Tuesday, March 31

Modern kings

The West Wing aired from 1999 to 2006 on NBC. This award-winning drama (before Aaron Sorkin's departure in 2003) featured an idealized liberal presidency straight out of many a lefty's wet dream. Government solutions worked, and they worked well, catalyzing people's lives for the better and magically creating better conditions by efficiently picking winners and losers, with few unintended consequences but plenty of well-written and entertaining drama. The president even supported school vouchers, somehow getting Congress to overcome the awful lobby of public school teachers' unions. My roommates would watch the show as a therapy session whenever Bush's faith-based cowboy imperialism oscillated between failure and disaster.

But now that "the Decider" has departed and been replaced by a president with Bartlet-like tendencies, what will NBC give us to fill its side of the bargain? Why, Kings, a show set in a modern America-like nation ruled by an autocratic despot who starts and ends wars on a whim -- even the whim of a large military corporation backing him. Undesirable subjects may be killed quietly, the press is censored, and public morale cynically manipulated.  And as if that weren't enough, the whole thing is based on the mythology of Israel's first king.

Larison appraises:
When I discovered that the show was an attempt to make a modern adaptation of the story of Saul and David from the First Book of Samuel, I was even more intrigued and was determined to give it a chance. I did this even though I assumed that, being a network television series, it would downplay if not actually eliminate all references to God, prophecy and anointed kingship, and in this assumption I have been completely wrong from the first minutes of the pilot. The first three episodes have treated the original Biblical story respectfully, if not slavishly, and they have given the political theology of I Samuel and the role of “Rev. Samuels” as central a place in the story as one might expect to see. Obviously, the show is being marketed as a political drama/soap opera a la Rome with the religious component obscured almost entirely in the advertising (apparently because, as they say in the first scene, “it’s not popular to speak of God”), and additional plot twists added on occasion. Like Rome, it has impressive sets and casting, and a similarly large budget, and it has so far brought in high quality directorial talent. Naturally, pitted against The Simpsons and even more mindless reality TV fare, Kings has been doing very badly in the ratings. NBC is infamous for its mishandling of quality programming, so there is every reason to fear that the network will do its best to undermine the show until it is cancelled. However, this is a show that is intelligent, reasonably attentive to the Biblical narrative and serious when speaking of matters of faith and sacrifice, and if there is any show on network or cable that can claim anything similar I have yet to hear of it. It’s worth a look.
Well there you have it, approved by one of the smartest social conservatives I know of.  You can watch on Hulu.

Planning ahead

Why there's no easy hunger-satisfying drug

Via Megan, Derek Lowe:
I've long been wary of [weight loss drugs], since we've found (over and over) that human feeding behavior is protected by multiple, overlapping redundant pathways. We are the descendants of a long line of creatures that have made eating and reproducing their absolute priorities in life, and neither of those behaviors are going to be altered lightly. The animals that can be convinced to voluntarily eat so little that they actually lose weight, just through modifying a single biochemical pathway, are all dead. Our ancestors were the other guys.
Here's a video with some interesting background on why certain appetites evolved:

Meanwhile Reason has a piece on solving the problem of childhood obesity.

Link blag

Glenn Greenwald: Jim Webb's courage...
There are few things rarer than a major politician doing something that is genuinely courageous and principled, but Jim Webb's impassioned commitment to fundamental prison reform is exactly that.
John Scswenkler: Leaders needed...
In this context, the unpopular stances Greenwald has in mind concern the drug war, sentencing guidelines, prison conditions, and the horrid condition of a country where blacks are sentenced to prison on drug charges at over five times the rate of whites despite not using drugs any more frequently, but it’s not hard to think of others that fit the bill: [great list]
TMV: The Silent Cries of Racism...
Can someone help me out here? Where is this growing throng of people calling criticizers of President Obama the dreaded R-word: racists? Can someone point this out to me? Because actress Angie Harmon feels she must present her “I’m not a racist if I criticize President Obama” card
NRO: First-person Socialism...
I think our president needs to invest more in the use of the third-person "government," since his speeches more and more center on the narcissistic "I" and "me." Even the car-takeover speech was "I-ed" to death.
Politico: Detroit plan has GOP all over the map...
President Barack Obama may or may not be able to save the U.S. auto industry, but his dramatic restricting plan is already having some effect: It’s sent the highly disciplined GOP message machine careening out of control.
Marc Ambinder: What 'Hightly Disciplined GOP Message Machine'?...
This isn't a knock at Politico..er...POLITICO, but since when has the GOP benefited from a "highly disciplined ... message machine?" When Congress debated the stimulus package, the party was united, but everything pretty much fell apart after that. Come to think of it, with the exception of the stimulus unity, the GOP message machine has been off-kilter since before the 2006 elections. I keep reading stories about how "Republican strategists" are on the verge of coming up with sparkling new strategies, but they never seem to materialize. The haggling over the wisdom of putting out an alternative budget is a symptom, and not a cause, of a party that lacks a leader and lacks even the patina of common cause among its various factions.
Dallas Morning News: The truth about health care 'truths'...
The high cost of health care "causes a bankruptcy in America every 30 seconds," we're told repeatedly by Barack Obama's administration. The president mentioned these exact words twice in recent weeks, before Congress and at the opening of his health care summit.

It's completely false, drawing on four-year-old bankruptcy stats and a discredited paper co-written by an advocate of socialized medicine suggesting that half of bankruptcies are due to health expenses....
TheNextRight: The Right's Current Transformational Moment...
One of the biggest reasons for the Right's decline in the Bush era is that we had long since completed most of the items on our to-do list. Low marginal tax rates? Check. The Soviet Union gone? Check. Welfare reform? Check.

This empty cupboard of ideas had led to progressively more minimalist Republican governing agendas and campaign platforms. If John McCain proposed any big, game-changing policy shifts in the last election, I must have missed them. It's true that Obama's ideas were not new either -- but he was able to sell them as "change" because they had been not tried in toto since the Johnson Administration, and people had forgotten how badly they had crashed on the rocks their last time out. Obama's central thesis -- that government ownership and central planning can outpace returns in the private market -- is actually very, very old. His playbook is that of FDR in 1933, Attlee in 1946, and Mitterand in 1981.

Monday, March 30

The politics of medical marijuana

Rob Kampia, president of the Marijuana Policy Project, is interviewed in today's Cato Daily Podcast at the right. (Update: won't show in reader, so you'll have to load the page)

At the end they mention a policy forum on The Politics and Science of Medical Marijuana (video)

Somewhat relatedly, last month Yglesias snarked on the polling of legalizing all marijuana plotted alongside the approval ratings of various Republicans:

Needless to say, support for marijuana legalization is pretty much a “fringe” view in national politics. And it certainly doesn’t have majority support. And yet put it in perspective and this is what you get.
Update: For some other "fringe" views, only 17% of Americans think abortion should be strictly illegal. 33% support overturning Roe v. Wade.

