fiscal policy. Somewhere along the line he realized (or, more accurately, Karl Rove realized) that fiscal conservatism presented certain electoral challenges that were difficult to resolve. True, everyone likes tax cuts, but benefit cuts are a more difficult sell -- especially when you are talking to the beneficiary. When it comes right down to it, most of us like the services provided to us by government and when someone starts talking about eliminating them, we start to get antsy.

So what's a fiscal conservative to do? After all, since the name of the game is reducing the size of government, tax cuts are only half the battle. Moreover, it would be outrageously irresponsible to reduce revenues without reducing expenditures. I mean, that's madness.

But, of course, great thinkers are never limited by such pedantic restraints, and Karl Rove (let's be honest about who we're talking about here) is no exception. His master stroke was realizing that maintaining power was more important than sound fiscal policy. Why not lower taxes AND increase benefits? That way everyone's happy (except for a few economists pulling out their hair on the sidelines -- but really, how large a constituency is that?). It may create crippling deficits, but those effects will be faced long after this administration has retired to Crawford. Moreover, those deficits might finally create enough political will to truly eviscerate the welfare state. Thus, the benefits of this strategy pay dividends both in short-term electoral victories and long-term ideological goals. Talk about win-win…

Clearly, defending against this tax-cut/spend strategy is quite difficult for responsible Democrats. This is especially true when you consider how willing people are to swallow something-for-nothing rhetoric when it is presented by someone with such down-home charisma. How do you get people to recognize the looming disaster with the assurances of Mr. Sunshine in the air? And if they can't see it coming, how do we avoid it?

As it turns out, there may be an answer. Mark Schmitt over at The Decemberist has a post up about PAYGO that seems to have promise. The basic idea is that you require budgetary changes to have a net zero effect on the deficit. Want to increase benefits/expenditures? Fine, but they have to be offset with tax increases rather than borrowing. Want tax cuts? Same deal. Cut expenditures. No borrowing.

Politically, this is a great issue for Democrats to take on. Since matching income and expenditures is something that everyone deals with in their own lives, it's easy to understand. Frankly, most people never quite get how the government avoids facing this reality when the rest of us have to. Plus, it forces Republicans to put up or shut up about fiscal responsibility. If they reject it, it becomes a potential campaign issue in 2006.

On the other hand, if it passes, the administration is finally forced to pick a side. Are they big spenders or big tax cutters? No longer can they be both. And if they remain ideologically pure with respect to tax cuts, people will finally understand what is being asked of them? Mark boils all this down quite succinctly.
A few weeks ago, in writing about Goldwater, I noted that the genius of Rove and his followers was that they had figured out how to separate the ideological conservatism that Americans liked from the operational conservatism -- the real cuts in government -- that Americans did not. PAYGO rules are a way of forcing those two back together. If Republicans are serious about cutting taxes and making government smaller, they must be willing to come forward simultaneously with the cuts they are willing to make and bear the consequences. Or, if they do not want to make cuts but still want to cut taxes for the top 0.2% of the population, they must be willing to say whose taxes they are willing to raise to pay for those cuts.
Passing PAYGO could go a long way to bring honesty back to federal fiscal policy. No longer could Bush use absurd accounting techniques to conceal the outrageous damage being done to our economic future. No longer could he be all things to all people. Most importantly, people might begin to understand what they're really voting for. If people really don't want government services, I can live with that. But right now the electorate is pulling levers in fantasyland. And once that starts happening, is it even a democracy anymore?

Anyway -- I'm just getting into this, so I don't know how viable it really is. But initially, it looks good. I, for one, will be keeping an eye on it. You should, too.

Another Carnival

In another act of shameless self-promotion, I announce the publication of History Carnival #4 over at Blogenspiel. My amateur contribution is this week accompanied by the work of some actual pros. So, if history is your bag, be sure to swing by.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Updated Thoughts

I have slightly modified the BEST THOUGHTS section to your immediate left. If you've missed something, now's your chance.

Slavery and History Index

With all the work that I've done on this subject of late, I thought it might be nice to provide an index to all the various entries. Therefore, without further ado…

I. Revealing America's Peculiar History

II. A Downward Progression

III. Traumatic Reverberations, Part I

IV. Traumatic Reverberations, Part II

V. Extension of Toxicity

Extension of Toxicity

Recently I've spent a lot of time discussing the long-term ramifications of race slavery in America (here and here). But, up until this point, I have focused exclusively on its effects within the African-American community. While it is undeniable that the most serious and damaging effects of this American tradition fell wholly on the enslaved and their descendents, I find it hard to believe that so poisonous a phenomenon could exist within our history without leaving a mark on everyone. In fact, I reject that notion outright.

