Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Health Reform Might Be Unconstitutional Because Democrats Compromised.

So, a judge in Virginia ruled the individual mandate in the new health reform law unconstitutional.  Big deal?  

If you are in favor of providing universal coverage to everyone, the individual mandate is key.  Yes, there are ways to circumvent it (for example, provide a tax credit to those who purchase health insurance; or charge a penalty to anyone who opts out and then signs up), but as the reform law is currently constructed, the mandate is essential.  Without it, insurers can hardly be expected to provide coverage to everyone regardless of preexisting conditions, and they will surely file their own lawsuits if the mandate is ripped out.  Soon we'll be back where we started.

Still, two other judges ruled that the mandate is just fine.  So why would one man's opinion matter?  Well, the revealing fact is that of the judges who opined on this thus far, those who ruled in favor of the mandate were nominated by a Democrat and the one who rules against it was a Republican appointee.  In short: the constitutionality of the mandate seems to be partisan - imagine that!  Now, with multiple diverging opinion, the case is guaranteed to go up to the Supreme Court, where a panel of 5 conservatives and 4 liberals is fairly likely to strike it down (OR I'm just a cynic and the judges are totally non-partisan).

Anyhow, the issue I wanted to address is not what the future holds, but rather how we got here.  The individual mandate is allegedly unconstitutional because the federal government cannot force people to purchase a commercial product.  Think about that for a moment:  the federal government cannot force people to purchase a commercial product.  In other words, the current challenges to the mandate would have no teeth if it weren't for the fact that the current design of the law relies on people buying coverage from insurers.  The irony is that the genesis of that construct lies not with the Democrats - who generally favor governmental provision of health benefits (the public option, remember?) - but rather with the Republicans who prefer any government benefit to be administered by corporations (Medicare Part D thanks to Bush, social security, if Bush had his way, the military contractors, etc, etc).  

So in other words, had the Democrats had their way on the design of health reform, there would be no grounds for a constitutional challenge.  Of course that was not the preferable path, since back then we needed everything to be BIPARTISAN.  And what did they get in return for this compromise?  A single Republican vote?  No, not a single one.  Instead they now have this compromise coming back to bite them in their ass.  

I find it hard to believe that the Republicans were smart enough to plan this ahead of time - eliminate any governmental option to provide coverage to get a chance at repealing the law in court.  I think the facts just conveniently lined up that way.  But I think it is instructive to point out - especially as we are talking about the tax cut "deal" between Republicans and Obama - that these kinds of compromises tend to have unintended consequences down the road.  So, as some Democrats are slapping themselves on the back about what a good deal they got ("back-door stimulus"), I'm just thinking:  you just wait.

 

Friday, December 3, 2010

An email from Columbia's SIPA to their students proves that we now live in China.

“We received a call today from a SIPA alumnus who is working at the State Department. He asked us to pass along the following information to anyone who will be applying for jobs in the federal government, since all would require a background investigation and in some instances a security clearance.   The documents released during the past few months through WikiLeaks are still considered classified documents.  He recommends that you DO NOT post links to these documents not make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter.  Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.”  Via Democracy Now.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

WikiUgh, or how annoying some reactions to WikiLeaks are.

Think what you want about WikiLeaks, there isn't much to like about Julian Assange's "style."  He kind of sounds like an egomaniacal prick.  And yet I was disappointed that people - ones I usually find to be rational and above this kind of thing - can't somehow get over his persona in their assessment of the latest dump of data or what WikiLeaks does, generally.

Last night, Jon Stewart couldn't help himself and make fun of Assange.  This was right before he postulated that "If there's total transparency, we won't really see anything."  How deep.

Then Ezra Klein chimed in: "I'm not sure this guy's incentives -- which by now include impact and publicity -- are really trustworthy."

Really guys, ad hominem attacks?  

How strange that we didn't see any of those reactions (definitely not from the liberals), when the leaks were exposing horrific information about the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I suppose that was barely noteworthy?  Or maybe that was stuff that validated their opinions?  But now that WikiLeaks published a whole bunch of mundane info from the State Department (thought not all of it was totally dull - and I am not talking about the gossipy crap about various foreign leaders, I mean stuff like this, which seems to be getting totally lost in the shuffle - not unsurprisingly), we are all up in arms about the propriety of what Assange is doing?  Really?

The more bizarre line of reasoning that I first saw emerge in a Brooks column here, is that this disclosure will damage the global conversation or even the ability of US diplomats to do their work.  I don't find that entirely convincing, but it's not totally without merit:  I suppose having your raw thoughts about someone plastered all over the internet probably doesn't help your relations.   I can see that.

But then yesterday, looking at the prospect of a data dump from a major US bank, Ezra Klein took that argument even further, and argued that this kind of disclosure will stymie information sharing of all kind:

"If he's really effective, the likely outcome won't be that people know more, but that they know less, as major institutions -- both public and private -- will stop sharing their information so widely internally and stop writing so much of it down. That means decision-makers will know less, bureaucrats and managers will know less, reporters will know less, historians will know less, and so on."

I suppose so if it wasn't for the fact that short of verbally communicating everything - which is impossible - there is no way to avoid digital communication and record-keeping in this day and age.  First, it is simply impractical, and second, people are dumb and will always put self-incriminating shit in writing.  As an example, a full decade after the original Wall Street email scandal (analysts pushing tech stock and calling them a piece of crap in private emails), we had the exact same thing happen with mortgage securities (trader's salling products they called crap to clients to whom they have full disclosure and fiduciary duties).  

Besides, at the other extreme, is the implication that we should never publish incriminating records and prosecute accordingly for the fear that we may inspire corporate insiders to sensor their written communications?  More importantly, why exactly would they feel the need to sensor themselves if they aren't doing anything sinister?  Or are we now concerned about protecting criminals?  

The Jon Stewart Philosophy?

From the man who gave us "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing", comes a new pearl of wisdom: "If there's total transparency, we won't really see anything."  I think I see a pattern?

Monday, November 29, 2010

"a hypocritical and inconsistent opposition is better than no opposition at all" is a revealing motto http://nyti.ms/dEKTXi

Thursday, November 11, 2010

My new column for Zahraničná politika "Welcome to United States of Absurdity"

Welcome to United States of Absurdity

“Absurdistan” is a term that has appeared in art and in the press as a sarcastic description of a country where absurdity is the norm.  The suffix “-stan” connotes the former Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc generally, so although it could be used to describe several countries, it’s etymology renders it inapplicable outside of that loose geographical context.  However, a closer look at recent events in the United States reveals that absurdity is not the exclusive domain of emerging Eastern economies with young democracies and fragile political and social structures.  Absurdity has, it would seem, found a very comfortable home in America.  

To understand the proportions of the phenomenon, let’s look at the recent congressional elections in which absurdity reached a terrific crescendo.  Only two years after electing Barack Obama the President and giving the Democratic Party historic majorities in both houses of Congress, the Republican Party won the control of the House of Representatives and significantly reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate.  While Obama remains the President, his ability to pursue his agenda is thus greatly diminished; some have even asked: “Is the Obama era over?”

There are many ways to look at this loss, but the simplest explanation lies in the economy:  persistently high unemployment rates are the kiss of death for the incumbent party, regardless of which party that is.  For many people this alone could be called absurd: Did Americans really expect the Democrats to reverse the economic collapse that commenced in 2008 in less than two years?  More importantly, do Americans believe that Republicans, who presided over the built-up to the collapse, are to be trusted with making things better?  The same Republicans, who tied the country’s hands behinds its back with two wars and a massive expansion in deficit, and who are now suddenly raising alarm about the size of government spending, precisely when the country is in desperate need of fiscal stimulus?  

