The SanityPrompt

This blog represents some small and occasional efforts to add a note of sanity to discussions of politics and policy. This blog best viewed with Internet Explorer @ 1024x768

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Well It's About Time

San Jose State unveiled plans today to erect a memorial to the famous protest of alumni Tommie Smith and John Carlos. In 1968, while receiving their gold medals at the Mexico games, they raised their black gloved fists as a gesture of solidairty and an expression of Black Power. As a result, they were banned from the Olympic Village and stripped of their medals, showing once again, that for the mainstream society and the Olympic movement, it's not politicis that is objectionable, but opposition politics.

San Jose Statement: Smith and Carlos' 1968 protest will be immortalized in statue: "'A hundred years from now, people will look at that statue and say 'What was that about?' and someone will say 'Demonstrating at the Olympics,' ' said Harry Edwards, an activist, sociologist and lecturer at what was then San Jose State College. 'That will just open the door to the discussion.

'The real legacy of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in this statue is that they provided a point of focus to pose their enduring questions to a free society. What is the role of protest and patriotism in challenging times? To have this statue on a college campus, it's so appropriate. These questions will be debated as long as America is a free society.'

The idea to honor Smith and Carlos came from Eric Grotz, who was a political science major from Fremont. Inspired in class by a professor's lecture that some don't get recognized for their efforts, Grotz researched Smith and Carlos, then wrote a resolution to honor them to the student government three years ago."

Where We Are Now

This story serves as a microcosm of where we are as a nation. It's all there -- reality TV, politics & culture, left versus right, the sensitivities of cultural and political minorities. One day, I want to see a reality show about the attempt to make this reality show.

ABC pulls edgy reality show after groups complain: "LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - ABC has pulled an upcoming reality series in which people with various backgrounds vie to win a house in a white neighborhood, after gay and conservative watchdog groups raised concerns, the Hollywood trade papers said Thursday.
The six-episode 'Welcome to the Neighborhood' had been scheduled to debut on July 10. Seven families, including a gay couple with an adopted son, people of Asian, black and Hispanic descent and pagans, had to convince conservative residents that they were worthy of moving into the house near Austin, Texas.

'Our intention with 'Welcome to the Neighborhood' was to show the transformative process that takes place when people are forced to confront preconceived notions of what makes a good neighbor, and we believe the series delivers exactly that,' Walt Disney Co. -owned ABC said in a statement carried by Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter.

'However, the fact that true change only happens over time made the episodic nature of this series challenging, and given the sensitivity of the subject matter in early episodes, we have decided not to air the series at this time.'

Daily Variety said ABC could eventually air a condensed version so that the feel-good ending comes sooner.

Groups ranging from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the National Fair Housing Alliance to the conservative Family Research Council had raised concerns about the show, the papers said.

GLAAD was concerned that the gay couple might get grilled by the neighbors, while the Family Research Council was worried that the conservative neighbors might be ridiculed for their Christian beliefs.

The National Fair Housing Alliance argued the show ccontravened various housing laws prohibiting discrimination, though Daily Variety said it passed muster with ABC's lawyers. A network official was unavailable for comment."

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

If Only Democrats Could Do this to Tom DeLay

Kenyan, 73, kills leopard with bare hands - Africa -

"NAIROBI - A 73-year-old Kenyan grandfather reached into the mouth of an attacking leopard and tore out its tongue to kill it, authorities said Wednesday.

Peasant farmer Daniel M'Mburugu was tending to his potato and bean crops in a rural area near Mount Kenya when the leopard charged out of the long grass and leapt on him.

M'Mburugu had a machete in one hand but dropped that to thrust his fist down the leopard's mouth. He gradually managed to pull out the animal's tongue, leaving it in its death-throes."

The Nazi Moratorium Redux

A few days ago, DC MedialGirl, who is fast becoming one of my favorite bloggers, posted a link to some video about the Nazis.

Lifting the Nazi Moratorium
I know we’re not supposed to talk about or refer to Nazis, Nazism, or other unpleasantness, since the Third Reich analogy has been horribly overused and abused...but I can’t resist. Check it out.

Since I recently wrote about the appropriateness of discussing and referencing the Holocaust and the Nazis, I felt it worth a look. I hope you check it out. It appears to come from a German television show and consists of video imagery of the Nazis juxtaposed to Village People music. Since the Village People were an iconic 1970s gay band the joke seems clear. Nevertheless, in my opinion it crossed the bounds of good taste. What follows is an exchange in the comments section that I had with another reader of her blog.

I don’t quite understand the origin of this. College Humor was profiled in the New Yorker some months back but the video clip looks like it was ripped from a David Letterman like clone based in Germany. Hence, this is humor college students might like, but not humor generated by college students. My own thoughts on the use of Nazi analogies are posted at: There, I defended Dick Durbin and criticized the ADL. In this case I take the anti- analogy view of the ADL. The video is offensive because it equates Nazis with homosexual preeners and seems to imply that Nazism was nothing more than a homo-erotic fantasy exercise by repressed fascits. For this humor to come from Germans is doubly offensive. First, it’s offensive because there isn’t much to laugh about in from the Holocaust. Second, it’s offensive to gays to imply that you can insult Nazis by calling them gay. And third, its pretty shallow humor for Germans to generate -- it allows them to congratulate themselves on how hip and ironic they are without examining their own complicity and implication in a broader culture of denial about the events.
Comment by drkwanda--June 27, 2005 @ 14:43 pm

Wow, what a shallow view of the video itself and the nature of laughter in the face of tragedy. Yes, nobody doubts (except some random fanaticals) that the holocaust and the nazi movement represented a dark stain on the progress of humanity, yet, inherent in these events is the need for self deprication and, yes, laughter. In doing so, no only do we debase those who supported the views and actions of the pereptrators of these heinous acts, but also it allows of some respite from continual despondance. Coming from the Germans just demonstrates their ability to recognize their tragic position in this dark chapter. Not much to laugh at from the Holocaust??? Well, I seem to think The Producers has done quite well on Broadway, but correct me if I’m wrong.
Comment by Switters--June 27, 2005 @ 15:21 pm

Shallow? I’ll stay away from the ad hominem attacks and confine myself to the subject. The fact that The Producers has been a commercial success is hardly proof that laughing at the Holocaust represents the best way to denigrate those who perpetrated the Holocaust. Laughter can be powerful stuff and Mark Twain had it right on that score. But it is the quality of the joke which is at issue here. Life is Beautiful also laughed in the face of the Holocaust. I am sure some objected even there. But that was a tasteful use of humor. The offense of the video is the use of homoerotic imagery juxtaposed with the Village People to make the joke. We can laugh in the face of American racism too but the way to do that is not by telling jokes with blacks as the punchline or telling Polish jokes. The joke in The Producers, in any case, is not on the Nazis. It is on the audience seeing the show within the show. And on The Producers themselves. Laughter is vitally important and a powerful tool -- I don’t deny that. It’s the tastefulness of this joke that is at issue.
Comment by drkwanda--June 29, 2005 @ 00:24 am

If a self righteous pedastal is where you want to stand, then fair enough. But who are you, or me, or anyone, to decide what joke is quality and what joke is distasteful. The homoerotic imagery is meant to be, surprise, suprise, ironic in the face of the Nazi’s rather homophobic platform (let alone what could be mentioned about Hitler’s possible homosexuality)Twenty-two point three years. That’s how long it takes for something tragic to become funny. Enough said...
Comment by switters--June 29, 2005 @ 00:56 am

Enough said? Is this the way these exchanges go?. On and on and on without each side giving quarter? Well, strike that. I did give some quarter acknowledging that some humor in these circumstances is appropriate. But you my good friend Switters persist in personalizing this debate. First I was shallow. Now I stand on a self-righteous pedastal. You ask - who am I to decide if a joke is distasteful? Well, last I checked it was a free country. I never said lock anyone up. I merely said the joke is distasteful. That is and remains, I hope, my right in this country. Are you really so afraid of disapproval that anyone who feels a judgmental thought is told to hold their tongue? And finally, sorry, some things never become funny. My relatives are not coming back from the Holocaust and I don’t think that’s funny. Does this mean I don’t think any kindof humor is appropriate? No. I just happen to think this is a lame ass joke. DC Mediagirl -- you gonna opine here?
Comment by drkwanda--June 29, 2005 @ 17:04 pm

This exchanges tells you a lot about how these blogs and blog-based dialogues go. Most folks only read the posting but for many others, there is a whole world contained within the comments (which I tend to stay away from but when you wander in can consume you completely). Most interesting, is that no one ever concedes in these exchanges and the dialogue can often resemble the testy, personal exchange in a faculty meeting or between blind reviewers and authors in the academic publishing process.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

TABOR in Colorado

An increasingly popular conservative tactic against state governments is termed the Taxpayers Bill of Rights or TABOR. It doesn't actually stipulate any rights. What it does is limit the growth of tax revenues year over year and require that all tax increases in the state, be they state taxes or municipal or county levies, come before the voters in a referendum. TABORs actually spell disaster for state and local governments and represent an effort to starve the public sector (When tax revenues start to grow, governments must return the excess over inflation and population growth back to the taxpayers). Most problematic, this requirement that revenues grow only as fast as inflation does not take into account that in recessionary times, state revenues actually shrink. Hence, if a lean year cuts revenues by 10% over the prvious year, then it can take several years before TABOR allows them to return to pre-recessionary levels. This phenomenon, called the ratchet, has decimated public services in Colorado and led to sharp cutbacks in the higher education sector, as well as serious increases in college tuition.

