Sunday, July 31, 2005

Payola and the seven magic words

Daniel Gross writes an entire article about record companies paying radio stations to play songs without once using the phrase "deceptive advertising." He does explain that, "government decided that radio stations should be as independent as possible from their suppliers (the music industry). The public should be able to count on radio stations to exercise independent critical judgment." But he fails to acknowledge that passing off paid promotional material as programming content is deceptive.

Does this sort of deception really matter? I'm not sure, but I'm struck by the willingness of radio stations and the music industry to break the law. It's perfectly legal for radio stations to accept payment for playing a song. Before playing the song, all that the DJ has to say is the seven magic words (or something equivalent): "The following is a paid commercial announcement." What's illegal is deception.

If the radio and music industries are willing to risk criminal convictions, they must believe that they are reaping significant benefits from this deception. Before declaring the practice harmless, Daniel Gross should figure out what those benefits are.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Appeasing al Qaeda

An otherwise sensible letter to the New York Times illustrates the effectiveness of the Bush propaganda machine.

The announcement by the Irish Republican Army that it will renounce violence represents a long-overdue realization that terrorism is an ineffective method of producing political change.

Long years of terrorism against Israel have not eliminated Israel. The bombings of American airplanes, embassies and even the destruction of the World Trade Center towers failed to alter American foreign policy. Chechnya was not made independent by the murder of children in Moscow.

To produce political change, you must do so by political means, and it is time that the rest of the world's terrorists realize this.

Fred Levit
Wilmette, Ill., July 29, 2005

The writer's basic thesis is correct; terrorism is generally ineffective in achieving the goals of the terrorists. But I believe that he is wrong about the 9/11 attacks. These achieved two goals of al Qaeda: the overthrow of Iraq's secular government and the removal of American troops from Saudi Arabia.

The first of these achievements is arguable. For propaganda reasons, bin Laden has to portray the overthrow of Saddam as part of a war on Islam. And we don't know what the replacement government will ultimately look like. It seems likely that the new government will be less secular than Saddam's government, but will deviate too much from Sharia to satisfy bin Laden and company. It may be that the only thing bin Laden really likes about the invasion of Iraq is the propaganda boost it provides al Qaeda.

But if we discount the invasion of Iraq as a terrorist succcess, that leaves the withdrawal of American troops from Saudi Arabia. We had troops stationed there since the first Gulf war, and had no thought of removing them. Is there any way other than the 9/11 attacks that bin Laden could have gotten those troops out of Saudi Arabia? I don't think that writing a polite letter to the U.S. State Department would have done the trick.

Under normal circumstances, the 9/11 attacks wouldn't have done the trick either. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, nobody I knew was saying that we should give bin Laden what he wanted and withdraw our troops from Saudi Arabia. A typical American president wouldn't have considered the possibility. And few politicians would have succeeded in withdrawing our troops, at least not without paying a huge political price. Bush is perhaps the only president in American history who, facing the 9/11 attacks, would have had both the desire to grant bin Laden some sort of victory and the political ability to carry it off.

The letter writer's thesis is basicly correct, and would have applied to the 9/11 attacks under normal circumstances. What the writer fails to recognize is that Bush being president is not a normal circumstance.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Open letter to Congress re: Valerie Plame

From Josh Marshall, we have the text of an open letter to Congress from eleven former intelligence officers. It includes some harsh words for the leadership of the Republican party:

The Republican National Committee has circulated talking points to supporters to use as part of a coordinated strategy to discredit Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife. As part of this campaign a common theme is the idea that Ambassador Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame was not undercover and deserved no protection....

These comments reveal an astonishing ignorance of the intelligence community and the role of cover. The fact is that there are thousands of U.S. intelligence officers who "work at a desk" in the Washington, D.C. are every day who are undercover. Some have official cover, and some have non-official cover. Both classes of cover must and should be protected.

While we are pleased that the U.S. Department of Justice is conducting an investigation and that the U.S. Attorney General has recused himself, we believe that the partisan attacks against Valerie Plame are sending a deeply discouraging message to the men and women who have agreed to work undercover for their nation's security.

The writers also point out that as a current CIA employee, Plame is not in a position to defend herself. (According to the New York Times, Plame "drafted an op-ed article to correct what she felt were distortions of her and her husband's actions, but the C.I.A. would not authorize its publication.")