In light of these questions, one might find voters’ preferences for Republicans absurd, but the truly absurd thing is that Americans don’t actually have that preference.  According to a New York Times/CBS poll conducted in October, only 41% of voters had a favorable view of the Republican party, while 46% of voters had that opinion of the Democratic party.  In other words, Americans have a more favorable view of the Democrats and yet they vote for Republicans.  What is going on?  Perhaps the vote is a referendum on President Obama and his handling of the economy?  That doesn’t seem likely: the same poll showed that 30% blame the Bush administration for the current state of the economy while only 8% attribute it to the Obama administration.  So what is it then?  Is it possible that in 2008 Americans didn’t just fall in love with Obama’s vision of “Change” but instead became addicted to change of any sort and now, every two years, we will witness a panicked move of power from one party to another?  

It is not just the voting preferences that seem to have no rhyme or reason - it’s also the discourse that surrounds politics.  While reasonable people can disagree on ways to solve the numerous problems facing the country (economy, education, health care, immigration, environment, energy, infrastructure, the list goes on and on), the debate is almost never about these policy differences.  Instead, Americans spent months debating the “Ground Zero Mosque” (does a Muslim organization that has been active for years in the neighborhood surrounding Ground Zero have the right to build a community center with a prayer room?).  Another time the whole nation is completely consumed by a debate about anchor babies - a phenomenon I covered in this column before; and who could forget the endless hours that we all talked about the plane that crashed into the Hudson river or the man who claimed his son flew away in a balloon when he was hiding in the garage?  And yes, the problem probably lies with the advertising-driven media which is more interested in conflict, controversy and soundbites which generate viewership and ad sales.  But again, this is never really discussed, nor are any sorts of alternatives.  Instead, we see Republicans calling for defunding National Public Radio - one of the few remaining independent sources of news and programming.  

And so, while the American infrastructure is rapidly falling apart and the economy is in limbo, some people lay awake at night worrying that some Muslims might be able to pray in the same zip code as Ground Zero.  At the same time that the US is committed to two large wars and potentially planning another one (because, why not?), in addition to a multitude of military bases around the world, we’re debating whether or not gays are worthy of the right to fight for their country - a question other NATO armies have settled long ago in favor of inclusion and without any apparent detriment.  Are Americans just masochistically trying to make things harder for themselves to show the world how tough they are?  

Perhaps it is not fair to talk about absurdity in American politics as a recent phenomenon, maybe it has been here all along.  The US is, after all, the oldest democracy in the world founded on the genocide of one group of people and enslavement of another.  And yet, however bloody its history may be, America has always seen dissent movements which have kept it at least somewhat honest to its stated principles.  By contrast, a quick look at today’s dissent reveals a big soup of absurdity.  The Tea Party is a pseudo grass roots anti-government movement which dates back to the early days of the Obama administration and which has since been co-opted by corporations and the Republican establishment.  The absurdity of this movement is best exemplified by the statement “get your government hands off my Medicare” - a government program, in fact.  Their supporters are routinely beneficiaries of government programs but have somehow concluded that the government is the greatest problem in the modern age.  In their rallies, the Tea Partiers have routinely accused President Obama of being a socialist AND compared him to Hitler, all for proposing economic policies which would seem conservative to most European politicians.

The response to the Tea Party is even more absurd than the Tea Party itself.  Especially after all the transgressions of the financial system and the debacles of the US military excursion in Iraq and Afghanistan one would expect a strong progressive populist movement would somehow arise to counter the agenda of the Tea Party.  And yet, the only liberal movement we have seen has been organized by the comedian Jon Stewart in his “Rally to Restore Sanity,” with the overarching message being that both sides of the spectrum need to be more civil in their disagreements.  In a sense, his rally was an “ironic rally” or an anti-rally, and the purpose was not to disagree with or promote any ideas, but instead to tell everyone that no cause is serious enough to get angry about.

The call to sanity was well received - some 250,000 people attended the rally; clearly the idea resonated with many Americans.  And while the stated goal isn’t entirely unreasonable, I couldn’t help but wonder:  is this really the best that liberals can do especially with a popular politically driven conservative movement positioned to gain meaningful control of the Congress?  Are no causes worth genuinely rallying about?  

Or am I to believe that we have reached an age where a people that has the freedom to organize and protest has nothing better to do with that freedom than to poke fun of it?  

Friday, November 5, 2010

Wassup, cupcake?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Just Shut The Fuck Up.

I don't understand this latest string of developments.  DADT is back in effect as a result of a stay issued yesterday.  The purpose of a "stay" is to stop the effect of a ruling while it's being appealed.  Fine, I suppose.  I can understand the logic of doing this in an orderly fashion (even if I don't agree with it).

But how about the reverse?  Shouldn't there also be a "stay" on DADT enforcement while it's being reviewed?  If the end goal is an orderly end of the policy, wouldn't it be logical to stop firing people for being gay?  As the history of DADT enforcement shows, the Pentagon has not applied the policy uniformly over time (hint, discharges drop in time of conflict), suggesting that there isn't really any factual emergency when it comes to gays in the military.  And as the testimony of a high level NATO official shows, the whole concern about unit cohesion is totally bogus.  So while the judges, bureaucrats and the assholes in Congress are working on this one, why not stop enforcement of DADT?

As for the DOJ appeal of the DADT ruling, I suppose they didn't have a choice.  But again, it matters how you do this.  Amy Davidson makes some good points on this here, in particular about the wording of the DOJ motion.  

As for Obama's insistance that DODT "will end on my watch", I'd like to see where he gets his ballsy certainty from.  Will it end on his watch when the newly Republican House and possibly Republican Senate vote to repeal it?  What else will they do while they are at it?  Pass a climate change bill and an immigration overhaul?  Clearly, saying that the Congress will do anything is an empty promise and acting like it's self-evident means that either he is delusional or believes that we must be, and I don't know which is worse.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Life's Good Now.

Carboloading.

Yea, right.

Friday, October 15, 2010

NATO Official on Gays in Military: "It's Working Out Quite Well"

Reposting this interview with Chairman of NATO's Military Committee, because this needs to reposted again and again and again.

BLITZER: Let's talk about gays serving openly in the military. It's a big debate here in the United States as you well know, right now. Most of the NATO allies, including in Italy, allow gays to serve openly in the military. How is that working out in the NATO alliance? 

DI PAOLA: I think it's working out quite well. In the end, fundamentally, the issue here is the sexual orientation is not an issue insofar as you being a soldier or whatever you would be in the environment you are working for, that is not a problem. Sexual orientation is a personal matter, not a matter for state policy. 

BLITZER: So it hasn't undermined unit cohesion, combat readiness? 

DI PAOLA: Absolutely not. If there is misconduct, applied to a gay or non-gay, that would be treated as misconduct. So your sexual orientation does not have to influence the environment in which you work. 

BLITZER: When NATO troops, whether from Canada, Britain, or Germany, or France or Italy, serve in Afghanistan, for example, with U.S. combat troops and there are gays serving side by side, have you seen one example of an incident that has undermined the ability to fight? 

DI PAOLA: I have not seen it. I am not aware of it. Of course, I don't know all the cases that might have happened. But I'm not aware of any cases of any relevance. 

Hipster Cat.

For Bernd and Cenk from Starbucks.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

No Amount of Running Can Help Me Now.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Ahma? How Papal of You.