The Issue:
Voters in Colorado will now be able to vote on a plan to help get the state out of this mess by keeping what it would otherwise have to return to taxpayers for the next five years. The surpluses together might amount to $3 billion depending on what happens to the economy. So voters have a chance to help bail out the state if they are willing to forego the small returns they might otherwise get annually. The conservative governor and Republican state legislators, who have seen first hand how difficult it is to operate within the confines of this poorly thought out piece of policy have struck a deal with Democrats and support the referendum effort. But this has brought Colorado in the crosshairs of the anti-tax, anti-government conservative movement. They see no crisis and don't want to watch efforts to pass TABORs in other states derailed by the sorry image of voters coming out against something they supported a few years ago. So they are starting to pour into the state to campaign against this effort, and Colorado finds itself as ground zero once again in the the Conservative Wars.
: "It will be more than four months before Colorado voters decide whether to suspend the state tax refunds due them under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

But defenders of the crown jewel of small-government conservatism known as TABOR are rushing into the breach with an urgency that could foretell an intense autumn for an off-year election.

Shortly after Gov. Bill Owens and Democratic leaders at the Capitol announced in March that they would pursue a ballot measure putting TABOR refunds on hold for five years, a flurry of bumper stickers flew through the building. 'No Refund for You,' they said.

Radio ads sponsored by the Independence Institute recently hit the air, describing the proposed TABOR hiatus as 'a forever tax increase.' "

Note the (non-)clever use of falshood to characterize the TABOR reform effort -- "a forever tax increase." Rates will not change one iota. If a person's income is essentially flat (as most peoples are these days) their taxes won't rise one iota. Only when you live in conservative fantasy-land does foregoing a refund for a few years constitute a tax increase. As the linked Denver Post article makes clear, conservatives are prepared to pull out all the stops to fight this. Dick Armey is expected in state soon in his new incarnation as antitax God for FreedomWorks. To get a sense of the stakes here, consider that longtime TABOR supporter Governor Bill Owens has challenged Armey to a debate. That gives a sense of how desperate the situation is. Owens has been villified on the Right. Governor Wannabe Bob Beauprez has come out against the reform effort (as he has to to get the GOP nomination). But any statesmen worth their salt who has served in government knows that without change, the state is in an impossible situation (I happen to think that coming out against the reform is a crucial mistake that can be used against him in the general election -- anyone who opposes it should explain where they will cut spending and why they think it's justifiable to be cutting hundreds of millions in spending at the same time that the state returns hundreds of millions to taxpayers).

If the referenda fail, then public higher education will rapidly lose all state funding and essentially become fully privatized -- whatever the tuition rates everyone can settle on. If tuition growth remains restricted, this will be the end of public higher education as we know it. The institutions' ability to retain and attract prominent faculty will vanish and unless the schools embrace radical changes in mission and form, layoffs and a complete dismantling of what prestige remains will be next. Yes, it may sound extreme but some schools will close. Conservative officials should be forced to suggest which ones should close.

Joe Biden: Open Mouth, Insert Foot

Howard Dean doesn't speak for him. Well, it sure seems like Barack Obama does! Dave Sirota catches Sen. Biden engaged once again in an act he seems genetically predisposed to.

Sirotablog: Didn't Biden Get In Trouble For Something Like This Last Time?:

"'It's not a blue America. It's not a red America. It's not a Christian America or a non-Christian America. It's not a white or a brown or a black America. It's not Republican or Democrat. It's the America that I remember when I was a senior in high school...'
- Sen. Joe Biden, June 2005


'There's not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.'
- Barack Obama, July 2004"


An Early Sign Lott Thinks Santorum is Toast?

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., "is considering a return to the GOP leadership -- the culmination of a multiyear effort to rehabilitate his image after being forced to resign his post as majority leader," The Hill reports. "Lott has set his sights on the job of party whip -- the No. 2 job in the GOP leadership -- a position expected to be won without opposition by GOP Conference Chairman Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., if Santorum wins reelection."

Monday, June 27, 2005

Speaking Democratese III: Kristof Spawns the 'Birth Tax."

Here is an interesting use of language by Nicholas Kristoff in the weekend NYTimes.

A Glide Path to Ruin - New York Times: "President Bush has excoriated the 'death tax,' as he calls the estate tax. But his profligacy will leave every American child facing a 'birth tax' of about $150,000.

That's right: every American child arrives owing that much, partly to babies in China and Japan. No wonder babies cry. "

Democrats should incorporate language of the Bush birth tax and the tax deferments in all their discussions about the Administration's fiscal record and tax policy.

UPDATE: Colorado Therapist Case

Academy rape trial on hold -- "Randolph Air Force Base, Texas - A military judge on Friday decided to indefinitely postpone an Air Force Academy sexual assault court-martial, after a civilian rape counselor refused to turn over her notes of conversations with the alleged victim. Col. David Brash's ruling, released Friday morning, followed a day of closed hearings during which attorneys for 1st Lt. Joseph Harding argued they could not provide an adequate defense unless they knew whether civilian therapist Jennifer Bier had information relevant to the case in her notes. "

This is pretty pathetic in a number of ways. Essentially, the Court is arguing that it cannot prosecute rape cases unless it can peer into the private conversations of a therapist and her patient and scan their dialogue for any discussion of the alleged rape. Note that the judge does not want the notes in order to gather evidence for the prosecution. Rather he says that the notes are essential for the defense of the accused - Lt Harding. Imagine the implications of this. Anyone who brings a rape or sexual assault charge must agree that every crevice of their personal life is subject to scrutiny already. Now this would extend to anything they write such as an email or letter, a diary entry or a conversation with a doctor. This rips open any bound to privacy remaining for the accuser.

The prosecutions case is a thin one to begin with as it is essentially a he-said, she said case. The alleged victim waited two years before bringing her charges and waited until her Academy superiors noticed changes in her behavior and probed to find out why. Not that Harding looks like an innocent before a vengeful woman as he also faces charges in another assault case.

Harding still faces court- martial at Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio on a second, lesser count of "indecent assault" involving another former cadet. If convicted, he could be expelled from the Air Force and sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison. The sexual assault charge carried a maximum life sentence.

Still, the course of this case should discomfit any observer of such proceedings. Although Academy officials learned of the alleged rape in 2002, they waited until the political firestorm to file charges in 2004. Few of the numerous rapes reported at the academy have led to prosecutions. And the military has succeeded in raiding the alleged victims personal medical files already. All in all, not a good day or a good presentation of military 'justice.'

There was a two-year delay between the alleged rape and Brakey's report to academy officials, so no direct physical evidence exists. As a result, Brakey's credibility is integral to the prosecution's case.

Brash's decision favors Harding's constitutional right to confront his accuser and examine all evidence that might be helpful to him above Brakey's expectation and Bier's pledge that their conversations would be private.

Brakey has said she was attacked by Harding, a cadet commander, in 2000. But she didn't report the alleged assault until August 2002, after academy officials became concerned about changes in her behavior. By then, Harding had graduated, and the academy moved to honorably discharge Brakey from the Air Force. She went public with her allegations and generated a new round of congressional and media scrutiny of the academy, and the Air Force's treatment of sexual assault cases.

It wasn't until May 2004 that the Air Force revealed Harding would be charged with sexual assault in the Brakey case and indecent assault in a 1999 case, also at the academy.

The defense requested and received medical and counseling reports on Brakey from Air Force doctors who had treated her, Murphy said. But Brakey also sought counseling from a civilian - Bier - and when Harding's attorneys came for her records, she refused, and Brash threatened to jail her.

Lebanon II: Whatever Happened to 'You Break It -- You Own It?'

What my problem?

Iraqis put on brave face after Rumsfeld comments: "BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi leaders put on a brave face on Monday after Washington said it would be up to them -- not American forces -- to defeat an insurgency that could last a decade or more.

Asked about comments by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the insurgency in Iraq would last years, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari said it was impossible to predict how long it would take to defeat the guerrillas."

Excuse me? Well I suppose that's one way to craft an exit strategy -- "We can leave whenever we feel like it." And as for that civil war we triggered? "Not our problem." So much for bringing peace and stability to the region. And that blessed thing called Democracy? Well I suppose it depends on what your definition of democracy is. One more time now - 'why are we there again?' Cuz we are running out of reasons real fast once again.

"Rumsfeld's remarks appeared to signal a change in U.S. rhetoric ahead of President Bush's keynote speech on Iraq planned for Tuesday. A few weeks ago Vice President Dick Cheney said the insurgency was in its "last throes."

"But Rumsfeld said in a U.S. television interview: "That insurgency can go on for any number of years ... Insurgencies tend to go on five, six, eight, 10, 12 years."

"Although Rumsfeld did not say whether or when the United States would pull some or all of its 140,000 troops out of Iraq, he made clear Washington does not plan to go on leading the fight until Iraq is at peace."

