Sunday, May 31, 2015

A modest proposal for cutting down the Republican field

Walter Shapiro has been covering presidential elections since Ronald Reagan was the hot new face in Washington. He thinks he knows how to solve the Republican conundrum, too many aspirants clamoring for too few debate minutes. If only the TV people would adopt it ...

No network, alas, would dare to embrace the ultimate free-market solution: Invite all the candidates to the debate and then after the introductions, the moderator would stroll off stage with these words, "I will be gone, but our cameras will be rolling for the next 90 minutes. Since you all see yourselves as leaders of the nation, you are invited to display your leadership skills by working out a fair way to debate the issues facing America."

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Nothing easy about it

In addition to Ai-Jen Poo's The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America which I wrote up yesterday, I've also been taking in another wise book about aging in this society and, in particular, the horrors of life in the "sandwich generation." Roz Chast, the wonderful New Yorker cartoonist, has given us Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir.

The decline, decay and deaths of Chast's parents had nothing easy about the process. They survived well into their nineties, and never got to a place in which they could have a realistic conversation about their situation. Dementia out ran them. Chast was left to cope as best she could with old age marked by successive emergencies and bumpy declines, none much planned for, nor much cushioned by reliable help from others or institutions.

I could identify with lots of Chast's story. Like Chast, I am an only child; my parents were a decade older than the parents of my age peers; their cultural and social assumptions often seemed to me to come from an alien planet; they lived in the same house for 50 years collecting oddments; and they did not look to medicine to help. However I had a huge advantage over Chast: my parents may have found me an implausible daughter, but they never tore me down. They were good at accepting that what is, is. This is a helpful attitude as we age.

I'm not going to try to summarize anything about Chast's very special cartoon and text creation, though I will say that the book's only character outside the painful parent/child relationship is a professional caregiver of the sort Ai-Jen Poo works with. She breaks through to a dying elder when her daughter can't.

Read it; it is even available for Kindle. (I got it from the library which involved waiting a year till I got to the top of the wait list. This was worth it.)

Here's a teaser -- Chast's pleasant fantasy of what we could wish would be there for elders in hospice when we get close to the end:

I wish that, at the end of life, when things were truly "done," there was something to look forward to. Something more pleasure-oriented. Perhaps opium or heroin. So you become addicted. So what? All-you-can-eat ice cream parlors for the extremely aged. Big art picture books and music. EXTREME palliative care, for when you've had it with everything else: the x-rays, the MRIs, the boring food, and the pills that don't do anything at all. Would that be so bad?

Friday, May 29, 2015

Towards a Caring Majority

Ai-Jen Poo's The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America presents a vision that brings together the frightening facts of the Boomer generation's mass aging into an unprepared and uninterested society with a Millennial generation member's more consensus-based than conflictual understanding of how we might get from where we are to somewhere much better.

Poo is a second generation immigrant, an instigator of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and a founder of the advocacy organization Caring Across Generations. The MacArthur Foundation named her a "genius" fellow. And she's a story teller.

She starts from her own story of how she, her family, and a devoted paid caregiver are addressing the needs of her aging mother. And she shares the story of how her aunt represents a very typical example of the inadequate "system" that is all we have to meet the needs of our exploding population of elders. Here's a picture of what happens when care falls on "the sandwich generation."

The bulk of care falls on one sibling, more often a daughter than a son. Women make up two-thirds of today's caregivers. The average caregiver for an older adult is a fifty-year old woman who provides nineteen hours of care per week -- essentially a part time job -- for an average of four years. Even when other relatives are involved, they generally do less than 10 percent of the work. ...

"I keep praying, 'Give me more patience, give me more love.' I know this is only temporary." My aunt is really hard on herself when she catches herself thinking about the inevitable moment when her mother passes on and no longer needs care. In fact, spoken or unspoken, a desire for the elder or sick relative to die is incredibly common among family caregivers....

... As grueling as my aunt's situation is, it pales in comparison to many of the stories I've heard from family caregivers. After all, my aunt has managed to keep her job, is able to hire professional caregivers for her mother, even receiving some support from the state of California, and must only -- only! -- do that work herself on weekends. Millions of Americans are less fortunate than she....

This situation is clearly neither fair to her aunt, nor sustainable for society.

There is no question we are failing today's American families. Our current system is a holdover from another time, when life expectancy was about sixty years and dementia was rare. It's from a time when the society relied on the uncompensated work of women who didn't hold jobs outside the home. It's from a time when the national ratio of elderly to young workers was radically different, making a more balanced inflow and outflow of government dollars for social programs. ...

While the elder boom translates to a number of grave challenges for family caregivers, and for the sandwich generation in particular, it's important to understand that the impacts of providing eldercare are not all negative, not by a long shot. Alongside words like "grueling," "isolating," and "exhausting," I hear things like "rewarding," "life-affirming," and "healing." ... The more we practice being allies to seniors, people with disabilities, and those members of our communities who rely on personal assistance and care both in and outside the home, the more fully human we become.

