Amid all the septic-tank gags,Meet the Parents had one standout scene—at De Niro’s dinner table, where a nervous Ben Stiller delivers an excruciating soliloquy about cat-milking. It’s one of the age-old tenets of farce—goofy stuff, said at the dinner table, sounds twice as goofy—but director Jay Roach was obviously so enamored of his discovery that he has sought to turn it into an entire movie. In Dinner for Schmucks (Paramount), a group of L.A. financiers meet regularly for dinner, each bringing along an idiot for everyone’s amusement. The one with the best idiot wins.
The idea is lifted from the 1998 French film, Le Diner des Cons, directed by Francis Veber, in which a snobbish publisher befriended a fool for the purposes of civilized mockery, only to see the fool visit chaos upon every corner of his life. It wasn’t Feydeau, but it delivered a neat kick to the shins of Parisian literary snobs—boo hiss. I’m not sure what you get from shifting the whole thing to the world of Los Angeles private equity, not a field that is world famous for its air of intellectual brinkmanship; or from giving the lead role to Paul Rudd, who happens to be one of the most affable, easy-going invertebrates on the planet.
“That’s messed up,” he protests when he first hears about the scheme—and just in case we miss his principles the first time, here they are again: “That’s messed up” says his girlfriend Julie, who is played by French-born actress Stephanie Szostack, presumably on the principle that if you are to ransack a country’s most venerable farceur traditions you may as well grab their most winsome, button-nosed actresses while you’re at it.
But just as he asks his secretary to tell Lance that he can’t attend the meal, Barry steps in front of his car and the two literally meet by accident. Tim pretends to be friendly to Barry, and Barry believes he’s made his first friend in years.
Since Barry’s biggest skill is his ability to make artistic “mousterpieces” – dioramas featuring dead mice that he taxidermies, clothes and places into settings based on famous paintings, including Leonardo di Vinci’s “The Last Supper” – he just might win, if he can beat his worst rival: his own boss at the IRS (Zach Galifianakis in a ridiculously funny performance), who has tormented Barry for years with his alleged ability to control Barry’s mind.
Now that I’ve lavished praise upon Carell, Galifianakis and Greenwood, and spelled out the film’s utterly bizarre premise, one might wonder, “So what’s the problem?” The film’s pacing is off in some places, a fact that’s surprising given the fact that director Jay Roach was at the helm of five of the biggest screwball-comedy hits of the past 30 years with the “Austin Powers” trilogy and the first two “Meet the Parents” films.
The film lumbers at points in its first half-hour, and occasionally feels like it’s trying way too hard with the wacky antics at other points in the rest of the film. Yet enough moments work – including a freakishly funny subplot involving a stalker (Lucy Punch) of Tim’s – that you likely won’t be able to keep from laughing loudly and thinking back on the film as being better than the sum of its parts.
“Schmucks” is surprisingly free of profanity (or at least nearly enough so that I didn’t notice any), but in keeping with Roach’s other films, there are some outrageously risque sequences. While there’s nothing graphic in the visuals, some of the verbal jokes’ topics carry things pretty far out, yet for adults and teenagers, these situations are also absurd they’re nearly impossible to take serious offense at and the film’s overall sweetness and humanity still rules the day.
And thanks to an absolutely beautiful use of wistful pop classics like The Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill,” it is also the rare broad comedy film that manages to get its emotional moments right as well. You’ll be glad you RSVP’d to this film, rather than feeling like a schmuck for paying to see it.
It’s possible Roach — whose credits include Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers, as well as the Austin Powers movies — was simply trying to set up the movie as a vast party by itself, one whose conviviality would enwrap the audience, too. And there are plenty of gags that almost work: Zach Galifianakis shows up as a scary IRS agent who intimidates his poor co-worker Barry with his amazing “mind control” skills, which essentially amount to a psychotic stare. The funniest part of Galifianakis’ schtick, though, involves an article of clothing that those of you born after 1975 may never even have seen before. And Carell, whom I consider an off-and-on genius (as long as you don’t make me watch Evan Almighty or Dan in Real Life again), has some terrific, throwaway moments, as when he slumps into a chair, loosens his shirt, and yanks off his necktie — which is a clip-on. The gag itself is pedestrian; Carell’s off-the-beat timing, and the forehead-smacking, “How did I not see that coming?” element of surprise, are what make it work.
But before long Carell’s character, perpetually squirrelly-eyed and wearing a bland, rabbity smile, becomes a chore to watch. Even Rudd, who’s both a marvelous straight man and a stealthy funny guy, recoils from him a little bit too believably. Because most contemporary mainstream comedies, unfortunately, have to have some deeper meaning, there is a moral to Dinner for Schmucks: Be nice to squares. And that moral would be acceptable, if only the movie didn’t bore us so interminably along the way. It takes forever to get to the climactic dinner scene, and even then, the schmucky guests we’ve been waiting to see offer nothing but disappointment: There’s a psychic who communicates with dead pets (Octavia Spencer), a blind fencer (Chris O’Dowd), a guy with a hungry pet vulture (Patrick Fischler). Each runs through his or her act as if trying out for the Gong Show.
The few moments of relief in Dinner for Schmucks come from some of the supporting performers, most notably the British actors David Walliams and Lucy Davenport as a pair of humorless Swiss kajillionaires. (Just looking at Davenport, with her robotic Ultra-Brite smile and electronic blue Village of the Damned eyes, made me laugh.) Jemaine Clement, of Flight of the Conchords, also shows up as a self-important, sex-obsessed artist, and sometimes he’s funny-sexy, in a Cro-Magnon way. But the best things in Dinner for Schmucks by far are the mice, nattily dressed stuffed creatures who inhabit their tiny, meticulously detailed worlds with more life and spirit than their human counterparts do. In one of these tableaus, our little rodent friends gather ‘round one side of a long, rectangular table to partake of the Last Supper. Now that’s what I call a party.
Barry is a whirlwind of life change – destroying property, relationships, tax statuses – but he comes off like the puppy who looks up at you with giant eyes after peeing all over your favorite shirt. Unfortunately, Paul Rudd doesn’t come off like much of anything except a stock character. He’s Misguided Hero #4 Who Has To Learn to Be Himself and Not Mock the Guy Who Makes Dead Mouse Dolls.
Their relationship leads to the true focal point of the movie – a dinner party where the stakes are equally high for Tim to win the multi-million dollar client, for Barry to stand up to his bullying co-worker Therman (Zach Galifianakis), and for the weirdo with the female dummy to creep everyone out. The movie does its math correctly, and the destructive power of one idiot is amplified by seven.
There are some truly disturbing, shockingly funny moments (particularly when Barry hands a note written on a napkin to a wealthy possible investor), and they are welcomed after a fairly average start. The laughs are there, but the film is not much more than what it needs to be – a clever distraction that’s as digestible as the popcorn it comes with.
The Upside: Steve Carell doing his best Harold Lloyd, Paul Rudd doing his best Paul Rudd, and a few great comedic set ups that are milked for every laugh out there.
The Downside: A fairly average story, too much downtime between the funny stuff, and an opening that looks like it came from a robot programmed to write modern comedies.
On the Side: Were you aware that this film is a remake of a French film that Rob Hunter really enjoyed despite having to read the entire movie? It’s true!
Even in the midst of decent, more than respectable reviews, why am I not more excited to see the new Dinner For Schmucks?
Here’s why: in my experience, American remakes of foreign hits are most often inferior. Most anyone fortunate enough to have seen Francis Veber’s original Diner de Cons (The Dinner Game) from 1998 knows that to improve upon it would be virtually impossible — or at least, I hope they do.
This delightful, intelligent farce about a mean-spirited game in which handsome, well-heeled gentlemen bring the biggest nerds they can find to a dinner, and how one smug player has the tables turned on him by a most memorable nerd well before they even get to the dinner, stands out as one movie with little need of a remake.
But since there’s nothing original out there anyone wants to touch, of course mainstream Hollywood just has to try.
For those of you who don’t know it, over the past thirty-plus years Veber has been perhaps the most gifted and prolific director of film comedies in France, and time and again, Hollywood has tried to recreate his magic via flat re-makes drained completely of the Gallic charm that animates the originals.
Raise your hands: has anyone recently re-visited The Toy (1982) with Jackie Gleason and Richard Pryor, or The Man With One Red Shoe (1985), starring Tom Hanks? I didn’t think so. Both were inspired by successful Veber outings in France starring the inimitable Pierre Richard.
Though some will undoubtedly differ with me on this, even Mike Nichols’s The Birdcage (1996), by far the most successful Veber adaptation this side of the pond, pales next to its predecessor, La Cage Aux Folles (1978).
You’d think that Hollywood might give up on Veber remakes, but no. They believe that by manipulating a proven formula, usually making it more obvious to attract a broader audience, and then pushing it out to the world via their enormous marketing and distribution machine, they will turn a handsome profit in the end. And — maddeningly — most of the time they are right.
I read all the reviews I could find for Schmucks, and overall I concede they were mostly positive, though somewhat qualified. However, it’s pretty evident Schmucks is no comedic masterpiece, which i submit the original is (or if not, damn close). In the New York Times, A.O. Scott termed it “less a full-scale comic feast than a buffet of amusing snacks,” just the sort of faint praise that puts me on my guard.
It is difficult to argue with the claims of long-form census supporters that the long form of the census is really important and vital (although we’ve given it a shot — see here for the latest in a series of posts entitled “WS on the census”). For example, how else can we find out how many people are Jedi knights?
According to the 2001 census, 21,000 Canadians listed “Jedi knight” as their religion. Dmitri Soudas, communications director for the prime minister’s office, made prominent reference to this fact in an email to the press gallery:
21,000 Canadians registered Jedi knight as a religion in the 2001 census.
Religion is asked every 10 years.
We made the 40-page long form voluntary because government should not threaten prosecution or jail time to force Canadians to divulge unnecessary private and personal information.
Canadians don’t want the government at their doorstep at 10 o’clock at night while they may be doing something in their bedroom, like reading, because government wants to know how many bedrooms they have.
The Ignatieff Liberals promise to force all Canadians to answer personal and intrusive questions about their private lives under threat of jail, fine, or both.
We’re not sure if Canadians want the government to show up on someone’s doorstep at 10 at night, but we are fairly certain that no government official wants to mess with a competent Jedi knight, especially if the knight has succumbed to the dark side of the force.
This is unfortunately the case for Canadian Hayden Christensen, whose Jedi name is Anakin Skywalker. Christensen is one of the three or four most significant adherents to Jedi knightry.
In spite of the significance of this Canadian to the faith, and in spite of Canada being, on January 12, 2009, the first country in the world to recognize the Order of the Jedi Inc. as a federally incorporated non-profit religious entity, Canada did not lead the world in Jedis.
According to 2001 census reports from the English-speaking world, England and Wales led the world in absolute terms, with over 390,000 (0.8%) Jedis. “The 2001 census reveals that 390,000 people across England and Wales are devoted followers of the Jedi ‘faith,'” the BBC reported in 2003.
England also has the distinction of having elected a Jedi Member of Parliament. Jamie Reed, then-newly-elected Labour Party MP, commented on the proposed Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill by saying, “as the first Jedi Member of this place, I look forward to the protection under the law that will be provided to me by the Bill.”