I know the Administration is under lots of pressure to produce an exit strategy and a time-table and I recognize that much of this pressure emanates from Democrats and is little more than political posturing. But a lot of it comes from a genuine desire to get out of Iraq since many did not want to be there in the first place. As for those who voted to authorize force and now clamor for an exit strategy, well I am sure there is a special place in Hell waiting for them. But the overall picture now emerging from that country is that this is yet one more in a string of typical Bush moves -- half-baked, immoral, and irresponsible. Leaving Iraqis to settle this insurgency without American assistance has about as much chance as the Paris Peace accords did of maintaining a stable South Vietnam after 1974. Saddam's rule was a special kind of hell for Iraqis no doubt. But what seems to await them is about 10 years (in Rumsfeld's guess?) of Lebanon redux. That's a picture that ought to charm and warm the cockles of every human rights loving, freedom calling, flag waving American.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

This Is Only a Drill. We Repeat. This is Only a Drill

CBS News G.I. Attacked During Training November 4, 2004:

"Baker was always the first to volunteer. This time, it was to go to the block where the most dangerous detainees were kept in isolated cells. There, Baker was met by Second Lt. Shaw Locke of the 303rd Military Police Company from Michigan. Locke, who was in charge of an IRF (Immediate Reaction Force) team, briefed Baker about the training drill he was planning.

''We're going to put you in a cell and extract you, have their IRF team come in and extract you. And what I'd like you to do is go ahead and strip your uniform off and put on this orange suit,'' says Baker, who was ordered to wear an orange jumpsuit, just like the ones worn by the detainees at Guantanamo.

"Baker says his orders that night were to get under a bunk on a steel floor in a dark cell, and wait: "I said, 'Sir, you're going to tell that IRF team that I'm a U.S. soldier?' He said, 'Yes, you'll be fine, Spc. Baker. Trust me.'"

"But in fact, Locke later acknowledged in a sworn statement that he did not indicate “whether the scenario was a drill or not a drill to the IRF team.” Locke did, however, tell the team the detainee had not responded to pepper spray.

"Locke gave Baker a code word – red - to shout out in case of trouble. From under the bunk, Baker heard the extraction team coming down the causeway. In sworn statements, however, four members of the team said they thought they were going after a real detainee.

'"My face was down. And of course, they’re pushing it down against the steel floor, you know, my right temple, pushing it down against the floor," recalls Baker. "And someone’s holding me by the throat, using a pressure point on me and holding my throat. And I used the word, ‘red.’ At that point I, you know, I became afraid." Apparently, no one heard the code word ‘red’ because Baker says he continued to be manhandled, especially by an MP named Scott Sinclair who was holding onto his head.

"And when I said the word ‘Red,’ he forced my head down against the steel floor and was sort of just grinding it into the floor. The individual then, when I picked up my head and said, ‘Red,’ slammed my head down against the floor," says Baker. "I was so afraid, I groaned out, ‘I’m a U.S. soldier.' And when I said that, he slammed my head again, one more time against the floor. And I groaned out one more time, I said, ‘I’m a U.S. soldier.’ And I heard them say, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa,' you know, like he wanted to, he was telling the other guy to stop."


At the end of September, Baker went to Columbia University Medical Center in New York to consult with Dr. Carl Bazil, a seizure specialist, and one of the top neurologists in the country. While undergoing testing, Baker suffered a seizure in front of Bazil, who believes Baker has intractable epilepsy – which means his seizures are difficult to control. Is it an injury Baker could have received as a result of having his head repeatedly knocked against a steel floor? "Oh, absolutely. That is the kind of injury that would be severe enough to result in epilepsy," says Bazil, who believes that with better treatment, Baker's condition could improve. "If he doesn't get better treatment, that will probably continue indefinitely."

Now, imagine what the real thing is like.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Economics Ain't The Whole Ballgame

If only economists understood that. But at heart, they are so infatuated with their world view that they miss the implicit materialism -- all history is driven by economics. Marx felt the same way.

From Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: It would be simpler for American engineers if they didn't have to worry about all those bright, ambitious folks in China and India. But as Brad DeLong, an economist and blogger at the University of California at Berkeley, puts it: "A world 60 years from now in which Chinese schoolchildren are taught that the U.S. did what it could to speed their economic growth is a much safer world for my great-grandchildren than a world in which Chinese schoolchildren are taught that the U.S. did all it could to keep China poor."

I will wager DeLong good money that 60 years from now what Chinese school children will be taught is unlikely to have anything to do with the policies we adopt today. Let's consider that in this month's Columbia alumni magazine Rachel DeWoskin comments about her experiences as a soap opera star in China and remarks that the soap opera was the Chinese view of the Western view of China. Translated, this means that Rachel, playing an American in love with a Chinese man, has parents who complain about her lover as a lazy and uncultured China-man. Never mind that such a stereotype of Chinese men is unlikely to be found anywhere in this culture. But to 600 million Chinese, they think that this is how they are perceived by Americans. Or consider the rioting that took place in China after the accidental bombing of the embassy in Serbia. Or the rioting after the capture of the American Navy observation plane. Americans like to have this cozy little view that the world loves us and everyone wants to be just like us. It's only foreign leaders who manipulate and present the appearance of hostility or anti-Americanism. How China and the Chinese view us will have as much to do with demography and world politics as it will economic developments in China. I've previously written about the book Bare Branches and its prediction of dire geo-political consequences as a result of gender imbalances in the demography of China and India. I doubt that in 60 years the Chinese people, whether the books predictions come to pass or not, will have such a sanguine view of American policy, even if we rush pell mell towards full globalization.

Dick Durbin Goes All Wobbly

The Nazi card, like the race card in politics is one that frequently gets trotted out and usually elicits howls of outrage. Calling your opponent a Nazi is an easy reach for someone frustrated in a debate. And certainly one side or another employs tactics that seem to draw inspiration from the Nazi approach. But generally, we are averse to the use of the Nazi comparison, not because it is unfair to the person compared (although it can be) but because it is an insult to the memory of those who suffered and of those who died under that regime. And defenders of the Holocaust memory such as the ADL police all use of the Nazi term and typically condemn anyone who invokes it. So comparing a situation to Nazi rule is pretty much accepted to be off bounds.

But how off bounds? At what point can someone's outrageous actions wander into that horrible territory. Is the comparison forever off limits in all instances? What is the use of historical analogy if not to draw a contrast between something new and perhaps unfamiliar with something older but much more familiar? Certainly if racist, totalitarian thugs began rounding up members of a particular group or set of groups in this country with little cause other than race, ethnicity, or political ideology while also projecting an aggressive and aggrandizing foreign policy it might be time to say, "heh, this is behavior that is unbecoming and rather Nazi-like."

So it is with some disappointment that progressives watched Dick Durbin tearfully apologize for his comments expressing outrage that the miserable treatment of American detainees continues, that extraordinary rendition to countries that employ torture continues, and that all this is being done in our name and by our fellow Americans. Before we take the NY Post's, the Wash Times, Fox News, Bill Frist or the White House's word that Durbin called US soldiers Nazis, let's review the transcript. Durbin had said:

When you read some of the graphic descriptions of what has occurred here [at Guantanamo Bay]--I almost hesitate to put them in the [Congressional] Record, and yet they have to be added to this debate. Let me read to you what one FBI agent saw. And I quote from his report:

On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold. . . . On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.
If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime--Pol Pot or others--that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners.

So let's look more closely: "If I had read this to you you would most certainly believe this must have been done by the Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others." Well, exactly. If I didn't know better I would say, "you are having me on, Americans did not do this." But the sad fact is that they are and continue to do this. Mistreatment of prisoners occurs not just where there are bad apples but in Afghanistan, Gitmo and Iraq. The Administration continues to claim that it can designate anyone, anywhere an enemy combatant and lock them up without trial -- forever! And all they ask is 'trust us.' Perhaps we are the mad regime. Or perhaps we are all in a state of madness so that we sit around in some kind of stupor while all of this happens in our name and say nothing. Do nothing.

Jim Gilliard gets the progressive outrage at Durbin right here: THE NEWS BLOG

But where is the outrage against the press, the ADL which should know better or the White House?

The ADL response is typical but you have to see the whole thing to understand it in context:

Dear Senator Durbin:

We write to object to your reference to Nazis in the context of the debate on detainees at Guantanamo Bay on the Senate floor earlier this week.

Whatever your views on the treatment of detainees and alleged excesses at the Guantanamo Bay facility, it is inappropriate and insensitive to suggest that actions by American troops in any way resemble actions taken by Nazis in their treatment of prisoners. Suggesting some kind of equivalence between their interrogation tactics demonstrates a profound lack of understanding about the horrors that Hitler and his regime actually perpetrated.

We urge you to repudiate your remarks and apologize to the American people for distorting an important issue with an inappropriate comparison to Nazi tactics. However heated the debate over issues of the day, we would urge you to refrain from using Holocaust imagery in the future.
(My emphasis added)

The ADL just doesn't want anyone ever to invoke the Holocaust. The imagery itself is off limits and essentially the word. But the ADL loves to invoke the phrase -- Never again. My own view is that if you carve out the imagery and language as a protected, some how hallowed space that can never be used in comparison on any occasion, you stand a dim chance of preventing future occurences. How are to to protect from this happening again if we do not parameterize the extent of Nazi crimes and limit them. Do we mean only that the Nazis should never be allowed to have power again? Never be allowed to exactly duplicate their crimes? The Nazi crimes were massive in their extent. But if we lose sight of all and each of their crimes, we lose sight of the total crime. The Holocaust becomes a vague abstract notion divorced from history. If it is to be a living and breathing thing that preserves and portects liberty for all of us, then all of its parts must me be understood and held up to scrutiny. We should be concerned not just with the plan to extinguish all of Europe's Jews, or with the Nazi policies of ethnic cleansing and ghetto-ization. We must also remember Kristallnacht as a night of terror on jews which was also an effort to extinguish free thought and divergent views. We must remember that in reprisal for partisan attacks, Nazis would single out entire communities and kill them all. We must remember that Hitler rose to power by violently seizing and consolidating his power after being appointed premier in a deal with conservatives. We must remember that free speech was extinguished. We must remember that hope was extinguished. We must remember that Hitler sought to subject all of Europe to his vision. We must remember all of this and so much more. The Nazi crimes were both large and small but we must remember all of them. And so we should also be free to invoke each and or all of them from time to time if we want to give life to the expression never again. For we must prevent all of it again. And each crime commited by them as well. But if we wait to find a circumstance when we feel that all the great crimes have finally found their equal, we will miss the chance to invoke lessons learned from that period in numerous instances.