Poo then shifts to looking at elder care from the point of view of the vast numbers of people who are paid professional care givers.

Undeniably, the work is rooted in relationships and emotions. One way of understanding this is that the basic values that define all healthy relationships between people -- respect, humanity, accountability, dignity, empathy, and compassion -- also apply here. Nothing about the relational aspects of caregiving makes it any less of a real job. Caregiving is most definitely work: physically strenuous, rigorous work that requires discernment and flexibility. As with all forms of labor, you put in a hard day's work and you expect to be appreciated and compensated. You strive to do better and learn more, and expect to advance over the course of a full career. You take pride in your work and expect to be able to support your family.

Domestic workers have always been treated as a "special class" of workers; they have been "specially" undervalued as workers and excluded from labor laws since the New Deal. ... A significant step forward was made in 2013, when, as a result of our and many other organizations' efforts, the U.S. Department of Labor released a regulatory change that narrows the exclusion of "companions" from the Fair Labor Standards Act, so that nearly 2 million home care providers and caregivers will be covered under minimum wage and overtime protections ... After seventy-five years of exclusion, we're finally beginning to recognize and establish basic protections for care work.

This author is not afraid to grasp the nasty nettle that lurks within demographic descriptions when thinking about domestic workers: the role of immigration in filling these jobs. She's not at all reticent about stating the obvious: our country and economy needs and benefits from these foreign-born workers.

Immigration issues are inseparable from the issue of caregiving. ... Foreign-born women coming to the United States to provide caregiving are part of a larger pattern of international labor migration. Because farming no longer provides a sustainable livelihood in parts of the globe where it was once the primary means of survival, people there are forced to leave and find work in industrialized nations. ... Today it is difficult to imagine how the country would function without immigrants. Immigrants grow, harvest and package our food; they drive us to the airport, pump our gas, and serve and clear away our food in restaurants. They take care of the most precious elements of our lives -- our homes and families.

...between replacing retired workers and new workforce growth in the coming decades, we'll need more than 82 million people entering the workforce. Thirty-five to 40 percent of that workforce will have to come from first- and second-generation immigrants.... In fact, we are counting on immigrants not only to fill jobs as the baby boomers retire but also to buy houses, to buy other goods and services, to accumulate wealth, and to pay taxes.

The truth is, the diverse and growing aging population and the growing immigrant population in this country need each other. We have three times more families in need of care providers than our current workforce is able to support. There is no way to meet our need for care in this country without immigrants carrying a lot of the weight.

She believes the increasing population of elders, their families and friends, and their care-givers can form what she calls a "Caring Majority."

The task of building a more caring economy and a caring nation means we have to come together across differences in race, culture, class and generations in ways that this country has never seen. ...We have to engage all of the communities that are impacted by the elder boom: care workers, senior groups, disability rights advocates, women's organizations, unions, communities of faith, youth and students. This is the Caring Majority....I believe we have a Caring Majority in the United States; it's who we are -- who we were meant to be -- and it can provide the base of our power as we work together to create broad, accessible solutions that can work for all of us.

Poo clearly cares about elders. And she's heard the message that nearly all of us, given the chance to envision the context in which we'd prefer to age and die, want to stay in our homes as much as possible. She's trying to describe how that might be more possible, without either burning out our family members (if we have any) or taking advantage of the desperation of poor women forced into lousy, isolating jobs. She makes it believable that we could do better.

Yet somehow, the voices of elders themselves -- the people who need the Caring Majority most -- are the least heard in Poo's stories. I don't think we'd disagree with much (I certainly wouldn't) but the mushrooming elder constituency isn't likely to keep silent during the elder boom. Poo needs to incorporate our voices more audibly as well.

I'll close this with one more inspirational tidbit from an inspirational book:

Let's remember: people getting older is not a crisis; it's a blessing. We're living longer; the question is how we should live. As a country, we have to figure out how to embrace this demographic shift with grace.

Friday cat blogging

Sometimes it feels as if I'm being spied upon.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Nebraska ends the death penalty

But in California we get this:
H/t Marin Independent Journal.

California has not executed anyone since 2006. Last year a federal district judge ruled that the current system violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment by imposing a sentence that

“no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”

Some convicted death row inmates do die at San Quentin. A man sentenced in 1991 apparently committed suicide just last week.

Officials reported that since 1978 when California reinstated capital punishment, 66 condemned inmates have died from natural causes, 24 have committed suicide, 14 have been executed, and seven died from other causes. The causes of death are uncertain in four cases.

Nebraska legislators arrived at the decision to replace death sentences with life without parole for a variety of reasons. Some feared executing an innocent; some had moral objections; many saw the issue as one of costs to the state with no benefit. All those issues pertain exponentially in California. Isn't it time we caught up with Nebraska?