Canada also lagged behind Australia, with over 70,000 (0.37%) Jedis in 2001. In May of 2001, the Australian Board of Statistics released a press release to the media on the topic of Jedis. “If your belief system is “Jedi” then answer as such on the census form. But if you would normally answer Anglican or Jewish or Buddhist or something else to the question “what is your religion?” and for the census you answer “Jedi” then this may impact on social services provision if enough people do the same,” read the press release.
The honour of most Jedis on a per capita basis goes to New Zealand, with over 53,000 adherents, making up 1.5 per cent of the population, second only to “Christian” at 58.9 per cent (“No Religion” accounted for 28.9 per cent, with 6.9 per cent objecting to the question).
Membership in the Jedi Church is not restricted to English-speaking humans from Earth. “The Jedi Church recognises that there is one all powerful force that binds all things in the universe together, and accepts all races and species from all over the universe as potential members of the religion,” explains the official website of the Jedi Church.
Much like in this country, Canadians are required to fill out a census form every five years. A randomly selected group of people, however, are given a long-form census with invasive questions about personal relationships, work and migration histories, and family background, among other things. While I wouldn’t have thought that making such questions voluntary would be all that controversial, a surprising number of people are up in arms over the proposal.
Many groups are worried that a voluntary census would hamper the government’s ability to collect reliable data, which is then acquired by these groups at prices far below market value. Yet, considering that in 2001, 21,000 Canadians listed their religion as Jedi Knight, it would appear as though collecting information under the threat of coercion doesn’t work very well either. Census data from other countries also shows that the world’s Jedi population is growing. But as many European countries move to eliminate the census altogether, Canadian Jedis are up in arms.
Although the Jedis did assist the Rebel Alliance in overthrowing a tyrannical emperor, it’s clear that the Knights were originally set up to enforce the Galactic Senate’s big government agenda. Not to be outdone, the empire continues its assault on private property. Security cameras in Long Island caught Darth Vader holding up a bank yesterday morning. If only police in Long Island had census data showing the names and addresses of the local Jedi population, they might have an easier time apprehending the dark lord. And the circle is now complete.
Are the Jedi big government advocates? That’s unclear. I think it would be more accurate to describe them as cartelistic — they refuse to permit a free market in learning the ways of the Force. After all, the Jedi Council’s initial inclination is not to train Anakin Skywalker despite his obvious talents, using some BS about fear as a cover. Only when Qui-Gon threatens to go rogue do they relent. The Council does not inform the Senate that their ability to detect the force has been compromised. They’re reluctant to expand their assigned tasks — they’re keepers of the peace, not soldiers. Just as clearly, their anti-competitive policies weakened their own productivity, given the fact that they were unable to detect a Sith Lord walking around right under their noses for over a decade.
So, were the Jedi perfect agents of liberty? No, probably not. But neither were they handmaidens to the greatest concentration of state power in galactic history.
P.S. Beyond George Lucas’ rather bigoted portrayal of anything involving commerce, another source of libertarian resentment against the Jedi might be their lack of respect for property rights. If the Force is an energy field created by all living things, then why the hell to the Jedi get to exploit it without compensating the creatures who create it in the first place? If you think about the Jedi as the Guardians of the Republic, this might sound absurd. Replace “Guardians of the Republic” with “rapacious strip-miners of primordial energy,” however, and suddenly they don’t look so good. At least the Sith stay small in number, so the externality problem is kept to a minimum.
In sticking to a small government/good big government/bad dichotomy, Drezner and Walker are missing the fact that the real problem with the Galactic Republic was the type of government. Sure, it’s fair to say that the Galactic Republic was large, but it was a completely decentralized institution, responsible mostly for facilitating trade, moderating disputes and maintaining a standard currency. They had no standing military and a weak chief executive, which is precisely how Palpatine took over in the first place. If anything, Palpatine’s ability to manipulate the initial dispute between Naboo and the Trade Federation into a full-on conflict is an example of what happens when government doesn’t have the ability to ensure the market remains free and fair.
Sure it’s easy to see Palpatine soliciting advice from John Yoo, but it’s not like his ultimate goal in conquering the galaxy was passing Social Security or health-insurance reform. If the Galactic Republic had been assembled with a strong but accountable executive that had control of a standing volunteer army with a monopoly on force, the trade dispute on Naboo would never have escalated into a full-scale war, the corporate entities that formed the separatists would have found it more difficult to raise armies, and Palpatine would have had a harder time pushing the Republic toward dictatorship — at the very least because the security and stability of the galaxy wouldn’t have been entrusted to a cloistered religious elite vulnerable to resentment and bigotry. Palpatine’s plot against the Jedi would never have worked had he not managed to, in Nixonian fashion, exploit resentment against a supposedly monastic order living a life of luxury in their giant palace in the middle of the Galactic Capitol — and if they hadn’t been replaced by a clone army with no emotional or social ties to the population.
OK, my turn. As much as I’d like to spend my time poking fun at typical libertarian assumptions about markets and Homo Liberal, which they assume are the only form of humanity and the only form of commerce, I’ll stick with something closer to home: political institutions. The Galactic Republic? We have a unicameral legislature, and as far as we can see each planet gets one vote.* The Republic appears to be pretty much absent in the internal affairs of the planets. The only policies it considers that we know of are war and trade negotiations. Within either (presumably) core planets such as Naboo, or peripherals ones such as Tatooine, the central government appeared to have little if any presence or authority. What does that sound like to you? You got it — it’s the Articles of Confederation. Sure, they call their legislature a Senate, but there doesn’t actually seem to be anything very Senate-like about it (just as there’s nothing very Senate-like about the United States Senate under the Constitution). Moreover, the crisis that Palpatine creates and uses to spark the wars that eventually lead to Empire is a crisis of weak government, not strong: it’s about trade disputes within the Republic!
There’s also some stuff about bureaucrats “really” running things in the Republic, but since our only evidence for that is that Palpatine said it as part of his manipulation of Amidala (and therefore it has less than a 50/50 chance of actually being true), I’ll have to pass on the opportunity to talk about how important it is to have politicians, and not civil servants, in charge. But it is. Although preferably, not Sith politicians. You don’t really want that.
I do have to get one shot in…Drezner complains about “Beyond George Lucas’ rather bigoted portrayal of anything involving commerce.” Really? Who’s the most likable character in the Star Wars movies? OK, not counting R2D2. Isn’t it Han Solo, galactic smuggler, pirate, and all-around scoundrel? Sure, Solo eventually realizes that there’s more to life than money, but that doesn’t mean he’s not fond of money, and we’re certainly fond of him. I don’t see it, at all. Presumably we don’t like the greedy Watto, but he’s a bad guy because of his slaves, not because he’s a businessman. (I suppose Jabba the Hut is a bad guy, but everyone likes him, right?). Perhaps Drezner is thinking of the Trade Federation. That’s a mistake! The Trade Federation aren’t actually the Bad Guys of the Clone Wars; the only Bad Guy of the Clone Wars is Palpatine.
You want a commerce-hater? That’s Star Trek, the Next Generation, and Captain Jean-Luc Picard, scourge of the Ferengi and 20th century businessmen. Star Wars? Sure, a strong and inexplicable bias against death sticks, but, er, um….
Where was I? I can’t remember. I wanna go home and rethink my life.
There are no great analogues for the Jedi in modern American society. They are a secretive, powerful religious sect contracted by the Republic to do vital governing tasks that include policing and diplomacy. Perhaps the Knights Templar were similar in some ways, although I don’t think the Knights had any real authority within European society. Their jurisdiction was the Holy Land. In some ways, the Jedi sound more like the Taliban than anything we’ve got going in the U.S.
Politically, it’s really hard to categorize the Jedi, or the Galactic Republic in general, because Lucas gives us so few policy issues to work with. The Republic turns a blind eye to slavery, not so much because they like slavery but because they just largely ignore what goes on on the Outer Rim planets. That’s not so much liberal or conservative as weak. It’s also largely unable to resolve a trade dispute among its own members. Bernstein’s analogy to the Articles of Confederation is spot on. But the Jedi don’t really seem to take positions on any of this stuff.
Update: Welcome Atlantic Wire readers! Wait, I’m a libertarian? How will I tell my children, Rand and Galt?
Annualized interest rates of two hundred percent a year?
I read someone, somewhere arguing that Elizabeth Warren was the nominee to shut them down. I am curious about the modern liberal take on autonomy and credit. Let’s say that two gay men, of unknown health status, want to have informed, consensual, unprotected sex. Should the law prohibit this? I believe the answer is no. Furthermore it is not just a matter of enforcement difficulty, it is a question of autonomy. If you don’t think so, modify the example so that two heterosexual people want to have consensual but unprotected sex. And so on.
The unprotected sex is riskier and less prudent than borrowing money at an annualized rate of two hundred percent. Why prohibit one and not the other? Many of the borrowers are being fooled, but others have legitimate reasons to seek the money, such as wanting to buy a birthday present for a visit to one’s child, living with a separated spouse.
Is it that sex is sacred but borrowing money is not? What if you’re borrowing money to catch a plane to go have sex? Isn’t sex a big reason why people might borrow money at high annualized rates? Aren’t “sex decisions” some of the least rational we make and the most prone to error?
When I use the ATM, often I am outside the network and thus I am paying annualized interest rates of over two hundred percent a year. Should someone (other than Natasha) stop me? Should they only stop me when I am younger and poorer than is the current Tyler? What about equality before the law?
How many of you would support this same woman — with enthusiasm — if she wanted to ban risky but consensual sex?
The progressives seem to have made Elizabeth Warren their cause-du-jour. I have a long and complicated history with Elizabeth Warren, so allow me a moment to offer my long and complicated thoughts on her. Really long. So long that I had to break it into two parts–scholarship and public life–in order to prevent the nausea, daytime sleepyness, and intracranial bleeding that might otherwise result. Consider yourselves warned.
I first encountered Elizabeth Warren in the early part of the decade, when I read her book, The Two Income Trap. The thesis is innovative and, I think, at least partly correct: that in many ways, two income families have made households less financially stable, not more so. Among higher income families, much of the extra income has simply been poured into a bidding war with other higher income families for homes in good school districts. Among lower income families, much of the extra income has gone to replacing home production with market production: convenience meals, work clothes, second cars, child care, and so forth.
Because the extra income is being fully consumed, the result is that if one partner loses their job, the family is not more insulated from economic shock, but less so. In the 1950s, if Dad lost his job, Mom could pick up extra work to make up at least some of the loss. In the Mean Teens, Mom’s already got a full time job.
But while I found the thesis compelling, there were some problems with the book. The first is that Warren simply fails to grapple with what her thesis suggests about the net benefits of the two-earner family. Admittedly, I don’t quite know what to say either, but at least I can acknowledge that it’s a pretty powerful problem for the current family model; Warren kind of waves her hands and mumbles about social programs and more supportive work environments. There is no possible solution outside of a more left-wing government.
But the deeper problem is that some of her evidence doesn’t really support her thesis, and can be made to appear to support her thesis only by making some very weird choices about what metrics to use.