The fact is that the self-proclaimed greatest Democracy on earth is perpetrating outrage after outrage that draws from the totalitarian playbook. Shouldn't we use the lessons learned from other regimes to justify our outrage, to stand and say, no, this must stop? Not in my name!

I don't generally like to link to Sullivan anymore but using his typical restrained good sense and reasoned judgment he reviews Durbin's words and judges them perfectly respectable. Perhaps what is most striking in all of this is that the brouhaha and the Press are focused on Durbin and the analogy rather than on the FBI report itself. It doesn't seem to trouble anyone that all of this is happening in America's name. That the US is focused on the comments while the world is rightly focused on the torture and mistreatment. And that the Press once again is completely complicitous in this. This commentator to a DailyKOS posting has is pitch perfect:

Has a reporter yet asked any of these "outraged" officials (after they've finished tearing Dick Durbin a new one) what THEIR IMPRESSION of the report is?

"Senator_____ being as you are unmoved to agree that the report describes Nazi-like/Stalin-esque/Pol Pot-ian horrors, how would YOU describe them?"

DC Media Girl - "Susan Estrich - Drop Dead"

If you want good blogging go here. DC Media girl pretty much eviscerates Susan Estrich's pathetic attempt to defend Fox News in the Christian Science Monitor. Point by point, DC Media girl cuts and removes the core of Estrich's weak argument and shows that not only is she intellectually dishonest, but she is a poor thinker as well. Any one remember that beautifully managed Dukakis campaign?click here - DC Media Girl.

Flag-Burning Amendment Advances in House - Yahoo! News

Responding to a massive upsurge in flag desecrations and a sharp decline in the number of available American flags, Republicans in the House sought to redress market imbalances by inserting into the Constitution a prohibition on the desecration of an American flag (Question - does desecration include wearing an American flag pin while presiding over the most shameful episode in America's treatment of the incarcerated since the 1940s?)

Flag-Burning Amendment Advances in House - AP (Washington): "WASHINGTON - The House moved Wednesday toward approval of a constitutional amendment that would give Congress the power to ban desecration of the American flag, a measure that for the first time stands a chance of passing the Senate as well. Lawmakers in the House debated as they have six times before whether such a ban would uphold or run afoul of the Constitution's free-speech protections.

Supporters said the measure reflected patriotism that deepened after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and they accused detractors of being out of touch with public sentiment.

'Ask the men and women who stood on top of the (World) Trade Center,' said Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, R-Calif. 'Ask them and they will tell you: pass this amendment.'

But Rep. Jerrold Nadler (news, bio, voting record), D-N.Y., said, 'If the flag needs protection at all, it needs protection from members of Congress who value the symbol more than the freedoms that the flag represents.'"

A sure sign that things are not going well in Iraq, in the Republican domestic agenda, and in the polls is the trotting out of this urgent piece of legislative activity.

You Mean People Actually Pay on the Basis of Need?

I am shocked, horrified to learn of proposals to distribute financial aid on the basis of need. Consider the following: - LOCAL NEWS: "The legislature's Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday rejected separate plans by the University of Colorado and Gov. Bill Owens' staff to reduce CU's tuition increase for in-state students and asked them to get together and come up with a compromise.

The JBC was supposed to consider cutting CU's legislature- authorized tuition increase of $43.5 million by $13.8 million, at the request of Owens, but committee members did not act on that.

Committee members also did not unanimously endorse a CU proposal that would have ensured tuition increases no greater than 15 percent for students whose families have incomes of $80,000 a year or less.

Rick O'Donnell, executive director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, blasted CU's proposal, saying it will treat students differently depending on their parents' income. "

This is the executive director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and aspirant to the congressional seat of Bob Beauprez. Is he at all aware that financial aid program work on the basis of parental income and familes do not pay the same tuition rates on the basis of income?

Monday, June 20, 2005

Colorado Therapist Case Revisited

In an interesting change in strategy, the Colorado Springs therapist who has defied an military judge's demand in a court martial case to hand over records of her meetings with a female former AFA cadet declined to take her final appeal to the Supreme Court. She has lost earlier appeals at the District and Appeals Court levels. Instead, she is relying on earlier precedence that if the courts are to imprison her, action will have to be taken by the U.S Attorney's office and she and her lawyer want to see what will happen then. This is an interesting tack and one that the therapist's lawyer, Wendy Murphy seems confident in. I am certainly no lawyer but I have to question the strategy in light of the court decisions thus far. In particular, it is not clear to me why the therapist has not challenged the judge's order in the military courts first, as instructed by the Federal Courts. Given a Pentagon ruling on patient privilege, my hunch would be that she has a high probability of success and if she loses then the Federal courts are open to her on what is likely to be more friendly ground. But perhaps on principle, she and her lawyer simply do not want to subject her to the military courts since she is, after all, a civilian. - LOCAL NEWS: "After a U.S. District Court judge had ruled the arrest warrant valid, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday also declined to block the arrest warrant, saying it was reluctant to interfere in a military proceeding and pointed to a 1975 Supreme Court case in support of its move.

Instead of ruling on the constitutionality and privilege-protection questions, the court said Bier's appeal should be exhausted first in the military's own justice system, relying on a case cited by the Air Force. Murphy, however, has declined to appeal in the military system. "

If You Are Looking for Another Holiday

Here's one that should be on every American calendar.

Juneteenth: "mark[s] the day in 1865 that news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached slaves in Galveston, Texas - two years after President Lincoln had signed it. "

Find the Democratic Message: Pt I

OK folks, time to play - find the Democratic message. Here is an excerpt from a WaPo story about the increasing use of high occupancy and private toll roads to address urban/suburban congestion problems and slow commuting times.

For all the complaints, though, ridership on the Express Lanes has surged -- from 10 million trips in 2003 to 11.2 million last year. Poole surmises that commuters view the tolls as "congestion insurance" -- costly, but essential to keep their lives from being lost in traffic.

"I don't see any way around it," said Crystal Lee, a Riverside accountant and mother of two. Her ride home on the Express Lanes saves her 10 to 30 minutes, she estimates, and guarantees she'll be home in time to get her daughter to dance class.

"I need the time," she said, "more than the money."

We'll talk about the answer in an upcoming post.

Friday, June 17, 2005

The Line Between Military and Civil Law "A federal appeals court Thursday dealt a major setback to a civilian Colorado Springs therapist hoping to stay out of jail, saying an Air Force judge in Texas acted properly in ordering her arrest for withholding rape-counseling records from the Air Force. "

Background: Therapist Jennifer Biers has been ordered by a military court to turnover her patient records of meetings with a rape victim to a military tribunal looking into allegations of rape against an Air Force Academy Cadet. Or face arrest. She has refused and a military judge has ordered her arrest but she has appealed to the Federal Courts.

I have to say I am puzzled by this case. The Supremes in 1996 said that the relationship between a therapist and a client/patient was sacrosanct and needs to be protected. But they have also ruled that civil courts can't intervene in military cases. But does that mean that a military court can interfere in the civilian world and order the arrest of civilians? Biers' patient was an Air Force Cadet when she alleges the assult took place and the defense says it needs to see if she told Biers in meetings that she was not raped so that they can prepare the best defense. But the military courts in this case have not upheld patient-therapist privilege even though the Defense Department promulgated rules to protect patient privacy. That clear yet?

I understand this idea of never the twain shall meet if we want to keep military courts and procedures separate from the civil world. But Biers is a civilian who has not subjected herself to military law. Shouldn't she be afforded the protection of the civil courts? She is after all a civilian therapist. Of course we are not talking about her rights her but the female Cadet's. Still, the privilege attaches to their relationship doesn't it? Strange days indeed.

The Schiavo Case as the Energizer Bunny of Politics

It just keeps going and going and going.

Probe Sought in Terri Schiavo 911 Call - Yahoo! News: "Gov. Jeb Bush said Friday that a prosecutor has agreed to investigate why Terri Schiavo collapsed 15 years ago, citing an alleged time gap between when her husband found her and when he called 911. "

I hate to talk about this case in the first place but my only guess as to where this comes from is to see it as a desparate effort on the part of the far Right to regain momentum on the issue since they realize how badly they bungled the whole thing, how it has backlashed against them, and how the autopsy report has them cleaning egg off their face.

"Polls have found a majority of Americans opposed federal involvement and the issue contributed to a drop in approval ratings for the Republican-controlled Congress." (Nashville Tennesean 6/15/05)

A friend who is a probate lawyer said that the Right in Colorado wanted to revisit the guardian issue for living wills and proposed the following: Instead of having the spouse become the guardian of someone in a persistent vegetative state, the courts would be instructed to look at the full chain of possible custodians and select the one who was pre-disposed to life. So if you collapse and cannot speak for yourself, your spouse can't make your decisions anymore. It would be whoever is most inclined to keep you alive. Imagine your spouse wants to withdraw care because she knows you would not want to live this way. The Right argues she has a conflict of interest since she would be better off without you. If your parents agree with her then they can't play the guardian role either. Say your grandmother wants to keep you alive, or your sister. Then the Right wants a probate court to appoint either of them as your new guardian. This effectively repeals 40 years of probate precedence.