Both mean and stupid ...

By way of Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns and Money, I learn that the Los Angeles County Labor Federation has decided to cannibalize itself by way of the city's groundbreaking new $15 minimum wage law. WTF indeed?

Here's the story from the LA Times:

Labor leaders, who were among the strongest supporters of the citywide minimum wage increase approved last week by the Los Angeles City Council, are advocating last-minute changes to the law that could create an exemption for companies with unionized workforces.

... Rusty Hicks, who heads the county Federation of Labor and helps lead the Raise the Wage coalition, said Tuesday night that companies with workers represented by unions should have leeway to negotiate a wage below that mandated by the law.

"With a collective bargaining agreement, a business owner and the employees negotiate an agreement that works for them both. The agreement allows each party to prioritize what is important to them," Hicks said in a statement. "This provision gives the parties the option, the freedom, to negotiate that agreement. And that is a good thing."

Great. Join a union, pay dues to support Rusty Hicks, and you can earn less than you would in a non-union shop. Gee, after this move, I'm sure you'll rally around to defend the rights of labor next time our Republican dinosaurs put an initiative on the ballot to cut the heart out of labor power. (This happened most recently in 2012 for those with short memories.)

If like me you are not an Angeleno and never heard of him, you may ask, who is this Hicks? Apparently he's a former union political operative, elected at the end of last year to replace long-serving Maria Elena Durrazo. The County Fed does run a terrific election operation; I had privilege of working with it against the death penalty.

You'll be glad to know that, after winning his new job, he explained his intentions to the LA Times:

Among his highest priorities, Hicks said, will be to push forward a citywide minimum wage in Los Angeles, preferably of $15 an hour. He called the proposal "a huge opportunity and a huge challenge at the same time."

You are flunking the challenge, Mr. Hicks!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Gratuitous cruelty: we do these things because we can

For far too long, Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald has been doing bitter and worthy work, bringing the story of our gulag at Guantanamo to a forgetful nation.

Here's her latest dispatch:

Military bans Big Macs
... a new rule going into effect Wednesday at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba forbids food at legal conferences for the first time in a decade.

The prison says the ban is for health and safety reasons, but the move has been criticized by lawyers who argue that breaking bread has been crucial to the coexistence of American attorneys and their captive Guantánamo clients through years in legal limbo.

“It's actually quite tragic for the clients. Sometimes the food we bring is the only thing from the outside world they’ve seen in months, and they really look forward to it,” said attorney Alka Pradhan, who has brought to meetings, after military inspection, everything from Egg McMuffins and traditional Middle East sweets to fresh fruit and granola bars.

The lawyers point out that they are strangers representing men who have been yanked out of societies they knew and dumped into conditions without meaning or recourse. An Egg McMuffin from the base fast food joint or Middle Eastern sweets flown in with the lawyers can be vital in establishing confidence.

Fifty-seven of the remaining 122 prisoners have been cleared for release, many for years. As I write, it has been 734 days since President Obama renewed his pledge to close the prison in May 2013. The "military tribunals" judging the prisoners and other jerry-rigged pseudo-legal proceedings have ground to a halt, choked by their own absurdity. A significant fraction of the remaining prisoners can never be tried because we tortured them.

And now these men can't even get Big Macs during legal visits ...

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

World War I morsels by ear

When offered nearly 19 hours of recorded lectures on World War I: The Great War on sale for less than $7, I could hardly resist during this 100th anniversary. I had never heard of the "Great Courses" series this came from, but I'm glad I took the small risk.

Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius of the Universally of Tennessee provides a solid thematic survey in 36 half hour lectures. Oddly, each is prefaced and ended with the sound of an audience clapping. I don't ever remember applauding in any of my large lecture classes as an undergraduate, even for that famously spellbinding lecturer Carl Schorske. This survey is much stronger than it might have been because Liulevicius is a German speaking specialist in eastern European developments, just what most English speakers tend to underplay.