I Love Running.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Seriously, Stop Obsessing About Paladino.

You probably heard all about it:  the Republican nominee for the governor of NY made a nasty remark about gays.  NY Times and NPR can't stop reporting about it.  Predictably, Andrew Sullivan reacts to Paladino's rant with his own typical Sullivan rant.  I take one look at Intrade and Pollster and say:  who gives a shit.  In all seriousness, the chances of him being elected are pretty slim, and clearly rants like this are not particularly helpful.  Yes, it is infuriating for a serious candidate for political post to be saying these things .. but honestly, maybe his slim chances of being elected are a testament to how marginal and extreme his views are?  So instead of wasting time and energy on him, can we all please get more sleep or run for 10 minutes?

Monday, October 11, 2010

"The Nobel thus not only crowns a career but provides the basis for a fine future Javier Bardem/Antonio Banderas movie."

Gay Marriage Trivia.

Due to reasons I may (or may not) discuss another time, I was on the Wikipedia page on civil partnerships in the UK and on the right hand side, in the list of countries and jurisdictions that recognize same-sex marriage, I see a list: United States: CT, DC, IA, MA, NH, VT, Coquille.  Huh?  Well, apparently Coquille is an Indian tribe in Oregon which legalized same-sex marriage in 2008.  “We want all people to be open to benefits and accepted in our group,” stated the Tribal Chief.  

Friday, October 8, 2010

Bad, Bad Due Process!

A terrorist is on trial.  The key witness is not allowed to testify since his identify was revealed as a result of torture.  The terrorist might possibly be acquitted.  As Glenn Greenwald points out, the neocons are angry at Obama for subjecting us all to the inconvenience that is due process.  

And of course they are also angry at the assholes who tortured the guy and botched the case in the first place.  Finally faced with potentially adverse consequences of torture - a terrorist could be acquitted - they insist on investigating the torture regime of the previous administration.  

A man can dream, no?

Marathon Mania Begins.

___
Alex Kristofcak
917.742.2713

Cue the applause?

Welcome to 2002, douchebags.

___
Alex Kristofcak
917.742.2713

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Seasonal goodness.

Totally forgot to post an update.  A pretty fun month .. ESPECIALLY PUMPKINS!

Source.

1 Month To Go!

“There’s class warfare, all right. But it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Want to feel good about yourself?

"There's a lot more butter around than we all thought there was."

Online World.

"Plains of Awkwardly Public Family Interactions."  HA.

Taliban in Afghanistan, Back to Future.

This is quite bizarre.  In 2001, when the US attacked Afghanistan "to find Osama bin Laden and other high-ranking Al-Qaeda members to be put on trial, to destroy the organization of Al-Qaeda, and to remove the Taliban regime which supported and gave safe harbor to it," few probably imagined that the outcome of the war would be for the Taliban to be in the government of Afghanistan.  And yet, that is what is apparently happening, according to this article, which says that Karzai is in talks with the Taliban over a negotiated end to the war.  

I would lie if I said I can envision a different end to the war.  But God, how dispiriting:  after all these years of fighting, how is one to feel about the fact that Taliban might be back in power in Afghanistan?  And not because we failed to stop them from doing so by force but rather because they negotiated some sort of a deal?  And how does the "surge" factor into this?  What about the counter-insurgency strategy?  The administration will have a lot of explaining to do.  

More importantly, if a negotiated settlement with our original enemy ("we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them") is indeed the ultimate solution, can we all please stop for a moment and agree on the obvious conclusion to leads to with regards to American military intervention in foreign lands?  Please?

Wanda Sykes: "Neh, nobody's gonna bully me, come on."

Wanda Sykes, Kathy Griffin and Tim Gunn.  It's like gay cocaine.

Evil Genius? Who cares.

Pretty good article from the Times about Zuckerberg. I genuinely believe that success on this scale is 5% skill and 95% total randomness (right place, right time, etc). That said, the movie was super fun. http://nyti.ms/atfaaF

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Stewart on Gross

Aww.

Re: today's Brooks column, maybe the White House should care less about what Brooks thinks?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Quote of the Day.

Oh that's nice to start early. Because then you can stop sucking sooner.

David Sedaris.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Plan.

Ezra writes:

"I have a plan that will raise wages, lower prices, increase the nation's stock of scientists and engineers, and maybe even create the next Google. Better yet, this plan won't cost the government a dime. In fact, it'll save money. A lot of money. But few politicians are going to want to touch it.


Here's the plan: More immigration. A pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants. And a recognition that immigration policy is economic policy and needs to be thought of as such."

Ah, yes, something I have written about many times. Many many many many times.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book Editing Fail.

Indeed, consider the "nearly $100 million Kenneth Lewis earned as CEO of Bank of America in 2007, as he was leading the bank toward collapse (and absorption by Merrill Lynch)."

Wait, wasn't it the other way around?








Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tony The Wonderful.


Ah, I hope that I won't have enough spare time in my lifetime to run out of things to read by Tony Judt.

In his most recent essay in the NYRB, he makes a really interesting link between the unquestioning faith in communism among Marxists of the last century to today's widespread faith in capitalism.

Our contemporary faith in “the market” rigorously tracks its radical nineteenth-century doppelgänger—the unquestioning belief in necessity, progress, and History. Just as the hapless British Labour chancellor in 1929–1931, Philip Snowden, threw up his hands in the face of the Depression and declared that there was no point opposing the ineluctable laws of capitalism, so Europe’s leaders today scuttle into budgetary austerity to appease “the markets.”

But “the market”—like “dialectical materialism”—is just an abstraction: at once ultra-rational (its argument trumps all) and the acme of unreason (it is not open to question). It has its true believers—mediocre thinkers by contrast with the founding fathers, but influential withal; its fellow travelers—who may privately doubt the claims of the dogma but see no alternative to preaching it; and its victims, many of whom in the US especially have dutifully swallowed their pill and proudly proclaim the virtues of a doctrine whose benefits they will never see.

Above all, the thrall in which an ideology holds a people is best measured by their collective inability to imagine alternatives. We know perfectly well that untrammeled faith in unregulated markets kills: the rigid application of what was until recently the “Washington consensus” in vulnerable developing countries—with its emphasis on tight fiscal policy, privatization, low tariffs, and deregulation—has destroyed millions of livelihoods. Meanwhile, the stringent “commercial terms” on which vital pharmaceuticals are made available has drastically reduced life expectancy in many places. But in Margaret Thatcher’s deathless phrase, “there is no alternative.”

It was in just such terms that communism was presented to its beneficiaries following World War II; and it was because History afforded no apparent alternative to a Communist future that so many of Stalin’s foreign admirers were swept into intellectual captivity. But when Miłosz published The Captive Mind, Western intellectuals were still debating among genuinely competitive social models—whether social democratic, social market, or regulated market variants of liberal capitalism. Today, despite the odd Keynesian protest from below the salt, a consensus reigns.

For Miłosz, “the man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are.” This is doubtless so and explains the continuing skepticism of the Eastern European in the face of Western innocence. But there is nothing innocent about Western (and Eastern) commentators’ voluntary servitude before the new pan-orthodoxy. Many of them, Ketman-like, know better but prefer not to raise their heads above the parapet. In this sense at least, they have something truly in common with the intellectuals of the Communist age. One hundred years after his birth, fifty-seven years after the publication of his seminal essay, Miłosz’s indictment of the servile intellectual rings truer than ever: “his chief characteristic is his fear of thinking for himself.”