That said, it is difficult to describe the negative consequences on the enslavers and their descendents because the clear clinical foundation of disorder present within the slave experience is lacking outside that community. Whereas before I could discuss the causes of post-traumatic stress disorder and its symptomatology, the relevant historical experience, and then draw a reasonable inferences from each, in this instance I must move forward without such an established framework. Therefore, I freely admit that my conclusions here will be far more speculative and, as such, debatable. So be it. The discussion has to start someplace.


Normally our behavior is informed by our attitudes and beliefs. We strive, as much as we can, to conform to the constraints laid it down by our knowledge, experience, and conscience. However, there are inevitably times when our behavior strays from the path defined by our better selves. While this misbehavior is generally driven by a degree of self-gratification, it is also accompanied by a measure of discomfort. This discomfort is referred to as cognitive dissonance and you can witness it in your own life any time you act against your better judgment. For example, every smoker knows how unhealthy his habit is, yet he lights up anyway. When he does so, he feels guilt and shame because he knows better.

This dissonance can be extremely uncomfortable. Therefore, we will usually take steps to try to resolve it in some fashion. To do this, we have two options. First, we can avoid the behaviors that trigger it. Unfortunately, we will often find ourselves in situations where that option is untenable. In the example of the smoker, his addiction prevents him from changing his behavior. This leaves us with the only other option: changing our beliefs.

Now, this may successfully resolve the immediate discomfort associated with our cognitive dissonance, but it is not without its consequences. The beliefs that we are abandoning have not been arrived at capriciously -- our life experience has led us to them. Even if they are not completely rational, they almost always have functional merit. Once we release them we also lose whatever benefit they brought to our lives. In extreme cases, releasing them involves literally distorting our perception of reality. As we move forward, our vision is clouded and our actions informed by myths of our own creation. In many cases, the price for our relief can be quite high.


Sigmund Freud was one of the first Western scientist/philosophers to postulate the existence of the unconscious mind. He believed that the great majority of our actions are driven by unconscious motivations of which we are totally unaware. While this theory largely lacks empirical evidence, it is an extremely useful metaphor and has been employed successfully in clinical settings for nearly 100 years. This is especially true when addressing the issue of defense mechanisms.

According to Freud (and his modern adherents), certain emotions may, for a host of reasons, be difficult for us to experience directly. They may simply be too painful, or their expression might be culturally inappropriate. Whatever the reason, Freud theorized that when faced with this situation we will employ what he termed a defense mechanism. In practice, this results in an unconscious redirection of our emotional energy that allows release in a manner that is acceptable to us.

Freud defined eight different defense mechanisms, but for our purposes here I want to focus on only two of them. First, there is repression. This is the process of taking uncomfortable emotions and memories and pushing them out of conscious awareness and into our unconscious mind. Then, there is rationalization. This is when we concoct socially acceptable explanations for otherwise unacceptable thoughts and behaviors. These two mechanisms assist us by either convincing us that our inappropriate emotions or actions are actually OK, or that they simply do not exist.

Unfortunately, there's no free lunch in this world. Our short-term goal of avoiding certain discomforts is achieved, but for this we pay a price. Driving unresolved emotions into the unconscious doesn't eliminate them. We might not experience them directly, however they have a persistent tendency to resurface in unpredictable and neurotic ways. In point of fact, one of the primary goals of psychoanalytic therapy is to identify and consciously reconnect with these emotions, thus eliminating the source of the patient's neuroses. Likewise, rationalization doesn't eliminate problematic behavior, it merely allows it to continue unabated. And both of these mechanisms involve varying degrees of distorted perceptions. As with cognitive dissonance, this relief comes at the expense of one's connection to reality.


What, you might ask, does this have to do with slaveholders? Well, my theory here is that, in order to engage in the practice of owning and cruelly mistreating other human beings, an individual must endure a psychological transformation that leaves him with a seriously distorted sense of what is or is not real and meaningful. Did this occur? It's hard to say, but I do think that there is some evidence for it.

During the mid-17th century, slaveholders were faced with a growing threat to their economic dominance. Remember, as discussed in this earlier post, at this time slaves often achieved freedom after a designated period of service. Moreover, children of slaves were not necessarily slaves themselves. Finally, contemporary Christian doctrine forbade the enslavement of fellow Christians -- allowing slaves to achieve freedom through conversion. Thus, slaveholders were not only being forced to constantly replace the newly freed components of their labor force, but were also competing with an ever-growing population of ex-slaves for agricultural resources. They could have abandoned the deteriorating institution of slavery and moved to a system that was consistent with the values that they held. Yet, they did not and instead completely reinvented their justification for slavery. This put them at odds with other Christians who were not forced to similarly twist their moral compass (ultimately culminating in the bloodiest conflict in American history), but it also put them at odds with themselves and with reality as they understood it.