Republican Majority Leader, Would be Presidential Candidate in 2008 and Panderer in Chief to the Right, Senator Bill Frist defended his diagnosis on the basis of a 2 minute edited video tape.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said yesterday he doesn't regret using his standing as a doctor to question Terri Schiavo's diagnosis from afar during the intense national debate over whether to remove her feeding tube.

Frist said he accepted the results of Schiavo's autopsy released Wednesday, showing severe, irreversible brain damage. But he stood by his statements on the Senate floor last March, when he argued that on videotape Schiavo appeared to respond to her family and doctors.

With public momentum swinging away not only from the Right on Schiavo alone but also away from the Right's agenda of preserving life at all costs no matter what, something needs to be done to regain the momentum. What better way than to first, intimate again that Schiavo's husband has been trying to kill her all along? And maybe even dig up facts to further cloud the issue. For the Right this is about more than scoring points and about more than Schiavo. This is about overturning years of developing precedence on how to handle end of life issues. Now, the predisposition of the public is in favor of personal family privacy over such matters and the Schiavo case only underscore this. If the Radical Right can cast doubt on the case they can perhaps begin to undo the damage they have done to their own cause in the last 6 months.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Lordy Lordy Kwanda's 40!

Send us bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit. Send us bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit. Send us bright one, light one, Horhorn, quickening and wombfruit.

Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa! Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa! Hoopsa boyaboy hoopsa!

Those of us needing a translation will find one here. Happy Bloomsday everyone!

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Comparative Advantage Encore!

A sure sign that you slept through most of your macro classes is when bits and pieces of it come back to you in the night. So I awoke Tuesday and recalled the discussion of comparative versus absolute advantage that Ben Bernanke presented in Macro 101. Differentiating between comparative and absolute advantage goes to the core of much that is discussed on Brad DeLong's website and probably wasn't very well explained by anyone.

Say, to make matters simple, you have a world economy consisting of three goods (how about - service, agriculture, and manufacturing) and three nations of similar size: LILLIPUT, BROBDINGNAG, and HOUYHNHNMS. And say that the Brobdingnaggians are the wealthiest, most educated people on your planet and they are endowed with superior productivity in all three goods markets -- they are more efficient producers in each market than the workers in the other two countries. This represents absolute advantage.

But in a world of the three nations, if they are going to trade with each other, and if the Brobdingnaggians are going to sell their goods to anyone, then the Lilliputians and the Houynhnmians will have to make something and sell something too. So who should do what? Obviously, if the Brobs do everything they won't sell much to the other countries. The idea of comparative advantage is that they should focus on what they do best -- on the industry in which they have the greatest advantage (relative to the other two) -- say it’s service. This doesn't mean they only have to do one thing, it just means that they should shift resources out of things that they do better than others (agriculture and manufacturing) into the area that they do much better than others, namely service, since the payoff is bigger.

So that’s the macro side of things -- as best as my sleepy head remembers it (sorry Professor Bernanke). But obviously in our simple example each nation is better off to focus on particular markets rather than trying to work in all three. So say in our stylized example that the Brobs decide to focus exclusively on service. This requires everyone in agro and manufacturing to shift out and into services. Some will be able to do this. But many will not.

Imagine that the service industry requires not only the highest levels of training but also the highest levels of ability. Now think back to your 5th grade classroom. Could everyone in that class room work at the same high level? If you went to a wealthy suburban school you may, (but the chance is slight) say maybe. But if you think across the spectrum of American society you know intuitively that many may not be able to work in this sector. In fact, this sector may not require many people at all. So the question I raise is – what do these people do?

Tim Worstall raises these issues and far more eloquently than I and rightly chides me for having simplified matters too much and failed to exactly specify the notion of comparative advantage. His heuristic is that each nation needs to do what it is least bad at. I hope this presentation does it better. The question really isn’t if comparative advantage is a myth, it’s if comparative advantage operates in the real world in a way to make enough of us better off to be sufficiently compensated for the shift to a free trade world. In other words, will the move into one industry over the others in our stylized example above be sufficiently lucrative to our society (macro says yes) that we can distribute the gains to everyone even those who cannot participate in the industry we decide to concentrate on.

I do not, unlike Worstall, however, believe it is the case that the wages of the Houyhnhnmians and the Liiluputians will rise up to meet the Brobingnaggians without any diminution of the latter’s wages. For one thing, international trade flows will never be completely free as long as migration is severely limited. Average wages may remain steady or rise slightly (the US case) but median wages could fall dramatically (telling you something about the spread rather than the mean).

Worstall rightly raises a profound question though. He asks if changes due to free trade are different from changes due to tastes or technological changes or changes in the weather. This really is the central question our society needs to consider. But is also a question for economists to consider because it asks us where do the rights of parties lie? If you are an internationalist and assume no special preferences for your own people than you are very likely to believe that free trade is no different than inventing a better way to build a widget. But if you are not of this mindset, then you may be inclined to view a shift towards free trade as more akin to the kind of injury that a polluter inflicts on his neighbors.

Coase being right here (which I think is the second thing in economics that is true and non-trivial) if property rights are well defined and markets exist, then parties can compensate each other for the injury and externalities minimized. But with regards to pollution, the question immediately arises who should have the property right and who should do the compensating. Does the polluter have the unfettered right to pollute and his neighbors need to pay him not too? Or does the neighbor have the right to a clean environment and the polluter needs to pay her to produce the pollution? What does this have to do with free trade? Well if you are less of an internationalist, you are more likely to see a free trade policy like pollution – an action creating costs on certain parties who need to be compensated than someone who says – “tough luck old chap, here’s a dime.” After all, free trade will result from a collective decision of the polity (while you may see free trade as the natural state of the world with protectionism as a gloss it seems in my mind to be more a matter of perspective) and as such, interpersonal compensation is likely to be merited and required. Now that’s just from a normative perspective.

What about a positive view? Well, the question I raise regards this more. It is theoretically possible (and this is my main concern) that a shift to free trade in some countries like the US will make more losers than winners but the winners will be better off in total than the losers are. The US operating as a democracy, however, voters are unlikely to be persuaded by those proffering Samuelson and saying but this is the only true and nontrivial thing in economics. Rather they are likely to resist the shift to free trade if they feel it threatens them And the emerging sense among the electorate (if the line up in the House on CAFTA is any indication) is that enough people feel sufficiently threatened to now be inclined to oppose free trade. Bringing us back to the question I left off on – do nations like the US move towards protectionism or do they move toward greater political integration as well. Recent developments in the EU bode poorly for the latter, raising the stakes about the former unless the compensation mechanisms can be worked out appropriately.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Let Us Raise the Pie Higher! Comparative Advantage Revisited

First a big thank you to Brad Delong for posting an excerpt from my blog speculating about the applicability of comparative advantage in today’s world. I am flattered by the attention that it received and the excellent commentary on both sides that was generated. I wondered about the holes in my argument and, as usual, he came back with integrity and thoughtfulness (aside from one flippant rejoinder to a comment that if our exports fall to zero and people keep sending us imports then it’s all free stuff). He also highlighted the importance of underlying government policy which always gets neglected in discussions about trade policy. I should have replied to all this much sooner, but that’s what happens when you hit a publishing deadline in the same week that the blog-world explodes.

What I was trying to do in my post was to challenge the conventional economics orthodoxy which pervades much of the elite media and elite Washington as well that, as one blogger put it, “free trade can only be good.” That’s an odd sentiment if you think about it, or even if you don’t think about it and are just a xenophobic troglodyte (troglodyte being my favorite insult these days). In particular, I have often wanted to remind people that the paradigm macro-economists use to evaluate free trade derives (or so it seems to me) from the Kaldor-Hicks framework of welfare economics (to which I express a deep thank you to PADRAIG for seeing this). Generally, in the policy world we like “Pareto” improvements – making at least one person better off without making anyone else worse off. Kaldor & particularly Hicks realized that this was a pretty limiting view of policy so they proposed a framework in which a policy improvement becomes one that makes the winners sufficiently better off that they could compensate the losers (and here is where it gets tricky and it’s not quite clear why they felt compelled to insert this) even if the compensation never takes place. Of course that broadens the realm of acceptable policy proposals quite a bit, especially when you do away with the inconveniences of the compensation.

My understanding of free trade as a policy is that it represents a Kaldor-Hick improvement. If it represents something more, there are a few million people in the Midwest who would like you to explain it to them. If it were anything less, that no one would be better off to a sufficient extent that we could compensate the losers sufficiently – the small possibility that Paul Samuelson speculates about and which, actually, I was not really discussing although the same logic flows from my argument – then we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

And so free trade is a worthwhile policy move if we can find economically efficient means to compensate the losers. And this is the basis for why people like Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong and others, decent caring progressives every one, argue in favor of free trade. The maddening part of this for progressives though is that the compensation invariably does not happen. Or it happens in the form of weak policy proposals like a few limp efforts to retrain or provide modest transition assistance to those workers who can demonstrate that they have been victimized by free trade. Ask all those workers in Wisconsin who lost manufacturing jobs in the last four years how happy they are with our trade adjustment policies.