Twitter funnies

Via TheNextRight:

Gracias amigos

Joaquín Guzmán
Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, reported head of the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, ranked 701st on Forbes' yearly report of the wealthiest men alive, and worth an estimated $1 billion, today officially thanked United States politicians for making sure that drugs remain illegal. According to one of his closest confidants, he said, "I couldn't have gotten so stinking rich without George Bush, George Bush Jr., Ronald Reagan, even El Presidente Obama, none of them have the cajones to stand up to all the big money that wants to keep this stuff illegal. From the bottom of my heart, I want to say, Gracias amigos, I owe my whole empire to you."
This is hearsay and suspiciously timely, but the sentiment makes sense. If you were the sort of ruthless person who ran a drug empire, wouldn't you be thankful for prohibition?

Recall "If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns".... well if you outlaw a drug, only outlaws will deal that drug. And as we've seen they'll make enormous profits and cause a great deal of misery while doing so.

Even though I am such a strong believer in individual freedom that I am ideologically opposed to all prohibition -- and would legalize every single hard drug on the planet if everyone agreed to defer to my opinion -- I understand there are opposing views:

"The Drunkard's Progress", an iconic lithograph by Nathaniel Currier, exhibits the beliefs of the Temperance movement in the United States.
Such ideas are nobly intentioned, but misguided when enforced by the state.  Proposals for government bans would need to be carefully engaged and counterargued if prohibition worked. But it never has. It's a net failure on every front and has caused people to opt for much more dangerous alternatives like garage meth -- just as people were once poisoned by bad moonshine.

This is not difficult to understand. All you have to do is read some history about the consequences and aftermath of alcohol prohibition from 1919-1933 and compare it with the status quo.  It becomes even easier once you realize that marijuana is less dangerous than tobacco and alcohol.  There is simply no comparison between marijuana use and the amount of death, pain, and suffering the later two can cause when they get abused.

But the U.S. could no longer afford prohibition during the Great Depression, and it can ill afford it now.  Over the years the legal war on drugs has been very much like a real war in at least one sense: the world has paid a heavy price in blood and treasure for no net gain.

Meet the new America... kind of like the old America

John Schwenkler:
Alex Massie has a splendid post on how American liberals, lately of the “Stop trying to force the Europeans to obey America’s orders” school of thought (and thank goodness for that!) when it came to foreign policy, are … well … less enthused about free-mindedness when it comes to the financial crisis
Quoth Massie:
The President has told everyone what to do, so why won’t our friends do as they’re told? Once upon a time - and not so long ago neither - Democrats thought it was important for friends to speak candidly to friends and stand up for what they thought was right. Now? Not so much. Now friends must remember that their independent analysis of the economic troubles afflicting the globe counts for nothing and they should fall quietly into line and accept their marching orders from Washington.

As I say, how times change. We’ve swapped a military and foreign policy sense of imperial entitlement for an economic one. How refreshing!

What if the Americans are right, however? Well, maybe they are. But what if they’re wrong? Is it really necessary for every country to adopt identical responses to the current difficulties? How likely is it that there can be a global one-size-fits-all answer? Might there not be some sense in sharing eggs between different baskets? That is, different approaches and regional variation might work better than ex cathedra pronouncements from some of the very people who helped get us all into this mess in the first place. Perhaps not, but the costs of the Americans bullying everyone into following a policy that they themselves admit they have no idea of knowing will work seem, potentially, anyway, to be quite high if they are wrong. And, at least putatively, possibly higher than the benefits that might accrue if the Americans (and Gordon Brown) are right.

Eight talking heads debate prohibition

Radley comments:
I have to say, [this video] is really encouraging. Former DEA chief Asa Hutchinson is the only person on CNBC’s (oddly enormous) panel arguing against legalization. These aren’t stoners or activists. They’re financial reporters and pundits. And they seem to be uniformly in favor of legalizing. This debate has come a long, long, way since the 1980s.
I was struck by how quickly Hutchinson conceded the economic argument and said the objective of marijuana prohibition is moral and cultural rather than economic...and thus, in his words, "worth the cost".

That a former DEA chief will admit this just goes to show how drop-dead obvious the economic case for re-legalization is. Yet the White House has portrayed it as laughable and unserious. What gives?

Link blag

Betsy's Page: It's just too dang hard to govern...
What Chait really can't stand is that there are moderates in the Senate who are concerned with the opinions of their states and also like to support the economic interests and businesses located in their states. So Democrats elected from more conservative states like Kent Conrad of North Dakota or Ben Nelson of Kansas aren't jumping all over themselves to push through Obama's health care plans or cap and trade plan in a reconciliation package that would need only 50 votes instead of 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.

While I'd disagree with his premise that those vile Republicans are more willing than Democrats to push through their agenda, the major problem that Chait has with the Senate is that whole democracy thing. Dang those senators who are representing their constituents rather than the party. This is why we have a Senate and don't just have representatives elected at large or have the party select all the senators
Economist's Free Exchange: Let us now talk about Paul Krugman...
the [Newsweek] piece addresses none of these questions, and focuses instead on Paul Krugman the man—who is he, what he's like, how he got to where he is, and so on. Felix Salmon says the piece reads this way because the author and editor are unwilling to come to grips with whether Mr Krugman is right, and can only focus on whether he's worth listening to. They're still, Mr Salmon says, in a state of denial.

I disagree. I think the story does what it does, because that's what Newsweek can do—profile a big personality. They're not up to the task of answering the big questions on banking policy, and probably wouldn't even know where to begin.
Also at Newsweek: The Education of Timothy Geithner

(meme) McClatchy: Feds declare GM, Chrysler not viable, refuse more aid...
The government sought the departure of GM chief Rick Wagoner and said the company needed to be widely restructured if it had any hope of survival. It said it would provide the company with 60 days operating capital to give it time to undertake reforms.

The government will grant Chrysler 30 days operating funds, but said it must merge with another carmaker in order to remain viable. Talks with Italian carmaker Fiat are underway.
Megan: Wither GM?
Underpants gnomes!
The Daily Beast: Obama's Marijuana Buzz Kill

Politico: Marijuana issue suddenly smoking hot

Memeorandum colors: Visualizing political bias with greasemonkey

This Firefox extension is quite handy when you already know one side's take on a story and just want to find the other's.

Ignorant fundies

Direct quotes from fundamentalist forums, read by actors:

While entertaining (or depending on your mood, galling) I think it's important not to be too smug when faced with this level of ignorance.

It's indisputable that fundamentalist religious beliefs make many people dumber, but so do many other things that aren't so bad in moderation.

Everyone remembers Marx's "opiate of the masses" metaphor, but are opiates necessarily harmful? I hardly think so.

If I were to go interview the lamest potheads I could find and collected dumb quotes like those in the above video, would this demonstrate anything about its use by more responsible people? I think not.

Here's a Frank Herbert quote from Chapterhouse: Dune
"Religion (emulation of adults by the child) encysts past mythologies: guesses, hidden assumptions of trust in the universe, pronouncements made in search of personal power, all mingled with shreds of enlightenment. And always an unspoken commandment: Thou shalt not question! We break that commandment daily in the harnessing of human imagination to our deepest creativity."
Indeed most of us do. And those who to some degree are unable or unwilling to break from the mold of their religion by questioning, imagining, and being creative outside of it (i.e. not just "creatively praising Yahweh") have lost something I hold dear.

On the other hand, if we spent all our time being imaginative, creative, and questioning, how would we get anything productive done?

There is a balance to be sought between skepticism and pragmatism, unless you're comfortable being a nihilist or a fundamentalist.