This struck a chord in me. Consider something I wrote almost 2 years ago, as world seemed to be going into a complete meltdown:

Growing up in post-Communist Slovakia, I was a part of a young generation that was never fully indoctrinated with the theories of Marxism and Leninism. Anxious to be as western as possible, we embraced the ideas of the free market like a religion. Capitalism was cool, it was the only way to be. Today, as I listen to Greenspan, and read more about behavioral economics, I am increasingly aware that what may have previously seemed like an axiom was really just a doctrine. Maybe it is right, maybe not, but still nothing more than a doctrine.

Just for the record, my views haven't changed in the last two years. If anything, everything we know now about how the crisis developed further undermines the belief in rational fair markets. Amazingly, this knowledge was not enough to fuel really dramatic reforms. Oh well.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Case For .. Whatever.


It has been almost 1.5 years since I got angry over an editorial at the National Review Online about the "Future of Marriage." In case you haven't read that piece, let's just say that that "future" didn't have much room for gay couples. And in case you haven't read my reaction, let's just say it was not peaceful.

This month, the editors have gifted us with another think piece on gay marriage, this one titled "The Case for Marriage." And while my insides were boiling while reading it, after thinking about it a little, I was overcome by a gratifying sense that it illustrates that we're winning. Consider the fact that the NRO feels compelled to make the case in the first place. It shouldn't be surprising, of course - they are making the case for a position they held for a long time. And yet, it feels like an act of desperation: they are trying, yet again, before it's too late, before the events around them render them completely obsolete, to say their piece. Of course, that is my interpretation, but check this out: In their article from April 2009, they start out by saying:

"Contrary to common perception, however, the public is not becoming markedly more favorable toward same-sex marriage. Support for same-sex marriage rose during the 1990s but seems to have frozen in place (at least according to Gallup) since the high court of Massachusetts invented a right to same-sex marriage earlier this decade."

In today's editorial, we read this:

"If it is true, as we are constantly told, that American law will soon redefine marriage to accommodate same-sex partnerships, the proximate cause for this development will not be that public opinion favors it, although it appears to be moving in that direction."

Nice shift. Here's what happened during the time between the two articles:
- Federal judge in California declares Prop 8 unconstitutional
- CNN poll finds that 52% of Americans are in favor of gay marriage
- AP poll finds that 52% of Americans are in favor of gay marriage

Clearly, the NRO is on the defensive here, and oh how good it feels:

"It may be that the conventional wisdom is correct, and legal recognition of same-sex marriage really is our inevitable future. Perhaps it will even become an unquestioned policy and all who resisted it will be universally seen as bigots. We doubt it, but cannot exclude the possibility. If our understanding of marriage changes in this way, so much the worse for the future."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

50-Something Days Left, Or: I Can Eat What I Want Without Worrying About What I Will Look Like At The Fire Island Pines Underwear Party.



Rainbow at a gay wedding in Massachusetts.

Welcome to the fall. The leaves are turning funny colors, the air is getting dry and cold, the hot naked bodies have disappeared from Central Park, and the oven is on 400F non-stop, doing what it can to satisfy my perma-craving for baked goods. Oh yea, and we're training for the marathon.

You could barely tell I'm training given how little I have been running. It's been by far the most relaxed training season ever. I mean, I don't even know my weekly mileage. I just religiously follow my training plan (most runs are time-based, not mile-based, hence my ignorance), running at most 4 times per week. And I am only up to 14 miles in my long run this week. This is quite a step back since my last running update and it happened for a good reason: the herniated disc which prevented me from running Paris has struck again, so I had to stop running for all of July and half of August. Leading up to it, I was running so much that 12 miles was just something I would run for fun on a Wednesday, often reaching north of 40 miles per week - in June. Obviously my body was like "um, no" and by early July I could barely run at all. Luckily, this happened in early July and not in October.

Olive has been instrumental in motivating me for my runs, since she is the only creature alive who I can run with and not be dropped. Having come back from an injury at a time when everyone else has been running all summer, I am super slow compared to all my friends. It's not that Olive isn't faster than me (in short distances at least). But, alas, she's a dog, and being a human with a leash gives me certain advantages over her that wouldn't necessarily be cool with my friends .. not while running anyway.

So now I'm back at it, with my legs 95% ok, still seeing a physical therapist and doing what I can to get my miles in and cross that damn finish line. After singing up for and missing 2 marathons in 3 years due to injuries, I am determined to finish this fucker. Also, I have made a commitment to raise money for Team Continuum and I am planning to keep that promise. They are a really cool organization that helps out people with cancer as well as researchers and facilities focused on cancer treatment. It's a very personal choice for me, as cancer has struck both in my family and among my friends, luckily with no tragic consequences. And that's kind of the point - I have seen first hand that with the right care and support, cancer can often be treated successfully. So please donate to this great cause.

Cheers,
A

Friday, September 3, 2010

Is Brooks Naive, Misinformed or Downright Stupid?


I was all but ready to have a lovely peaceful Friday afternoon, and then Daniel pointed out today's column by David Douchebag Brooks. In it he lays out his vision of an alternate reality in which the Democrats would not have been heading towards a terrible election.

1. Apparently, things would have been much better if back in early 2009 Obama understood that Americans will "recoil at the prospect of federal debt without end" and instead of more spending, proposed a stimulus that relied heavily on cutting payroll taxes which would "send a quick jolt to the economy without concentrating power in Washington." OMG, where do I begin?
a. Deficit = Spending - Taxes. More spending increases the deficit; cutting taxes increases the deficit. Suggesting that a stimulus program that relies on lowering taxes instead of higher spending would somehow have been less bad for the size of the US deficit is either total idiocy or a display of the typical Republican hypocrisy when it comes to deficits: they are only bad if they come from higher spending. For more details on this strange logic, see Bush tax cuts circa 2001-2003.
b. Later in the column, Brooks fantasizes: "Obama put [puts?] signs around the White House: “No Quick Fixes.” Administration officials were forbidden from promising a short-term summer of recovery." EXCEPT, I guess, when the columnist suggests that tax cuts would "send a quick jolt to the economy." So which is it, David? Do we stop promising quick fixes? Or are you suggesting that there are no quick fixes WITH THE SOLE EXCEPTION of cutting taxes? How fucking convenient for a conservative to believe that!
c. For a program that Brooks implies was all about spending, the stimulus actually had a surprising amount of tax cuts. In fact, over 1/3 of its total size came from tax cuts. Best of it all, almost 1/2 of these tax cuts came from payroll taxes.. in other words, exactly what Brooks is suggesting the president could have done to avoid a historic defeat in December.

2. "At about that time, General Motors and Chrysler started teetering. Obama decided to help the companies if they were willing to make the tough choices that would boost long-term competitiveness. It occurred to him that this was the template for the whole country." I guess Brooks is somehow implying that the administration somehow failed in this respect.. though it seems to me that what actually happened was precisely what he describes AND, if anything, it worked well .. For more details, see the $1.3 billion in profit GM reported in the last quarter!

3. "April brought the cruelest fight: whether to spend the rest of the year getting health care reform or a new energy policy. Obama decided to do energy first. The economy was uppermost on everybody’s mind. Americans were wondering where new innovations would come from, what new jobs would emerge.By doing energy first, Democrats were able to spend the entire summer talking about technological advances, private sector growth and breakthrough productivity gains. Obama toured one small business after another, and got his energy bill." Do I even have to refute that?

