Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On Sleep

I heard a pretty simple but amazing thing today on Fresh Air, while I was driving to pick up my new suit from the tailor, for my brother's wedding this weekend. (You may email me with congratulations.)

The guest was talking about how important it is for children to get a good night's sleep. He said that while adults spend only 4% of the night in what is called "low-wave" sleep, kids spend 40% of the night in low-wave sleep. Makes you want to know what's going on in low-wave sleep, right? You're not alone. According to his research, this is when your brain is chemically converting short-term memories into long-term memories.

Sick, right? Way to go humans!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Putting the public in option

I thought that only two things were clear from the New York Times poll on the front page of yesterday’s paper. First, everyone is confused. Second, people want the public option.

I was shocked by the second part (not the first part – I am also confused). Asked “Would you favor or oppose the government offering everyone a government-administered health insurance plan like Medicare, that would compete with private insurance plans?,” 65% or respondents favor such a program, 26% oppose, and 9% have no opinion. And to the first point, that is the only concrete statement about health care reform that more than two-fifths of respondents were able to answer. Has Obama explained it well enough? 37%. Do you understand what’s under consideration? 37%. Does the GOP have an articulated alternative? 14%. 14% is a coin flip among the 28% who weren’t listening to the question. And on all specific details, the preponderance of answers are “don’t know enough.”

But people seem to want the public option. From this poll – and it is only one poll – that strongly emerges as the only conclusion that people have drawn about what’s on the table. Seems like we should do it, then, huh?

By the way, 26% still think there are death panels.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Big is Beautiful

Paul Volcker says the administration is planning to continue the policy rationale of "too big to fail," implicitly promising future bailouts should the need arise.

I'm slightly disappointed, but that sentiment is starting to have a certain gnawing familiarity. There is an obvious public interest in keeping private institutions from becoming "too big to fail," but these megacorporations make so much money just based on scale - and spend so much of that money on Democrats - that I know I'm kidding myself to think anything would or could be done about it. By the way, donde estan Republicans on this? Where is your budget freakout about exposing taxpayers to these potential outlays? Where are your costumed nutjobs and their misspelled signs protesting government takeovers of things? You're really missing out on some out-of-power minority rock-throwing here.

On balance, I am actually okay with keeping the rationale - so long as the administration comes through on some kind of banker compensation rule such that it rewards long term growth as opposed to short-term stock price gains. Otherwise, bankers are just playing with house money.

If bringing up "excessive" banker compensation serves a polemic purpose in this fight, then fine. And if we have to ridicule the banking establishment's claims that the market is rewarding "talent," which I do find rankling, then so be it. But there's no real public interest in forestalling "objectively" high compensation, whatever that may be. If compensation is a market price arrived upon within bounds of the rule above, then great.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Obama's "correct and brave" decision

The Obama administration’s decision to scrap missile defense in Eastern Europe has shed some light on the following items of note:

--Despite claims to the contrary, the missile-defense shield, as originally conceived under the Bush administration, was intended to counter Russia, not Iran. Or at least that was the understanding of the Poles and Czechs. How else are we to explain their vehement objections to losing this supposedly anti-Iranian defense-shield when everyone agrees that Iran has zero intention--now or ever--of threatening Poland or the Czech Republic with missiles? Clearly, and somewhat understandably, the Poles and Czechs are worried about their historically not-so-friendly neighbor to the east.

--The right-wingers in America have been forced to show their hand that they, too, intended the shield to counter Russia. How else are we to explain the hissy-fit they are collectively throwing given that Obama’s new missile-defense plan will, in theory, be better suited to the Iranian threat than the former Eastern Europe-based shield, though it will be useless against Russia? If they really were worried about Iran--and Iran only--they should be cheering this change in course.

--The right-wingers have also revealed the degree to which they are still trapped in Cold War thinking. Their favorite word for describing Obama’s shift in policy is “appeasement.” They employ this highly-charged word so as to harken back to another “retreat from Czechoslovakia,” when Neville Chamberlain handed over the Sudetenland to Hitler’s Germany in 1938. The use of the word “appeasement” implies that the party being “appeased” is uncompromisingly aggressive, as Hitler was leading up to WWII. To assume that today’s Russia is belligerent in the same way as Hitler, or in the same way as the Soviet Union was during the Cold War, shows a poor understanding of the nature of Putin’s regime.

--This near-hysteria displayed by the neocons brings me to, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of this episode. It centers on Putin’s description of Obama’s decision as “correct and brave.” Why “brave?” To my mind, Obama’s decision displayed more common sense than bravery. Because I assume that Russia has zero interest in attacking or otherwise threatening Poland, because I’m dubious of the shield’s technical viability, and because I’m disgusted by the shield’s cost (both financially and in terms of pissing off the Russians), missile-defense in Eastern Europe strikes me as worse than useless, and its scrapping as a no-brainer decision. Putin likely agrees with my above assessment, yet he recognizes the decision as “brave.” The bravery comes in when we consider the intensity of the heat Obama is getting from the “appeasement”-crying crowd. Putin knows how difficult it is to stand up to “appeasement” talk because he has his own neocon-types in Russia to deal with. The Russian paranoids, like their American neocon counterparts, assume that America is Russia’s enemy, and that if Russia gives America an inch, it will take a foot. With the Cold War still dominating the mind-set of these paranoid brains (in both countries), it takes serious balls to unilaterally make a change in policy that will incite these folks’ ire. Thus, the “brave” comment.