As time passed, and the inhumanity of the institution exponentially increased, I suspect that it began to offend the conscience of those who engaged in it. True, many seemed barely affected by the cruelties they witnessed. However, a significant percentage of slaveholders were clearly conflicted by the practice. George Washington, who freed his slaves once he passed, and Thomas Jefferson, who maintained a long-standing romantic relationship with a slave, both demonstrate this ambivalence to varying degrees. The prevailing justification for slavery at the time was that slaves were animals, requiring an existence of self-determination no more than a horse or ox. Yet, Washington, Jefferson, and many others observed mountains of evidence that would have contradicted this assertion. Oxen do not plan escapes or stage rebellions. Neither do they recognize family or resist its dissolution through the sale of offspring. Facing these realities would have forced slaveholders to recognize the immorality of their actions and required the institution's dissolution. Instead, they chose to view the world through a rationalization that justified its persistence.

Finally, now that slavery has receded into the distant past, America has collectively "forgotten" the role that it played in our history. Few today realize that America has been a slaveholding nation far longer than it has been a free one. Few realize its regional ubiquitousness, choosing to believe that it existed as an aside on a few Southern plantations. Many otherwise reasonable people assert that slavery was an incidental factor during the American Civil War. And, perhaps most importantly, nearly everyone believes that the consequences of slavery ended with the passage of the 13th amendment. These deep misperceptions reflect a collective repression of a terribly shameful episode in our history. If similar omissions were identified in the recollections of any individual, Freud would no doubt predict its resurgence in behavioral neuroses. Would it be any different for society at large?


In the previous section, I laid out the argument for widespread perceptual distortions within both slaveholding communities and modern society. I admit that direct evidence for these distortions is hard to come by. Likewise, proof of repercussion is equally fleeting. This is largely an exercise in "what if?"

That said, what if?

What if a substantial portion of a population cannot perceive reality as it is? How would its social institutions evolve? How would these misperceptions manifest in public policy? How would they be reflected in society's relationship to the enslaved's descendents?

Honestly, I cannot at this time provide answers to any of these questions. My speculations on these matters would be of no greater value than would be your own. And so, I leave it to you to consider the possibilities.

But let me add one final question.

No matter how you resolve the questions posed above, consider this: how likely is it that the negative consequences of slavery, given established psychological theory, are wholly contained within the downtrodden party? My consideration of this issue has only just begun and I am not yet prepared to wager heavily on any conclusion. However, I know that I am on the right track. The effect is there waiting to be identified, waiting to be named.

Our understanding begins here.

Return to Slavery and History Index.

Back Online

Sorry about the delay. The Internet has been out for the last couple of days. That's what I get for living in the sticks. Anyway, everything should be up and running from here on out.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

How Bad Is It?

So, I'm driving home on Thursday and I'm catching the very end of Rush Limbaugh's broadcast when a spunky liberal caller manages to get through. This caller noted that, despite the financial burden borne by National Guardsmen currently on active duty in Iraq, the bankruptcy reform bill offers no military exemptions. Then, he pointed out that the homestead exemptions, used by the fabulously wealthy to shield assets during bankruptcy proceedings, were being maintained. Having laid out these two issues, he asked Rush to defend the bill.

Rush's response? He refused to accept the caller's premise because he couldn't believe the bill lacked active-duty protections.

Do you see what this means? It means that this bill is so bad that even Rush Limbaugh can't believe it! It's so bad that to support it he has to imagine that he is supporting a different bill.

Now that is what I call a bad bill.

Friday, March 11, 2005


I have just become aware of the blog phenomenon known as a Carnival. For the uninitiated, a Carnaval is a periodic collection of blog posts presented by a rotating host blog. Sometimes the collected posts share a theme or subject matter, but not always. By participating in a Carnival, smaller blogs (like this one) can share their better posts with a larger audience, rather than having them slip into obscurity unnoticed.

I bring this to your attention so that I might direct you to Tangled Bank #23. The Tangled Bank Carnival is dedicated to essays related to science, medicine, and the natural world. And this issue does in fact feature some of my handiwork. Of course, a lot of other great scientifically oriented writing will be found there as well, so I encourage each member of my vast readership to check it out.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Out Of Town

Just a note to let you know that I will be out of town for the next few days. No blogging until Friday at the earliest.

But in the meantime, why don't you peruse through the BEST THOUGHTS selections to your left. And if you still have time, why not find out what you can do to help this blog succeed.

OK -- I'm off. Peace.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Disparity Does Not Equal Discrimination

With the control of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government along with their dominance of the corporate sphere, it's getting a little difficult for Republicans to maintain their status as an oppressed minority community. But since this myth is critical to modern conservative identity, they aren't going to give it up easily. In this context, the brewing jihad against academia starts to make a little more sense. By focusing on what is arguably the last bastion of American liberalism, conservatives can continue to portray themselves as noble Davids attempting to slay a tyrannical Goliath. Therefore, as they attempt to eliminate potential liberalization from college campuses, they can do so from a familiar rhetorical position.