So whatever your religion or lack of it, just don't let it regiment the rest of your thinking. And for goodness' sake stop trying to tell me the world is 6,000 years old.

Sunday, March 29

Medicinal use

HuffPost has another sad story:
there's nothing comical about tens of millions of Americans being busted, frightened out of their wits, losing their jobs, their student loans, their public housing, their families, their freedom...

And show me the humor in a dying cancer patient who's denied legal access to a drug known to relieve pain and suffering.

Having just returned from Minnesota whose state lawmakers are entertaining a conservative, highly restrictive medical marijuana law, I can tell you what's not funny to Joni Whiting.

Ms. Whiting told the House's Public Safety Policy and Oversight Committee of her 26-year-old daughter Stephanie's two-year battle with facial melanoma that surfaced during the young woman's third pregnancy. The packed hearing room was dead quiet as Ms. Whiting spoke of Stephanie's face being cut off "one inch at a time, until there was nothing left to cut." She spoke of her daughter's severe nausea, her "continuous and uncontrollable pain."

Stephanie moved back to her family's home and "bravely began to make plans for the ending of her life." The tumors continued to grow, invading the inside and outside of her mouth, as well as her throat and chest. Nausea was a constant companion. Zofran and (significantly) Marinol, the synthetic pill version of THC, did nothing to abate the symptoms. Stephanie began wasting away. She lost all hope of relief.

Joni's other children approached their mother, begged her to let their sister use marijuana. But Ms. Whiting, a Vietnam veteran whose youngest son recently returned from 18 months in Iraq, was a law-abiding woman. And she was afraid of the authorities. There was no way she would allow the illicit substance in her house. As she held her ground, her grownup kids removed Stephanie from the family home.

Three days later, wracked by guilt, Joni welcomed her daughter back. "I called a number of family members and friends...and asked if they knew of anywhere we could purchase marijuana. The next morning someone had placed a package of it on our doorstep. I have never known whom to thank for it but I remain grateful beyond belief." The marijuana restored Stephanie's appetite. It allowed her to eat three meals a day, and to keep the food down. She regained energy and, in the words of her mother, "looked better than I had seen her in months."

Stephanie survived another 89 days, celebrating both Thanksgiving and Christmas with her family.

Shortly after the holidays, Stephanie's pain became "so severe that when she asked my husband and me to lie down on both sides of her and hold her, she couldn't stand the pain of us touching her body."

Stephanie died on January 14, 2003 in the room she grew up in, holding her mother's hand. A mother who, as she told the legislative committee, would "have no problem going to jail for acquiring medical marijuana for my suffering child."

Following Joni Whiting's presentation, it was all I could do to hold it together during my own testimony. Such was the power of this one woman's story. And of the sadness and rage roiling inside me as I reflected on the countless other Stephanies who are made to suffer not only the ravages of terminal illness and intractable pain but the callousness and narrow-mindedness of their leaders.

When I finished my testimony, a local police chief, a member of the committee, angrily accused me of disrespecting the police officers in the room--who'd shown up in force, in uniform, to oppose medical marijuana. Wearing a bright yellow tie with the lettering "Police Line, Do Not Cross," the chief charged me with placing more stock in the opinions of doctors than of Minnesota's cops.
It is difficult to articulate my anger at cops and prosecutors who believe their opinion on treatments ought to matter more than that of doctors and patients.

The dangers of ideology

Daniel Larison:
one of the attractions of ideology is that it seems to offer “a schema for predicting the consequences of events.” I would emphasize that ideology only seems to do this, because one of the key features of any ideology is its horrific powers of oversimplification and its impressively narrow perspective on historical events. That is, ideology will not reliably predict consequences of events, but it will condition the mind to force every event into the mold provided by the ideology. If a person approaches the world with an ideological frame of mind, whatever events dominate the historical memory of his fellow ideologues are perceived as constantly recurring again and again as part of a progressive narrative of successive triumphs, each one more important than the last. The simple framing, the certainty of victory and the quick and easy interchangeability of extremely different groups as different faces of the same enemy are all very useful for purposes of propaganda and the acquisition and exercise of power.

This is one reason why so many ideologues express great confidence that History will judge their endeavors to have been worthwhile and why they always avoid accountability for the consequences of their own policies and actions: their grasp of historical contingency is poor, and their knowledge of history is usually limited to a narrow range of approved opinions about major events.
I think everyone is guilty of this to some degree, not just idealogues.  Grappling with opposing views and giving them a fair hearing takes a lot of discipline -- especially, in my view, when one is accustomed to reaching for the intellectual clarity of libertarian principles.

One reason I started this blag rather than just writing a private journal and bookmarking crap that amuses me was to hold my opinions and thinking up to some scrutiny.

If I can persuade you to agree with me about things that's great — but now that the number of people reading this appears to exceed a single digit I'm also itching for countervailing views.

So if you click a post title, you can use its comment box. It's free! =]

Be not afraid, ctd

Following up on previous discussion, I don't think there's any denying the power of this email from one of Andrew's readers:
I’ve been an active participant for three days in the Dreher-Linker debate comboxes, gnashing and clawing. I should have known that soon, with a bang, you’d stand up and throw the full force of your talent into the fray. With this:
“For many of us, the catastrophe of AIDS was a palpable, grueling reminder that without social structure, without integration, without responsibility, without the love and engagement and presence of their families, gay men were in grave danger,”
you reduced me to tears. Damn you and your words!

It was a cathartic response to my three days of struggling to explain that gay men are human, with complex sexual and political lives, and that maybe we’ve learned something since those heady days in the Mineshaft. We have done much more than come out of the closet and refuse to hate ourselves.

Some of us have watched every friend of ours die in their twenties, or have faced illness ourselves, and have been CHANGED. Some became meth addicts and fell apart. Some of us ran to our families because without them we knew we’d never be able to get through whatever was next. Rod loves to pine for the loss of community, while ignoring the community we have built in the face of almost unbearable loss.

Marriage is the culmination of THAT, not of some nihilistic sexual revolution.

US and Iran open Afghanistan peace talks

Say wh-wh-wh-what now?
IRANIAN and American officials have held their first talks about ending the war in Afghanistan amid signs that President Barack Obama’s efforts to thaw relations with Tehran are paying off.

While television cameras focused on Obama in Washington during the unveiling of his strategy for Afghanistan last Friday, US and Iranian diplomats were holding a remarkable meeting in Moscow.

The Russian initiative brought together Patrick Moon, the US diplomat in charge of south and central Asia, and Mehdi Akhundzadeh, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, as well as a British diplomat who has been acting as a mediator.

“We’ve turned a page to have Iranians and Americans at the same table all discussing Afghanistan,” Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, told delegates.
No one can know how much (if any) meaningful good will come from this, but it's encouraging to finally have an administration that's trying.

You can't accomplish anything if you don't at least try. Right?

Could we please fire the UAW, too?

(meme) GM CEO resigns at Obama's behest

Everything I've read from economists (as well as everyone's favorite or most hated MBA blogger) points to the UAW stifling innovation at GM, Ford, Chrysler vis a vis other companies with plants in right to work states.

In principle I'm fine with workers organizing, but the sad reality is that they often do so very poorly. Instead of pitting management vs. labor, why not give all employees equity options? Then they can have some ownership in the company and work hard to make it better, instead of just seeking to leech ever-costlier health benefits off it once they retire.