Does this persistent tendency to choose odd metrics that inflate the case for some left wing cause matter? If Warren worked at a think tank, you’d say, “Ah, well, that’s the genre.” On the other hand, you’d also tend to regard her stuff with a rather beady eye. It’s unlikely to have been splashed across the headline of every newspaper in the United States. Her work gets so much attention because it comes from a Harvard professor. And this isn’t Harvard caliber material–not even Harvard undergraduate.
So I think it matters on two levels. One, it matters how we evaluate the work–and I’ve been disappointed at how uncritically some people I really respect have been willing to accept the 2001 and 2007 findings. Not because I don’t think that there are medical bankruptcies in the United States; I do! I think medical bills are certainly the primary cause of some of those filings, though I don’t know how many, and I’ve also been writing about bankruptcy long enough to know that assigning any one cause to the ultimate financial meltdown is, in many cases, impossible. (If you have nice consumer goods and no health insurance, does a car accident count as a “medical bankruptcy” or a budgeting deficiency? If you lived right up to the edge of your income, was a job loss, or your spending pattern, to blame? How you answer these questions depends on a large number of prior value judgments that are hotly contested in our society.)
It matters that we get this stuff right. I am among the majority who would like to see bankruptcies reduced in this country, and we’re not going to be very effective at that if we run around thinking we can cure 2/3 of them by putting a national health care system in place, when in reality a third or less have any strong causal relationship with medical bills. Obviously, this was also held out as an argument for PPACA, making an implicit promise to the American people which I believe to be false.
But it also matters because a large part of Warren’s prominence comes from the fact that she’s an academic. If she came from . . . well, the sort of think tank that publishes this sort of advocacy science . . . she would have considerably less glamor, and power.
And perhaps it mattes most of all because this woman is now under consideration to head a powerful new agency. If this is how she evaluates data, then isn’t that going to hamper her in making good policy? If we’re going to have a consumer financial protection agency, I want one that has a keen eye to the empirical evidence on consumer welfare–not one that makes progressives most happy by reinforcing their prior beliefs.
The old joke* about Richard Nixon asked “How can you tell when he’s lying?”
The answer: ”When his lips move.”
I’ve finally come to the conclusion that something similar must be said about Megan McArdle. Perhaps lying is too harsh a word — but the serial errors that all fall on the side that supports her initial claims and that recur again and again in her work suggest to me that something other than mere intellectual sloth and sloppiness is the driver.
Ordinarily, such a record wouldn’t matter much, especially in journalism. In theory, a series of clips as riddled with error as McArdle’s would end most careers in high prestige journalism. Hot Air might still find a use for you, but The Atlantic?
But it is one that does real damage to the republic, as the post that aroused this latest bout of McArdle-bashing demonstrates. In it, McArdle seeks to discredit Elizabeth Warren as a potential leader of the new Consumer Finance Protection Agency to be set up under the just-passed financial reform bill.
To do so she tries to impugn both the quality and integrity of Warren’s scholarship, and she does so by a mix of her usual tricks — among them simple falsehoods;** highly redacted descriptions of what Warren and her (never mentioned) colleagues actually said;*** and descriptions of Warren’s work that are inflammatory — and clearly wrong, in ways she seems to hope no one will bother to check.****
You can see the footnotes for quick examples of these sins. Here, I’ll confine myself to pointing out that in this post you find McArdle doing the respectable-society version of the same approach to argument that Andy Breitbart has just showed us can have such potent effect.
To see what I mean, you have to follow through two steps: how McArdle constructs her picture of a feckless, partisan and dishonest Warren — and then how she generalizes from it.
Partly, McArdle relies on the strength of her platorm. As “Business and Economics editor of The Atlantic” she routinely writes in assertions that we are to accept on her say -so.
(As an aside — this argument from authority is never that strong, and, as McArdle demonstrated very recently, can descend to pure, if unintended, comedy (go to Aimai’s comment at the bottom of Susan of Texas’s post), its flip side is that different. Everytime someone gets something thing wrong in a consequential way, the loss of trust should advance, ratcheting up with each such error detected, to the point where it becomes the safest default position to assume that someone — McArdle, for example — is always wrong till proven otherwise.)
But back to the anatomy of McArdle’s campaign. I’m going to focus on just one example where McArdle asks us to believe that her argument is strong and supported by the literature — without quite fessing up to what her supporting material actually says. As part of her sustained campaign to deny the significance of medical bankruptcy in the US, she writes,
A pretty convincing paper argues that the single best predictor of bankruptcy is simply how much debt you’ve accumulated–not income, job loss, divorce, or what have you. People who declare bankruptcy tend to have nicer stuff than others at the same income level.
The problem here is that the paper does not actually say quite what McArdle implies it does. She’s mastered here the trick Sally Field played in Absence of Malice — she’s managed to come up with a sentence that is accurate…but not truthful.
In fact, should you actually take the trouble to read the cited study (by UC Davis finance prof, Ning Zhu) you will find material like this: ”households with medical conditions are twice more likely to file for bankruptcy (33.5 percent) than households that do not have medical conditions (14.8 percent)…;”
And this: “Having medical problems increases the households’ filing probability by 7.6 percent and one standard deviation of increase in employment tenure is associated with an increase of 9.2 percent in the filing probability. Such changes represent 48.40 and 58.60 percent deviation from the baseline probability….;”
And this “our results provide qualitative support for both the adverse event and the over-consumption/strategic filing explanations.”
To be fair Zhu concludes that overconsumption — spending too much on housing, cars and credit cards account for more of the total burden of bankruptcy than medical events, divorce or unemployment, as McArdle wrote.
But as McArdle completely failed to acknowledge, Zhu does so while using somewhat more stringent standard for counting medical expenses as a factor in bankruptcy than other scholars employed — as he explicitly acknowledges. He concedes the continuing significance of medically -induced bankruptcy. He acknowledges what he believes to be a weak underweighting of that factor (because some people pay for medical expenses on credit cards). And he notes that a number of other studies, not limited to those co-authored by Warren, come to different conclusions.
In other words: McArdle correctly describes one conclusion of this paper in a way that yields for its readers a false conclusion about what the paper itself actually says. And look what that false impression implies: if medical bankruptcy is a trivial problem, society-wide, then Warren can be shown to be both a sloppy scholar and, as McArdle more or less explicitly says, a dishonest one as well.
So . . . McArdle correctly gives the paper’s statistically valid conclusion but fails to acknowledge that the paper’s author — who devised the methodology — noted that his methodology was rigorous? And this is evidence of McArdle’s sleazy manipulation?
Seriously, the quoted portion of McArdle’s essay is essentially a paraphrase of the article’s abstract. And even a cursory look at the article itself indicates that the authors conclude that overspending is the key factor in bankruptcy. See this, from page 5:
A closer look at the bankrupt households reveals that they consume in a surprisingly similar fashion to the control groups. Bankrupt households take out more mortgage liabilities (mean=$66,731), automobile loans (mean=$10,160), and credit card debts (mean=25,101), in absolute dollar value, than the control groups (mean is $56,141, $9,000, and $2,488, respectively). This is somewhat surprising given that they make less than one half of what the control households do.
Reading further into the paper, the main public policy conclusion is that the pre-2005 reform bankruptcy laws created incentives toward overconsumption. So the author not only provides data that supports McArdle’s views but comes to the same policy conclusion!
The contrary “evidence” in the paper is that, in the obligatory Literature Review, it cites other papers on the topic that showed that medical expenses were a key factor in bankruptcy. But the purpose of this paper was to show that, controlling for medical expenses and other important social variables, that household spending malpractice was a decisive factor.
Despite the fact that McArdle is ” the business and economics editor for The Atlantic,” numbers don’t seem to be her thing. She infamously miscalculated the effect of repealing Bush’s tax cuts for each American by a factor of 10, arriving at $25 instead of $250 per person, and then blithely explained: “The calculator on my computer won’t go into the billions, and I truncated incorrectly. The main point stands; even a very optimistic set of assumptions doesn’t yield huge net benefit.” Actually, $250 for every man, woman, and child in the US — and that’s only for the next two years — is serious money. And as for that calculator problem, Ms. McArdle, there’s only one word for that: spreadsheets. You’ve heard of them, I trust.
Spreadsheets are particularly handy when you’re making statements like this: “Does it matter if we have a regulator that can use data consistently?” In this piece McArdle leans on an old Wall Street Journal anti-tax screed by Todd Wysocki. “More weird metrics for Elizabeth Warren,” her headline quavers. McArdle eagerly repeats Wysocki’s suggestion that family living expenses are actually less than they were in the 1970s. But Wysocki’s stacking the deck (and making a completely different point) by using pre-tax rather than after-tax figures. Warren’s point is that two-earner families have less disposable income today than one-earner families did in the seventies, even with both adults working.
She’s right. I used a spreadsheet (highly recommended) to look at the increases in expenses, using the figures Wysocki (and the McArdle) cites. Here’s what I found: Mortgage costs increased from 18% to nearly 20% of after-tax income. Health insurance premiums increased from 3.5% to 3.63%. (That doesn’t include increases in out of pocket expenses like copays and deductibles.) And there was a whopping new expense of nearly 20% for day care, which wasn’t needed with a one-earner family. Add in car payments and the expenses Wysocki cites went from 39% of after-tax income to 62.3% — which pretty effectively underscores Prof. Warren’s point, don’t you think?
McArdle saves her real “firepower,” such as it is, for a piece she calls “Considering Elizabeth Warren, the Scholar.” It’s a blend of deception, misdirection, and poor analysis, chock full of comments like this one about Warren’s book on two-earner families: “… Warren simply fails to grapple with what her thesis suggests … Admittedly, I don’t quite know what to say, but at least I can acknowledge that it’s a pretty powerful problem for the current family model. Warren kind of waves her hands and mumbles about social programs and more supportive work environments. There is no possible solution outside of a more left-wing government.”
Got it? McArdle says Warren’s book is a failure because a) Warren fails to solve one of the problems she identifies, b) not that McArdle knows what the answer is, but c) “Warren kind of waves her hands” (get me a rewrite!) and “d) mumbles about social programs etc.” — which means she does propose solutions, but they’re ones that involve e) “more left-wing government.” Which McArdle doesn’t think is the solution, even though she acknowledges that she doesn’t have a solution.
Does it matter if we have a “business and economics editor” who can use data … and logic … consistently?
McArdle then suggests that Warren doesn’t understand numbers because Warren asserts that (says McArdle) “housing consumption hasn’t increased much … by less than a room per house.” McArdle conclues that this is a “twenty percent” increase, given a starting size of five rooms per house, although if consumption’s gone up by less than a room per house it’s less than twenty percent per house (no calculator needed for that one!) And that’s with two people working full-time instead of one.
“The square footage of new homes has increased dramatically since 1960,” writes McArdle. But how much of that is McMansions and other high-end homes? She doesn’t say, presumably because she doesn’t know. Since we’re talking about housing consumption among middle- and lower-income working families, a basic understanding of “mean,” “median,” and “average” would make that kind of information critical to McArdle’s argument.
So Megan McArdle wrote a long post attacking Elizabeth Warren as a scholar. What’s surprising is how little “there-there” there is to her critique. I would love to see nomination hearings based around how expansive of a definition to use for medical bankruptcies and watching Warren rip the face off of Senators when it comes to empirical methods. I doubt it is going to come to this, but I’ll go ahead and respond. (I’ve been waiting for part two to respond, which I assume may not show up.)