Some thoughts and themes from the lectures -- nothing new, but still interesting, at least to me:
  • At the beginning of the war in August 1914, all the belligerent parties insisted that they were acting in self-defense, even as they moved to set in motion war plans that put them on immediate offensives. Then as now, when public opinion matters at all to governments, wars must be sold as defensive, however absurd that might be in any rational calculus. Does anyone else remember when Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada to defend medical students on the Caribbean island?
  • The war became fully global because the Allies (France, Great Britain, and czarist Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) found themselves bogged down, particularly in the trenches on the Western Front in France. Neither side was winning. Hence the scramble to open new fronts as at Gallipoli in the Ottoman Empire (modern Turkey) and carry the war to imperial outposts all around the world. This created something like bidding wars to attract additional allies that usually carried with them territorial or other promises. Many of these had to be kept secret from the peoples whose futures were being traded about cavalierly.
  • Insofar as the core combatants pursued imperial designs through the conflict, these war aims contradicted their public declarations of fighting in righteous self-defense against aggressor enemies. In the multi-national states (Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) both victories and defeats unleashed pre-existing national tensions.
  • Despite popular fury over German U-Boat attacks on U.S. ships, it was not really possible to sell to the war to the U.S. population as necessary for defense of the homeland. Hence the war was marketed as a struggle to promote democracy. Interesting how durable that trope turned out to be ...
  • Once the U.S. joined the fray, the industrial strength of the Allies and their success at blockading German ports ensured their victory. By 1918, except for the United States, all the belligerents were near collapse. Russia and Austria-Hungary had already disintegrated. The German state was teetering -- and Britain and France were also depleted and broke after their immense exertions. The 1918 armistice was a measure of continental exhaustion; the German invaders in France were never dislodged, feeding the myth that Germany could somehow have fought on if leftists hadn't stabbed the state in the backed. The victorious Allies in the next war in 1945 were well aware of this dynamic, so from early on insisted that they would only accept total victory and unconditional surrender.
  • Liulevicius points out that for many eastern European national groups -- Poles, Czechs, Serbs, etc. -- the memory of the war is of the moment when they acquired sovereignty, at least for a few decades. Armistice Day (November 11), when the guns stopped firing on the western front, is still celebrated as Independence Day in Poland.
Lots to think about here and certainly worth 19 hours of listening.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day: so many wars, so many gone to be soldiers

Last fall during the bookapalooza, I found myself whiling away an afternoon in a tiny rural Wisconsin cemetery. The people of this place remember their menfolk by their wars, even if they died years after serving.

The dates of these two suggest their war was the Rebellion, the Civil War. Wisconsin raised 91,000 soldiers for the Union Army, one in two eligible voters (all male in those days.) Thirteen percent died in the war.

In the World War I era, the troops of the Wisconsin National Guard first served along the Mexican border, chasing the revolutionary Pancho Villa in 1916. A total of about 120,000 state residents, including some women among the nurses, served in the European war after U.S. entry in 1917.

There are not so many World War II vets buried here. Perhaps they made their subsequent lives elsewhere -- or are even still alive. The Wisconsin Veterans Museum reports:

°332,200 Wisconsinites served in WWII: 9,300 women and 322,900 men.

°8,149 Wisconsinites died while in the Armed Forces, 48 of them at Pearl Harbor.

°13,600 Wisconsinites were wounded.

°15 Wisconsin men were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions during WWII.

I saw only one grave of a veteran of Vietnam.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Coming out, electoral persuasion and academic lying

The tale of a political science experiment published last December in Science and then retracted last week fascinates me.

If you missed it, Michael J. LaCour and Donald P. Green originally reported that that

a short conversation with a gay canvasser appeared to significantly nudge California voters in a pro-gay-marriage direction, but that the effects were contagious within those voters' households and lasted at least nine months — the final point at which the researchers checked in with the study participants via online surveys.

A professor at Columbia, Green pioneered ground breaking experiments looking at what really happens in electoral mobilizations. Most of what he's written has seemed consistent with my experience of field organizing tactics. I've written about this at some length here and here.

But now it turns out that the UCLA graduate student who was the primary researcher on this particular study can't produce the data that backs up its conclusion. According to a "bewildered" Green, the reported canvassing by gay and straight canvassers was done -- twice. But LaCour has not shown any data from the supposed follow-up questioning evaluating the effect of these contacts. Most likely that step never happened. Subsequent researchers aiming to build on this experiment couldn't get any answers. The thing is FUBAR.

One reality I've always pointed out about Green's (and his various excellent collaborators') research is that it has been better at telling us what election workers can do to increase turnout (who votes) than at how to accomplish successful persuasion (getting people to vote your way.) The former can be evaluated by checking the lists of who voted after the election -- that information is in the public domain. But you can't know in most cases how they cast their ballots -- that is secret. This study seemed to have made a breakthrough in persuasion, except that the measuring never happened.

I can easily understand why the faked "results" seemed plausible. For literally decades, it has been axiomatic among gay activists that confronting our heterosexual neighbors with the fact of our orientation, in a friendly and respectful way, is the best course to move them toward acceptance.
  • As early as 1978, I remember being gripped by Amber Hollibaugh's tales of carrying her message to rural and suburban areas against Prop. 6 which sought to fire gay teachers. Against the advice of cautious political consultants, the group she was affiliated with insisted on putting their queer identities front and center. And they believed they'd made a dent in unconsidered homophobia. She later told that story in My Dangerous Desires. Somehow we won that round.
  • Anyone who has been trained in organizing in the last fifteen years has encountered (and usually practiced) the personal story telling methodology of Marshall Ganz, the legendary organizer who honed his craft with Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers before going on to the Kennedy School of Government and the first Obama campaign.
  • As far as I could discern from afar, after losing a referendum vote in 2009, marriage equality campaigners in Maine emphasized this personal story methodology in contacts during their successful initiative effort in 2012.
  • Above all, hasn't brave, repeated, ongoing "coming out" by all sorts of us gay and lesbian individuals been the essential motor of our progress toward a more normal life in U.S. society over the last 40 years? Sure it has, and that made the study seem plausible.
Except it wasn't really. The supposed effects were simply too large to credit easily, so others attempted to repeat them -- and discovered they still can't quantify persuasion.
I asked Erudite Partner how this faked study could have been published? How could LeCour have thought no one would try to replicate it? The EP is my source on all things academic. She says:

Studies are hardly ever replicated. He had no reason to think anyone would try. Budding researchers all want to publish their own new and exciting work, not check someone else's.

But this study seemed to have valuable real world implications, so someone was bound to replicate it -- or at least to build on it. And when they did, the false underpinnings showed up.

Green claims, highly plausibly, to have been deceived into endorsing it because all the apparatus of the research -- the initial canvassing and the re-contacting -- seemed sound. But the second step didn't apparently happen. Green too wanted his name on the breakthrough. His weight in the field gave the story additional heft.

Duke University sociologist Kieran Healy has pointed out that this electoral organizing study is particularly pernicious pseudo-science.

That paper got a lot of public attention, and people both heard about it and tried to learn from it. ...perhaps LeCour was ... like an undergraduate plagiarist who suddenly finds, to his horror, that his copied paper has won a university prize. It doesn’t much matter to me. But social science can have real consequences for people’s lives...

Apparently the YES organizers in Ireland adopted the "insights" of this study; fortunately, Ireland apparently didn't need the extremely strong effects from the emergence of gay neighbors that the study promised. "Coming out" -- introducing ourselves to the community -- clearly does work and did work in Ireland. How deeply and over what time frame has not been measured as conclusively as we were told.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Women walking for peace have just crossed the Korean DMZ

My friend Christine Ahn (explaining in the video) has been organizing -- and taking shit -- for this project for at least a year. In the last hour, they've done it.

As reported at CBS News, she had recruited two dozen walkers who included two Nobel Peace laureates -- Mairead Maguire, who shared the 1976 Nobel prize for her work toward ending the conflict in Northern Ireland, and Leymah Gbowee, who was recognized in 2011 for her role in the Liberian peace movement -- as well as U.S. peace luminaries including Gloria Steinem, Medea Benjamin, and Cora Weiss.

Both South and North Korea had their doubts; nobody crosses that line. After six decades, there still is no peace between the divided segments of the country. The so-called "Demilitarized Zone" is instead a forest of defenses on both sides. South Korea's U.S. backers were not enthusiastic. Interestingly, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon endorsed the effort. This crazy woman's idea of showing that barriers need not be permanent is attractive and perhaps can become potent. Something has to give ...

Saturday scenes and scenery: Devils Slide tunnel and trail

Back in the days when Northern California had wet and wild winters, there was one constant. During some storm, part of Montara Mountain would come sliding down on to Route 1, the Coast Highway, cutting off the main way between Pacifica and the beach towns -- Montara, Moss Beach and Half Moon Bay. Caltrans, the agency in charge of such things for the state, had a solution: they would build a four lane road through the ranch lands behind the coast and escape the annual earth moving project. Coastal residents had a better idea: they said "Think Tunnel." And so began a prolonged tussle over planning of the sort the Bay Area is famous for.

For years my friend Clark Natwick, printer-of-choice to many Bay Area progressives, churned out these bummer stickers. (I notice that on this commemorative specimen, Caltrans has left off the union bug which Clark would certainly have affixed.) Citizens screamed and lobbied. They won the support of Congressman Tom Lantos -- at length they prevailed. The tunnels (parallel bores going opposite directions) were built and named for the Congressman, now deceased.

Once the new passage was opened, coastsiders got a bonus: a developed new path along the route of the old highway.

It's just as lovely as you might expect and fully accessible to walkers and bicycles.

It's easy to understand what Caltrans was up against.

The gentleman on the trail had set up a scope to scan the cliff for nesting shore birds.

In the spring, the wildflowers are hardy and prolific.

We do live in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Ireland votes on same-sex marriage today

Gotta say for the Irish, they have great ads.

The polls look good. Some developments are just jaw dropping. The collapse of the influence of the Roman Catholic Church on that island in the wake of sex abuse scandal is a terrible witness what misuse of authority can do to legitimacy. Rulers take note!

UPDATE: There are some very happy gay folks and friend the day after in Ireland.