Unfortunately for them, the arena of this conflict has necessitated the use of some unorthodox tactics, and the results have been quite amusing. The main charge (leveled by David Horowitz, Sean Hannity, and many, many others) is that the liberal-academic complex discriminates against conservative thinkers, leading to an oppression of conservative voices in higher education. On the one hand, conservatives must take special pleasure in using a traditionally liberal argument against what they perceive to be liberal interests. However, this joy prevents them from comprehending how ridiculously inept their efforts are. Let's take a look, shall we?

The most recent justification for the discrimination claim comes from a recent article by Daniel Klein and Andrew Western published in the Palo Alto Weekly.
We have conducted a scholarly study of voter registration and find that among Berkeley faculty the Republicans are outnumbered 10 to 1. At Stanford the ratio is 7.6 to 1. Lumping both together gives 9 to 1. Talk about a lack of diversity! If this were a gender, race or ethnic-background study it would be considered almost evidence of discrimination.
Where to begin...

Well first, I'm not sure how much you should be extrapolating from a study focused exclusively on two institutions situated in one of the most consistently liberal regions in America. It's quite possible that conservative intellectuals are less inclined to live in the San Francisco/Bay area and thus fewer apply for positions there. So, that's a problem.

But, this is where their miscomprehensions come sharply into focus. You see, for them, it's all about the numbers. Nationally, we break down about 50/50 between registered Democrats and Republicans. Therefore, they claim, any significant departure from this ratio is "almost evidence of discrimination." Todd Zywicki claims that "understates the case." If only that were true.

Consider the following preliminary research conducted by Aaron Swartz.
…my preliminary research has discovered some…shocking facts. I have found that only 1% of Stanford professors believe in telepathy (defined as “communication between minds without using the traditional five senses”), compared with 36% of the general population. And less than half a percent believe “people on this earth are sometimes possessed by the devil”, compared with 49% of those outside the ivory tower. And while 25% of Americans believe in astrology (“the position of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives”), I could only find one Stanford professor who would agree.
As fun as it is to compare Republican ideology to telepathy, satanic possession, and astrology, that's not really the point. The real issue is that there are many possible reasons for differential representation in the academy. Discrimination isn't the only explanation.

For example, conservatives have a special affinity for the free market. Ergo, it is theoretically possible that they will tend toward careers in business (especially if you consider the financial incentives for doing so). Likewise, right-wing think tanks might have a tendency to draw conservative academics out of their ivory towers. Both these phenomena could potentially depress conservative representation in academia and neither is driven by discrimination. There are many other possibilities.

In truth, the above study tells us only that a discrepancy exists, not why. And if you are considering some sort of remedial action (which some are), the "why" of the discrepancy is pretty damn important.

Unless you're afraid of the answer. Case in point, David Horwitz. Chris of Mixing Memory recently suggested that we get to the bottom of the issue.
Since, to date, there is no study showing anything more than a disparity, I propose that we actually conduct a new study. In this study, we will do more than simply collect voting and political donation records, or hiring, firing, and promotion decisions. This information alone can only provide evidence of disparity, not discrimination. To do this, we need to rule out alternative explanations for the disparity. Thus, we will need to collect information about job applicants and faculty that is relevant to hiring and promotion. Thus, we should collect information related to publication, citation, teaching evaluations, ongoing research, etc., that hiring and promotion committees consider when making their decisions. Using this information, along with the relative number of liberal and conservative applicants, we can apply fairly simple statistical tools (e.g., regression analysis) to determine whether the ideological disparity that exists in American universities is a result of discrimination.
When Horwitz was presented with this suggestion, he referred to it as a "ridiculous exercise." When pressed further, he responded:
Don't be an asshole. If blacks were half the country and were outnumbered on faculties 10 to 1 all schools and even 30-1 on many you would have no trouble finding something amiss. Whoever proved by the way that faculties actually discriminated against women and blacks? The answer is no one. The Supreme Court has ruled that the absence of skin diversity (skin diversity!) IN ITSELF is harmful to education. So how much more powerful is this case.
Aside from the attitude and the astonishing ignorance revealed in that reply, what is he afraid of? What would be the problem with accumulating more data?

Of course, Horwitz is afraid that the results would indicate that the true reason for the discrepancy is scholarly inferiority. Frankly, if Horwitz's tendency to employ scientific methods only when convenient is in any way indicative of conservative academia at large, I'd say he's right to be afraid.

And this is what has always puzzled me about this issue. If my particular ideology was severely underrepresented in a population of the most highly educated individuals on earth, I'd want to keep that quiet. Sure, it could be that my ideology contradicts prevailing orthodoxy. But without a lot of convincing data to support my position, most people aren't going to believe that I'm being discriminated against. They are going to assume that I'm an idiot.

For my part, I'd love to see some actual research done. Honestly, discrimination probably plays a small, but significant role in the numbers seen above. I'm willing to face that and take appropriate steps to remedy it. But, I only want to fix what's broken. Ideological parity isn't a goal.