The saddest thing about unions like the UAW is that they allow retired workers to vote in contract negotiations, thus turning once stellar companies like GM into giant health care and pension providers with a side business in building crappy cars.

By contrast, you simply can't blame auto executives for much if any of their problems. Do you think they wanted to run the company into the ground? Bollocks, their hands have long been tied by forced unionization contracts.

For instance smaller fuel-efficient cards like the Ford Focus are actually built and sold at a loss. These small cars are more labor-intensive than larger vehicles, which places these unionized companies at a serious competitive disadvantage. That's why the Big 3's most profitable business has been building SUVs and trucks like the F-150 — these models use relatively more parts than labor.

One under par

Now that's what I call a birdie shot!

But of course it was all luck. This is skill.

Maher on the marijuana question

As I said a few posts down:
Some people simply can't understand that if drugs were legal, our enemies wouldn't have a monopoly on them and be out of their lucrative business. So when you tell them enemies are financed by opium, they think we need to double down on the task of eradicating drug trade. They have no perspective on how intractable that is, or how badly we've been failing at it for decades.
Salmon Rushdie here is an example of a smart guy who doesn't get it. Good of Hitchens to set things straight.

Those imaginary lines called borders

Photo: USA-Mexico border at San Diego-Tijuana

Don Boudreaux:
Practically speaking, there is free trade throughout the United States. My family and I (in VA) routinely buy wine from California and Oregon, oranges and lemons from Florida, computer software from Washington state, maple syrup from Vermont, peaches from South Carolina, television newscasts from New York and Atlanta, lumber from Alabama, spicy sauces from Louisiana, crabs from Maryland. The list is long.

And yet no one, not even Lou Dobbs, insists that the Boudreaux family would be richer if only the government in Richmond could find a successful way around the U.S. Constitution and managed to slap stiff tariffs on California wine, Florida citrus fruits, cajun seasoning from Louisiana, and you name it.

Surely the burden of persuasion is on those who would insist that each American would be more prosperous if only his or her state were better able to restrict trade with citizens of other states. If this burden of persuasion cannot be met, then the case for free international trade is pretty solidly established.

Anyone skeptical of free trade must explain why political borders are economically relevant. With the exception of pointing to (mostly rather vague and poorly considered) national-defense issues, protectionists have never managed -- and I dare say never will manage -- to impart genuine economic relevance to political borders.

Because all reasonably prosperous countries today impose no, or only very few, internal restrictions on trade, two facts stand: (1) free trade is in fact quite common, and (2) free trade is beneficial.
Perry adds:
another way to look at it: Since there is no economic reason to restrict goods from crossing imaginary lines called "city limits," "county lines" or "state borders," and we allow free trade among the 50 U.S. states and their counites and cities, there is also no economic reason to restrict goods from crossing imaginary lines called "national borders."
Indeed our current world's pax americana allows the free flow of most goods and capital across international borders, yet not the flow of people.

But why is that? (Harvard Kennedy School presentation)

It's funny how Democrats are anti-trade but pro-migration.

Republicans are pro-trade but anti-migration.

Neither group seems to grasp the incoherence of these stances or why both such arbitrary political barriers harm our economy.

Set phasers to "OohRah!"

Photo: Northrop Grumman
Ok they're not really phasers, but still:
(WIRED) Military Laser Hits Battlefield Strength

Huge news for real-life ray guns: Electric lasers have hit battlefield strength for the first time -- paving the way for energy weapons to go to war.

In recent test-blasts, Pentagon-researchers at Northrop Grumman managed to get 105 kilowatts of power out of their laser -- past the "100kW threshold [that] has been viewed traditionally as a proof of principle for 'weapons grade' power levels for high-energy lasers,"
TMV thinks it through:
So is this really “great news” for us? Opponents of military force may not think so, but lasers should have some distinct advantages in combat. Even for pacifists, one of the chief complaints regarding combat operations is the potential for collateral damage. (Read as: blowing up civilians) The general goal has been for “laser accuracy” with smart munitions. Well, here you have it. There’s nothing more laser accurate than an actual laser. Burning a hole in a target should generally produce less unintended consequences than blowing something up.
As a bonus, I reckon neocon hawks and their ilk will need to find something other than bombs to satisfy their testosterone urges.

Perhaps we could build them a holodeck with virtual bat'leths ?

Robot overlords are nigh, ctd.

In 2049 a $1000 computer will be smarter than the entire human species, combined.

This video is about a year old, so I assume that figure is in 2008 dollars. Pleasant dreams!

(see previous entry)

Reading the LA Times

STEVE LOPEZ: Former judge fired up on making pot legal

All right, tell me this doesn't sound a little strange:

I'm sitting in Costa Mesa with a silver-haired gent who once ran for Congress as a Republican and used to lock up drug dealers as a federal prosecutor, a man who served as an Orange County judge for 25 years. And what are we talking about? He's begging me to tell you we need to legalize drugs in America.
Not strange...as it should be, if people were honest rather than trying to further a career in drug law enforcement.
"Please quote me," says Jim Gray, insisting the war on drugs is hopeless. "What we are doing has failed."

As far as I can tell, Gray is not off his rocker. He's not promoting drug use, he says for clarification. Anything but. If he had his way, half the revenue we would generate from taxing and regulating drugs would be plowed back into drug prevention education, and there'd be rehab on demand.

So here he is in coat and tie -- with a U.S. flag lapel pin -- eating his oatmeal and making perfect sense, even when talking about the way President Obama flippantly dismissed a question about legalizing marijuana last week during a White House news conference.

"Politicians get reelected talking tough regarding the war on drugs," says Gray. "Do you want to hear the speech? Vote for Gray. I will put drug dealers in jail and save your children."

I had gone to visit Gray in part to discuss his support for a bill introduced last month by Democratic San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who is calling for marijuana to be regulated and taxed much like alcohol.

Does the bill have a chance?
Maybe not yet, but eventually.  All we can do is raise awareness.
I wouldn't bet a pack of Zig-Zag rolling paper. It's a provocative idea that gets dusted off now and again, but the usual reaction is either ridicule or sober concern about sending the wrong message to youths, among others, and making substance abuse a greater problem than it already is.

But take a look at the world, people.
Are you sure that's not asking too much?
Mexican drug lords are better armed than police and killing thousands who don't buy into the corruption -- with the violence crashing our borders -- and American enemies abroad are financed by the opium trade.
Stop right there. Some people simply can't understand that if drugs were legal, our enemies wouldn't have a monopoly on them and be out of their lucrative business. So when you tell them enemies are financed by opium, they think we need to double down on the task of eradicating drug trade. They have no perspective on how intractable that is, or how badly we've been failing at it for decades.
Ten days ago I visited a Los Angeles elementary school where students practice dropping to the floor and making themselves as flat as pancakes to avoid stray bullets from the gang-infested neighborhood, and drugs play a role in that violence. On Wednesday I strolled through downtown Los Angeles and marijuana smoke filled the air, a mocking reminder of the impossible task of eradicating drugs, despite the trillions spent and the thousands of people we've locked away in our jails and prisons.
Oh so you're paying attention, then.  Sadly most people aren't.
Bravo to Hillary Rodham Clinton, says Gray, for admitting last week that American demand for drugs is responsible for the bloodshed in Mexico.