Because that isn’t what this is about. It’s about giving the impression that Warren is a weak scholar. Given that Warren is considered “the leading authority in the country on bankruptcy law,” being called a hack by McArdle, of all people, is something. Especially when we get a gem of a major screwup like this right out the door in the post:
Megan McArdle, blog post: 2. The response rate on their survey was only 20%. Given the deep shame surrounding bankruptcy, you have to worry that they got an unrepresentative sample. And how is that sample most likely to be unrepresentative? Well, one pretty likely way is that people who went bankrupt through no fault of their own–folks who got whacked by large and unpayable medical bills or a business closure–were more likely to respond than the people with drug or alcohol problems, profound depression that left them unable to work, compulsive gambling issues, and so forth….
Katie Porter, comments: Also, I would like to correct the misstatement, I believe of a commentator, that Ms. McCardle reproduces in her article above, that the response rate to the survey was 20%. The response rate was right at 50%, or just under that, depending on the exact metric for response rate used. More detail on the response rate for the written survey, as well as on the bias checks that were performed for sample selection bias, is also available in the above articles.
Megan McArdle, comments: They had a 50% response rate on the questionnaires, but by the time you got to the interviews, they were down to 20%. It’s in the article.
I have no idea what to make of this. Megan opens her critique by saying that there’s a massive bias in the data sample implied by the low response rate of 20%. A commenter politely responds that the response rate is 50%. She is very polite as the 50% is on the front page of the 2009 study. Megan then says she meant the interview rate.
Nobody is perfect, especially on the blogs. I’ve messed up data on this blog before, I’ve confused terms that I knew but didn’t catch in a proofread, and I’ve used data and terms that I thought meant one thing that turned out to mean another thing. Anytime someone points this out I correct it, or pause and double-check what I thought, or quietly ditch using that information. Humility is usually the best antidote to being a hack.
But notice how Megan just keeps on going. This is one of the major planks of her argument, that the sample is corrupted, and when someone points out that what she stated was factually incorrect she just changing the terms and keeps on going as if she what she wrote wasn’t wrong. How is a reader supposed to read this? Did she mean to say interview rate in the beginning? Does she think that a 50% response rate is too low? Useless without a 50% interview rate? Did she know at the time of writing the difference between the two terms? Does she want to reconsider her argument?
(It’s pretty similar to the classic McArdle instance of “It wasn’t a statistic–it was a hypothetical” when it came to US profits of pharma.)
Which is a shame. Like the hypothetical case there’s no pause, no reflection, so as a reader I just want to assume bad faith and move along.
But I won’t. Let’s continue.
“4. Their methodology is quite explicitly designed to capture every case where medical bills, or medical loss of income, coexist with some other causal factor–but the medical issues are then always designated as causal in their discussion…If you’re a plumber who has a stroke, you may well end up in bankruptcy simply because you lose income while you can’t work (the medical bills may or may not play a large causal role).”
Another problem Megan has with Warren’s research is that Megan believes it says medical debt is the cause of bankruptcies instead of something that contributes to bankruptcies. Instead of simply being a contributor among many multi-causal problems Megan states that Warren believes that medical debts are the sole cause (“always designated as causal”) instead of a contributor among a multi-causal set of items.
Is that true? Let’s look at the title of the paper that kicks off this line of research: “Illness And Injury As Contributors To Bankruptcy.” (my bold, italics, and underline.) It’s in the #@$%@# title that it’s a contributor and not the sole cause!
From the abstract of the 2007 paper Megan hates: “Our 2001 study in 5 states found that medical problems contributed to at least 46.2% of all bankruptcies…CONCLUSIONS: Illness and medical bills contribute to a large and increasing share of US bankruptcies.” (my bold, italics, and underline.)
This may look like a little nitpick but it is important: bankruptcies are multi-causal, and as far as I can tell Warren’s research has always emphasized this. Certainly the titles and conclusions of her paper place emphasis on this. Megan is trying to imply a con job, that Warren is an ideologue who manipulates her results and her conclusions to be stronger than they deserve. That’s not true.
Data Data Everywhere
There’s a lot of this: “The authors have an odd tendency to ignore what the respondents themselves say. 32% of those surveyed about their 2007 bankruptcies–not 62%–reported that ‘medical problem of self or spouse was reason for bankruptcy.’”
Notice what is going on here. Warren and her co-authors realize that there are a lot of ways to interpret the data and, ethically, put the data out there so others can disagree and make counter-arguments. All the data results are there. Megan does make these counter-arguments but gives off the impression that something is being hidden, or a sneaky move is being made.
Which gets to the bigger complaint Megan has about the paper: “As I discussed at the time, early 2007 is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad time to do any sort of study on bankruptcy… Bringing me to my next point: the paper thoroughly obscures the point that by their own calculations, the number of medical bankruptcies fell quite dramatically between 2001 and 2007.”
I still don’t get this complaint. There was an absolute overhaul in the way bankruptcy is carried out in 2005. Comparing the absolute numbers before and after wouldn’t be an apple-to-apples comparison. You can argue that no valid research could possibly done and that any empirical statistics should never be carried out on post-2005 data, which is what I think Megan argues, or that you acknowledge the data limitations, do your best to compensate and provide additional information, which Warren and the rest do under the section “Changes in the Law”, and carry on. I’m in the second camp.
The Massachusetts Legislature has approved a new law intended to bypass the Electoral College system and ensure that the winner of the presidential election is determined by the national popular vote.
“What we are submitting is the idea that the president should be selected by the majority of people in the United States of America,” Senator James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, said before the Senate voted to enact the bill.
Under the new bill, he said, “Every vote will be of the same weight across the country.”
But Senate minority leader Richard Tisei said the state was meddling with a system that was “tried and true” since the founding of the country.
“We’ve had a lot of bad ideas come through this chamber over the years, but this is going to be one of the worst ideas that has surfaced and actually garnered some support,” said Tisei, who is also the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.
The bill, which passed on a 28-to-9 vote, now heads to Democratic Governor Deval Patrick’s desk. The governor has said in the past that he supports the bill, said his spokeswoman Kim Haberlin.
If Patrick signs the bill, it would be a victory for activists who have been campaigning in other states to get similar legislation passed. Supporters say the current Electoral College system is arcane and outdated and causes candidates to campaign in battleground states while largely ignoring the rest of the country.
Under their plan, if states carrying a majority of the electoral votes — 270 out of 538 — enact the law, the candidate winning the most votes nationally would be assured a majority of Electoral College votes, according to the Globe.
Illinois, New Jersey, Hawaii, Maryland, and Washington have already approved the legislation, according to the advocacy group National Popular Vote.
A similar measure passed both branches of the Massachusetts Legislature two years ago but did not make it all the way through the process, the Globe said.
Boston.com reports that the Massachusetts legislature is going in through the out door again, passing a law to ignore the will of their people, and instead just give their electoral votes to the popular vote winner nation wide.
But Senate minority leader Richard Tisei said the state was meddling with a system that was “tried and true” since the founding of the country.
. . .
Tisei also criticized the proponents for not following the normal procedures to seek a constitutional amendment.
“The thing about this that bothers me the most is it’s so sneaky. This is the way that liberals do things a lot of times, very sneaky,” he said. “This is sort of an end run around the Constitution.”
Abso-effing-lutely. This is what Article Five is about. Understood, there seems to be a psychological joy, which some find, in taking words to mean whatever they wish. Hence the Commerce Clause becoming the Constitution over the last century. Hence the “judicial deference” doctrine, where Congress can emote whatever it wishes, and We The People get to watch the 14-ish trillion dollar debt pile up due to Federal over-reach.
Does this state even merit the privilege of having the USS Constitution moored in Charlestown?
One hopes the American people grasp that this is one more step down the path of collapse into tyranny. Possibly not a big one, but a step nonetheless, and unlikely to gain much traction in Virginia.
I know that this is remedial for Cornerites, but the electoral college is one of the last vestiges of federalism we have left. It reflects the Founders’ conviction that the method of choosing the Executive should reflect the will of the several states qua states — he’s called the President of the United States, not the President of America. The desire to protect the integrity and discreteness of the states, and to prevent the most populace states from running up the score in the popular vote, was the essence of the Connecticut Compromise. Do away with the college and you might as well abolish the Senate. Not that many on the Left would shed too many tears over that prospect.
In any event, there is something of a consolation prize here: unless and until enough states adopt the measure to give it teeth,Massachusetts will wind up serving as a mere rubber stamp for whoever wins the presidency by accruing enough votes in the other 49 states. Which means Massachusetts could realistically go Republican in 2012. . .
The Cato Institute, the Vatican (or maybe the Saddleback Church) of corporate libertarianism, recently hosted a debate between John R. Koza, the Pope (or maybe the Martin Luther) of the National Popular Vote plan, and Tara Ross, the Virgin Mary (or maybe the Flying Nun) of the electoral-college status quo.
The most striking aspect of this debate is how extraordinarily feeble Ms. Ross’s arguments sound. Watching the discussion unfold, I was tempted to suspect that the fix was in—that the Cato Institute had rigged the fight in Dr. Koza’s favor. But that can’t be right, because Cato opposes the National Popular Vote plan. It even sent the director of its “Center for Representative Government” to testify against it before a state legislature.
One is forced to conclude that the arguments sound feeble because they are feeble.
Two examples. Ms. Ross argues that N.P.V. would undermine the two-party system. She says that there would be “five, six, ten Presidential candidates in elections. There’s no reason for there not to be.” As a result, she says, we would end up with a President elected with fifteen per cent (“or it might be twenty per cent, or whatever”) of the popular vote.
In reality, there is a very good “reason for there not to be.” The domination of two large, coalition-like parties is a function of the fact that there can be only one winner of a Presidential election. If it were remotely true that popular-vote elections cause parties to proliferate, then you would expect to find examples of this phenomenon. Since all fifty states elect their governors this way, there ought to be at least a couple that have, or have ever had, this problem. If the problem is a function of size—the larger the electorate, the more likely parties are to proliferate—you would expect to find such proliferation in, say, at least one of the four largest states, each of which is more populous than the entire country was in 1840. You find no such thing. It doesn’t happen in California (pop. thirty-seven million), it doesn’t happen in Wyoming (pop. half a million), and it wouldn’t happen in the United States of America (pop. three hundred million).
So that argument is merely untrue. A second argument—that N.P.V. would empower regional candidates—goes further: it is the exact opposite of the truth. Do I really need to explain why awarding a hundred per cent of a state’s electors to the plurality winner in that state favors candidates whose appeal is regional as opposed to national? “The George Wallaces of the world, which right now have basically no impact on national elections, would have a much larger voice,” she argues. No impact? In 1968, Wallace, whose appeal was regional, got 13.5 per cent of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes. In 1992, Ross Perot, whose appeal was national, got 18.9 per cent of the popular vote and zero electoral votes.
I suspect that two factors are at work here. The first is an attachment to the status quo and a reverence for American political institutions of all stripes, which is certainly commendable up to a point (the point being a recognition of when the institution has failed.) The second is Republican partisanship — since 2000, many Republicans associate criticism of the electoral college with the delegitimization of the Bush presidency. That is to say, if we admit that the electoral college is unfair, then we admit that Al Gore was the rightful winner in 2000. That’s also an understandable sentiment but not a good basis for defending an ineffective electoral mechanism.