For me, that is. I can't speak for Horwitz, but I have my suspicions. If he were only interested in ending ideological discrimination, I can't help but feel that he would be more receptive to attempts to more fully describe the phenomenon. On the other hand, if he's really more concerned about getting conservatives ensconced at Berkeley…

Update: I neglected to hat tip Coturnix over at Science and Politics for uncovering the dustup between Horowitz and Chris of Mixed Memory. Thanks for the good work.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Bankruptcy Reform Gets Some Attention

Now that there's a little room to breathe regarding Social Security reform, some of the other pieces of the Republican legislative agenda are starting to get a little attention. Not a moment too soon, if you ask me.

Anyway, Kevin Drum is painting the big picture for us with respect to bankruptcy reform. First, he takes a look at the process of its construction. The whole thing is worth reading, but two items really stand out.
  • Loopholes. What loopholes have been left in the bill? Answer: the bill does nothing to address the growing use of "asset protection trusts," used by rich people to shield income from bankruptcy proceedings, or to rein in the unlimited use of the homestead exemption, which allows them to shield multimillion dollar homes from bankruptcy courts.
  • Medical bankruptcy…The bill does nothing to address this. Since medical emergencies certainly aren't an abuse of the system, wouldn't any honest bill aimed at abuse pay special attention to the recent and growing epidemic of families that declare bankruptcy due to medical emergencies?
Reform advocates keep insisting that their real goal is curbing abuse by making sure that those who have the ability to pay their debts do so. In actuality, they are preserving protections that benefit their wealthy constituency and putting the squeeze on those declaring bankruptcy for what is arguably the most legitimate reason possible. So, how exactly is this reducing abuse?

Next, Kevin takes a look at the profits generated by credit card companies through the use of penalties and late fees. Whether it's the fundamental unfairness of "universal default"…
...that penalty rate of 30-40% can be imposed for missing a single payment — in fact, it can be imposed for missing a single payment on a different account, like your telephone bill — but a card spokesman said this was perfectly reasonable because it was "clearly disclosed on account applications." Something tells me that their idea of "clearly disclosed" is a wee bit different from most people's.
...or the attempts to escape the consequences of these policies…
They actively seek out customers who are likely to miss payments and end up in a penalty fee spiral, and they make a fortune from them. In a normally functioning market there's at least a small incentive to limit loans to these high-risk customers, namely the possibility that they might go bankrupt, and the bankruptcy bill before Congress is a brazen attempt to remove even that small but annoying incentive to act responsibly.'s impossible to view this bill as anything other than a bold attempt to screw consumers.

This last point, the attempt to absolve the credit card companies of the risks associated with the credit they are irresponsibly distributing, is something I spoke about a couple of weeks ago.
In truth, it doesn't matter how people are entering bankruptcy. The point is that the credit card industry has always been aware of that risk. If they didn't want to pay for the negative consequences of that risk, then they shouldn't have been loaning money to such high risk clients. If they're being hurt (which they are not) it is due to their own imprudent business practices. It isn't our job to clean up their mess.
Clearly, this bill is nothing more than a political payout to generous Republican campaign contributors. Any serious case for reform wouldn't be answered by the legislation we see before us. If legislators were truly interested in reducing bankruptcy, some of the reforms would be aimed at curbing the predatory practices of the credit card industry. Instead, we're being told that bankruptcy is solely the responsibility villainous consumers who are capriciously fleecing the pockets of an innocent and noble set of multinational corporations. If that sounds absurd, well, that's because it is.

I understand the political necessity of responding to one's constituency. But it sure would be nice if Republicans could do that without literally screwing the most vulnerable among us. I mean, is that so much to ask?

Friday, March 04, 2005

Be Careful What You Wish for

There seems to be a number of indications now that President Bush's Social Security reform plan is DOA. Republican Congressmen are dropping hints right and left that they are unwilling to support Bush's plan in its current manifestation. Plus, we have Treasury Secretary John Snow basically giving away the store.

Treasury Secretary John W. Snow indicated Wednesday that the White House would accept a Social Security overhaul that does not divert the program’s payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts, a major shift in the administration’s position.
So -- time to pop the champagne, no? Well, not quite yet.

Some time ago Kevin Drum was wondering what the administration was doing supporting such a legislative turkey.
But here's the funny thing: surely Karl Rove knows [that Social Security reform is a loser]? Unless I'm missing something, it seems like a no brainer. So what's the point?...

What's the point of loudly pushing a proposal you're going to lose? What's behind it all?
Kevin then directs us to Ed Kilgore, who has an interesting hypothesis.
You have to wonder if the purpose, if only the fallback purpose, of the Bush SocSec campaign is to suddenly shift the debate from personal retirement savings accounts financed by payroll taxes to personal general savings accounts stuffed with sheltered upper-crust investment income. If there's any chance of that, Democrats needs to start preparing for it.