In summary: Obama would have been hailed as savior and the Democrats loved, had they only cut taxes, bailed out the car manufacturers, told people to expect a slow gradual recovery, and passed energy reform first. Gosh, I am no huge fan of many things Obama has done but this analysis is total horse shit.

On a Roll!


Inspired by a teammate's recent post on shredded pork, I developed an immense appetite for some shredded goodness. But 6 hours of cooking were a huge turn off. I know slow cooking is a beautiful thing, but when I want something, I want it ASAP. So naturally, I started thinking about using the pressure cooker. I went to Fairway, got a piece of smoked pork butt, threw it in the pressure cooker for 30 minutes (and used the "natural release method" for the pressure to subside, IE, allowing it to sit while I went for a run with Olive and Hiro) and voilà! -the meat just fell apart between my fingers! I mixed in some BBQ sauce (a smoky flavor.. maybe one day I will attempt to make my own, but honestly.. there is only so much a girl can do in one night!) and served it on a brioche bun with slow-sautéed onions and peppers. Wow, I think I saw Jesus that night.

I decided recently that I need to do more baking. I have a lot of kitchen toys that are just sitting there most days, collecting dust, AND I have a big appetite for desserts (as well as a boyfriend who has an even greater appetite for desserts!), so I really wanted to do more pastry. To start, I picked something relatively simple: upside down apricot cake. I did my best to make this recipe less of a calorie/cholesterol bomb than it was (subbing butter with Earth Balance and part of the sugar with Splenda) .. but it still turned out to be ridiculously decadent. But so fucking good.


My next pick was inspired by our recent trip to France, where the pastries are obviously insanely good. I wanted to make something with an almond filling, which both me and Daniel totally adore. So I picked an Almond Pear Tart .. of course I modified it to be a little less heart-attack inducing but there is only so much you can do when a recipe calls for 2 sticks of butter! It turned out so beautiful that I was afraid to try it - what if the flavor is a let down? Well, holy shit, it was not. I was sitting on the sofa literally going "um, I think I took this to a whole new level." Damn right I did. I also think it motivated Daniel to wake up this morning and do a bike workout.. or at least talk about doing one.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Hello September!


Things in season, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Beginning of the Fall.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Terrorist Babies Attack, ctd.

Clearly, there is much more to be said on immigration. Right after finishing up my article on the topic, I check Matthew Yglesias' blog and he points me to a cool study about the effects of immigration on the labor market:
"Data show that, on net, immigrants expand the U.S. economy’s productive capacity, stimulate investment, and promote specialization that in the long run boosts productivity. Consistent with previous research, there is no evidence that these effects take place at the expense of jobs for workers born in the United States."
In a subsequent post, he theorizes that allowing more immigrants in the US would be good for the housing market. Makes sense to me, although I can already see the hysterical headlines:

Foreigner Demand for Houses Pushes Out Americans!

Terrorist Babies Attack!

While last summer US Democrats were conspiring to kill off sick seniors, this summer, flocks of pregnant foreign females are flying all over the US and dropping babies, which upon touchdown start sucking up public resources and multiplying at an astonishing pace! Depending on who you believe, these offspring are either created to eventually provide US citizenship for their parents, or they are being planted as terrorist sleeper cells only to blow up when they reach the age of 18 or when they are fed after midnight, whichever comes first. It’s August in America and everything is possible!!

"People come here to have babies. They come here to drop a child. It's called “drop and leave.” To have a child in America, they cross the border, they go to the emergency room, have a child, and that child's automatically an American citizen. That shouldn't be the case." These were the words of Lindsey Graham, the Republican Senator from South Carolina, who at the end of July suggested that Americans should rethink the 14th Amendment of the Constitution which grants US citizenship to anyone born in the US. And thus the principle of birthright was brought into the spotlight, creating much ado during these hot summer months.

This debate is as inconsequential as it is unsurprising. It’s lack of consequence is twofold: procedurally, it is impossible in the present political climate to amend the US constitution, so any suggestion to do so is unlikely to go anywhere; substantively, the number of children born to two foreign parents on the US soil - let alone to parents who come here specifically for the purposes of giving birth - is so comically small that the amount of attention it receives is wildly disproportionate. In other words, the debate is a ridiculous waste of time and attention span for everyone involved.

And yet no one should be surprised that it surfaced now. Ever since the state of Arizona passed a stringent immigration law in April, immigration has gone from being just another big national problem (next to health care, financial crisis, climate change, national debt, etc) to being a hotly debated issue. And any time a major complex issue comes to the forefront of collective consciousness, someone, somewhere manages to cut out a tiny sliver of the problem and completely blow it out of proportion - often reducing the entire complex issue into this one pseudo-controversial bit.

Those who paid attention to the health care reform debate last year will recognize a pattern. Back then, after months of committee hearings and negotiations on various aspects of the health care overhaul, some opponents of the proposed bill picked up on a paragraph which called for paying physicians for end-of-life counseling. This provision was distorted and portrayed as a “death panel” which will decide whether or not we should “pull the plug on grandma.” Very quickly, the hysteria over death panels became the defining element of the debate, and almost killed the nascent reform entirely. Anchor babies are the new death panels.

The amount of attention that the narrow issue of birthright receives is unfortunate because it takes away from other critical aspects of the immigration debate, namely: what should be done with roughly 11 million illegal immigrants already in the US? And how should the law governing immigration be revamped and modernized to reflect the realities and needs of the country? For a nation of immigrants, the US has a fairly spotty record in the its treatment of foreigners, and for every wave of immigrants, there is a corresponding wave of anti-immigrant backlash - anti-Chinese laws in the late nineteenth century and depression-era deportations of Mexicans are just a few examples.

But no matter which way the winds blow at any given time, immigrants are a vital component of the US, not just conceptually, but also economically: according to a landmark study by the National Research Council, the average immigrant and her immediate descendants contribute $80,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits. The reason for this is twofold: even though they are not eligible to use benefits due to their status, most illegal immigrants actually pay income and social security taxes - the tax authorities have smartly figured out that there is no harm in collecting money from them and don’t ask too many questions of those using fake documentation. Legal immigrants, on the other hand, have to earn above-average incomes in order to be eligible for work visas or permanent residency (so as not to compete with natives on the basis of lower pay), so by design they actually end up on the top end of the income scale, paying a disproportionate amount of taxes relative to the rest of the population.

Despite these contributions, when the economy goes south and millions of Americans lose their jobs, immigrants are almost inevitably portrayed as an existential threat. The current recession is no exception. It is one of the great ironies of this debate that while rising unemployment seems to inflate the anxiety about foreigners, immigration - legal and illegal - has actually been on the decline: according to the Department of Homeland Security, the number of illegal immigrants dropped almost 1 million in 2009, the second consecutive annual drop and the largest such drop in three decades. And it is not just illegal immigration that has been on the decline - the demand for work visas for foreign workers has dropped so much when the current recession began that in 2009 the quota for visa applications was unfilled - for the first time since 2004. So, while the opponents of immigration reform often talk as if the country was bursting at the seams with an ever-growing influx of foreigners, the recent experience - largely due to the weak economy - has been quite to the contrary.