"But she got the facts right and the solution wrong," he says, just as everyone else has in a war that's been escalating for decades.

Gray was on the Municipal Court bench in the 1980s when he took his first hit from the reform pipe. The vast majority of the cases coming before him were alcohol-related, he said, and he was able to divert defendants into screening and recovery. But he couldn't do the same in drug cases, and he was frustrated, both in Municipal Court bench and later on the Superior Court bench.

"Our jails are filled with low-level users who sold to support the habit," says Gray, who believes that the tougher the criminal justice system gets on drug offenders, the fewer resources it has to go after rapists, robbers and other criminals.
It's a tragic state of affairs.  But one I think most people should be able to understand, once they're prodded into really thinking about it.
In 1992 he called a news conference in Santa Ana and stated his case for legalized drugs. In Orange County, that was like coming out in favor of communism and nose rings, but Gray never flinched from insisting that the drug war was a waste of tax dollars and that it was putting too many citizens and police in harm's way. He became a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and wrote the book "Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It." "His book drives a stake through the heart of the failed war on drugs," says a back-cover blurb from Walter Cronkite.
Many such stakes have been driven, but it doesn't count for much when so few people are paying attention or able to think meaningfully beyond "drugs are bad, please protect my kids for me".
Gray, by the way, is a former Peace Corps volunteer and Navy lawyer who now counts himself a Libertarian, all of which reminds us why we love California. He says his conservative roots make him the best man for the campaign to legalize drugs.

"Who better than a conservative judge in a conservative county who's never used any form of illicit drugs?" he asks.

When Ammiano's bill was introduced, Gray was invited to the news conference by the openly gay Democrat.

"I have received standing ovations from the ACLU and the Young Republicans of Orange County," says Gray. "It crosses all political lines."
But apparently not age lines.  Note "Young Republicans".  As with legalizing gay marriage, we're stuck waiting for enough narrow-minded geezers to die.
Not everyone thinks he's citizen of the year, though. Gray says he's often asked about sending the wrong message, and he responds with a reality check. Anyone who wants illegal drugs can easily get them, but doing so may put them in harm's way. Wouldn't it be smarter to sell the drugs at government stores, so advertising could be outlawed, taxes collected on one of California's biggest cash crops and drug gangs eradicated?
I didn't realize advertising was such a problem, but I'm all for eradicating the black market and associated violence.
If Gray had his way, no one under 21 could buy drugs. But anyone older than that could legally buy marijuana -- which, he says, causes nowhere near the amount of death and disease as alcohol. The state would need to see how that works, he said, before moving on to legalizing the sale of harder drugs. Sure, he says, legalization might lead to more toking at first, but he believes drug use would wane when it was no longer forbidden and the novelty wore off.

I'm not sure I agree with that point, but I say we give it a try, and I do buy into Gray's argument about who the winners are in the current system.

First, there are the drug lords in Mexico and beyond. Then the drug gangs that peddle the stuff here. Next come the law enforcement agencies, prison contractors and prison guards, which use the war on drugs to demand more resources. And finally, there are the politicians who have wooed voters since the Nixon administration by pledging to support the war on drugs.

"My personal opinion," says Gray, "is that we couldn't have done worse if we tried."
Well let's not be hyperbolic. I think offering little kids free heroin injections might qualify as possibly worse. But as pertains to consenting adults, yes, prohibition is one of the most harmful policies ever enacted in otherwise free societies.

Detergent prohibition

What happens when a local government bans name-brand dishwasher detergents and forces residents to use ones that don't work as well?  A black market in Cascade, of course:
there has been a quiet rush of Spokane-area shoppers heading east on Interstate 90 into Idaho in search of old-school suds.

Real estate agent Patti Marcotte of Spokane stocks up on detergent at a Costco in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and doesn't care who knows it.

"Yes, I am a smuggler," she said. "I'm taking my chances because dirty dishes I cannot live with."

[...] Marcotte said she tried every green brand in her dishwasher and found none would remove grease and pieces of food. Everybody she knows buys dishwasher detergent in Idaho, she said.

[...] "I'm not hearing a lot of positive feedback," conceded Shannon Brattebo of the Washington Lake Protection Association, a prime mover of the ban. "I think people are driving to Idaho."

Steve Marcy, manager of the Costco in Coeur d'Alene, about 10 miles east of the Washington state line, estimated that sales of dishwasher detergent in his store have increased 10 percent. He knows where the customers are coming from.

"I'll joke with them and ask if they are from Spokane," Marcy said. "They say, `Oh yeah.'"
You laugh now, but what happens when possession is criminalized and the ban spreads so that unrestricted locales like Idaho aren't as close by? We'll end up with soap dealers on shady corners, police Cascade raids, and mass housewife violence. They want clean dishes!

Saturday, March 28

A seven point plan for 21st century conservatism

If I'm going to constantly criticize the Republican party for things like being stuck in the eighties, it behooves me to offer a more serious blueprint than merely wishing the whole lot would become libertarians who agree with me on everything.

Happily I can outsource the work to Scott Payne at the League:
1. Go populist without going populist. [...] Walking the walk but not talking the talk to me means eschewing notions of appealing to peoples’ lowest common denominators and meeting people where they are but challenging them to bring the angels of their better nature to the game. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s arguments around Sam’s Club Republicans come to mind in this regard, as does the kind of localism/regionalism/integrity of living articulated by the likes of Daniel Larison, John Schwenkler, and particularly Rod Dreher.

2. Give up on small government, focus on limited government: [...] The bottom line is that Americans expect too much of their government for it to every truly be small. So by sticking to the “smaller government, fewer taxes” motto religiously (pun very much intended), conservatives have an easy to understand and winning message, but remain permanently unable to deliver on fifty percent of that message and end up getting criticised for it.

On the other hand, the less easy to convey notion of a limited government, whose role and scope in the lives of everyday Americans is an area that is still wide open for debate and in which consider reforms can be managed — especially given how George W. Bush trounced this notion over the past eight years. This, to my mind, is prime redemption ground for American conservatives and they would do well to take the ball and run with. You’re not going to get any kind of rhetoric from the Obama administration that can’t be refuted because of their commitment to broad based spending (regardless of what Obama himself may think about limited government, and I’m inclined to believe he is sincere), so conservatives have the opportunity to take the ball and run it more than a few yards here. Beyond just winning elections, though, I think this is robust area for debate for years to come and think that conservatives would be well advised to take the lead on that debate.

3. Take the libertarian route when it comes to culture: I would suggest that more than economics or role of government, conservatives are on the business end of the demographics shotgun because of cultural issues. The debate on whether spending should be vigorous or tempered swings back and forth depending on prevailing circumstances in America, and that debate winds up affecting the dynamics of the debate on the role of government, as well. But there is a steady procession of resolve on certain cultural issues, perhaps currently typified by the same-sex marriage issue, that marches to beat of different and less erratic forces. Understanding that there are reasons why conservatives may not be able to find sufficient reason to come out in exuberant support of these issues (and it would be great if they could, because that would strengthen their case even further), the obvious way forward here is to address these social issues from the movement/party’s libertarian perspective.