This is a case where moral values and national security concerns coincide. The Republican party is supposed to be strong in each of these areas. Under President Bush, it's not.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Framing the Debate

The New York Times magazine has an article by Matt Bai about Lakoff and framing. Since the article is currently not available on line, I'll just address the concluding paragraphs:

Consider, too, George Lakoff's own answer to the Republican mantra. He sums up the Republican message as "strong defense, free markets, lower taxes, smaller government, and family values," and in Don't Think of an Elephant! he proposessome Democratic alternatives: "Stronger America, broad prosperity, better future, effective government, and mutual responsibility." Look at the differences between the two. The Republicans version is an argument, a series of philosophical assertions that require voters to make concrete choices about the direction of the country. Should we spend more or less on the military? Should government regulate industry or leave it unfettered? Lakoff's formulation, on the other hand, amounts ot a vague collection of the least objectionable ideas in American life. Who out there wants to make the case against prosperity and a better future? Who doesn't want an effective government?

What all these middling generalities suggest, perhaps, is that Democrates are still unwilling to put their more concrete convictions about the country into words, either because they don't know what those convictions are or because they lack confidence in the notion that voters can be persuaded to embrace them. Either way, this is where the power of language meets its outer limit. The right words can frame an argument, but they will never stand in its place.

OK, let's take the first "concrete choice" Bai mentions: Should we spend more or less on the military? In the 2000 election, Bush proposed military spending of $50 billion over baseline, whereas Gore proposed $100 billion over baseline. So voters were presented with a concrete choice. Want higher military spending? Vote for Gore. Want lower military spending? Vote for Bush.

Only one problem: Bush was lying. That's not just my conclusion. Supporters of higher military spending who voted for Bush did not merely suspect that Bush was lying--they were counting on it.

Matt Bai doesn't discuss how lying fits into the Republican communication strategy. As I see it, it's a way to avoid having to make arguments for their positions. The primary argument against higher defense spending is that the money has to come from somewhere. By rather transparently lying about how much he was planning to spend on defense, Bush was able to satisfy the proponents of higher defense spending while avoiding a real debate about the impact this would have on the federal budget.

When Bai looks at the Democratic alternatives, he asks, "Who out there wants to make the case against prosperity and a better future?" Well, put like that, no one does--just as no one would make the case for a weaker national defense.

In 2002, Bush explained that his tax cut was structured to reduce its economic benefits:

We got the tax cut passed. But because of the rules of the Senate -- and this one's a hard one to explain; it's a hard one to explain in South Dakota and it's a hard one to explain in Crawford, Texas -- but because of the rules of the Senate, that tax relief plan we passed goes away in ten years, nine years from now. And that creates uncertainty in the economy. It's hard to plan when the tax code shifts around. It's hard to -- it's hard to envision a future that's stable. And people need a stable environment in order to create jobs. For the sake of economic vitality, for the sake of job creation I need people in the Senate who will make the tax cuts permanent, a permanent part of our tax code.

Bush finds it "hard to explain" why he supported a tax package that "creates uncertainty in the economy," thereby discouraging job creation and economic vitality. That's understandable, and explains why Bush doesn't argue against prosperity and a better future. That doesn't mean that there is nothing to debate; it means that the debate won't take place if Bush can avoid it.

Friday, July 15, 2005

"We don't do dissent here"

Via Daniel Drezner, we have this quote from the Weekly Standard:

At home, the strength of the dollar will inevitably cut into exports and encourage imports; protectionist sentiment is rising, spurred on by China's attempt to acquire Unocal; it is unclear whether the president can or cares to restrain spending; and his economic team remains closed to outside ideas. "We don't do dissent here," one White House aide told me a few weeks ago.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Wilson's statement

Here is Wilson's statement made at a press conference set up by Senator Schumer:

Thank you, Sentor Schumer.

Let me just say up front how much I appreciate the leadership that the senator has shown in this matter from the very beginning, his willingness to address it straightforwardly, and as a matter of principle, not as a matter of partisanship.

It's of great sadness to me that we're here discussing this today. Those of you who know me know that I've reentered the public sector several years ago to discuss why, and how, we might go to war or resolve our policy issues with Iraq. This has been an enormous distraction from that principled debate--a debate on war and peace--but it is what it is.

The fact that somebody decided that they would go ahead and leak classified information for the purposes of achieving a political end is simply unacceptable. It's unacceptable for Democrats; it's unacceptable for Republicans; it's unacceptable for Americans, and for the national security of this country.

I am committed to seeing that justice is done. I do believe, as the Senator does as well, that justice will be done, and that Pat Fitzgerald will get to the bottom of this one way or another.

But irrespective of whether it is ultimately decided that a crime has been committed--and that is not my decision; I'm not a lawyer--I was going to make a lawyer joke, but I don't think I will--but irrespective of whether a law has been violated, it's very clear to me that the ethical standard to which we should hold our senior public servants has been violated. And it is for that reason that I have called for, not Karl Rove's resignation, but for the President to honor his word that he would fire anybody who was involved in the leak.