Friday cat blogging

When Morty feels I am paying inadequate attention, he attempts to remedy this oversight by settling on my lap. This works as it usually requires one hand to ensure he doesn't fall off. That leaves one hand for patting.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Homegrown monsters

The assertion in Stephen Kinzer's The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War that haunts me is this:

Even after lifetimes serving the case of economic colonialism, Foster and Allen considered themselves anti-colonial. They rationalized their use of violence with the conviction that their cause -- the once-in-a-millenium confrontation between civilization and barbarism -- was so transcendent that it justified any extreme. Many Americans agreed.

I remember bathing in that myth in my childhood. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles loomed over us under the Eisenhower administration in the shadow of the Soviet bomb. We were taught by the media that this strange buttoned up man was standing between us and the mushroom cloud. I don't remember doubting, but I don't remember feeling reassured either. According to this book, Dulles didn't want us reassured; if we had been, we might not have thought we needed his threats, posturing, and pampering of regional dictators.

Stephen Kinzer has been chronicling the U.S. proclivity for meddling in and overturning faraway governments for an entire journalistic career. During the Central American wars of the 1980s, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala was an essential text for anti-intervention activists. All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (curiously only available on Kindle and in large print) covers the necessary background to understand current hostility between the U.S. and Iran. He summarized the consequence of that 1953 operation:

...[the C.I.A. sponsored-coup against an elected leader] taught tyrants and aspiring tyrants there that the world's most powerful governments were willing to tolerate limitless oppression as long as oppressive regimes were friendly to the West and to Western oil companies.

More recently, he tried to envision how U.S. relations with the long suffering powers of the Middle East and Central Asia might be organized differently in Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future.

In the The Brothers he tells the history of the two men who, together, for several decades accomplished consolidation of U.S. empire. Allen was the rather unreflective rake who invented the post-World War II C.I.A. John Foster should have been a Methodist preacher; instead he had license under Eisenhower to try to impose his version of the American Dream on an unwilling world by any means short of war. Both men had been Wall Street lawyers when not in government. They had no doubt that they were doing good by making their clients and themselves wealthy men, by suppressing godless Communism and any other stirrings of independent development among the world's natives. They had no qualms about their own paternalism, racism and promotion of exploitation in the service of greed. They would have been right at home with a George W. Bush aide, most likely Karl Rove, who told a writer: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality...."

At this distance, the picture is sickening. Kinzer doesn't want to let us his U.S. readers off the hook easily.

The half century of history that has unfolded since Foster and Allen passed from the scene suggests that they share responsibility for much that has gone wrong in the world. The blame however does not end with them. To gaze at their portraits and think, "They did it," would be reassuring. It would also be unfair. Americans who seek to understand the roots of their country's trouble in the world should not look at Foster and Allen's portraits but in a mirror.

Foster and Allen exemplified the nation that produced them. ...

The story of the Dulles brothers is the story of America. Their determination to project power was the same impulse that pushed settlers across prairies and over mountains, wrested rich territories from Mexico, crushed Native American resistance, and drew the United States into wars from Central America to Siberia. It remains potent. As long as Americans believe their country has vital interests everywhere on earth, they will be led by people who believe the same.

Kinzer is not wrong here. This book, and his entire oeuvre, put us in a harsh and accurate light.

But there are other U.S. histories that could lead to other stories. John Quincy Adams comes to mind.

America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all. ...

As empire declines and world power rebalances, just maybe we can nurture that strain in our past.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Yes, Obamacare is working: more time for the kids

How many people have you known who have delayed retirement or stayed in an awful job years longer than they hoped to because they couldn't trust they could get health insurance if they left? In how many families are parents caring for young kids but neither parent can shift to part-time, not only because of needing the income, but also because any cut back would screw up their health coverage? If you are like me, many!

Well, there is beginning to be evidence that the "job lock" created by our strange national practice of tying insurance to employment (other countries don't do this) is weakening as we get used to Obamacare.

Thanks to the economic recovery, the percentage of workers forced involuntarily into part-time jobs is falling. But, concurrently, the number in voluntary part-time work is rising. Economist Dean Baker explained at Mother Jones:

... voluntary part-time employment ... is up by 5.7 percent in the first four months of 2015 compared to 2013. This corresponds to more than 1 million people who have chosen to work part-time. We did some analysis of who these people were and found that it was overwhelmingly a story of young parents working part-time.

There was little change or an actual decline in the percentage of workers over the age of 35 who were working part-time voluntarily. There was a modest increase in the percentage of workers under age 35, without children, working part-time voluntarily. There was a 10.2 percent increase in the share of workers under the age of 35, with one to two kids, working part-time. For young workers with three of more kids the increase was 15.4 percent.

Based on these findings it appears that Obamacare has allowed many young parents the opportunity to work at part-time jobs so that they could spend more time with their kids. ...

Baker says there is not enough evidence yet to tell whether Obamacare is enabling early retirement or more self-employment. But the signs are good ... even if the media neglect to tell you.

H/t Joan McCarter at DailyKos.