The basic line goes something like, “Look, I might not condone homosexuality, but it isn’t my place — and it certainly isn’t the states’s place — to determine who can and can’t get married. That is a decision that two rational and competent adults should make, so I’ll leave it to them.”

To my mind, that is essentially the tact that Obama is taking on some of the more contentious social issues and as far as I can tell it is both working like a charm and has the bonus of being a thoroughly intellectually defensible position. It’s not going to convince progressives, but it could be very appealing to some moderates, places conservatives on the right side of history, and picks up that contingent youth that wound up adoring Ron Paul in the election.

4. Give up on neoconservatism: [...] ’nuff said.

5. Re-embrace intellectualism: [...] the broad perception is out there and impressively pervasive. You can’t go about escaping that perception when the face of your movement is George W. Bush for eight years, rightly or wrongly. The worst part about this perception is that the conservative movement has an incredible cadre of extremely intelligent and talented young intellectuals at its disposal who are to some degree or another on the outside looking in (many of them have managed to slip in through the sliding glass door leading to the patio, but they shouldn’t have to sneak about). Whether you’re looking at people like James Poulos, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, Conor Friedersdorf, David Frum, Daniel Larison, Rod Dreher, Patrick Deneen, Ramesh Ponnuru or (gasp) Andrew Sullivan (and that’s my own relatively myopic list of favourites), it’s hard to deny that there is a metric tonne of talent that isn’t being a thoroughly utilized as it could be. Finding channels for bringing these folks further into the party and letting them stretch their intellectual and conceptual legs for your movement’s benefit isn’t just optically wise, it’s actually going to strengthen your movement.

The challenge, of course, is that these folks aren’t died in the wool movement conservatives, as is the case with most of the young intellectuals that conservatism could avail itself. So by engaging them you have correspondingly understand that they are fairly comfortable moving some of the building blocks around, and in some cases, removing them altogether. Time to give up some sacred cows people, trust me it’s all part of the ideological process. The kind of openness and intellectual honesty that these thinkers bring to the table has been able to draw out the respect of even staunch liberal minds, so believe me the increase in the price of your stock combined with the ultimate strength that the restructuring will provide a movement bereft of many exhilarating ideas is more than worth it.

6. Critically embrace tradition: conservatism’s connection to tradition is potentially one it’s strong points in a world increasingly loosened from any moorings. But conservatives need to find ways of embracing those traditions with a critical eye and be prepared to let go of traditions that no longer make any sense. This post by Will Wilson that keep going back to on engaging self-reflective traditions is the key here and I keep waiting for Will to pick that line of thought back up on move it forward a couple more yards, but it’s somewhere to start.

For another good example of what I’m talking about, specifically in regards to dropping certain traditional mores when they no longer make sense, see Conor Friedersdorf on same-sex marriage.

7. Find meaningful ways of talking about religious pluralism: a big hang up for a lot of people around conservatism is the degree to which it seems yoked to religion, specifically Chistianity. I think there are powerful reasons why it is the case that even a twenty-first century conservatism is going to continue to have a strong relationship to religion, but there are also ways of presenting that relationship in a palatable way. Alan Wolf had an impressive article that I’ve referred back to on a couple of different occasions about the “market place of religion”, that demonstrated in what I took to be a fairly impressive manner that the direction of religion is away from absolutism and towards a plurality. To my mind, this is the migrating pattern that conservatives need to follow.

Again, this is the piece of rhetorical jujitsu that Obama has so adeptly employed to great effect. As well, in that article, Wold points to some of the more socially responsible tendencies that arising within the specifically evangelical strains of faith, finding ways to focus attention on those elements, rather than proclamations of non-blievers burning in hell would be mightily helpful.

U.N. condems "defamation of religions"

Via V.C., there's a new U.N. resolution:
9. Also urges States to provide, within their respective legal and constitutional systems, adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from the defamation of any religion, to take all possible measures to promote tolerance and respect for all religions and their value systems and to complement legal systems with intellectual and moral strategies to combat religious hatred and intolerance

12. Emphasizes that, as stipulated in international human rights law, everyone has the right to freedom of expression, and that the exercise of this right carries with it special duties and responsibilities, and may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but only those provided by law and necessary for the respect of the rights or reputations of others, or for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals

14. Deplores the use of printed, audio-visual and electronic media, including the Internet, and of any other means to incite acts of violence, xenophobia or related intolerance and discrimination towards Islam or any religion
Adopted by a recorded vote of 21 to 10, with 14 abstentions. The voting was as follows:

In favour: Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Malaysia, Mali, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Africa, Sri Lanka.

Against: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Romania, Slovenia, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Abstaining: Bolivia, Brazil, Gabon, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Japan, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mexico, Peru, Republic of Korea, Uruguay, Zambia
Hmm, seems someone is upset about things like those Danish cartoons of Muhammed [peace be upon him on days evenly divisible by 2]...
Some critics of the cartoons described them as Islamophobic or racist, and argued that they are blasphemous to people of the Muslim faith, are intended to humiliate a Danish minority, or are a manifestation of ignorance about the history of Western imperialism.

Supporters have said that the cartoons illustrated an important issue in a period of Islamic terrorism and that their publication is a legitimate exercise of the right of free speech, explicitly tied to the issue of self-censorship.
Whoops.  Did I just exercise some free speech in violation of the U.N. Resolution?

Religions don't have rights, people do.

GDP perspective

For all those silly lefties crying the death of free-market capitalism under the mismanagement of recent years, some much needed perspective from across the pond:

No, I'm not about to start saying that everything is just peachy, even I'm not that optimistic. But can we at least have a little bit of proportion here?

Economists were expecting GDP to have contracted by 1.5pc in the final quarter of last year – in line with the preliminary estimate – but the Office of National Statistics had to revise the figure downwards to 1.6pc.

It is the biggest quarterly fall in GDP since 1980 and the biggest annual fall since the last recession in 1991.

That proportion being that the economy has indeed just shrunk. All the way back to the size it was in, ooh, say, March or April of last year. Yes, it might indeed get worse again as well but there's just about no one who thinks that it's going to shrink as far as, say, the level of 1999. If it did that would be a Great Depression sized fall and there are very very few who are predicting that.

[...] The one defining characteristic of this [free market] capitalism shtick is that it delivers, consistently, over time and for the average person, a rise in the general standard of living. The other name for this is economic growth. As the major report on climate change notes:

The global economy expands at an average annual rate of about 3% to 2100, reaching around US$550 trillion (all dollar amounts herein are expressed in 1990 dollars, unless stated otherwise). This is approximately the same as average global growth since 1850, although the conditions that lead to this global growth in productivity and per capita incomes in the scenario are unparalleled in history.

We think that trend growth, the possible or even likely long term growth rate, for the UK is 2.5% to 3%. A 1.6% fall in GDP is thus we've lost that year's growth and retreated 8 months. This isn't, I'd like to posit, the disaster that most seem to be saying that this is.

It certainly isn't enough of a disaster for us to throw out that only economic system ever uncovered that provides that 3% growth over the long term.

So before we decide that capitalism is dead and we're off to bury it in regulation and stagnation, could we just make sure that we really do want to stop the occasional hiccup at the cost of never again having that 3% growth?

Oh, and yes, you do know that that 3% average growth over the century includes the falls at times like the Depression? That this is the growth rate after the hiccups?