An ever greater irony is that the US not only benefits from immigrants - it needs them desperately. The population is aging due to the generation of baby boomers growing older and reaching retirement age. What that means is that the number of people who qualify for benefits like Medicare and social security is rising dramatically - and much faster that the number of young productive people who pay for these benefits with taxes. The situation is getting even grimmer with the birth rate is dropping to the lowest level in US history in 2009, according to recently released statistics from National Center for Health Statistics. What these trends add up to is roughly $100 trillion (as in, $100,000,000,000,000) in unfunded liabilities - the difference between projected payments to beneficiaries and projected tax payments by working adults. Of course, the situation could be remedied by cutting benefits or raising taxes. But neither one of those seems possible or likely. Benefit cuts are a political suicide in a country with such a large - and politically active - senior population. Tax increases are not a slam dunk either - with one party opposing them religiously and the other party scared to do anything that might hurt the economy. In fact, it seems like replenishing the population with productive immigrants who can support the burgeoning geriatric class is the most viable option.

So while Americans are passionately debating the pros and cons of birthright citizenship, they are entirely misguided: the challenge is not how to reduce immigration - something which is happening on its own - but rather how to bring in immigrants as fast as possible. The steps taken in Congress so far demonstrate this confusion: earlier this month, Democrats in the Congress passed a bill which finances $600 million in border security funding through substantially higher visa fees for companies that hire foreign workers. Because border security is a big concern for Republicans, these anti-immigrant measures are being interpreted by some as a negotiating tactic by the Democrats to facilitate broader reform down the line. That would make sense, but only if I had been asleep during the year-long health care reform negotiation: time and time again, we saw such strategic concessions by the Democrats yield no results except to move the debate further to the right. So while it might be unwise to write off immigration reform at this point, I worry that given the direction in which this debate is going the final reform - if it ever happens - will totally miss the point.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Soros on the Euro.

Pretty depressing stuff. On the role of Germany:
"And this brings me to the gravest defect in the euro’s design: it does not allow for error. It expects member states to abide by the Maastricht criteria—which state that the budget deficit must not exceed 3 percent and total government debt 60 percent of GDP—without establishing an adequate enforcement mechanism. And now that several countries are far away from the Maastricht criteria, there is neither an adjustment mechanism nor an exit mechanism. Now these countries are expected to return to the Maastricht criteria even if such a move sets in motion a deflationary spiral. This is in direct conflict with the lessons learned from the Great Depression of the 1930s, and is liable to push Europe into a period of prolonged stagnation or worse. That will, in turn, generate discontent and social unrest. It is difficult to predict how the anger and frustration will express itself.

The wide range of possibilities will weigh heavily on the financial markets. They will have to discount the prospects of deflation and inflation, default and disintegration. Financial markets dislike uncertainty. Meanwhile, xenophobic and nationalistic extremism are already on the rise in countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy. In a worst-case scenario, such political trends could undermine democracy and paralyze or even destroy the European Union.

If that were to happen, Germany would have to bear a major share of the responsibility because as the strongest and most creditworthy country it calls the shots. By insisting on pro-cyclical policies, Germany is endangering the European Union. I realize that this is a grave accusation but I am afraid it is justified.

To be sure, Germany cannot be blamed for wanting a strong currency and a balanced budget. But it can be blamed for imposing its predilection on other countries that have different needs and preferences—like Procrustes, who forced other people to lie in his bed and stretched them or cut off their legs to make them fit. The Procrustes bed being inflicted on the eurozone is called deflation.

Unfortunately Germany does not realize what it is doing. It has no desire to impose its will on Europe; all it wants to do is to maintain its competitiveness and avoid becoming the deep pocket for the rest of Europe. But as the strongest and most creditworthy country, it is in the driver’s seat. As a result Germany objectively determines the financial and macroeconomic policies of the eurozone without being subjectively aware of it. When all the member countries try to be like Germany they are bound to send the eurozone into a deflationary spiral. That is the effect of the policies pursued by Germany and—since Germany is in the driver’s seat—these are the policies imposed on the eurozone.

The German public does not understand why it should be blamed for the troubles of the eurozone. After all, it is the most successful economy in Europe, fully capable of competing in world markets. The troubles of the eurozone feel like a burden weighing Germany down. It is difficult to see what would change this perception because the troubles of the eurozone are depressing the euro and, being the most competitive of the countries in the eurozone, Germany benefits the most. As a result Germany is likely to feel the least pain of all the member states.

The error in the German attitude can best be brought home by engaging in a thought experiment. The most ardent instigators of that attitude would prefer that Germany leave the euro rather than modify its position. Let us consider where that would lead.

The Deutschmark would go through the roof and the euro would fall through the floor. This would indeed help the adjustment process of the other countries but Germany would find out how painful it can be to have an overvalued currency. Its trade balance would turn negative and there would be widespread unemployment. German banks would suffer severe exchange rate losses and require large injections of public funds. But the government would find it politically more acceptable to rescue German banks than Greece or Spain. And there would be other compensations: pensioners could retire to Spain and live like kings, helping Spanish real estate to recover.

Let me emphasize that this scenario is totally hypothetical because it is extremely unlikely that Germany would be allowed to leave the euro and to do so in a friendly manner. Germany’s exit would be destabilizing financially, economically, and above all politically. The collapse of the single market would be difficult to avoid. The purpose of this thought experiment is to convince Germany to change its ways without going through the actual experience that its current policies hold in store.
"

Friday, July 9, 2010

Not Funny.


Instead of the usual "omigod-I-haven't-blogged-in-forever" I will just paste in my new article for Zahranicna Politika that has kept me busy, on a topic that has been a lot on my mind. Arguably I am not an expert on Afghanistan and therefore never had a strong view on what the US should do there, which has historically prevented me from writing about it. But that's really a cop out. If you care about something you can always become more informed and form a firmer opinion. And since the US military involvement in Afghanistan is the longest active war ever, and chances are it will be an increasingly important component of the political discourse, there are plenty of reasons to care about it. So after the recent faux pas with General McChrystal I read a lot of stuff from different people on the war and my article reflects a viewpoint that I formed as a result. Anyway, here it is.

Not Funny

The idea of a top US army general agreeing to be the subject of a magazine profile that ends up getting him fired seems almost comical. The hubris necessary to allow being followed and showcased by a magazine (one with a clear anti-war record, no less) and in the process opening up to a reporter who happily transcribed every incriminating quote - that just seems like something taken out of an episode of M.A.S.H., a black comedy TV show based on the Korean and Vietnam wars.

And yet, when General Stanley McChrystal was forced to resign from his position as Commander of US forces in Afghanistan due to a profile published in the Rolling Stone magazine, no one was laughing. Apart from comments mocking several civilian officials which were the reason why the article attracted attention in the first place and ultimately why McChrystal was replaced, the article offered a rather depressing portrayal of the state of affairs in Afghanistan and a rather scathing criticism of the whole operation, concluding with the following assessment: “So far, counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war. There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word "victory" when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.

And so, a mere 8 months since President Obama pledged to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan - upon McChrystal’s urging - this episode has forced many to reexamine the operation in Afghanistan.

Whether one agrees with the war or not, there are good reasons to believe that the current strategy of counterinsurgency (COIN) - a two pronged approach of taking over areas from insurgents, replacing them with Afghan government while infusing the local population with monetary aid - is not working. First, judging from the number of troops employed and lost, the vast expense, and the sheer amount of time spent in Afghanistan it seems like the US is simply not getting any smarter in fighting the insurgency. And even in the event of clearing an area from insurgents, the job is not over. One of the key components of the strategy is for the Afghan government to establish administration and ultimately take over security from US and NATO forces. Peter Galbraith, who served as deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to Afghanistan in 2009, wrote that this strategy can only work if the Afghan government can provide honest administration to win the loyalty of the local population. However, “in too many instances, the nominal government authorities are powerless, corrupt, working with both sides in the conflict, or all of the above. Karzai’s national government cannot remedy any of this. It is corrupt, ineffective, and widely seen as illegitimate.” Clearly, it doesn’t help that Hamid Karzai came to office through an election that was unmistakably fraudulent. And because the US embraced Karzai they are now relying on his government to fulfill a critical function, something it cannot do due to its shady origins.