According to Ed, it's a "bait-and-switch." It remains to be seen whether or not the switch is for general savings accounts, but there are unquestionably areas where the Democrats have become vulnerable to the course of this debate. And if this has been, or is quickly becoming, a diversionary tactic, we are quickly approaching the moment when the administration's strategy will shift. Therefore, whether this was planned or not, it behooves us to examine possible weaknesses in our flanks.

Many Democrats, stung by the criticism that they were obstructing the common man from benefiting from the high rates of return available in the stock market, have repeatedly claimed a willingness to support private accounts as "add-ons" to Social Security's guaranteed benefits. This makes sense as a matter of immediate politics, but as a matter of policy, the devil is in the details.

So you have to ask yourself, "where does the money come from for add-ons?" Well, there are really only two choices. First, it can come from revenue generated via an increase in the payroll tax, by raising either the rate, the cap, or both. Of course, there isn't going to be a whole lot of Republican support for such an idea, so this source is a political nonstarter. However, even if support for tax increases could be garnered, these aren't policies that Democrats should be supporting.

As we all know, the payroll cap means that wage income above $90,000 is taxed. Therefore, if the add-ons are funded by increasing the tax rate, they will essentially function as a forced investment plan for wage earners (i.e. labor). And since returns from these accounts would not be guaranteed, the compulsory investments would be accompanied by the compulsory adoption of risk. I suppose that an argument can be made that personal savings in this country are too low and that wage earners should save more than they do. That said, forcing this kind of investment assumes that people have money in their budgets that they could be saving, but are blowing on coke and whores instead. I seriously question whether or not this is true for most of the people paying the payroll tax -- and especially those near the bottom of the ladder. For many this money will come out of wages already stretched to the breaking point -- and that isn't good policy or politics.

You could also raise the cap on payroll taxes to fund add-ons, but that is problematic for different reasons, which I will address below.

Now, if add-ons aren't being funded by increased taxes, they're being funded by voluntary individual contributions. Another name for this is a general savings account and that is exactly what Ed Kilgore was talking about above. It's a way of providing more tax sheltering opportunities for those who have savings above the limits covering existing tax shelters -- more tax cuts for the wealthy (sound familiar). So, I can definitely see why Republicans would support add-ons so funded, but no Democrat should have any part of it.

The other thing to keep in mind with regard to add-ons is making sure that it actually adds on. Bob Somerby raised the issue earlier this week.

First, a point of simple logic—an “add-on” account is only “added on” if traditional Social Security is fully preserved before the “adding” is done. After all, if future SS benefits are cut, then any additional savings account isn’t an “add-on”—it’s a replacement for the lost benefits. In short, before “add-on” savings accounts make sense, Congress will have to solve future funding problems with traditional Social Security.

It's true that Social Security's long-term funding problems are of questionable severity and therefore it's reasonable to wonder whether add-ons could be supported without acquiescing to demands for benefit cuts. However, I don't know how Republicans could accept a compromise that doesn't address what they claim is the central issue, Social Security's insolvency. I mean, at that point it isn't even Social Security reform anymore. Clearly, add-ons are a mere bargaining chip designed to enable the government to default on its Social Security obligations. And since the funding issues negate the value of having private accounts at add-ons, this isn't a bargain we should be making.

The other big concession that Democrats have been looking for is the option to raise or lift the cap on the payroll tax. This has been raised as a solution to Social Security's theoretical insolvency, but could also be used to fund add-on accounts (although it's important to note that it can't do both). There are two reasons this is a bad idea. Mark Schmitt encapsulates the first one very nicely.

…the basic argument is that the payroll tax is not a tax so much as a premium in a system of insurance. And the cap ensures that the insurance policy is basically a good deal for everyone. That's always been the bedrock of its political success. You might be able to get a better deal, in exchange for more risk, through private accounts. But no matter how you cut it, in general Social Security is a net plus for almost everyone, whether through retirement or survivors benefits. On the other hand, if you lift the cap, and people who make $120,000 are paying almost $15,000 a year in FICA taxes (including the employers' share), they would start to see it as a very bad deal. They would have to be alive and retired for almost as long as they were working in order to see a positive return.

So, even though lifting the cap would make Social Security more progressive, it would also make it less popular in the high wage earner demographic and therefore undermine its long-term political solvency. This is especially true when you consider Mark's second point.

The second point is that viewed as a tax rather than an insurance premium, it's a bad tax. Lifting the cap makes it slightly more progressive, but not much. It's an ugly regressive tax that applies only to work, not to investment income…

Politically, the system is successful because, as insurance systems go, it's a pretty good deal for almost everyone is paying into it. Making it more progressive turns it into an entitlement that is funded by the middle class. They are likely to resent shouldering the burden while the super wealthy get off scot-free. So, even though I can see why Republicans would want to foster this sort of resentment, Democrats shouldn't allow it to happen, especially with so little in return.