Dealing with the neocon mess

Via Yglesias:

An example of neocon foreign policy insight:
"What has happened in Afghanistan is nothing short of a miracle. Who is responsible for it? The New York Times gives the major credit to ``the Afghan people'' with their ``courage and commitment.'' Courage and commitment there was, but that courage and commitment was curiously imperceptible until this administration conceived a radical war plan, executed it brilliantly, liberated the country and created from scratch the structures of democracy ... Against all expectations, Afghanistan is the first graduate of the Bush Doctrine of spreading democracy in rather hostile places. We should take a moment to celebrate a remarkable success that had long seemed so improbable," Charles Krauthammer, December 10, 2004.
Aha, so for five years Afghanistan has been busy celebrating the "miracle" of our "remarkable success."

I'd hate to see what an unmiraculous and unremarkable failure looks like.

Stuck in the eighties


Most of us know what the International Monetary Fund prescription for saving any given economy is, right? Drastically cut spending. No really, cut it. Slash it to the bone. Even military spending. Cut cut cut cut cut! This approach has opened them to criticism both from true conservatives and progressives.

So then, you know it’s a big deal on those rare occasions that the IMF tells a country they need to spend more money.

Yesterday, the IMF urged the 20 largest economies to spend more on stimulus, to the tune of 2% of their entire Gross Domestic Product.  In addition, some central banks may need to take “unprecedented” measures.

Meanwhile, the GOP is railing against the Obama Administration’s first budget as spending way too much money: “Republicans say the path to prosperity is not the excessive spending proposed by President Obama but limited spending that holds down the growth of government, taxes and debt.”

The GOP: Applying 1980 solutions to today's problems since...well, 1980.

Update: I should note that it's the "spending freeze" part of Republicans' alternative budget that I find ridiculous. I'm hardly a fan of Obama's post-recession budgeting either.

Pope-disapproved condoms

Check for holes before using

Supply and demand

(image from Carpe Diem)

The preventative police state

Wethersfield, Conn. (WTNH) - Officers from numerous police departments charged into Wethersfield High School Thursday to hunt for drugs.

Armed with police dogs, officers from Wethersfield, Rocky Hill, Manchester and New Britain raided the high school at 411 Wolcott Hill Road.

Locker by locker and room by room, police and their dogs sniffed around to send the school district’s message that drugs will not be taken lightly.

Police also searched more than 100 cars in the school’s parking lot, which led to the arrest of one student for drug paraphernalia.

Police ended up not finding any drugs, and that lone arrest is something School Superintendent Michael Kohlhagen is proud of.

"This is just one step in the right direction, to ensure our students continue to learn and thrive in a drug free environment." Kohlhagen said and later added, "This issue has been and remains a priority; our entire administration and faculty remain committed to the health, safety and welfare of our students."

Kohlhagen said Thursday’s raid proves that Wethersfield High School is safe and drug free.
Radley: "That's not all it proves."

David Krueger snarks:
I think everyone should welcome the opportunity to have their property and persons searched so that they can proudly prove to the state their fitness to be loyal subjects. To resist can only mean you’re hiding something. Schools are a particularly appropriate venue for this forceful style of governing because it helps instill in students at a young age what their place is in society as mere civilians, while reinforcing their patriotism, respect for the primacy of government, and their subservience to the national will. This is indeed a powerful tool to squelch the rebellious and independent attitudes that have characterized past generations of young people.

If they say "we were right, you were wrong!" loud enough, will that make it so?

More folks on the Right are jumping on that Economist critique of Obama's presidency thus far.

Commentary Magazine blog:
there is an element of managerial incompetence, but the real issue is that the Right was correct about Obama: he’s an ultra-liberal at least on domestic policy, not a pragmatic centrist either on policy or in style. His mode of governance — denigrate the opposition, engage in ad hominem attacks, refuse to compromise on substantive policy, disguise radical policy intentions with a haze of meaningless rhetoric — bespeaks someone supremely confident in his ideological views and undaunted by fears (which are slowly creeping up on his Red state colleagues) of having overshot his mandate.
You gotta laugh at the parallel reality in which Obama is an "ultra-liberal" who's attacked a rational opposition personally and in which Republicans apparently haven't been busy disgracing themselves with their own reality-free denigrations of Obama.

It is therefore unlikely that Obama will change course unless forced by electoral realities or external events. If the next several bond auctions are a bust perhaps then the spend-a-thon will slow. If unemployment rises and his poll numbers fall, perhaps he’ll hold off on burdening employers for just a bit. If he loses 30 or 40 House seats in 2010 he won’t have the legislative latitude to throw up whatever legislation he wants (or to defer to Nancy Pelosi).

But barring these developments it appears we are in for more of the same for the remainder of his term. It’s not what the Economist expected, but it is pretty much what most conservatives did.

Hot Air:
> Mr Obama has seemed curiously feeble.

Why “curiously”? After all, Obama had next to no executive experience before running for the presidency. His only executive experience came at the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, where Obama spent over $160 million and had no effect on education. He has never been responsible for a public budget, public appointments, or economic policy. And they find his poor performance “curious”? Would The Economist have hired Obama to run their magazine based on his resumé and then found his incompetence “curious”?

[...] If Obama is not who The Economist thought he was, then the fault lies with The Economist and not Obama. The scales may be falling from their eyes now, but if they had done their jobs a few months ago, it wouldn’t be necessary at all.
Oh really? Let me direct you to the Economist's endorsement a week before the election:
For all the shortcomings of the campaign, both John McCain and Barack Obama offer hope of national redemption. Now America has to choose between them. The Economist does not have a vote, but if it did, it would cast it for Mr Obama. We do so wholeheartedly: the Democratic candidate has clearly shown that he offers the better chance of restoring America’s self-confidence. But we acknowledge it is a gamble. Given Mr Obama’s inexperience, the lack of clarity about some of his beliefs and the prospect of a stridently Democratic Congress, voting for him is a risk. Yet it is one America should take, given the steep road ahead.
That seems pretty clear-eyed to me. But apparently Hot Air believes that if the Economist had "done their jobs" months ago, they wouldn't be having any buyer's remorse.

Does Hot Air think the Economist should not have endorsed anyone? Because they were pretty clear on why McCain was less acceptable, and their endorsement was primarily anti-Republican, anti-McCain, and anti-Palin:
At the beginning of this election year, there were strong arguments against putting another Republican in the White House. A spell in opposition seemed apt punishment for the incompetence, cronyism and extremism of the Bush presidency. Conservative America also needs to recover its vim. Somehow Ronald Reagan’s party of western individualism and limited government has ended up not just increasing the size of the state but turning it into a tool of southern-fried moralism.

The selection of Mr McCain as the Republicans’ candidate was a powerful reason to reconsider. Mr McCain has his faults: he is an instinctive politician, quick to judge and with a sharp temper. And his age has long been a concern (how many global companies in distress would bring in a new 72-year-old boss?). Yet he has bravely taken unpopular positions—for free trade, immigration reform, the surge in Iraq, tackling climate change and campaign-finance reform. A western Republican in the Reagan mould, he has a long record of working with both Democrats and America’s allies.