The second prong of COIN - pouring aid to the local population - might not be effective and could be making the situation worse. Research by Andrew Wilder and Stuart Gordon on the ground in Afghanistan found “little evidence of aid projects winning hearts and minds or promoting stability.” What they observed was the main reason given by the Afghans they interviewed for the growing insurgency was the “corrupt and unjust government.” Additionally, they observed that “the single overriding criticism of aid was the strong belief that it was fueling massive corruption, which undermined some of the positive impacts it may have otherwise had.”

Still, even if the counterinsurgency strategy is not terribly effective, that doesn’t necessarily mean the US should pack up and leave. It is, however, instructive to ask, why is it that the US is in Afghanistan in the first place. One almost forgets that the answer is not “bringing peace and prosperity to the Afghans” but rather “9/11 and al-Qaeda”. In light of that original objective, it was interesting to hear the CIA director Leon Panetta recently admit that “we're looking at 50 to 100, maybe less” al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and that most of the terrorist network is operating from the western tribal region of Pakistan. Certainly, it seems odd to spend $100 billion in 2010 alone to target such a small group. Indeed the objective of the war seems to have shifted as the primary enemy fled to another country altogether. The US is no longer hunting down al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; instead they are making sure that Afghanistan can never again serve as the breeding ground for terrorism against the US.

For many who insist on US military presence in Afghanistan the need to prevent the creation of a security “vacuum” is probably the most compelling argument. Even those who oppose the war in principle, are hard pressed to advocate a withdrawal, often citing this reason. On the surface the argument makes sense: before 9/11, the Taliban harbored al-Qaeda; if the US were to withdraw from Afghanistan it would be leaving behind empty ground for the enemy to come back to. In other words, the US is stuck. In reality, it is not at all clear that the presence in Afghanistan did not contribute to a greater security threat by potentially destabilizing Pakistan. The last terrorist attempt in the US, after all, seems to have been organized by the Pakistani Taliban. Besides, even in the event of a complete success in Afghanistan (and, by extension, Pakistan) who is to say that al-Qaeda won’t find a new base somewhere - and if they do, how many countries can the US afford to invade, rebuild from scratch and immunize from potential terrorist-harboring - especially when the track record in Afghanistan is as terrible as it is?

In reality, it is hard to envision the US civilian leadership going against the recommendations of the military and suggest a withdrawal from Afghanistan any time soon - the politics of the situation offers little reward for wanting to skimp on counter terrorism measures and high costs for any potential failure. Our best hope, as Matthew Iglesias of the Center for American Progress Action Fund suggested, is that the leadership redefines success: instead of shooting for a full blown transformation in Afghanistan, they need to reframe the problem and stake out smaller achievable goals that will allow them to declare victory at some point in the foreseeable future and put them on track for downsizing the US involvement. Otherwise we might be looking at another Vietnam war - a lengthy expensive and painful conflict with no discernible accomplishment to speak of - except maybe some equivalent of M.A.S.H.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Aura.

It happened a few hours ago and it caught me by surprise. Suddenly my vision started deteriorating. Large patches of my field of vision became blurry. A circular shape of something formed in my eyes that kept me from seeing properly. Even when I could read something, I couldn't discern anything two words over. I started freaking out: am I going blind?

Concerned, I texted Daniel, who called me back immediately. I started bawling, almost unable to say anything without crying even harder. We agreed I would call my doctor immediately while he would consult with a doctor friend. Then I remembered a coworker is actually an ophthalmologist by training so I stopped by his office.

"Oh it's a migraine," he said. Huh? I've had headaches before, even bad ones, ones I swore were migraines, but not once were they ever preceded by fucked up vision. Well, apparently, this was the real stuff - a migrane with aura.

Jesus F. Christ.. who knew? And more importantly, what else do I need to know? What other ailments can randomly occur that will make me feel like I'm losing my shit and then quickly go away?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Do It Do It Real Good!


The Europeans announced a massive one trillion dollar package to save Europe and the markets all over the world are up a shit load.

So what should you do with this newfound confidence in a bright prosperous future for all humankind?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Paris, Bratislava, New York, Philadelphia, Boston.. I'm Back to Running!


After the N-th hiatus, this time caused by a herniated-disc/foot-injury combo, I am happy to report that I am back to running! And not just a casual run here and there, but a semi-regular running routine.

One of the ways you know you're running regularly is when a trip (vacation or work) doesn't serve as an excuse to not run but instead provides new exciting venues to get the miles in. It's been fun tracking these with the Garmin.

And so here, let me present to you:



(This map doesn't quite do justice to the kind of run that this was - here's the elevation map - brutal!)



Yay!


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Conservative Political Nihilism.

During the healthcare debate, Senator Lamar Alexander famously said
"we've come to the conclusion that we don't do comprehensive well .. Our country is too big, too complicated, too decentralized for Washington, a few of us here, just to write a few rules about remaking 17 percent of the economy all at once. That sort of thinking works in a classroom, but it doesn't work very well in our big, complicated country."
A few days ago, we were told by David Brooks:
"we should all probably calm down about politics. Most of the proposals we argue about so ferociously will have only marginal effects on how we live, especially compared with the ethnic, regional and social differences that we so studiously ignore."
These two ideas have something in common - namely, the implication that we shouldn't try too hard. The logic of these ideas aside, I just have to say that between the guy who doesn't even try to lift a finger because he doesn't think he can accomplish anything and the guy who choses to work hard to improve the world around him however hard it may seem, I find the latter the more appealing and less lazy convenient position.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Big Race.

So, I signed up to run the 2010 NYC marathon.

It will be exactly 3 years since my last marathon. And it will be the 3rd marathon I signed up to run since that last marathon. First, there was Chicago 2008, which I ended up not running due to a combination of injuries, laziness and general lack of motivation. Then there was Paris 2010, which I signed up for all gung-ho after watching the '09 NYC marathon and started training excessively - reaching 50 miles per week in early December - only to be sidelined by a crippling herniated disc and a foot injury. So I really hope that this time around I make it to the marathon start line injury free.

It is difficult to explain why I signed up. Yes, there are the 20 pounds I gained since last summer and with the approaching 3-0 that is a scary trend. But there are less painful ways to reverse that. Frankly, the memory of running 20 miles in 85 degree temperatures makes my stomach turn. But I also remember the fun of the experience .. not just the race itself but also training with friends. And I know that without the structure of a training program, I am increasingly unable to commit to a workout routine. On top of all that, there is now an extra reason to run - the charity that got me my running spot - Team Continuum. To donate, please go here.

And so, here we go, New York. 6 months to go.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Void.

New article for Zahraničná politika. My other articles for them are here.

Void.

At the end of March, the United States Congress passed the long-debated health care reform legislation. Regardless of whether one supported or opposed the bill, everyone agreed that this was one of the most significant pieces of legislation to become law, on par with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - which abolished racial discrimination and segregation - and the Social Security Act of 1965 - which created Medicare and Medicaid, the health programs for the elderly and poor families.