So I have to confess a little uneasiness with Professor DeLong’s conclusion that if foreign competitors can improve their efficiency in areas where we export to such an extent that we export nothing, then “we are as badly off as if there were no international trade at all.” That is a statement which needs a lot of qualification since “we” is a pretty broad pronoun without a sufficiently accurate narrowing antecedent. Who exactly is as worse off? Who is better off? And who is about the same? Trying to compare a world of no free trade and saying it is about the same as a world of free trade with no comparative advantage whatsoever is a pretty hollow intellectual exercise and one my math skills just aren’t up to. At least I can comfort myself that I was not arguing in favor of no free trade. I was, alas, just trying to raise a question.

Which is something that KHarris doesn’t quite seem willing to believe. The extended discussion about the trade deficit and national savings rates seems to indicate a presumption that this was my prime concern. In fact, I agree that the two issues can be entirely separate since I grant that (by definition) the trade deficit is merely about consuming more than one buys. While I care a good deal about the trade deficit, I have no illusions that protectionism is likely to fix it.

Another accusation lobbed my way is that I have confused absolute with comparative advantage, just as so many non-economists before me. I will have to keep that one secret from my PhD micro professors at Harvard…shhhhhhh. But I will confess to having slept through my macro classes by and large (an indication of the surprising shallowness to be found on one of our parts and perhaps both) so I agree that it seems as though my argument confuses absolute with comparative advantage.

I suppose this is what you get for reverting to micro considerations in the midst of macro-economists. I was not actually challenging the view that free trade is good for the economy although I concede that this was an implication that was glaringly out there. There are really two arguments when it come to free trade: 1) whether the US economy is better off and I will grant the macroeconomists their claim that it is invariably so (although I will point with glee to Samuelson’s cautions in this regard) and 2) whether there are enough winners of a sufficient magnitude that we can compensate the inevitable losers from free trade in a compelling way that works within a market economy?

My concern is with the staggeringly large numbers of losers that are becoming apparent under free trade and that run the entire economic and class spectrum in the US. My interest is in asking everyone to stop for a moment and imagine what the future might look like and what those areas of comparative advantage are that we will have (granting that we are likely to have a few at least). My interest is in asking people who know how intellectually advanced India and China are and how much human capital they already possess (and are likely to possess in the future), how this is likely to impact the large number of industries where we currently enjoy a comparative advantage. My worry is that so much of the US current advantage in services and technology and media is replicable and pirate-able – a dangerous ground to lay one’s economic advantage. I share some of Brad’s readers concerns that the much vaunted 5 M’s (never mind IPO’s) are unlikely to be our economic saviors under further trade integration.

Comparative advantage means there will be some things we do better than anyone else. That there are currently lots of things we do very well I don’t challenge at all although some of the comments seem to think I do. But again, here we seem to be confusing country effects with individual effects. While we are hardly likely to mimic the market in all its Hayekian intelligence, we might ask ourselves what is the future likely to bring? Who would have imagined the outsourcing revolution 10 years ago? That’s what concerns most Americans. Of course we have competitive sectors today. The question is what are those sectors likely to be in 30 years and who is likely to populate them?

Obviously we will need to keep finding things we do better than others. But as the world becomes more and more competitive with us in more and more industries, it would behoove us to stop for a moment and ask ourselves how likely it is we can do that for a sufficiently large fraction of our population? Not only do we have to train and retrain large numbers of our workers to be competitive at the highest skill levels, we need to train them to be sufficiently productive that they can maintain the real wage differentials between here and China/India (Chindia?) If an Indian worker can do exactly what I do for $10 while I demand $80 I either need to find another profession or hope that my countrymen and I can up my productivity sufficiently that I am 8 times more productive than my Indian competitor. All of Kharris’s examples of trade in the same industry between nations are of trade between economic equals. The case of machine tools between Switzerland and the US is a great exemplar of this. Workers in the US are happy to compete with Swiss workers because in most cases they are more productive (and certainly more poorly compensated). The question is, will these same workers compete with Indian workers without a diminution of their living standards? The one case which may offer some support for free traders is that of Japan which did rapidly increase its standard of living without diminishing that of the mean US worker (by and large – I add as a qualifier, just keep me out of this debate).

The frustration of most Americans when it comes to discussions of free trade stems from the absence of free trade champions like economists (and New Democrats) when it comes time to have debates about fixing our schools, our health care system, our competitiveness, our training and retraining systems, and associated government policies. Another frustration stems from people’s intuitive understanding that both sides in the globalization debate are arguing about different things. One side is arguing about distributional effects while the other is arguing about overall economic effects (that are measurable in economic terms). This last qualifier is important since there are lots of things that won’t show up in a GDP/GNP report which are integrally related to utility – what people rally care about. As I said in my original post, if we work 80 hours a week today when we once worked 40 hours a week we are likely to be wealthier but we may not be better off, and we may not be able to make the kinds of trades necessary to get us to the previous state if those kinds of markets are missing.

I reject and resent the insinuation that I feel a need to keep India poor. What companies like Infosys and Cognizant have brought to India is a modern day miracle and portends greatness for East Asia. We should celebrate the rise in freedom and entrepreneurship (and wealth) that the previously moribund bureaucratic-state/entanglement that was India is now experiencing. But we should also ask ourselves about the future of the globalization discussion as the number of losers and the scope of losers across American and European society, from the very bottom to the very top, grows. For us to realize both a “Pareto” like state and continued support for global integration we need to do one of two things:

1) We find ways to make to compensation work. How to do this? Well, we could hope that a rising tide lifts all boats. I suppose it is theoretically possible (again I don’t wish to do the math) that globalization could make say 10% of Americans sufficiently better off that their economic activity circulates throughout the economy to lift most Americans’ living standards along with them. The Real Estate boom has been good to more than just land owners. The stock market bubble was good to more than just shareholders. But I am skeptical. Unless you repeal my version of the iron law of oligarchy – what I call the iron law of economic hierarchy -- it is unlikely that the top 10-20% of Americans are going to circulate sufficient resources to all of us to lift all of us up with them. Things certainly didn’t work that way in the Industrial Revolution when millions (of often cushily insulated guildsmen) were made redundant by the rise of factory production and piece rates. And income (mal)distribution was at levels we approach today I might add. It wasn’t until progressive political power wrought change in the workplace and economy that we could look back at guild opposition to industrialization and call them all Luddites. So if the tide swamps the boats rather than lifts them, the alternative is likely to be government redistribution of the gains – but managing to get that on the table seems to be a non-starter and managing to achieve redistribution without attendant efficiency losses that can be severe seems tricky to say the least.

2) So our second alternative is - we integrate discussions of political integration with discussions of economic integrations. Which I guess brings us back to Marx. Unless the workers of the world do unite, there are going to be an awful lot of American workers who find themselves racing towards the living standards of the Indians rising the meet them – not so much a race to the bottom as a race to the middle ground. One which, nevertheless, marks a serious (i.e. nontrivial) decline for millions of Americans.

Or we could just throw in the towel and raise the protectionist banner. It’s your call.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

USA Today Puts Its Cards on the Table

Unless there was any remaining doubt, USA Today adds another hammer to that false edifice of the Liberal Media. Seems they don't take too kindly to the idea of raising the cap on wages subject to Social Security taxes.

USA Today June 9: Taxing the rich won't solve Social Security's problems: "But as with a lot of things that seem easy, this tax-the-affluent-minority idea has real drawbacks. Any plan that would fix Social Security solely by taxing a relatively small number of wage earners would undermine its support. Social Security enjoys broad public backing because it is seen as a retirement savings and disability program, not a welfare program. Workers contribute while they work, then collect when they retire.

If the nearly 10 million people who make more than $90,000 a year are asked to pay in a great deal more than they will get out, that principle would be shattered. A 12.4% Social Security tax on all income, combined with other federal and state taxes, would result in affluent self-employed people paying more in taxes than they keep for themselves. That is hardly the way to bolster support for a program about which Americans are expressing increasing doubts."

They aren't doubtful about the program. They are doubtful that the program will be there. And by the editor's own admission, eliminating the ceiling will close the funding gap entirely. And let's consider that notion that "Any plan that would fix Social Security solely by taxing a relatively small number of wage earners would undermine its support." Hmmm, but cutting benefits on middle income families and a significant portion of beneficiaries isn't likely to erode that support and make it seem like a welfare program? Does USA Today honestly expect us to believe that up until now every single person got out what they paid into Social Security? And I am not just talking about those folks who die before they get everything back. Social Security has built in progressive features already. But asking all people to support the program to the same degree financially, in the same proportion of income (and recall that this is wage income only), is going to make this a welfare program and erode support? From whom? 10 million Americans, among whom we can likely count all the editors and managers at USA Today and Gannet? I love it when wealthy elites ask the American middle class and working families to suck it up and suffer more, to sacrifice, as if that isn't what they are doing more and more of every day in this brave new world?

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Ownership Society Will Not Be Televised Pt II

If you missed it, the Washington Post had an excellent article about the unraveling social safety net.

Retirement's Unraveling Safety Net: "Pamela, the answering service supervisor, sees it differently. On a recent day, when Pamela's 11-year-old Ford Probe broke down, Junior Paugh made the hour-long drive to pick her up and take her to work. A starker contrast in two people's relationship to their government and employers would be hard to conjure. Here was Junior Paugh at the wheel of his silver Buick LeSabre, having moved out of poverty, into the middle class, and now a secure retirement, with the help of one employer and his government. And here, only two generations behind him, sat Pamela Cody, feeling abandoned by everything her grandfather valued.

'I see how my grandparents were able to get by, but my husband and I just struggle from paycheck to paycheck,' she said. 'I don't have a pension and I'm not expecting Social Security to hold up long enough for me. Where is all the government's money going? Who is it benefiting? Nothing is benefiting me.'"