That, however, was Senator McCain; the Candidate McCain of the past six months has too often seemed the victim of political sorcery, his good features magically inverted, his bad ones exaggerated. The fiscal conservative who once tackled Mr Bush over his unaffordable tax cuts now proposes not just to keep the cuts, but to deepen them. The man who denounced the religious right as “agents of intolerance” now embraces theocratic culture warriors. The campaigner against ethanol subsidies (who had a better record on global warming than most Democrats) came out in favour of a petrol-tax holiday. It has not all disappeared: his support for free trade has never wavered. Yet rather than heading towards the centre after he won the nomination, Mr McCain moved to the right.

Meanwhile his temperament, always perhaps his weak spot, has been found wanting. Sometimes the seat-of-the-pants method still works: his gut reaction over Georgia—to warn Russia off immediately—was the right one. Yet on the great issue of the campaign, the financial crisis, he has seemed all at sea, emitting panic and indecision. Mr McCain has never been particularly interested in economics, but, unlike Mr Obama, he has made little effort to catch up or to bring in good advisers (Doug Holtz-Eakin being the impressive exception).

The choice of Sarah Palin epitomised the sloppiness. It is not just that she is an unconvincing stand-in, nor even that she seems to have been chosen partly for her views on divisive social issues, notably abortion. Mr McCain made his most important appointment having met her just twice.
They went on to acknowledge some of Obama's deficiencies:
There is no getting around the fact that Mr Obama’s résumé is thin for the world’s biggest job. But the exceptionally assured way in which he has run his campaign is a considerable comfort. It is not just that he has more than held his own against Mr McCain in the debates. A man who started with no money and few supporters has out-thought, out-organised and outfought the two mightiest machines in American politics—the Clintons and the conservative right.

Political fire, far from rattling Mr Obama, seems to bring out the best in him: the furore about his (admittedly ghastly) preacher prompted one of the most thoughtful speeches of the campaign. On the financial crisis his performance has been as assured as Mr McCain’s has been febrile. He seems a quick learner and has built up an impressive team of advisers, drawing in seasoned hands like Paul Volcker, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers. Of course, Mr Obama will make mistakes; but this is a man who listens, learns and manages well. [here they've been disappointed. --GL]

[...] Our main doubts about Mr Obama have to do with the damage a muddle-headed Democratic Congress might try to do to the economy. Despite the protectionist rhetoric that still sometimes seeps into his speeches, Mr Obama would not sponsor a China-bashing bill. But what happens if one appears out of Congress? Worryingly, he has a poor record of defying his party’s baronies, especially the unions. His advisers insist that Mr Obama is too clever to usher in a new age of over-regulation, that he will stop such nonsense getting out of Congress, that he is a political chameleon who would move to the centre in Washington. But the risk remains that on economic matters the centre that Mr Obama moves to would be that of his party, not that of the country as a whole.
This largely looks like it was spot-on to me. And in an earlier post I offered my conjecture that while there certainly are management decisions Obama might have done better, his administration has a ton on problems on its plate and it's unclear how many people alive would be doing a better job in this president's shoes --- but I'm at least confident a McCain or a Palin wouldn't be doing better overall.

Thus in the new opinion piece we're discussing, "Learning the hard way", the Economist is offering a disappointed critique of Obama's learning & management so far. But that hardly means their original assessment wasn't a pretty darn good job, or that they don't have many reasons to stand by their wholehearted endorsement over the McCain-Palin farce.

If the Right wants the public to embrace them as an alternative, they need to stop merely criticizing the president. The Economist, Andrew Sullivan, and various independents such as your humble author are going to be more credible on this front.

Instead the Right needs to offer us something better to choose from. So far I'd say they're failing miserably, but that doesn't quite capture the insane inanity of their spending freeze and alternative budget proposal.

Bachmann's lunacy

Say what you want about Keith Olbermann, but his head is screwed on straighter than Michele Bachmann's:

When will Republicans reign in this whack job? (Hey I did my part back in October.)

Friday, March 27

Watch HIV spread

The video will pause to let you see important frames. Those green-tinted particles are HIV inside a T-cell.

UK's Telegraph:
The US study has broken new ground by revealing that it is the synapse through which the viral proteins are gathered and moved into uninfected cells.

The team [...] believe that this knowledge could help create new treatments for HIV and AIDS.

"Our findings may explain why attempts to develop an HIV vaccine have so far been unsuccessful."

"The more we know about this mode of transfer, the better chance we have of figuring out how to block it and the spread of HIV and Aids."

For decades it was believed that HIV was mostly spread around the body through freely circulating particles, which attach themselves to a cell, take over its replication machinery and make multiple copies of themselves.

In 2004, scientists discovered that cell-to-cell transfer of HIV also occurred via virological synapses, but it was not understood why the process was so effective in spreading the virus.

Due to this, previous efforts to create an HIV vaccine have focused on priming the immune system to recognise and attack proteins of free-circulating virus. The new video footage indicates that HIV avoids recognition by being directly transferred between cells.

"We should be developing vaccines that help the immune system recognise proteins involved in virological synapse formation and antiviral drugs that target the factors required for synapse formation."

"Direct T-cell-to-T-cell transfer through a virological synapse is a highly efficient avenue of HIV infection, and it could be the predominant mode of dissemination."

Learning the hard way

(meme) The Economist assesses Obama's presidency thus far.  Some emphasis:
failure to staff the Treasury is a shocking illustration of administrative drift. There are 23 slots at the department that need confirmation by the Senate, and only two have been filled. This is not the Senate’s fault. Mr Obama has made a series of bad picks of people who have chosen or been forced to withdraw; and it was only this week that he announced his candidates for two of the department’s four most senior posts. Filling such jobs is always a tortuous business in America, but Mr Obama has made it harder by insisting on a level of scrutiny far beyond anything previously attempted. Getting the Treasury team in place ought to have been his first priority.

Second, Mr Obama has mishandled his relations with both sides in Congress. Though he campaigned as a centrist and promised an era of post-partisan government, that’s not how he has behaved. His stimulus bill attracted only three Republican votes in the Senate and none in the House. This bodes ill for the passage of more difficult projects, such as his big plans for carbon-emissions control and health-care reform. Keeping those promises will soon start to bedevil the administration. The Republicans must take their share of the blame for the breakdown. But if Mr Obama had done a better job of selling his package, and had worked harder at making sure that Republicans were included in drafting it, they would have found it more difficult to oppose his plans.

If Mr Obama cannot work with the Republicans, he needs to be certain that he controls his own party. Unfortunately, he seems unable to. Put bluntly, the Democrats are messing him around. They are pushing pro-trade-union legislation (notably a measure to get rid of secret ballots) even though he doesn’t want them to do so; they have been roughing up the bankers even though it makes his task of fixing the economy much harder; they have stuffed his stimulus package and his appropriations bill with pork, even though this damages him and his party in the eyes of the electorate. Worst of all, he is letting them get away with it.
Do read the whole.

Meanwhile Mark Steyn at the Corner has a post conveniently titled "Missing the Point" in which he, er, misses the point.

I think we've seen some good progress from the administration. Obama has a heck of a lot on his plate right now and I'm not sure how many people alive would be doing better in his shoes. Some might say that's his choice, i.e. that he doesn't have to tackle health care and climate change right now. But those things haven't really kicked in yet; he's still dealing with the more immediate problems inherited from Bush like the recession, financial crisis, and Afghanistan.

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