Regardless of whether or not Russia reciprocates by dropping its opposition to possible sanctions against Iran, Obama’s decision to scrap the Eastern Europe missile shield was, indeed, “correct and brave”. The Bush administration had set American-Russian relations on a track towards a renewed Cold War. With this act, Obama opens the door to much friendlier relations between the two countries, which if achieved, will pay great dividends in the years to come.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Card Playin'

Certainly there were ample displays of racism during the so-called "9/12" protests - Maureen Dowd brought to our attention
such classy placards as, with a picture of a lion, “The Zoo has an African and the White House has a Lyin’ African;” “Bury Obamacare with Kennedy;” “We came unarmed (this time)” and “ ‘Cap’ Congress and ‘Trade’ Obama back to Kenya!”
But I don't agree with President Carter that "You lie!" involved racism (at least, it didn't involve racism against Obama, as Carter suggested - whether or not it involved racism against Mexican people is another matter). And to any extent that it did, Carter was not being particularly strategic in making this charge, a point very cogently made by Michael Tomasky in the Guardian.

In our attempt to explain certain anti-Obama statements, I suspect we are led to racism in part because of a phenomenon called the "solipsism of the present moment." This is the feeling that whatever is happening right now is way more intense, way more revolutionary, way CRAZIER than anything we've ever seen before. We're appalled by what we take to be the extraordinary coarseness of political rhetoric and are driven to think there must be some extraordinary, previously unseen cause at work. To be sure, much of the "criticism" of Obama is straight-up racist, like the bits cited above, and much of the "criticism" is pretty much racist, i.e. the "birthers" movement. But a lot of it - the bulk of it - fits in with the generally ugly tone of the way we've historically talked about politics. Bush was constantly compared to Hitler. His legitimacy was constantly questioned. (Not to conflate those claims with birther claims - they're obviously not in the same ballpark - but they are the same sport.) Oh, and Andrew Jackson's wife was called a prostitute.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Squaring the Circle of Two Rigged Elections

It increasingly looks like the Afghan elections were rigged by Karzai and his cronies. While that fact doesn’t surprise (newsflash shocker: Afghanistan is full of corrupt politicians and does not have the social and political infrastructure to support free and fair elections!), the reaction in Washington and in the media to Karzai’s rigging does serve as a useful reminder of the hypocrisy that infuses our differing treatment of different regimes.

I’m comparing, of course, the differing treatment of the rigged election in Iran and the rigged election in Afghanistan. While the two riggings are certainly not perfectly equivalent (there was no widespread protest and subsequent violence in Afghanistan, for one), it is almost laughable how different the two election frauds have been presented to us by politicians and by reporters. The rigging in Iran was, by and large, treated as an affront to all humanity that deserved, at the very least, strong rhetorical intervention from Washington. The Afghanistan rigging, on the other hand, has been decidedly under-reported, and has inspired barely audible mumbles and grunts from some of the same folks who were on the rooftops calling for Ahmadinejad’s head. Something has got to give here.

But it’s hard to say where, exactly, the consensus view of these two events went awry.

One possible way to square the circle would be to loudly denounce Karzai for being the corruption machine that he is, suggest that Obama withdraw support from the Karzai administration, and call for new elections in order to restore legitimacy to the fledgling democracy of Afghanistan. But no one is suggesting we go down that path, and for good reason. It doesn’t make a whole lot of practical sense, given that Karzai’s opponents are no better than Karzai in the corruption department, and another go at an election in Afghanistan is unlikely to result in a more legitimate outcome anyway. The democracy infrastructure is simply not up to the task.

A second possibility would have been to treat the Iranian rigging with the kid-gloves we are using in Afghanistan, and to greet the Iranian fraud with the same deafening silence we are hearing from the chattering class after the Afghan elections. This also doesn’t feel right, particularly in light of the inspiring and brave protests that erupted in reaction to the rigging injustice in Iran.

The only somewhat satisfying way to justify this differing treatment requires a cold, hard look at when and where democracy is a useful way of government. I would suggest that having an election in Afghanistan was a bad idea from the beginning. It was never going to accomplish anything positive on the ground, and was useful only for window-dressing purposes. Afghan society may one day be ready for a legitimate and functioning democracy, but that day is not near. A warlord-driven, pre-industrial, poverty stricken country with a drug-based economy and a tribal-based political infrastructure is not a good place to suddenly have an election. The failure of those elections, while unfortunate, was to be expected, and can therefore somewhat justifiably be greeted with cynical resignation rather than principled outrage.

Iran, on the other hand, is a wholly different story. With its large, young, highly educated, and technologically savvy middle-class population, Iran provides fertile ground for legitimate democracy. The crushing of that democratic spirit was rightly perceived as unjust, even tragic.

But because it is highly unpopular to suggest that democracy might not be appropriate in every circumstance and in every country and at any time, many pundits and politicians are left embarrassingly tongue-tied when asked to talk about Karzai and his election fraud. And the rest of the world can be forgiven for criticizing the U.S. for its hypocrisy: outraged when its “enemy” rigs an election, but silent when its “ally” does the same.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What Should Be Done About Afghanistan?

My man, Anatol Lieven, has some interesting ideas that make a lot of sense to me. They are particularly worth considering for those of us who want our troops to get the heck out of there because we believe more troops do more harm than good, yet we have no good plan for how to leave responsibly.

Afghanistan is such a mess, it's almost too depressing to think about. Is the earliest we can safely get out of there really 5 years from now, as Lieven suggests? It sure looks that way...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Blast Off with Reggie Watts at Spaceland

Angelenos, next Friday, Sept. 11th, one of my favorite performers will be performing a performance at Spaceland. That's the only word I can use, because it's very difficult to explain what Reggie Watts does - it's a blend of music and comedy that are both improvised at facebreaking speed. I guess that was a pretty good description. Check out this video as well as the live performance on the 11th.