The plaintive cry from Pamela Cody sums up the anxiety facing Americans and their sense that neither Party is there for them. It also captures their bewilderment that we can spend so much money and provide so little security for working families. A lot of that has to do with mismanagement of the budget and priorities skewed towards pork, current benefits and an ailing health care system. The article highlights that in an economy of greater risk and larger variances in outcomes, the safety net, rather than being dismantled, need to be broadened and expanded. Otherwise, the risk begins to impose external costs on the system. The Democrats need to respond to stories such as these in a credible way. This requires understanding the economic context and committing to a vision and set of programs that respond to the new realities of uncertainty that face families. This means a re-writing of the Democratic social contract -- finding a way to provide social insurance within a framework that retains the individual incentives of the free market. All at the same time that they operate within the constrained fiscal environment forged by bankrupt fiscal policies from the Right. Hmmm. Some challenge.

Read the whole article here.

The Amazing Fish Skirt

The Amazing Fish Skirt Posted by Hello

It's said to be all the rage in Paris this summer. It makes a trip to the beach unnecessary.

AP - Sydney June 6: Customs officials said Monday they stopped a woman as she arrived Friday in the southern city of Melbourne on a flight from Singapore and found 51 live tropical fish allegedly hidden in a specially designed apron under her skirt. "During the search customs officers became suspicious after hearing 'flipping' noises coming from the vicinity of her waist," the Australian Customs Service said in a press release.

Friday, June 03, 2005

The Myth of Comparative Advantage

The economic/economists' argument for globalization (economic and financial at least - political will have to wait) rests on the idea of comparative advantage. But I am now beginning to wonder just how accurate this framework is for thinking about globalization.

Several recent articles by Tom Friedman have me thinking and worrying about this. Today's op-ed in the Times argues that Europeans are helplessly caught in the past and about to be run over (which pisses off David Sirota to no end). Of course, Friedman, like all Times columnists, being a committed free-trader, ends his column with the tag -- we all have to work harder and try harder if we want to compete and we will all be better off.

This strikes me as a rather empoverished view of economics. We have to remember that there are lots of goods that are not tradable and lots of markets that don't exist. As long as this is the case, it's hard to argue that the person who works 80 hours a week and drives a Mercedes is better off than the person who works 40 hours a week and drives a Ford. (And that's about more than just the difficulty of making interpersonal comparisons of utility - for you economists out there) If we are all working 80 hour weeks (state A) but have a few more goods it is entirely possible that we would be collectively better off if we had less and worked less too (state B). Getting to the second state could be a serious collective action problem, however. For one thing, you would need an enforcement mechanism to make sure no one goes off and cheats and works 80 hours. And for another you will need a way of compensating those who prefer the first, hard work state for not being able to live in that state. Doing the compensation is going to be impossible since you will never be able to learn who really needs the compensation. The obvious incentive is to lie and say you need to be compensated, even if you are a lazy state B sod like me.

An added worry on top of this though is that it may be based on a false premise we have accepted from economics for a long time. The idea of comparative advantage is that it makes sense if you are good at farming and your neighbor is good at baking for the baker to sell you his land so you can do all the farming and for the baker to do the baking. You buy the baked goods using the money made from the farm items you raise while the baker makes money selling baked goods to buy other essentials. This seems like a strong argument in the context of a small town. How many people will be good at baking or good at smithing or good at farming? We are all better off in this context if we can specialize. More bread gets baked, more crops get raised, etc...

In the international context the argument is supposed to apply because we treat nations like individuals. We ask, what should each country specialize in? With an N under 200 in the international context it seems unlikely that each country can't find something it excels at. This has been the basis of the theoretical argument for globalization for a long time. In the context of earlier debates, such as the one over NAFTA, the argument goes something like the one above. If America concentrates on what it does best, it can do more of that than it now does and buy what others can do better for less than what we currently pay our own workers. We end up better off and the countries that sell us their goods, like China and Mexico get better off too. Comparative advantage and specialization. The problem is that production workers in this country have been told they are likely to lose their jobs to foreign workers who will work for less and they will need to get retrained, better skilled and join the ranks of us elite, educated workers. This way we can all enjoy the brave new world. Implicit in these arguments is a vision of an America consisting of lots of high skilled workers producing value and everyone else in the service sector servicing the population. But the country needs to keep producing value to maintain its standard of living.

But it rests on the idea that, like people, each country can do one thing best and should do that. But what if countries are not like people? Some may be if they are small and endowed with limited (or like the Mideast, abundant) natural resources. But what about the large nations? I say this because increasingly it is becoming clear that China, India, Singapore and other places are not going to compete with us just in the area of unskilled labor. As Friedman shows in a NYT Magazine piece, they will compete with us in almost everything. This means that countries, unlike people, might be able to do a lot of different things at once. In fact, as globalization increases apace, and technology shrinks distances further, it seems clear that some countries like India will be able to do everything we can do. Soon, there will be almost nothing that we do in this country that cannot be done in India for less. The reason outsourcing has become such a hot political issue is that all those skilled workers have suddenly found out that being educated and skilled in the global economy is no protection if someone can do your job for $10 an hour while you require $80. The old saw that we all need to up our skills and training may offer us no help if there is no profession to which we can upgrade because all the jobs can be done in India for less. Pretty soon our exportable industries will be movies and capital. And who is to say that India can't make movies better and more cheaply for a mostly yellow, brown and black world? What professions that are productive will be left for Americans? Remember that most American jobs are in the service sector -- even academia, law and medicine.

A good friend works for one of those Indian outsourcing companies, a rival of Infosys, sent me the Friedman NYT Magazine piece It's a Flat World After All -- having seen it first hand. I sent him this reply:

It used to be that the free traders comforted us with the notion that unskilled labor ought to go overseas so we could focus on our comparative advantage -- skilled creative work. What this means for the unskilled is they essentially have to go into service jobs to service the skilled, usually at a lower standard of living -- if they themselves can't get skilled. What India shows us is that now all labor can shift over seas. That there really isn't all that much that a Westerner can do that a person living in a less developed country can't also do for a whole lot less money.

Perhaps Marx was right after all. Soon, the only advantage we will have over other countries will be our financial capital and that will be concentrated in a few hands. America will become the place where all the money is (of course, before too long, if the current account deficit persists, we won't be - China will). America will be where the owners are and everyone everywhere, even here, will work for the owners, the capitalists, at paltry but equalized wages set to the lowest common denominator. If that doesn't sound like a race to the bottom I don't know what is. If that doesn't make you protectionist I don't know what will. Countries are not likely to be able to specialize, but people are. And unless you choose to specialize in something that few elsewhere can do, your wages will be whatever the cheapest source of that same labor is likely to be. So what will Friedman and Co. tell those Americans who fear further economic integration? How will they compete if there is nothing that could even begin to make them competitive? Any honest macro-economist will tell you that the notion that free trade represents a pareto improvement in which all are made better off is a fiction.

On Balance? The Media's Strange Idea of Balance

This post goes right to Bill Moyers point, posted yesterday, that what passes for objective in Washington and in journalism these days is not pulling out the truth but presenting both sides of an argument. To understand it a bit more, let's take a look at economic theory, in particular, location theory.

Say there is a beach somewhere and it's a mile wide. There are a lot of people there and you decide to move in to sell ice cream. You want to be where you can reach the most people and make the most sales. Where do you locate? The middle, since this ensures that no one part of the beach will be farthest from you. Now say you want to move in to sell ice cream but someone already beat you to it and is parked right there in the middle of the beach. What do you do? You don't just quit and go home, so you move in too. But where do you locate? It turns out that the best place to be is right in the middle, right next to your competitor. If you were teammates and moved in at the same time you might carve the beach in half and take each half and then each of you would locate in the middle of your half. That would be best for each of you and best for the customers. But you are not teammates and he got there first. If you move into the middle of one of the halves of the beach, say the right, everyone to your competitor's left will go to him and everyone to your right will go to you. But the group between you should divide in half so that your competitor will get more than half the beach goers and you get less. To get the largest share possible, you need to be in the middle. This theory turns out to explain a lot of economic behavior, like why there is never just one gas station in a location but usually they come in pairs, or like why so many cereal brands are the same bland crap.

It also tells us a bit about the media and why their sense of fairness is to try to sit in the middle between two camps on every argument, present both sides and leave it at that. Because to get at the objective truth in cases where there is one would require alienating a large chunk of readers. So today we get this from USA Today, always eager to serve vanilla whenever someone asks for ice cream.

On balance, 'Deep Throat' is more hero than villain

"Felt revered the FBI and despised the White House for manipulating the agency politically. Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward wrote Thursday that Felt "thought the Nixon team were Nazis" and feared for the country's future.

"Then again, Felt had been passed over by Nixon to head the FBI. And he was no saint. In 1980, he was convicted for his own abuse of power - authorizing FBI agents to illegally break into homes of people associated with members of a radical anti-war group. (President Reagan later pardoned him.) He lied repeatedly about whether he was Deep Throat."

On balance? Let me get this straight, you have to live your whole life with complete integrity and perfect behavior to qualify as a hero? I think the paper confuses hero with saint. Heroes are made not over a lifetime but in a moment. By a decision and an action. At a wedding a few years ago in the midst of the Lewinsky affair, a large group of guests were conservative and when they learned I was a Democrat they turned snarling and one of them said, "what Clinton did was so much worse than what they say Nixon did." OK folks, let's look at the video tape.

USA Today can get us started.