I'm here to support Senator Schumer today, and his colleagues, in calling for the lifting of his security clearance as a first step, and as a way of dealing with the specific violation of national security.

I'm also here, and I've said this repeatedly, that the smear campaign lauched from the west wing of the white house, is just ethically unsupportable.

Thank you. And thank you, Senator Schumer.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Afghan Opium production

Let a Thousand Licensed Poppies Bloom is the title of an Op-Ed in today's New York Times. It addresses two problems:
  1. Opium production in Afghanistan has increased seven-fold since 2002, and accounts for 60% of Afghaninstan's GDP. The writer thinks that eradication programs are unlikely to reverse this. For example, "Cocaine continues to be widely available, despite the roughly $3 billion that the United States has spent on coca eradication in Colombia over the last five years."

  2. There is a lack of availability of medication to treat severe pain. There is some undermedication in the United States, but the major problem is in the third world. The prices of patented prescription opiates such as OxyContin are prohibitive for many patients.

The proposed solution is to use Afghan opium to manufacture morphine and codeine. The writer thinks that this would turn a profit, but even if subsidies were needed to make this viable, it would be a bargain. Afghan farmers are producing $600 million of opium per year, and the United States is planning to spend $780 millon on eradication this year.

The article doesn't go into great detail on the ramifications of this proposal for Afghanistan. Attempting to eliminate 60% of Afghanistan's economy, which is our current policy, cannot be good for Afghanistan's future. The proposal will weaken the warlords, who currently capture much of the profit from illegal drug sales. On the other hand, "Warlords would not relinquish profits without a fight, and their attempts to undermine the proposal could be formidable." It is also not clear how easy it would be to ensure that all opium produced in Afghanistan would go to legal uses rather than being diverted for the production of heroin, but of course currently all opium being produced in Afghanistan is being used to produce heroin.

The article is based on a feasibility study currently being conducted by the Senlis Council.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


Via Brad DeLong, we get Praktike's summary of this anecdote from Squandered Victory:

One story that really got me was the tale of former ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine suggesting to Rumsfeld in March of 2003 that it would behoove the Bush administration to develop a plan to pay Iraqi civil servants. Rumsfeld replied that American taxpayers would never go for it and that he was not concerned if they were paid for several weeks or even months; if they rioted in the streets in protest, he said, the US could use such an eventuality as leverage to get the Europeans to pick up the tab.

Stunning, no?

I really don't understand why half the country thinks that Bush & Co. are capable of looking after America's national security.

The Energy Bill

From today's New York Times, page C7, column 1:
But this time around, [as opposed to in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo and subsequent price increases,] the government has done almost nothing to reduce the nation's vulnerability to a sudden interruption in oil supplies. Even the advocates for the long-stalled energy bill that has finally passed both houses of Congress - though in radically different forms - acknowledge that neither version of the measure will be effective.

Remember this when the energy bill is finally signed into law and Bush claims credit for doing something about our dependence on foreign oil.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Mere Stupidity, We Hope

"Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity." I don't know who originated this maxim, but is seems like a good one to follow. Otherwise, you end up attacking people's motives rather than their reasoning. I must confess, however, that I sometimes find it rather hard to stick to this maxim when I encounter folks from the political right.

Take a post on evolution by Leon H. at

If atheistic evolution is true, and there is no God, then a number of logical conclusions are also immediately assumed to be true:

It is first immediately recognized that physical matter is all that exists. As such, humans are neither unique or special in the cosmos, as they are merely matter arranged in a specific way. The implications of this are staggering, from both a philosophical and political point of view. This means:

  1. Humans are no more special or worthy of protection than any other species of animal, since we are are merely matter arranged in a different structure, and our existence here is just a matter of random chance.
  2. Humans are no more special or worthy of protection than any species of plant, for the same reasons listed above.
  3. Humans are no more special or worthy of protection than inanimate objects such as rocks, since the only principle difference between us are the proportionate amounts of Carbon, Hydrogen, and various other elements.

If structure doesn't matter, then Leon should be happy to exchange a collection of diamonds for an equal quantity of graphite. After all, both are composed of carbon. The only difference is the structure, and Leon doesn't think that structure matters.

In fairness, Leon does leave himself an out: his assertion that structure doesn't matter is predicated on the non-existence of God. But is he really saying that the only reason he wouldn't exchange diamonds for graphite is that God tells him not to? Does he really think that an atheist would make the exchange?