NPV commits Massachusetts to an interstate compact, which goes into effect once states holding 270 electors (a majority) have agreed to sign it. Under the terms of the compact, participating states must allocate their presidential electors to the winner of the national popular vote (instead of each state’s popular vote). If this compact goes into effect, theElectoral College will exist in theory, but not in practice. Patrick’s signature will make Massachusetts the sixth state to approve the compact. The first five were Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and Washington. New York and the District of Columbia could also soon jump on this bandwagon.
The Massachusetts legislature has forgotten (or never knew) the lessons of history that caused the founding generation to create institutions such as theElectoral College . The Founders had an interesting challenge in front of them: How could they encourage successful self-governance in a country as big and diverse as America? They faced two challenges: First, they knew that, as a matter of history, pure democracies fail. John Adams once noted, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” In such a system, it is simply too easy for bare or emotional majorities to tyrannize minority groups. The Founders’ second challenge came from the vastness of America’s territory: Some wondered how the alternative to democracy, republicanism, would operate in such a large nation.
The Founders solved their dilemma by drafting a Constitution that blended three different governmental principles: republicanism, democracy, and federalism. America would be self-governing, but minority groups (especially the small states) would have tools with which to protect themselves from unreasonable rule by the majority. The federalist aspects of the nation would help solve the problem of extending a republic across such a broad swath of territory.
The founding generation thought that a nation of thirteen states was big and would require unique solutions. What would they think about a nation of fifty states?
Our cover image this week is powerful, shocking and disturbing. It is a portrait of Aisha, a shy 18-year-old Afghan woman who was sentenced by a Taliban commander to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws. Aisha posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan, many of whom have flourished in the past few years. Her picture is accompanied by a powerful story by our own Aryn Baker on how Afghan women have embraced the freedoms that have come from the defeat of the Taliban — and how they fear a Taliban revival. (See pictures of Afghan women and the return of the Taliban.)
I thought long and hard about whether to put this image on the cover of TIME. First, I wanted to make sure of Aisha’s safety and that she understood what it would mean to be on the cover. She knows that she will become a symbol of the price Afghan women have had to pay for the repressive ideology of the Taliban. We also confirmed that she is in a secret location protected by armed guards and sponsored by the NGO Women for Afghan Women. Aisha will head to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery sponsored by the Grossman Burn Foundation, a humanitarian organization in California. We are supporting that effort. (Watch TIME’s video on photographing Aisha for the cover.)
I’m acutely aware that this image will be seen by children, who will undoubtedly find it distressing. We have consulted with a number of child psychologists about its potential impact. Some think children are so used to seeing violence in the media that the image will have little effect, but others believe that children will find it very scary and distressing — that they will see it, as Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, said, as “a symbol of bad things that can happen to people.” I showed it to my two young sons, 9 and 12, who both immediately felt sorry for Aisha and asked why anyone would have done such harm to her. I apologize to readers who find the image too strong, and I invite you to comment on the image’s impact. (Comment on this cover.)
But bad things do happen to people, and it is part of our job to confront and explain them. In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban’s treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.
This reasoning follows what many might agree is the definition and purpose of good journalism. The things that are hard to look at are often the things that are most necessary to look at. Whether readers think the cover is bold or too graphic, the shock value cannot be denied. Without diminishing the value of telling a difficult story about a seemingly endless war, it’s hard not to wonder how the shock value will translate in terms of newsstand sales.
The risk that Afghanistan might once again become a staging ground for al Qaeda attacks on the US? Meh.
The danger of cross-border raids from Afghanistan into Pakistan that could lead to nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists? Yawn.
But a US withdrawal from Afghanistan that would lead to a setback for women’s liberation there? Now you’ve got the liberal media concerned! Rick Stengel of Time gave a perfect illustration of the phenomenon on today’s Morning Joe. As is his Friday wont, he unveiled the new Time cover, which portrays the heart-rending image of a young Afghani woman who had her nose and ears cut off for fleeing an abusive family and husband.
The story contains this: “As the war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year, the need for an exit strategy weighs on the minds of U.S. policymakers. Such an outcome, it is assumed, would involve reconciliation with the Taliban. But Afghan women fear that in the quest for a quick peace, their progress may be sidelined…. For Afghanistan’s women, an early withdrawal of international forces could be disastrous.” So… which is it? That sure sounds like an argument—and, you know, a very moving and affecting one!—for something like a permanent or at least extended occupation. Making things a little more complicated? The new issue also has an article by expert-without-portfolio Joe Klein, which goes: “Afghanistan is really a sideshow here. Pakistan is the primary U.S. national-security concern in the region.” So now what am I supposed to think while I’m not going on summer vacation because it makes our children stupider?
Such stories are obscene, not at all uncommon, and need to be told. But there is an elision here between these women’s oppression and what the U.S. military presence can and should do about it, which in turn simplifies the complexities of the debate and turns it into, “Well, do you want to help Aisha or not?”
While Aryn Baker’s story features the voices of many Afghan women who worry that the likely compromise with the Taliban vis a vis a possible U.S. exit will curtail their new freedoms, it doesn’t actually forcefully make the case that American military presence is the only solution to their problems. (That’s probably because Baker is a reporter, not a commentator, and it’s the job of headline writers to grab readers at almost any cost.)
There are, however, conflicting signals about how seriously committed U.S. officials are, in the context of an exist plan, to pushing back at the resurgence of the Taliban as it affects women in the country. One anonymous diplomat tells Baker, “You have to be realistic. We are not going to be sending troops and spending money forever. There will have to be a compromise, and sacrifices will have to be made.” On the other hand, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told reporters that women’s rights are a “red line” that won’t be crossed: “I don’t think there is such a political solution, one that would be a lasting, sustainable one, that would turn the clock back on women,” she said, after relative quiet on the issue last year.
As David Petraeus put it in his remarks upon assuming command in Afghanistan: “We must demonstrate to the Afghan people, and to the world, that Al Qaeda and its network of extremist allies will not be allowed to once again establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan from which they can launch attacks on the Afghan people and on freedom-loving nations around the world.” That doesn’t say anything about what happens to young girls who flee from their in-laws. Protecting them was not among the things he exhorted his troops to do. And when he addressed himself to the people of Afghanistan he didn’t mention anything along these lines either:
Finally, to the people of Afghanistan: it is a great honor to be in your country and to lead ISAF. I want to emphasize what a number of our country’s leaders recently affirmed – that our commitment to Afghanistan is an enduring one and that we are committed to a sustained effort to help the people of this country over the long-term. Neither you nor the insurgents nor our partners in the region should doubt that. Certainly the character of our commitment will change over time. Indeed, Afghans and the citizens of ISAF countries look forward to the day when conditions will permit the transition of further tasks to Afghan forces. In the meantime, all of us at ISAF pledge our full commitment to help you protect your nation from militants who allowed Al Qaeda sanctuary when they ruled the country. Moreover, we see it as our solemn duty to protect the innocent people of Afghanistan from all violence, whether intended by the enemy or unintended by those of us pursuing that enemy. And we stand with you as we all work to defeat the enemies of the new Afghanistan and to help create a better future for you and your families.
Defend Afghan allies from being targeted by the Taliban. Check. Avoid accidental killing of Afghans by NATO forces. Check. Women’s rights? Not so much.
And you can see this time and again if you look at statements about US policy in Afghanistan from George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Gates, Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus, etc. We are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Thus, emphasizing that the Taliban is a group of bad people is often a rhetorical point of emphasis. The Taliban’s poor treatment of women often comes up as a sub-point here to illustrate the theme that the Taliban are bad. But actually altering social conditions in southern and eastern Afghanistan isn’t on the list of war aims.
I have to ask: In Time‘s mission to really “illuminate what is actually happening on the ground” has it ever put on its cover close-up images of 1) a badly wounded or dead U.S. soldier 2) an Afghan killed in a NATO missile strike 3) an Afghan official, police officer or military commander accepting a bribe from a Taliban war lord. Alison Kilkenny has her own examples here.
No one makes light of the plight of women and children in Afghanistan under the Taliban–and, contrary to Stengel’s claim, many Americans do know about it. Indeed, liberal women’s groups in the U.S. have raised the issue often and expressed mixed feelings about staying (or even escalating) in Afghanistan because of it. It’s a serious issue. And please see the response to Time by the Feminist Peace Network. Jezebel with another good take here.
But I’d propose here a few alternative, or at least additional, cover images, all showing Americans here at home, that Time might go with an upcoming cover on “What Happens If We LEAVE Afghanistan.” Please supply your own ideas in the Comments section below.
— A student in a high-tech classroom.
— Workers streaming into a newly re-opened factory.
— A poor black or Hispanic woman examined by a doctor in a first-class facility.
— A returning soldier embraced by his wife and two kids.
— Solar panels being erected on a huge office building.
Well, you get the idea. Contribute or take issue below.
Cap-and-trade’s backers are correct to point the finger rightward. If their bill is dead, it was the American conservative movement that ultimately killed it. Climate legislation wasn’t like health care, with Democrats voting “yes” in lockstep. There was no way to get a bill through without some support from conservative lawmakers. And in the global warming debate, there’s a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the conservative movement and the environmentalist cause.
To understand why, it’s worth going back to the 1970s, the crucible in which modern right-wing politics was forged.
The Seventies were a great decade for apocalyptic enthusiasms, and none was more potent than the fear that human population growth had outstripped the earth’s carrying capacity. According to a chorus of credentialed alarmists, the world was entering an age of sweeping famines, crippling energy shortages, and looming civilizational collapse.
It was not lost on conservatives that this analysis led inexorably to left-wing policy prescriptions — a government-run energy sector at home, and population control for the teeming masses overseas.
Social conservatives and libertarians, the two wings of the American right, found common ground resisting these prescriptions. And time was unkind to the alarmists. The catastrophes never materialized, and global living standards soared. By the turn of the millennium, the developed world was worrying about a birth dearth.
This is the lens through which most conservatives view the global warming debate. Again, a doomsday scenario has generated a crisis atmosphere, which is being invoked to justify taxes and regulations that many left-wingers would support anyway. (Some of the players have even been recycled. John Holdren, Barack Obama’s science adviser, was a friend and ally of Paul Ehrlich, whose tract “The Population Bomb” helped kick off the overpopulation panic.)
History, however, rarely repeats itself exactly — and conservatives who treat global warming as just another scare story are almost certainly mistaken.
Rising temperatures won’t “destroy” the planet, as fearmongers and celebrities like to say. But the evidence that carbon emissions are altering the planet’s ecology is too convincing to ignore. Conservatives who dismiss climate change as a hoax are making a spectacle of their ignorance.
But this doesn’t mean that we should mourn the death of cap-and-trade. It’s possible that the best thing to do about a warming earth — for now, at least — is relatively little. This is the view advanced by famous global-warming heretics like Bjorn Lomborg and Freeman Dyson; in recentonline debates, it has been championed by Jim Manzi, the American right’s most persuasive critic of climate-change legislation.
Their perspective is grounded, in part, on the assumption that a warmer world will also be a richer world — and that economic development is likely to do more for the wretched of the earth than a growth-slowing regulatory regime.