To understand that Felt's actions were more virtuous than villainous, it helps to recall the scandal's breathtaking magnitude. The 1972 break-in at the Watergate complex in Washington was not the "third-rate burglary" the White House called it. Nixon and his aides had set out to spy on political enemies, and the subsequent coverup caused their fall. They acted as if they were above the law. They misused government agencies, including the FBI, trying to halt its probe.

Why didn't Felt go through regular channels? For one thing, Felt's boss, FBI Director L. Patrick Gray, was a Nixon loyalist. And Gray's boss, U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, was part of the coverup.

"Where else could Felt turn?" Ben Bradlee, the Post's top editor during Watergate, asked Thursday

Felt was not a Nixon employee. He was a government Civil Servant who had no channel in the government where he could turn. In the Pelican Brief, there is a reason why the Julia Roberts character goes to the press. She knows that going to the government could get her killed and in fact it almost does. Being a paranoid liberal now am I? Did Felt really face death? Well consider that G Gordon Liddy in his own autobiography admitted that in CREEP meetings he suggested that they could off inconvenient folks like Daniel Ellsberg by flipping his car and killing him in an apparent traffic accident. Consider what Lawrence Eagleberger, "former secretary of state, former Nixon administration official, Lawrence Eagleberger" said on Crossfire when asked if he thought Felt was Deep Throat:"Probably. You know, President Nixon once suspected him. I'm surprised he didn't end up dead somewhere because of that. But nevertheless, I think he did suspect it. I think, if you think about it now, it is at least very likely . We are not talking about the Boy Scouts here. Most of the people complaining about Felt today are loyal Nixon troops and conservative shills who went to jail for the crimes they committed in that administration. And there were crimes. If Nixon didn't order the break in itself, we know he did suggest the break in into Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office so there is certainly a precedent there. And we know that Nixon played a major role in the cover up, impeding an investigation into a felony that sought to subvert democracy itself.

These folks thought they were above all law, felt justified in doing literally anything. They fired on mass or forced the resignation a host of public officials who wouldn't help them subvert the law in the Saturday Night Massacre.

And Felt turned them in. Rather than assuming he turned Nixon in because he was bitter he did not get the top job at the FBI, why don't we invert it and ask, maybe he did not get the top job because Nixon knew he was a man of character who wouldn't play by his 'team's' so called rules? Was his crime speaking rather than resigning? If so why don't these same folks criticize Linda Tripp? Was his crime not admitting he was Deep Throat or "lying about it" as USA Today says? Since when is the instinct for self preservation from thugs considered immoral? Let's face it, the man probably risked his life, certainly felt he was risking his life, and certainly his livelihood to protect us, to protect the Constitution of this nation from a group of thugs who had no commitment to democracy, who had contempt for the people, for the law, for everything but themselves. This man is a hero. We ought to give him a medal instead of having debates that are nuanced about his possibly conflicted motives.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Bill Moyers Speech in St Louis

A while back I caught this speech on Democracy Now TV. It was late but I had to stay up and watch it. Here is an excerpt of the best part but do look at the whole thing if you can.

One reason I’m in hot water is because my colleagues and I at NOW didn’t play by the conventional rules of Beltway journalism. Those rules divide the world into Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and allow journalists to pretend they have done their job if, instead of reporting the truth behind the news, they merely give each side an opportunity to spin the news.

Jonathan Mermin writes about this in a recent essay in World Policy Journal. (You’ll also want to read his book Debating War and Peace, Media Coverage of US Intervention in the Post Vietnam Era.)

Mermin quotes David Ignatius of the Washington Post on why the deep interests of the American public are so poorly served by Beltway journalism. The “rules of our game,” says Ignatius, “make it hard for us to tee up an issue … without a news peg.” He offers a case in point: the debacle of America’s occupation of Iraq. “If Senator so and so hasn’t criticized postwar planning for Iraq,” says Ignatius, “then it’s hard for a reporter to write a story about that.”

Mermin also quotes public television’s Jim Lehrer acknowledging that unless an official says something is so, it isn’t news. Why were journalists not discussing the occupation of Iraq? Because, says Lehrer, “the word occupation … was never mentioned in the run-up to the war.” Washington talked about the invasion as “a war of liberation, not a war of occupation, so as a consequence, “those of us in journalism never even looked at the issue of occupation.”

“In other words,” says Jonathan Mermin, “if the government isn’t talking about it, we don’t report it.” He concludes: “[Lehrer’s] somewhat jarring declaration, one of many recent admissions by journalists that their reporting failed to prepare the public for the calamitous occupation that has followed the ‘liberation’ of Iraq, reveals just how far the actual practice of American journalism has deviated from the First Amendment ideal of a press that is independent of the government.”

Take the example (also cited by Mermin) of Charles J. Hanley. Hanley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Associated Press, whose fall 2003 story on the torture of Iraqis in American prisons — before a U.S. Army report and photographs documenting the abuse surfaced — was ignored by major American newspapers. Hanley attributes this lack of interest to the fact that “it was not an officially sanctioned story that begins with a handout from an official source.”

Furthermore, Iraqis recounting their own personal experience of Abu Ghraib simply did not have the credibility with Beltway journalists of American officials denying that such things happened. Judith Miller of the New York Times, among others, relied on the credibility of official but unnamed sources when she served essentially as the government stenographer for claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

These “rules of the game” permit Washington officials to set the agenda for journalism, leaving the press all too often simply to recount what officials say instead of subjecting their words and deeds to critical scrutiny. Instead of acting as filters for readers and viewers, sifting the truth from the propaganda, reporters and anchors attentively transcribe both sides of the spin invariably failing to provide context, background or any sense of which claims hold up and which are misleading.

I decided long ago that this wasn’t healthy for democracy. I came to see that “news is what people want to keep hidden and everything else is publicity.” In my documentaries – whether on the Watergate scandals 30 years ago or the Iran-Contra conspiracy 20 years ago or Bill Clinton’s fundraising scandals 10 years ago or, five years ago, the chemical industry’s long and despicable cover-up of its cynical and unspeakable withholding of critical data about its toxic products from its workers, I realized that investigative journalism could not be a collaboration between the journalist and the subject. Objectivity is not satisfied by two opposing people offering competing opinions, leaving the viewer to split the difference.

I came to believe that objective journalism means describing the object being reported on, including the little fibs and fantasies as well as the Big Lie of the people in power. In no way does this permit journalists to make accusations and allegations. It means, instead, making sure that your reporting and your conclusions can be nailed to the post with confirming evidence.

This is always hard to do, but it has never been harder than today. Without a trace of irony, the powers-that-be have appropriated the newspeak vernacular of George Orwell’s 1984. They give us a program vowing “No Child Left Behind,” while cutting funds for educating disadvantaged kids. They give us legislation cheerily calling for “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests” that give us neither. And that’s just for starters.

In Orwell’s 1984, the character Syme, one of the writers of that totalitarian society’s dictionary, explains to the protagonist Winston, “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

An unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a people fed only on partisan information and opinion that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda, is less inclined to put up a fight, to ask questions and be skeptical. That kind of orthodoxy can kill a democracy — or worse.

I learned about this the hard way. I grew up in the South, where the truth about slavery, race, and segregation had been driven from the pulpits, driven from the classrooms and driven from the newsrooms. It took a bloody Civil War to bring the truth home, and then it took another hundred years for the truth to make us free.

Then I served in the Johnson administration. Imbued with Cold War orthodoxy and confident that “might makes right,” we circled the wagons, listened only to each other, and pursued policies the evidence couldn’t carry. The results were devastating for Vietnamese and Americans.

I brought all of this to the task when PBS asked me after 9/11 to start a new weekly broadcast. They wanted us to make it different from anything else on the air — commercial or public broadcasting. They asked us to tell stories no one else was reporting and to offer a venue to people who might not otherwise be heard.

That wasn’t a hard sell. I had been deeply impressed by studies published in leading peer-reviewed scholarly journals by a team of researchers led by Vassar College sociologist William Hoynes. Extensive research on the content of public television over a decade found that political discussions on our public affairs programs generally included a limited set of voices that offer a narrow range of perspectives on current issues and events.

Instead of far-ranging discussions and debates, the kind that might engage viewers as citizens, not simply as audiences, this research found that public affairs programs on PBS stations were populated by the standard set of elite news sources. Whether government officials and Washington journalists (talking about political strategy) or corporate sources (talking about stock prices or the economy from the investor’s viewpoint), public television, unfortunately, all too often was offering the same kind of discussions, and a similar brand of insider discourse, that is featured regularly on commercial television.

Who didn’t appear was also revealing. Hoynes and his team found that in contrast to the conservative mantra that public television routinely featured the voices of anti-establishment critics, “alternative perspectives were rare on public television and were effectively drowned out by the stream of government and corporate views that represented the vast majority of sources on our broadcasts.”

The so-called experts who got most of the face time came primarily from mainstream news organizations and Washington think tanks rather than diverse interests. Economic news, for example, was almost entirely refracted through the views of business people, investors and business journalists. Voices outside the corporate/Wall Street universe — nonprofessional workers, labor representatives, consumer advocates and the general public were rarely heard. In sum, these two studies concluded, the economic coverage was so narrow that the views and the activities of most citizens became irrelevant.

All this went against the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I know. I was there. As a young policy assistant to President Johnson, I attended my first meeting to discuss the future of public broadcasting in 1964 in the office of the Commissioner of Education. I know firsthand that the Public Broadcasting Act was meant to provide an alternative to commercial television and to reflect the diversity of the American people.