The world is more than ready for us to kick the habit

I write thoughts like these often enough, but I don't expect them from a "respectable" senior writer at The American Prospect.
Why Everyone Wants the Military Budget to Be Bigger
... What's most alarming when hearing the Republicans [the aspiring presidents] talk is how removed their guiding principles are from reality. "Having a military equal to any threat," said Jeb Bush in a recent speech, "makes it less likely we will have to put our men and women in uniform in harm's way. I believe that weakness invites war." That seems to make some sense, until you stop and think about it for a moment.

Can you name me the war the United States had to fight because our military wasn't big enough? Iraq? Afghanistan? Panama? Grenada? Vietnam? We start wars when we want to, and nobody in this world is going to wage war on the global hegemon because they think our defense budget is so small they can defeat us bullet-for-bullet.

... So let's be honest: We build our military not to deal with threats to us, but to accommodate the myriad ways we'd like to project American power outward. Though we've referred to our military as "defense" since the Department of War was renamed in 1949, almost nothing our military does is about defending the United States from direct attack. If you joined up tomorrow, the chances that you'd be trained and deployed to stop foreign invasion would be almost nil.

... So how about some honesty for a change? We spend so much on our military not because that's what we need to avoid war, but because that's what we need to wage war. Whether you think any one of those wars is right or wrong, it's what we do. It's what we've done before, and it's what we're going to do again.
What I have learned in years of political struggle is that you have to be able to name what is going on before you can change anything. So I take it as progress that Paul Waldman is naming our imperial addiction.

And her record says Hillary is no less addicted than the Republican gaggle. She might, however, be smarter.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A politician with no redeeming features

Robert A. Caro characterizes the big man who is the subject of his monumental multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson as possessed of a character woven of "bright threads" of accomplishment in service of citizens needing government help and "dark threads" of ruthlessness, deceit, and deception in service of personal ambition. Means of Ascent, the second volume, describes the years between Johnson's defeat in a Texas Senate run in 1941 and his successful theft of a Senate seat in 1948.

The two threads do not run side by side in this volume.

Here Caro chronicles how Johnson made himself a rich man in the radio (and later television) business by selling his influence with the FCC; how Johnson escaped any hazardous service beyond one brief visit to a combat zone during the World War, a national crisis he seems to have viewed as an irritating interruption of his ambitions; and how he stole the Senate seat he lusted after through voting buying, ballot box stuffing, a campaign of lies, and contempt for law in 1948. This Lyndon Johnson had no discernible redeeming features.

Elections junkie that I am, I found the description of Johnson's successful Senate campaign quite fascinating. He pioneered a new kind of politics: a big money politics (his construction and oil backers gave their all, legally and illegally), a technological politics, a media politics. His mantra was what anyone who works for a candidate wants to hear: "Do absolutely everything and you win." He drove himself into a hospital bed; if anything he drove his abused staffers even harder. This is the sort of mindset that an election campaign requires. And yes, it also is what leads to staff and candidates crossing all sorts of legal and ethical lines. We can hope that legal restraints constrain to this form of semi-civilized warfare; sometimes the boundaries don't hold and Lyndon Johnson's crimes against honest democracy were egregious.

As well, reading about this campaign, I ended up glad that Johnson's opponent Coke Stevenson did not occupy a Senate seat for 18 or even 24 mid-20th century years. Stevenson was an honest rock-ribbed conservative, an admirable human being, and a man who was not going to grow with the world around him. He would have been a boulder implanted in the Senate, an impediment to racial progress and to all change, to any new ways of thinking and doing. Johnson was a political opportunist as well as sociopathically ambitious. He was complicated. Stevenson was not. We the people were almost certainly better served by the convoluted character of the power-hungry Texas Senator than we could have been by the good man.
This will be my last crack at Caro's Johnson biography for awhile. I've read all four of the currently extant volumes. For anyone curious about Caro's project, I recommend particularly Master of the Senate, still a useful description of that exclusive club for the all the changes since.

Whether there will be more on Caro's project here will depend on whether he manages to carry the story of Lyndon Johnson's contradictions through the Voting Rights Act, on to Vietnam, and a through a shortened presidency. When this part comes out, it will be fascinating. I hope Caro lives to finish it.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Might campaign volunteers do more harm than good?

Political scientist Seth Masket discusses a paper about electoral organizing that asks an interesting question:

... could some volunteers actually end up hurting the campaign?

....It's hard to beat the sophistication with which modern campaigns match an ad to its intended target. ...But it's an entirely different story when it comes to recruiting campaign volunteers. Campaigns can't build canvassers the way they can manufacture television ads; they're dependent on the available pool of local volunteers. Who actually volunteers to give up their time to walk precincts and knock on doors in the weeks prior to an election? It's really not your average American. It's hard enough to get the average American to vote in most elections.