Continuing directly:

Think that goes too far? Observe the logical conclusion reached by noted humanist Linus Pauling (2001):

Dr. Albert Schweitzer believes that not only man but also other forms of life should be included in the field of our concern. He has expressed this belief in his principle of Reverence for Life. I would like to go further: I advocate the principle of Reverence for the World.

This is a wonderful world in which we live. Yet some of its wonders are being annihilated, destroyed, so that our children's children will never be able to experience them. I do not like to think of the beautiful minerals, beautiful crystals, that are being removed from the ground and destroyed in order to make more copper wire or uranium rods... There will never be a second crop of minerals.

Instead of the principle of maximizing human happiness, I prefer the principle of minimizing the suffering of the world (all emphasis mine).

Before dismissing Pauling as a fringe atheistic evolutionist, stop and consider whether or not his conclusion is valid, when man is reduced merely to his material self.

Since Leon doesn't provide a citation for the quote, let me note that it is from an article which is available on the web and which was first published in 1961 (not 2001).

The quote doesn't support Leon's position. First, Pauling may have been an atheist, but Schweitzer was not, and there is not a big gap between Pauling's views and Schweitzer's "Reverence for Life." Pauling extends the principle to the inanimate, but so did Schweitzer. According to one web page, "Schweitzer said the ethical person is reluctant to shatter ice crystals gleaming in the sun." So Pauling's atheism is a red herring.

Second, Pauling doesn't claim that there is no difference between the value of a human being and the value of a plant or inanimate object. Being reluctant to shatter ice crystals or to mine minerals doesn't mean that these actions are ethically equivalent to murder. In fact, Pauling justifies his concern about preserving mineral crystals by referring to our "children's children." This approach makes future generations of humans more fundamental than mineral crystals. In short, Pauling would have rejected the proposition that Leon claims is supports.

Continuing directly:

Further, if atheistic evolution is true, we are doing a great disservice to ourselves by keeping the weakest members of our society alive and affording them legal protection. From Darwin himself, in The Descent of Man:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive comonly exhibit a vitorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process off elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skills to save the life of everyone to the last moment. THere is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

If Darwin's logic sounds familiar, it should. I'd tell you where you've probably heard it more recently, but I don't want to get Godwin's law invoked on me.

The quote is from chapter 5 of The Descent of Man.

Leon doesn't mention Hitler by name, but he is clearly suggesting a that Darwin would have supported Hitler's program. He doesn't mention that Darwin rejected forcible eugenics in his next paragraph:

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind...

There has been over a century of scientific progress since this was written. Leon claims that keeping the weakest members of our society alive does a "great disservice." I don't know whether that is true, and Darwin's writings don't shed any light on the issued because they don't reflect the current state of scientific research.

Leon then makes a point which is valid as far as it goes:

Further, if atheistic evolution is true, then there will be no accounting after this life is over for how one's life has been lived. In other words, Stalin, Hugh Hefner, and Mother Theresa all receive the same recompense - absolutely nothing. What is the value of choosing one path over the other, except to satisfy one's own personal desire?

What is missing from this is the recognition that people don't always make decisions based on the hope of a reward in this life or the next. Sometimes people do something simply because they believe that it is the right thing to do.

These are a few of the starting points when discussing where throwing God out of the equation leaves man in the philosophical and political sense. I could go on by noting that if atheistic evolution is true, Marx was correct and Locke was wrong, there is no justification for condemning the Nazis, and so on and so on - but I hope that the point has been driven home adequately that one's metaphysical view does have real life political, philosophical and actual consequences.

This is getting long, so I won't bother to analyze this paragraph.

It is no surprise, therefore, that when a passive-aggressive troll such as our good friend DS comes to RedState in an attempt (as he frankly admitted at dKos) to proselytize us all, he does so under the guise that he is "only talking science" and simply seeking to deal with the superstition of the religious, when in fact he is attacking the very pillar of the government of our country, much less our party.

If DS is really "only talking science," then he isn't talking about atheistict evolution; he's just talking about evolution, which is compatible with many strains of Christianity. Leon's objections to atheistic evolution are mainly objections to atheism.

Leon doesn't say what he means by "the very pillar of the government of our country," but I think the gist of his meaning is clear. He is saying that atheism is undermining our nation. This has a McCarthyesque ring to it. Leon may have a legitimate beef with DS, but his attack is sweeping enough to hit all atheists.

Let's now have an honest discussion of where atheistic evolution leads us, shall we?