Besides which, all this talk about closing the funding gap through some sort of payroll tax manipulation ignores the distinctly unfair nature of such a proposition. Remember, we didn't wake up yesterday and discover that there was going to be a funding shortfall when the baby boomers started to retire. In 1983, we raised the payroll tax in order to build up a surplus to address this demographic issue. So, wage earners have already paid to fix this problem once. Regrettably, the funding surplus was used to obscure the actual size of our national debt, and thus justify spending increases and tax cuts that would otherwise have been seen as financially irresponsible. Therefore, the first place we should go for that money is to those who have been receiving the benefits of all George Bush's tax cuts, those at the upper income levels. Money was essentially taken from wage earners and given directly to the wealthiest among us. Any corrections to the system should begin with the repayment of this debt.

The bottom line is that both of these compromise positions, add-on accounts and raising the payroll tax cap, are dubious accomplishments for the left. No long-term progressive goals are achieved, while they allow the right to move forward their agenda, if only slightly. Therefore, this isn't the time or the place for an olive branch. If changes can't be made on our terms, I see no reason to change at all. There may be merit in some sort of a compromise on some aspect of this deal. But if we are going to give something up, let's make sure we get something we actually want in return.

Rome Wasn't Built in a Day

One of these days I'm going to learn to write short, concise posts for this here blog. Today, however, isn't going to be that day. Anyway, I'll have the new novella up later this evening. Check back, if you can.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Traumatic Reverberation, Part II

In Part I of this post, I argued that American slaves endured conditions that would have induced high rates of the psychological disorder known as PTSD. Today, I would like to build on this assertion and investigate the possible ramifications of such a psychological epidemic.


First, let's review the array of symptoms that is commonly associated with PTSD, broken down into the three major categories: intrusive, avoidant, and hyperarousal.
  • Intrusive
      Dissociative states
      Intrusive emotions and memories
      Nightmares and night terrors
  • Avoidant
      Avoiding emotions
      Avoiding relationships
      Avoiding responsibility for others
      Avoiding situations that are reminiscent of the traumatic event
  • Hyperarousal
      Exaggerated startle reaction
      Explosive outbursts
      Extreme vigilance
      Panic symptoms
      Sleep disturbance
  • This list demonstrates, clearly I hope, the seriousness of the disorder. Severely traumatized individuals have the potential to become utterly dysfunctional in nearly every aspect of traditional existence.

    Of course, the life of a slave was characterized by one traumatic experience after another. If you were born in Africa, you were potentially traumatized by the four months spent crammed into the hold of a trans-Atlantic slave ship. If your psyche survived that assault, or if you were born on American soil, there was ample opportunity to be damaged by the violence perpetrated against you by your white master. Therefore, it is quite likely that slaves frequently displayed many of the disruptive symptoms listed above.

    But, that's just the beginning.


    Like many psychological disorders, the negative consequences of PTSD are not limited to the affected individual. Those displaying PTSD symptoms typically find healthy social interaction to be extremely difficult, if not impossible. The intrusive symptoms are the most disruptive, as individuals may have only a tenuous grip on reality. But, in terms of familial distortion, the avoidant symptomatology may be nearly as bad. One who avoids emotions, relationships, and responsibility for others has essentially abandoned the core elements of social connection. Even those symptoms associated with hyperarousal transform the individual into a extremely difficult personality. It is hardly surprising that one of the primary complications associated with PTSD is divorce and separation. It is often simply impossible to remain bonded to an individual so affected.

    So, imagine for a moment what ramifications this condition would have had in the context of an American slave family. Remember, of course, that slave families already exist in an incredibly caustic environment. The constant threat of separation would have meant that these families consistently endured in extremely high stress levels. The needs of the slave family were always subservient to the whims of the slave owner. In this context, even the healthiest and most robust among us would struggle to maintain a semblance of familial normalcy.

    But many slaves were not psychologically healthy -- in fact, far from it. In a situation where social support would be necessary to merely retain sanity, many would be incapable of providing it. The connection between husband and wife would be fragile, often characterized by a cold detachment between them. Children would be born into families with parents unable to provide them with the love and security so necessary for healthy development. They would be deprived of the emotional modeling the parents traditionally provide to their children, and would thus reach adulthood lacking emotional maturity and find themselves unable to form healthy bonds of their own. All this in what is already a horrifically disruptive state of existence.

    Yet, it gets worse.

    A psychology professor of mine, in his discussions of PTSD, told us of the research he conducted on traumatized Bosnian refugees who had immigrated to the United States. Many of these refugees had either witnessed or experienced acts of unspeakable cruelty. Predictably, their symptoms were quite debilitating. However, my professor noted that the severity of their symptoms and the resistance to recovery was significantly affected by the strength of their post-trauma social network. Individuals who were surrounded by trusted family had a tendency to recover much faster than those who were isolated and alone. In some cases, the social network was more predictive of the ultimate outcome that was the initial trauma.