But it’s also grounded in skepticism that such a regime is possible. Any attempt to legislate our way to a cooler earth, the argument goes, will inevitably resemble the package of cap-and-trade emission restrictions that passed the House last year: a Rube Goldberg contraption whose buy-offs and giveaways swamped its original purpose.
Ross Douthat has a column in today’s New York Times in which he kindly mentions me, but far more important, manages to make a multi-layered argument for why an informed rational observer should oppose cap-and-trade legislation within the length restrictions of an op-ed. In my view, the position that Ross presents – basically, that the cure is worse than the disease – is the rationally persuasive argument that won the day in recent legislative debates in the Congress.
I believe the debate and politics of this issue have, so far, played out along lines I set forth a couple of years ago. That doesn’t mean, however, that the debate is permanently settled. Nothing in American politics ever is, and the attempt to introduce cap-and-trade through legislation, regulation and/or judicial rulings is likely to continue for many years.
Mr. Douthat mentions Mr. Ehrlich in his column today, to explain why Republicans have blocked action on global warming:
The Seventies were a great decade for apocalyptic enthusiasms, and none was more potent than the fear that human population growth had outstripped the earth’s carrying capacity. According to a chorus of credentialed alarmists [including Paul Ehrlich], the world was entering an age of sweeping famines, crippling energy shortages, and looming civilizational collapse.
It was not lost on conservatives that this analysis led inexorably to left-wing policy prescriptions — a government-run energy sector at home, and population control for the teeming masses overseas.
The analogy to global warming is obvious. Just as ingenuity came to the rescue in the past, allowing people to use resources more efficiently than they ever had before, it could do so again — providing us with ways to emit far less carbon for every dollar of gross domestic product.
And I — like many others, I imagine — would be thrilled if that were what the future held. But I think there are two big reasons to doubt that we’re on another Ehrlich-Simon path when it comes to global warming.
The first is basic economics. When the problem is resource scarcity, companies and individuals have a powerful incentive to become more efficient. It keeps their costs down. Mr. Simon understood this, and it’s the fundamental reason he won the bet.
But global warming is different. The fact that carbon emissions are warming the planet doesn’t make it more expensive to produce those emissions. So companies do not have an ever-increasing incentive to emit less — the way they would if the problem were, say, a lack of oil. Global warming doesn’t solve itself the way that resource scarcity does.
The second reason is the accumulation of evidence. Almost as soon as Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Simon made their bet in 1980, Mr. Simon’s prediction started looking good. In 1981, as Mr. Tierney wrote, “grain prices promptly fell and reached historic lows during the 1980s, continuing a long-term decline.” (Mr. Tierney noted that an ally of Mr. Ehrlich ignored this trend at the time and focused instead on “blips in the graph.”)
In recent years, though, anyone who had bet against global warming would look as wrong as Mr. Ehrlich did. The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are shrinking at an accelerating rate. Scientists have recently revised upwards their predictions of sea-level rises. The planet’s 10 hottest years on record, according to NASA, are: 2005, 2007, 2009, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2004, 2001 and 2008. This year is on pace to displace 2005 as No. 1.
[Conservative opposition to carbon pricing legislation] is also grounded in skepticism that such a regime is possible. Any attempt to legislate our way to a cooler earth, the argument goes, will inevitably resemble the package of cap-and-trade emission restrictions that passed the House last year: a Rube Goldberg contraption whose buy-offs and giveaways swamped its original purpose.
Two objections. One—ACES certainly had its Rube Goldberg qualities, but it hardly “swamped its original purpose” of reducing the risk of climate catastrophe at small economic cost.
Two—if Republican members of congress looked at ACES and thought “nice try, but too many side deals” they were, of course, free at any time to introduce an alternative piece of legislation. They did not. And you can tell by the rhetoric of the broader conservative movement (”cap and tax,” “job-killing energy tax,” etc.) that there was no openness to this kind of effort to find more optimal ways of pursuing environmental goals. On the contrary, every move congressional Republicans have made—from adopting a House posture that made it necessary to forge costly side-deals with coal belt Democrats to adopting a Senate posture that ensures carbon regulation will be left primarily to the EPA—has tended to simultaneously undermine the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions while also making the economic impact of the regulations more costly.
The reality is that I don’t think American conservatives need a reason, as such, to oppose effective policies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Siding with the Chamber of Commerce against proposed new environmental regulation is just what the conservative movement does. Insofar as any particular person wants to dissent from that judgment in a vocal and persistent way, that person would simply be read out of the movement. The extent to which the conservative movement has its grip on any particular politician (or, indeed, newspaper columnist) can change from year-to-year or day-to-day but there’s no real opening for a conservative person or institution to make a genuine effort to help environmentalists without turning apostate. Things are different in Denmark, but that’s true of many subjects.
There are important lessons to be drawn from the doomsday scenarios of the 1970s, but conservatives who expect the warming trend to suddenly reverse itself have almost certainly overlearned them. I would offer two caveats, though. One is that while the economics of resource scarcity did militate in favor of conservation in a way they don’t with carbon emissions, the same wasn’t obviously true of population growth, where many serious people were convinced that the economic incentives were leading the whole world straight into a disastrous Malthusian trap. In hindsight, what we know about demographic transitions suggests otherwise — but that was much less clear in, say, 1969 or so than it is today. (Which explains, in turn, why that era was marked by various proposals and policies that effectively treated “excess” children the way cap-and-trade treats carbon emissions: As something to be regulated or taxed or otherwise coerced out out of existence.)
The second is that the Simon-Ehrlich bet that Leonhardt references took place in 1980, after more than two decades of exponential population growth and population alarmism (and, of course, various disastrous and inhumane policy experiments). So Paul Ehrlich probably thought he had a fair amount of historical evidence on his side when he made it. And if there were an equivalent bet on climate — which, to be clear, I wouldn’t make, since I expect temperatures to continue to rise — it would be taking place now, or a couple of years ago, rather than in 2000 or 1990.
Elsewhere, meanwhile, Matt Yglesias criticizes me for saying that the cap-and-trade bill’s various buy-offs and giveaways “swamp its original purpose.” It’s a good point: I should have said threaten to swamp its original purpose. We know that the buy-offs and giveaways ended up swamping the bill’s secondary purpose (raising revenue, that is), but we don’t know how they’ll effect the primary purpose of reducing emissions: That depends, among other things, on just how imperfect (or corrupt, or easily gamed) the system of “carbon offsets” ends up being. (After several years of implementation, it’s still unclear how well Europe’s emission-trading system works.) In theory, though, Yglesias is right: The legislation as passed by the House could achieve reductions in American emissions in spite of all the side deals and horse-trading. These projected reductions are woefully small in the global scheme of things (if there’s a more optimistic estimate than the one Jim Manzi cites here, please let me know), but they’re substantial in the domestic context.
Yglesias goes on to argue that Republicans are to blame for the giveaways and buy-offs anyway, because it was their intransigence that “made it necessary to forge costly side-deals with coal belt Democrats.” I’m not sure I agree with this: A world where a bloc of Republicans had come on board would probably have been a world where even more Democrats jumped ship (this was not an obviously popular piece of legislation), and you might have just ended up with a slightly different set of side-deals.
Never say that the gods lack a sense of humor. I bet they’re still chuckling on Olympus over the decision to make the first half of 2010 — the year in which all hope of action to limit climate change died — the hottest such stretch on record.
Of course, you can’t infer trends in global temperatures from one year’s experience. But ignoring that fact has long been one of the favorite tricks of climate-change deniers: they point to an unusually warm year in the past, and say “See, the planet has been cooling, not warming, since 1998!” Actually, 2005, not 1998, was the warmest year to date — but the point is that the record-breaking temperatures we’re currently experiencing have made a nonsense argument even more nonsensical; at this point it doesn’t work even on its own terms.
But will any of the deniers say “O.K., I guess I was wrong,” and support climate action? No. And the planet will continue to cook.
So why didn’t climate-change legislation get through the Senate? Let’s talk first about what didn’t cause the failure, because there have been many attempts to blame the wrong people.
First of all, we didn’t fail to act because of legitimate doubts about the science. Every piece of valid evidence — long-term temperature averages that smooth out year-to-year fluctuations, Arctic sea ice volume, melting of glaciers, the ratio of record highs to record lows — points to a continuing, and quite possibly accelerating, rise in global temperatures.
Nor is this evidence tainted by scientific misbehavior. You’ve probably heard about the accusations leveled against climate researchers — allegations of fabricated data, the supposedly damning e-mail messages of “Climategate,” and so on. What you may not have heard, because it has received much less publicity, is that every one of these supposed scandals was eventually unmasked as a fraud concocted by opponents of climate action, then bought into by many in the news media. You don’t believe such things can happen? Think Shirley Sherrod.
Did reasonable concerns about the economic impact of climate legislation block action? No. It has always been funny, in a gallows humor sort of way, to watch conservatives who laud the limitless power and flexibility of markets turn around and insist that the economy would collapse if we were to put a price on carbon. All serious estimates suggest that we could phase in limits on greenhouse gas emissions with at most a small impact on the economy’s growth rate.
So it wasn’t the science, the scientists, or the economics that killed action on climate change. What was it?
The answer is, the usual suspects: greed and cowardice.
But the truth is that public opinion played a major role as well. It’s not that Americans oppose action on greenhouse gas emissions — most polls show they favor it. It’s that they lack strong enough convictions to support the dislocations that any meaningful bill would impose. An AP poll, for instance, found that 59% of Americans would oppose any climate bill if it would cause their electricity bill to rise by even $10 a month. In an environment like this, opponents have a huge advantage in the battle for public opinion.
None of this is to say that a climate bill would be impossible without stronger public support. It’s the kind of issue that requires responsible elites. You would need Republicans to decide that the issue was vital and work with Democrats to craft a mutually-acceptable solution. Instead they positioned themselves to fan the flames of public opposition to any sacrifice or dislocation. The combination of a public with soft views on the issue and an opportunistic GOP made a bill impossible.
My other difference with Krugman is that I don’t think the failure of a bill means the planet will burn. I think it means that the Environmental Protection Agency will take over the issue. This isn’t ideal from an economic point of view. But it is ideal from Congress’s point of view — or, at least, the conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans who hold the deciding votes in Congress. Decreasing economic efficiency by limiting carbon emissions through regulation, rather then a more efficient cap and trade bill, in order to let the Senate avoid voting on the issue is a win for Ben Nelson and Olympia Snowe.
If Obama can hang tough on carbon emissions, he can force the energy industry to put real pressure on Congress to pass a climate bill. Obviously the threat is too abstract right now. But liberals need to get used to the idea that the EPA is the short-term solution and start figuring out how to make that work. the death of legislation in 2010 is not the death of a solution.
With the climate bill officially dead, there’s already a trickle of “who’s to blame and what they should have done differently” pieces. I expect it will soon become a flood.
Most of these pieces will focus in the wrong places. Take Lee Wasserman’s new op-ed, “Four Ways to Kill a Climate Bill,” an instant classic of the genre. Wasserman doesn’t like the way Dems talked about the issue and he doesn’t like the policy framework they put forward, which is of course his right. But the implication of the piece is that if Dems had talked the way he wanted them to talk, and put forward the bill he wanted them to put forward, the outcome would have been different. There’s just no reason at all to think that’s true.