For this to be an honest discussion, one must believe that Leon is guilty of honest stupidity rather than malicious propaganda. But there is an intermediate possibility. Perhaps he is guilty of something closer to intellectual lazyness. Maybe he's smart enough that he could see the flaws in his arguments if he worked on it, but he finds them congenial enough that he doesn't try.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Protection for Confidential Sources

In a comment over on TPMCafe, an individual going by the name of "hyperbolic pants" explains why the journalists whose testimony is being sought in the Valery Plame investigation are on particularly weak ground when they shield their sources:

Plame source wasn't communicating to a reporter about a crime. The Plame source was committing a crime by communicating to a reporter. That is an essential, significant difference. The act of communication itself was a crime.

Shielding the source in this case is damaging in two ways:
1. It is akin to having a murderer ask you to hold the victim's arms to keep them from flailing in self-defense. You may not be the murderer, but you are aiding and abetting. Think about it: who is the victim of this crime? The United States. By acting as passive participant in this crime (which is the act of communication itself), you make it impossible for the United States to defend itself from this crime, because...
2. You make it, ultimately, an unprosecutable crime. It would mean that the crime of this particular kind of communication would be absolutely and utterly unprosecutable if the other person involved happened to be a reporter. That's unacceptable.

The fact of the matter is, not even those accorded the greatest legal privacy protections -- clergy, attorneys, and mental health professionals -- are granted the right to be party to their clients' crimes. By committing a crime which takes the form of a piece of communication to a reporter, the source made the reporter a party to a crime, not just a person who happens to know about a crime.

Of course, as Joe Wilson points out, none of this debate would be necessary if it weren't for the irresponsible behavior of the White House.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Exit Strategy for Iraq

The New York Times published another letter on Iraq:
To the Editor:

President Bush says our exit strategy is victory. You can have victory in a war only when your enemy surrenders. Anything less is not victory, and in Iraq there is no one in charge of the enemy to surrender.

That said, we must define an exit strategy, a series of well-defined goals that when achieved can be the beginning of our departure.

Some reasonable goals might be electricity for 90 percent of the country 100 percent of the time; clean drinking water for 90 percent of the country 100 percent of the time; 90 days with no United States casualties; 90 days with no car bombs.

If these four items can be achieved, we may not have achieved victory, but we would have achieved a measure of success.

Jim Garfield
Baiting Hollow, N.Y., June 30, 2005

The first paragraph says it well: We won't achieve victory in Iraq. Instead, we will eventually declare victory and leave. The debate should be about the timing of our departure and what can be done before we leave to improve the situation in Iraq.

I would say that the last two suggested goals are not particularly good ones. If the insurgents were unable to mount an attack for 90 days, that is one thing. But if they simply refrain from doing so, perhaps just to get us to leave, that really doesn't signify anything.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Xenophobia in Iraq

John Tierny writes about xenophobia and Iraq:

[Xenophobia is] an impulse that's far more ancient and widespread than the yearning for democracy that President Bush talked about this week. Yet it's been curiously underestimated by conservatives who used to pay close attention to just this sort of instinct.

When liberal intellectuals dreamed of a socialist world with a selfless "New Man," conservatives realized that he'd be as greedy as ever. When some feminists envisioned the end of gender stereotypes, conservatives insisted there were ingrained differences between the sexes. Yet when American troops met resistance after the war, conservatives dismissed the early insurgents as "dead-enders" and expected Iraqis to join Americans in quickly vanquishing the thugs.

In those early days, when the memory of Saddam was still fresh, you could walk down a street in Baghdad and be greeted by an Iraqi stranger thanking you for bringing freedom. But even back then there were plenty of Iraqis like Saleh Youssef Sayel, who proudly told me of the reaction of his 5-year-old son, Mustafa, to an American soldier.

"The soldier tried to shake his hand, but my son refused," he said. "He knew enough English to say, 'No. You go.' Later he told me he wanted a gun to kill Americans. This is a natural feeling. Nobody wants a stranger in your house or your country."

Tierny mentions some of the psychological research on groups and prejudice, then and concludes:

Maybe, as President Bush hopes, Americans can stay long enough in the Middle East to jump-start democracy and reduce the long-term risk of terrorism. But in the meantime, they're bound to face resistance, no matter how noble their intentions.

During the Civil War, Union soldiers were amazed to see poor Southerners without any stake in the slavery system defending it in suicidal charges. But there was a simple explanation, as a barefoot, emaciated Confederate captive famously put it when a Union soldier asked him why he kept fighting: "Because you're here."

Incidentally, the term "dead-enders" appears to have been first applied to Iraq by Donald Rumsfeld. I suspect its use in conservative circles is largely a reflection of the willingness of significant numbers of conservatives to blindly follow the White House line.