    Therefore, if we transpose this knowledge to slavery, we can see that a vicious cycle was put in motion. Slaves were traumatized, which led to a savage disruption of their social structure, which in turn made the following generation even more susceptible to PTSD. After 200+ years of progressive deterioration, it's a miracle that anyone escaped the ravaging effects of the disorder.

    And this is what differentiates the slave experience from so many other community-based traumas. The victims of the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides, the Jews of the Holocaust, and the veterans of our modern wars were all assaulted over a comparatively short period of time. Those who escaped returned to a relatively normal existence within the scope of a single generation. Their families were undoubtedly damaged by the victims’ suffering, but their children did not have to endure the same horrors that they did. For these individuals, the passage of time provided healing. The same cannot be said for the American slave community. For them, time was an enemy.


    In nature, complex systems can be broken down into two general categories (this is, of course, a gross oversimplification -- but for our purposes here, the general statement is true). The first category describes systems whose solution set is rather small and is largely independent of its defining variables. Regardless of the opening state, the system approaches equilibrium in a reliable and predictable fashion. The pluck of a guitar string is an example of such a system: regardless of how the string is put in motion, the string's oscillation will quickly arrive at a defined frequency.

    The second category, by far the most common, includes systems that are highly dependent upon initial conditions. Small changes of its starting position radically and chaotically alter its concluding state. Weather is an example of such a system.

    While it may be difficult to demonstrate conclusively, I believe that it is fairly clear that community systems follow this second example. Thus, when the African American community was released from its bonds in 1865, even a small differentiation and its initial conditions could have dramatically altered its trajectory. However, in this instance we are not talking about a small differentiation.

    1865 was undoubtedly a dramatic improvement over the preceding 250 years. The institutional subjugation of African-Americans had finally ended and the importance of that moment cannot be overstated. But one must not forget that many hurdles to success remained. At this point in time their access to economic resources was almost nonexistent. The racism that became entrenched during the era of slavery did not evaporate upon its dissolution, only now African-Americans were suddenly competing in the free labor market, which deepened the resentments of lower class whites. Reconstruction was a period of dramatic improvement in terms of the political power wielded by black Americans, yet for many, freedom represented a decreasing stability in their day to day existence. And, of course, this was a community that was already experiencing deep psychological damage. The incidence of trauma would have markedly declined, but the healing that would normally ensue following the cessation of hostilities would have been stunted at best.

    Moreover, the environmental conditions did not consistently improve over the next 140 years. There were several periods of discriminatory regression (most notably during the era referred to as Post-Reconstruction), the depths of which challenged those of the years preceding emancipation. Healing within that community would have been further retarded, halted, or even reversed during these periods.

    Given these initial conditions and the state of affairs during the ensuing 140 years, is it reasonable to assume that the traumatic effects of slavery have completely receded into the past?


    In this and the preceding post, I have attempted to examine the challenges facing the African-American community through a clinical lens by examining one specific issue: PTSD. In doing so, I am not claiming that this was the only psychological disorder that this community faced. A similar argument could be made by examining the incidence of depressive disorders, personality disorders, and anxiety disorders, as well as a host of other conditions that would have been undoubtedly exacerbated by the inherent cruelties of the peculiar institution. A complete examination of these issues could not be fully addressed in a doctoral dissertation, let alone within the space of a pair of blog entries. If I have adequately demonstrated the issue’s daunting complexity, I have accomplished my goal.

    Also, one might wonder whether or not I am claiming that the African-American community is, due to its history, presently disordered. This is a delicate issue that pivots on what it means to be disordered -- which is, in and of itself, difficult to define. To answer this question, I would say "yes, it is" -- but only in the sense that a community that suffers from high rates of cancer due to its proximity to a chemical waste dump is also disordered. The disorder is not inherent to the community. It is the result of the immoral actions perpetrated by the larger society, and the ultimate resolution will only be achieved through collective action taken by all individuals alive in America today.

    Finally, while I have gone to great lengths to describe the deep psychological scar that the African-American community wears, there is a factor that I have neglected to mention until this moment. Given the hurdles faced, be they economic, prejudicial, or psychological, the ever improving advancement of the African American community demonstrates a humbling strength and resilience that is truly awe-inspiring. It is a testament to their ability to endure and succeed in an environment where nearly every external factor conspired against them. It is a tale of heroic perseverance that should overwhelm any willing to honestly face the historical reality. It is, without question, the stuff of legends.

    Of course, the African American community was not alone in suffering the detrimental effects of slavery. But that discussion will have to wait for another day. Again, stay tuned.

    Proceed to Extension of Toxicity.

    Return to Slavery and History Index.
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