The new law far from guarantees health care for everyone - illegal immigrants, not a negligible group, will be excluded from participation, for example. The mandates for everyone to purchase health insurance, we are finding out, are not particularly easy to enforce, and therefore probably not as draconian as they might sound. It is also far from a "government takeover" of health care - a common criticism levied against the new plan by its opponents - because for the most part it relies on the currently existing market mechanisms to expand health coverage. Far from the earth shattering vehicle it was often painted as, the law is in essence a relatively centrist collection of incremental steps. And yet - considering the decades of trying and the number of failed attempts - this was a giant leap towards universal health care in America. Obama himself probably described it best during the signing ceremony when he said that the law is not "radical" but "major".

As one might expect after such a major event - following months of obsessive tracking of the issue aided by virtually non-stop media coverage - I went through several emotional stages in the aftermath of reform: first, there was immense joy. It seemed almost unbelievable that against all odds the Democratic leadership managed to pass reform. I have predicted the death of reform in this column multiple times precisely because it was so difficult to pass. And yet, at the 11th hour, due to a unique congruence of forces, it happened. After joy, came relief. Finally, we can move on to other things, I thought. Health care has been sucking the air out of every room in DC for the last year and now we can deal with other pressing issues. And after relief, came sadness and void. Whether you're for it or against it, health care reform became the lingua franca in US politics, the political equivalent of weather talk. As complex an issue as health care may be, over the year that it was on the forefront of political conversation it became intimately familiar to anyone who paid any attention at all. Politicians, newsmen, commentators, bloggers - many developed a level of fluency on the topic that elevated it to national urgency the same way I imagine the country once debated slavery or the war in Vietnam. It was sad to see that go. However, the bigger part of this void is also due to the nagging question: what next?

Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of issues for the Congress to take up. Take finance reform. In the aftermath of one of the greatest economic downturns in history, the great minds in DC are wondering what could be done to prevent the same kind of meltdown from happening again. Many blame the near collapse of the financial system on the deregulation of the banking industry and are thus seeking to impose new regulatory oversight; others blame it on the unrestricted growth and risks the banks took and thus want to impose certain statutory limits or taxes on the banks. The banks - surprise! - are lobbying heavily to water down any attempt at reform: "You don't understand our business", they say, "anything you do could threaten our ability to provide liquidity to the economy!" To some, the more that can be done to decrease the size and the profitability of the banking sector - and thereby its political power and ability to draw talent from the rest of the economy - the better. The House of Representatives already passed its version of financial reform in December, while the Senate is currently developing its own bill. However, if three unsuccessful efforts to start the debate of the bill of the floor of the Senate are any indication, it's going to be a long battle.

Then there is climate change. Another priority of the Obama administration is to pass energy and climate legislation that would set America on a path to reducing emissions, increasing the share of energy that comes from renewable sources and lessening the dependence on fossil fuels. While the House of Representatives has already passed a bill in June of last year, the Senate has not even considered the issue due to its preoccupation with health care and more recently with financial regulation. However, a language of the Senate bill - cosponsored by both Democrats and Republicans - could be announced soon. This would be great news for the bill - having a Republican co-sponsor would virtually guarantee passage in the Senate. Perhaps climate change could pass relatively painlessly?

Or .. not. Releasing a bipartisan proposal was indeed the plan - at least until an entirely different issue suddenly emerged out of nowhere and quite possibly derailed everything: immigration. One lovely April day, the state of Arizona passed a harsh law to deal with illegal immigrants, namely by authorizing the local police to verify citizenship of suspicious people and arresting and fining those failing to prove their legal status in the US. The resulting national outcry - combined with large Hispanic population in several key states - created an interesting opportunity for the Democrats. Why not take up immigration on the Federal level to court a key constituency? The seeds of such an idea must have been planted in some Democratic heads because the Senate leadership quickly made it clear that they are debating weather they should act on climate or immigration first. As a result, the key Republican co-sponsor of the climate legislation threaten to withdraw his support for the effort, which could kill the bill before it even hits the Senate floor. And as for immigration reform - the grave need for it is only eclipsed by its contentiousness. If the Senate really goes down that path, we are looking at another long battle.

Financial regulation, climate change, immigration - there is no shortage of critical domestic issues. So why do I still feel the void I described above? Simply because there is a decent chance that none of these issues will see any resolution in the foreseeable future. First, any vote in the Senate requires a lot of cross-party cooperation and deal making. Democrats do not have the votes to pass anything without at least a handful of Republicans. While deal making isn't impossible, it is not easy. If health reform showed anything, it was that despite rhetoric to the contrary, Republican cooperation simply cannot be relied upon. Perhaps, given the popular support for financial reform, they will tread more cautiously this time around. However, the early signs are not good: recently they voted three times in unison against starting debate of the bill in the Senate. The other takeaway from health reform is that a bipartisan process is extremely time consuming. And that is the second reason why none of these issues are likely to see resolution during this Congress: shortage of time. The mid-term election in the fall means that all legislation needs to be considered before the summer. Once we reach the August recess, there will be no appetite among lawmakers to pass legislation, both because they will want to focus on campaigning and because they will try to avoid any controversial votes. Which leaves them with roughly 3 months to do anything. In DC time, that's an eye-blink. As a reminder, it took 3 months for the Democrats in the House of Representatives to take a vote on the Senate version of the health care bill. Something that should have been an easy step but wasn't because nothing is easy and quick in the Congress.

Maybe with some combination of luck and Herculean efforts the Democrats can muster the energy and drive to act on one of these very important issues. I'd like to be positively surprised. However, the window to pass legislation on the Democratic agenda before the mid-term elections is closing rapidly. And the currently predicted losses in both the House and the Senate during those elections won't help the Democrats' ability to do anything thereafter. Thank God for the existence of the executive branch, of without it we would be looking at some pretty uneventful years ahead.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What Did I Miss..


.. while I was volcanoed in Europe? Another heart-attack inducing David Brooks column, or course. Except this time I can spare my bile, as much more eloquent people have taken it on themselves to respond to him.

More on the volcano soon, when I manage to dig myself from under the pile of work that was waiting for me here.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Come on, buddy, ctd.

The video is important because it shows the kind of tragedy that is absolutely inevitable in wars likes the ones America has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, but especially in urban Baghdad: where a journalist and a militiaman can appear indistinguishable, where a gunner surrounded by noise and heat high in the sky will fail or choose not to look for complicating details in the scene far below, and where a van taking away a wounded man might be a legitimate target if it were a military vehicle in a conventional war. Those who say that incidents like this have been common in Iraq and Afghanistan are not wrong. The military’s claim that the soldiers followed their rules of engagement is probably not wrong either (though the attempted cover-up invites suspicion). Anyone who sends young troops into war should expect them to kill innocent people by mistake, and to crack jokes about the people they’ve killed. This doesn’t make them war criminals, or even moral monsters. Nor is it the whole truth about them, or about the war. But it’s a truth, and it should be seen.


The WikiLeaks video is not an indictment of the individual soldiers involved -- at least not primarily. Of course those who aren't accustomed to such sentiments are shocked by the callous and sadistic satisfaction those soldiers seem to take in slaughtering those whom they perceive as The Enemy (even when unarmed and crawling on the ground with mortal wounds), but this is what they're taught and trained and told to do. If you take even well-intentioned, young soldiers and stick them in the middle of a dangerous war zone for years and train them to think and act this way, this will inevitably be the result. The video is an indictment of the U.S. government and the war policies it pursues.

All of this is usually kept from us. Unlike those in the Muslim world, who are shown these realities quite frequently by their free press, we don't usually see what is done by us. We stay blissfully insulated from it, so that in those rare instances when we're graphically exposed to it, we can tell ourselves that it's all very unusual and rare.