Expect to see all sorts of pieces arguing that better “messaging” could have saved the day, e.g., this piece on Daily Kos. Others will argue that their particular policy pony — carbon tax, or cap-and-dividend, or massive R&D money — would have been victorious. Others will argue that demonizing energy incumbents to fire up the base would have worked. Others will blame Obama for not riding to the rescue (Randy’s got a roundup of these).
All this is well-meaning, but it misses the biggest impediments. I don’t think messaging, policy design, or base mobilization are irrelevant — I’ve written plenty about all of them — but their effects were marginal relative to other structural factors. Were I doing an autopsy on the death of the bill, here are the causal factors I’d single out, listed in order of significance:
1. The broken Senate
The U.S. Senate is already an unrepresentative institution: Wyoming’s two senators each represent 272,000 people; California’s two senators each represent 18,481,000 people. On top of this undemocratic structure is a series of rules that have been abused with increasing frequency.
The main one, of course, is the default supermajority requirement that’s been imposed by abuse of the filibuster. I’ll have much more to say on this soon, but suffice to say, the supermajority requirement has perverse, deleterious consequences that extend much farther than most progressives seem to understand.
For a complex, contentious, and regionally charged issue like climate change, the supermajority requirement presents a virtually insuperable barrier to action. I don’t think we would have the climate bill of our dreams if only 51 votes were required, but I’m fairly sure something along the lines of Waxman-Markey or stronger could have made it over the finish line.
2. The economy
You may have noticed that Americans aren’t in a very good mood right now. Unemployment is high and people are suffering. Given that most people don’t follow politics very closely, or at all, that translates to anger and suspicion toward whoever’s in power (despite the fact that, yes, it’s Bush and the Republicans who are responsible for both the economic downturn and the deficit).
Yes, the left could have done a better job of framing a climate/energy bill as an economic boost — mainly by starting earlier and being much more consistent — but the fact is, the environment-vs.-economy frame has been established by a well-funded 40-year campaign on the right. It can’t be overturned in two years. The American people were just bound to be indifferent and/or suspicious of grand environmental initiatives during a time of economic pain.
President Obama has called the BP oil spill “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” and so has just about everyone else. Green groups are sounding alarms about the “catastrophe along the Gulf Coast,” while CBS, Fox and MSNBC are all slapping “Disaster in the Gulf” chyrons on their spill-related news. Even BP fall guy Tony Hayward, after some early happy talk, admitted that the spill was an “environmental catastrophe.” The obnoxious anti-environmentalist Rush Limbaugh has been a rare voice arguing that the spill — he calls it “the leak” — is anything less than an ecological calamity, scoffing at the avalanche of end-is-nigh eco-hype.
Well, Limbaugh has a point. The Deepwater Horizon explosion was an awful tragedy for the 11 workers who died on the rig, and it’s no leak; it’s the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. It’s also inflicting serious economic and psychological damage on coastal communities that depend on tourism, fishing and drilling. But so far — while it’s important to acknowledge that the long-term potential danger is simply unknowable for an underwater event that took place just three months ago — it does not seem to be inflicting severe environmental damage. “The impacts have been much, much less than everyone feared,” says geochemist Jacqueline Michel, a federal contractor who is coordinating shoreline assessments in Louisiana. (See pictures of the Gulf oil spill.)
Yes, the spill killed birds — but so far, less than 1% of the number killed by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska 21 years ago. Yes, we’ve heard horror stories about oiled dolphins — but so far, wildlife-response teams have collected only three visibly oiled carcasses of mammals. Yes, the spill prompted harsh restrictions on fishing and shrimping, but so far, the region’s fish and shrimp have tested clean, and the restrictions are gradually being lifted. And yes, scientists have warned that the oil could accelerate the destruction of Louisiana’s disintegrating coastal marshes — a real slow-motion ecological calamity — but so far, assessment teams have found only about 350 acres of oiled marshes, when Louisiana was already losing about 15,000 acres of wetlands every year. (Comment on this story.)
The disappearance of more than 2,000 sq. mi. of coastal Louisiana over the past century has been a true national tragedy, ravaging a unique wilderness, threatening the bayou way of life and leaving communities like New Orleans extremely vulnerable to hurricanes from the Gulf. And while much of the erosion has been caused by the re-engineering of the Mississippi River — which no longer deposits much sediment at the bottom of its Delta — quite a bit has been caused by the oil and gas industry, which gouged 8,000 miles of canals and pipelines through coastal wetlands. But the spill isn’t making that problem much worse. Coastal scientist Paul Kemp, a former Louisiana State University professor who is now a National Audubon Society vice president, compares the impact of the spill on the vanishing marshes to “a sunburn on a cancer patient.” (See TIME’s interactive graphic “100 Days of the BP Spill.”)
Marine scientist Ivor van Heerden, another former LSU prof, who’s working for a spill-response contractor, says, “There’s just no data to suggest this is an environmental disaster. I have no interest in making BP look good — I think they lied about the size of the spill — but we’re not seeing catastrophic impacts.” Van Heerden, like just about everyone else working in the Gulf these days, is being paid from BP’s spill-response funds. “There’s a lot of hype, but no evidence to justify it.”
The scientists I spoke with cite four basic reasons the initial eco-fears seem overblown. First, the Deepwater oil, unlike the black glop from the Valdez, is unusually light and degradable, which is why the slick in the Gulf is dissolving surprisingly rapidly now that the gusher has been capped. Second, the Gulf of Mexico, unlike Alaska’s Prince William Sound, is very warm, which has helped bacteria break down the oil. Third, heavy flows of Mississippi River water have helped keep the oil away from the coast, where it can do much more damage. And finally, Mother Nature can be incredibly resilient. Van Heerden’s assessment team showed me around Casse-tete Island in Timbalier Bay, where new shoots of Spartina grasses were sprouting in oiled marshes and new leaves were growing on the first black mangroves I’ve ever seen that were actually black. “It comes back fast, doesn’t it?” van Heerden said.
I said last week that I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a major story in the mainstream press in the months ahead saying that the spill isn’t going to be as much of a disaster as advertised. And here come those stories, much sooner than I expected. First, we had the New York Times saying that the spill, at least on the surface, has gone missing. And, now, we have Time magazine reporting the environmental damage has probably been exaggerated (h/t Mike Allen’s Playbook)
In short, the story is classic man-bites-dog, knee-jerk counterintuitivism. In reality, we have no idea yet how bad the damage in the Gulf is. The federal government is still only in the early stages of a natural resources damage assessment, a process to determine the full extent of the destruction. The government hasn’t even come up with an estime of how much oil leaked into the Gulf. And BP hasn’t yet finished the relief wells, meaning the disaster isn’t over yet. Meanwhile, the environmental impacts of the natural gas that has also been seeping into the Gulf remain unclear. And the article gives scant attention to the nearly 2 million gallons of dispersant applied by BP to break up the spill, which the country’s top environmental official has acknowledged is a science experiment of monumental proportions.
“The amount of oil and toxic dispersant pumped into the Gulf is unprecedented, and we know the marine impacts will be massive, we simply don’t know how long it will take for the ecosystem to rebound, and how significant the decrease in productivity will be until it recovers,” says Aaron Viles, campaign director at the Gulf Restoration Network.
Referring to the Time article’s author, Michael Grunwald, National Resources Defense Council lawyer David Pettit says, “I’m not sure what boats he’s been out on. When I went out from Plaquemines Parish two weeks ago, there were oiled marshes as far as the eye could see, plus all the islands we saw were oiled. I would agree that it’s too early to say what the long-term effect of that oiling will be, but by the same token I don’t think anyone can credibly say that there will be little or no effect.”
The article mentions the 488 dead sea turtles found in the Gulf, but says “only 17 were visibly oiled.” What it doesn’t mention, however, is that nearly 80 percent of those dead turtles are Kemp’s Ridley turtles, the most endangered species of sea turtle in the world. “When you get to that level of peril, every individual makes a difference,” says Doug Inkley, a wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Federation who was in the Gulf last week. Nor does a turtle need to be visibly oiled to die because of it; ingesting the oil, and the oil-dispersant mix, can also be deadly. And then there are the turtles that may have been burned alive.
I have quite a bit of respect for Grunwald, whose work on the Army Corps of Engineers and Hurricane Katrina was spectacular. But if he’s going to criticize folks for making premature doomsday predictions, then he, too, shouldn’t engage in making preemptive declarations that the problem is exaggerated, either. Doing so not only lets BP off the hook, but also contributes to the already waning interest in the disaster among the American public—nothing to see here, folks, back to your regularly scheduled environmental apathy.
“The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there,” Limbaugh said. “It’s natural. It’s as natural as the ocean water is.”
Well, doing nothing made no political sense, and I assume all the skimming and booms accomplished something. That said, the after-action reports will be compiled by the same people that insisted Something Be Done, so the results may not be entirely unbiased.
Rush Limbaugh has been saying the oil spill is nothing more than a little leak that has caused almost no damage. Time Magazine is backing him up saying since the news that the slick “disappearing” evidence points to the fact that the whole thing was over-hyped for ratings and fundraising by environmental groups. (Seriously.)
But perhaps “disappearing” the wrong word. The right word is “dispersing.” And there are just a few niggling issues to discuss about that
BP seems to have ably headed off the worst of the PR disaster by keeping the worst of the oil more or less off the shoreline. The actual disaster may have been made worse by the use of toxic chemicals. So it’s all good.
It’s a fascinating contra-conventional wisdom story, although the bottom line seems to be not so much that the disaster was hyped but that we just don’t have the ability to forecast the effects of these incidents with great confidence. And that nature seems to have enormously strong coping mechanisms.
The Obama administration is seeking to make it easier for the FBI to compel companies to turn over records of an individual’s Internet activity without a court order if agents deem the information relevant to a terrorism or intelligence investigation.
The administration wants to add just four words — “electronic communication transactional records” — to a list of items that the law says the FBI may demand without a judge’s approval. Government lawyers say this category of information includes the addresses to which an Internet user sends e-mail; the times and dates e-mail was sent and received; and possibly a user’s browser history. It does not include, the lawyers hasten to point out, the “content” of e-mail or other Internet communication.
But what officials portray as a technical clarification designed to remedy a legal ambiguity strikes industry lawyers and privacy advocates as an expansion of the power the government wields through so-called national security letters. These missives, which can be issued by an FBI field office on its own authority, require the recipient to provide the requested information and to keep the request secret. They are the mechanism the government would use to obtain the electronic records.
Stewart A. Baker, a former senior Bush administration Homeland Security official, said the proposed change would broaden the bureau’s authority. “It’ll be faster and easier to get the data,” said Baker, who practices national security and surveillance law. “And for some Internet providers, it’ll mean giving a lot more information to the FBI in response to an NSL.”
At issue is the scope of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s power to obtain information from “electronic communications service providers” using National Security Letters (NLS), which compel private companies to allow government access to communication records without a court order. The administration wants to add four words — “electronic communication transactional records” — to Section 2709 of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which spells out the types of communications data that can be obtained with an NSL. Yet those four little words would make a huge difference, potentially allowing investigators to draw detailed road maps of the online activity of citizens not even suspected of any connection to terrorism.
In their original form, NSLs were extremely narrow tools designed to allow federal investigators to obtain very basic telephone records (name, address, length of service, calls placed and received) that could be linked by “specific and articulable facts” to persons suspected of being terrorists or foreign spies. In 1993, Congress amended the statute to clarify that NSLs could be issued to electronic information service providers as well as traditional phone companies. But wary of the potential for misuse of what the House Judiciary Committee called this “extraordinary device” in a world of rapidly changing technology, Congress placed tight limits on the types of records that could be obtained, making clear that “new applications” of NSLs would be “disfavored.”
The administration is presenting this change as a mere clarification meant to resolve legal ambiguity — as though Congress had simply misplaced a semicolon. Yet the Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel already rejected that argument in a 2008 opinion, concluding that the FBI had for years misread the “straightforward” language of the statute. And clarity is certainly needed, as it is hard to know just what falls under “categories of information parallel to subscriber information and toll billing records.” The standard reference for lawyers in this sphere, David Kris’ National Security Investigations and Prosecutions, simply notes that the scope of NSLs as applied to online activity is unclear. Even the Justice Department seems uncertain. In a 2001 response to congressional inquiries about the effect of the newly enacted PATRIOT Act, DOJ told Congress that “reasonable minds may differ” as to where the line should be drawn between addressing information equivalent to toll billing records and “content” requiring a search warrant.
Congress would be wise to specify in greater detail just what are the online equivalents of “toll billing records.” But a blanket power to demand “transactional information” without a court order would plainly expose a vast range of far more detailed and sensitive information than those old toll records ever provided.
Consider that the definition of “electronic communications service providers” doesn’t just include ISPs and phone companies like Verizon or Comcast. It covers a huge range of online services, from search engines and Webmail hosts like Google, to social-networking and dating sites like Facebook and Match.com to news and activism sites like RedState and Daily Kos to online vendors like Amazon and Ebay, and possibly even cafes like Starbucks that provide WiFi access to customers. And “transactional records” potentially covers a far broader range of data than logs of e-mail addresses or websites visited, arguably extending to highly granular records of the data packets sent and received by individual users.
As the Electronic Frontier Foundation has argued, such broad authority would not only raise enormous privacy concerns but have profound implications for First Amendment speech and association interests. Consider, for instance, the implications of a request for logs revealing every visitor to a political site such as Indymedia. The constitutionally protected right to anonymous speech would be gutted for all but the most technically savvy users if chat-forum participants and blog authors could be identified at the discretion of the FBI, without the involvement of a judge.
Now, there’s a good faith case to be made that the FBI ought to have this authority. After all, the bad guys don’t use telephones to talk to each other any more. But the FBI has abused the NSL authority, essentially fabricating pretexts for sending NSLs to thousands of people. Since the NSL authority was expanded by the PATRIOT Act, three separate OIG investigations have found abuses that rise above the level of incidental misuse of power. The FBI has excuses: it’s the databases. It’s the urgency of terrorism investigations. It’s the lack of clarity in the language.
The urgency factor is a good excuse for the FBI to have the authority, but not to misuse it. NSLs are issued without prior approval from a judge. They’re now part of the standard anti-terrorism investigatory toolkit. They’re needed.
Democrats on the Judiciary and Intelligence committees are skeptical of the request to change the statute for precisely these reasons, and one senior aide noted that the language was met with some skepticism by Congressional staff who’ve grown wary of FBI excuses for overreach. Then again, it is always hard for members of Congress to say no to something that the FBI claims is vital for its counterterrorism efforts.
There is a compromise here: the FBI can subject its NSL issuances to post-facto review from judges, who can decide whether the FBI’s pretexts are sufficient. The FBI doesn’t need to get a judge’s permission to issue an NSL and the internet provider can’t wait until the judicial review kicks in. This way, the FBI can get what it needs and there’s a check on that power.
But this compromise won’t work. The FBI issues tens of thousands of NSL requests per year, most of them for telephone records and other information, like credit reports. There’s no way a judge can individually approve, even in retrospect, tens of thousands of requests without significantly adding to already overflowing caseloads.
So, in the end, as with almost every issue about national security information, the question is one of trust. Can the American people, through Congress, trust the FBI to use this authority properly? Maybe the administration and the FBI should answer this question: given past abuses, what steps will you take to ensure that this authority isn’t abused?
It seems so perverse and creepy, considering that WaPo reported only last week in its “Top Security America” series that the federal government’s behemoth intelligence/security apparatus has way more data than it can possibly analyze effectively. It’s disheartening that the administration admits it’s targeting those hold-out Internet service providers that have been heretofore unwilling to play ball with the feds. In other words, private companies that have, so far, resisted the government’s push for greater authority and control over the Net.
Senior administration officials said the proposal was prompted by a desire to overcome concerns and resistance from Internet and other companies that the existing statute did not allow them to provide such data without a court-approved order…
To critics, the move is another example of an administration retreating from campaign pledges to enhance civil liberties in relation to national security. The proposal is “incredibly bold, given the amount of electronic data the government is already getting,” said Michelle Richardson, American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel.
I guess it’s safe to say now that civil libertarians have been thoroughly hosed (in other words, hoodwinked, flimflammed, bamboozled, duped, chiseled and burned) by Barack “the constitutional law professor” Obama. The question remains, how far will he go?
The 4th Amendment’s requirement that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seize” is really a nuisance, the Obama administration argues.
I understand any administration’s or agency’s desire to accumulate more power — after all, they’re decent folk who just want what’s best for the country. But I don’t get how this passes judicial scrutiny.
While I’ve got a strong libertarian streak and am staunchly protective of our rights under the Constitution, I’m not an absolutist. Even our most fundamental liberties, such as freedom of speech and assembly, have to be balanced against the rights of others and the need for public safety.
During the Bush administration, I defended the idea that the government ought to be able to conduct data mining operations on mass communications with persons of interest overseas. My rationale was that this wasn’t a “search” in any meaningful sense because it was just computer algorithms sifting through impersonal information, that there would be no way to show probable cause ahead of time, the targets were overseas operatives, and that the purpose was intelligence gathering rather than prosecution. So, the harm to individual liberty was small and mostly theoretical while the potential harm to society from not gathering the information was substantial.
But this is something quite different: Specific searches of activities carried on by specific American citizens domestically. Further, it’s not like the records are going anywhere, making seeking out a magistrate and getting a proper warrant a minor burden. So there’s no reason that a warrant can’t be obtained and no additional risk to society by going through the process required by the Constitution outside the ones intended by the Framers.
Of course, checking out someone’s browser history could be very useful in a terrorism investigation. But if I had some kind of cause—probable cause, let’s say—to suspect someone of involvement in terrorism, I could just get a warrant. If I want to see whether my wife has a secret Match.com account, by contrast, I’m going to need some kind of authority to compel private companies to divulge this information without me needing to explain myself to a judge.
FBI personnel are, I’m sure, overwhelmingly decent and honorable people whose subjective understanding is that they want to use these enhanced powers for legitimate purposes. But who among us, when being honest, has never misused work resources a bit for personal purposes? Everyone slacks off on the job. Everyone has moments of prurient interest in the lives of other people. Taking the gloves off, surveillance-wise, is much more likely to lead to abusive behavior than to super-awesome counterterrorism operations.
Make no mistake. This is one of the most important pieces of civil liberties news in a long time. The Obama Administration is asking Congress to sanction the collection of internet records without a warrant–the kind of shit they used to do without a warrant, until people expressed their opposition.
But then Democrats took over and now they want legal sanction and now–Voila, a request that presumably provides cover.
I forget. How many NSLs do the FBI and other federal agencies already send out every year? 30,000? 50,000? What’s it up to now? Whatever it is, I guess it’s still not enough. That business of getting approval from a judge is just so annoying, after all.
You know, if I’d wanted Dick Cheney as president I would have just voted for him.
The law, signed last week by President Obama, exempts the SEC from disclosing records or information derived from “surveillance, risk assessments, or other regulatory and oversight activities.” Given that the SEC is a regulatory body, the provision covers almost every action by the agency, lawyers say. Congress and federal agencies can request information, but the public cannot.
That argument comes despite the President saying that one of the cornerstones of the sweeping new legislation was more transparent financial markets. Indeed, in touting the new law, Obama specifically said it would “increase transparency in financial dealings.”
The SEC cited the new law Tuesday in a FOIA action brought by FOX Business Network. Steven Mintz, founding partner of law firm Mintz & Gold LLC in New York, lamented what he described as “the backroom deal that was cut between Congress and the SEC to keep the SEC’s failures secret. The only losers here are the American public.”
My column today puts the DISCLOSE debacle in the broader context of the Democrats’ reign of darkness. Underscoring the theme of theme of the column: The story from Fox Business on how the “financial reform” bill championed by Obama exempts the SEC from FOIA requests. The transparency farce continues.
Prial reports he hasn’t gotten any response to his request for comment on the matter from the SEC.
The article includes a document link from Scribd with text of the new law, HR 4173, Section 929I, in which it states the SEC Act of 1934 is amended to state the SEC is “not compelled to disclose records or information obtained […] including surveillance, risk assessments, or other regulatory and oversight activities.”
The lawyer for Fox, Steven Mintz, with Mintz & Gold LLC in New York, says the network plans to challenge the SEC on its interpretation of the law.
Does this mean the SEC has just brazenly stepped outside Freedom of Information Act rules? I’m not sure. I plan to inquire with the SEC on its side of the story and will let you know what, if anything I find.
Note: Fox Business, of course, is a part of News Corp., also the publisher of Barron’s and of this blog.
Correction: As a few readers noted, the wrong section number was listed above for the relevant passage in HR 4173. It is Section 929I, as in Internet, not a numeral “1″ on the end. You can see the passage in the Library of Congress posting of the final version of the bill. My apologies for any confusion caused by the error.
The Dodd-Frank bill had a lot of bad ideas rolled into it, but this may be the worst. As Mintz notes, the next time a Bernie Madoff-type scam occurs, the American public won’t have any idea about it, or about the SEC’s efforts to prevent it. The use of FOIA has uncovered many problems at the SEC, which is undoubtedly why Chris Dodd and Barney Frank wanted the exemption. Among the cases listed by Fox Business as having been boosted by FOIA requests are:
March 2009 – Fox used FOIA to discover that the SEC had investigated Madoff and R. Allen Stanford, but failed to follow through on prosecution in time to save investors.
2009 – Fox again used FOIA to get records showing that the Fed knew AIG execs would get their bonuses under the bailout legislation proposed by Congress.
SEC whistleblower Gary Aguirre forced the SEC to release documents through FOIA requests that showed he was correct in accusing the agency of interfering in an investigation of Pequot Asset Management — and allowed him to get a settlement for wrongful termination.
None of these would have happened without FOIA. Government has only one purpose in issuing FOIA exemptions — opacity. Some functions in government require secrecy, but those should be limited to acute national security operations and other such public-safety tasks (such as raw FBI files, for instance).
Barack Obama and the Democrats don’t want people to see how the SEC does its work, and that should worry everyone who has watched the SEC blow its regulatory responsibilities over the last few years. This is an agency that needs more oversight, not less, especially with its increased power and authority.