... those who will actually offer their labor tend to be somewhat wealthier, whiter, more educated, and more liberal than the electorate as a whole. ... What's more, the volunteers often aren't from the same area to which they're being deployed. ... [this] means that these volunteers will be canvassing in neighborhoods where nobody knows them and in which they don't know any of the local customs or cultural touch-points.

He goes on to point out the tough fact: even wildly successful door to door campaigns only move the needle in elections a percentage point or maybe two. So if there is a risk that mismatched canvassers can deliver a "wrong" or unwelcome message, is it worth recruiting and sending them out?

My decades of working in campaigns suggest a number of thoughts.
  • Better "data" -- better information about who the potential supporters on voter lists are -- has enabled more sophisticated messaging. But this stuff is still not all that sophisticated. Maybe you'll succeed in targeting Cantonese or Spanish communications to household where someone speaks the language, but often you'll get it wrong or the non-English language is not the preferred mode of communication by voters in the household. Maybe you'll remind a church goer of why the teachings of their faith support your position; but maybe such reminders merely annoy them because Father is so pushy with the kids. Appropriate, appealing messaging isn't easy.
  • As current rules increasingly encourage people with money to burn to play in campaigns, voters are deluged in propaganda -- mailers, robocalls, TV ads. They become immune to most of it. The consultants who order, design, and produce the various ads make out like bandits; the candidate or cause, not so much so.
  • Academic research has given us a pretty clear idea of the only people-intensive tactics that have any impact on overcoming inertia among most non-habitual voters. Door knocking can work; less so, but still sometimes worthwhile, are phone calls (especially before harassed targets start refusing to answer.) Both are much more effective when the campaign volunteers and operatives doing them are neighbors of the targets. But how to talk with voters can be taught, if campaigns can use their polling to condense their messages to simple points and then invest the time to train volunteers to use them, including practice. Volunteers need to internalize the important points, beyond just reading a script. This is possible (if you have a sensible message to deliver) but it takes effort and time.
  • Because all this is hard and expensive, the temptation is for campaigns to avoid the messy business of attracting and training volunteers. Why not just depend on ads and perhaps a few paid canvassers? I think this is a mistake. Campaign organizers should think of the volunteer program as a kind of message delivery which operates on a different level than other communications. Every volunteer you turn out is embedded in a social network. Phone programs using Facebook data can help you call through targeted voters' social networks; every individual you recruit introduces you into his/her social network directly. Even if you get the wrong people to send to particular doors, you spread the campaign simply by drawing in individuals to help.
  • What to do with people who seem to be the "wrong" messengers? Remember that some of them will do fine if trained. Yes it takes smarts and tact to figure this out. Some volunteers can do this, by the way. Put others to work on something besides door-knocking. Use them to drive the right messengers who are knocking on the doors to their targets and to deliver water and refreshments. Send them out to beg stores for the refreshments. If really stuck, use them to wave signs strategically (there's no evidence this gets out your vote, but it seldom does harm.) And make them into recruiters of yet more volunteers on the phones. Every volunteer is worthwhile, because the sheer volume of volunteer activity moves your campaign deeper into the real world social networks of communities.
It's easy to get sick of the permanent campaigns into which U.S. democracy has devolved. With all the money, glitz, and phony posturing, it can be actually repulsive. But democracy only works when people participate in it. We can make it possible for people to do that well and effectively.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

When the law puts a thumb on the scale of justice

A federal jury in Boston has ruled for execution for the Boston marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Apparently Bostonians are surprised and a little shocked according to the New York Times.

To many, the death sentence almost feels like a blot on the city’s collective consciousness. To the amazement of people elsewhere, Bostonians overwhelmingly opposed condemning the bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, to death. The most recent poll, conducted last month for The Boston Globe, found that just 15 percent of city residents wanted him executed. Statewide, 19 percent did. By contrast, 60 percent of Americans wanted Mr. Tsarnaev to get the death penalty, according to a CBS News poll last month.

... At the site of the bombing, Jessica Brown, an editor for a technology company, stared at the finish line while a companion from out of state took a photograph. The sentence had taken her, too, by surprise.

“I really thought they were going to do life in prison,” said Ms. Brown, who expressed some philosophical doubt about the death penalty.

“It raises the question of, should we react to murder with murder?” she said.

... The jury was “death qualified” -- each juror had to be open to the death penalty; anyone who opposed it could not serve.

It's worth saying that again: so long as the law makes the option of a death sentence possible, the law requires all jurors to swear they could impose such a sentence, if they find a defendant guilty of an offense for which the law makes death the penalty.

Obviously, this legal requirement has pronounced effects on trials. Here are some findings from Brooke Butler who has studied opinions and attitudes that are more commonly found among "death qualified" jurors.

The death qualification process is extremely unusual. Jurors in non-capital cases are prohibited from hearing about post-conviction penalties, as exposure to this information has been deemed to be prejudicial. However, in capital voir dire [jury questioning], the focus of jury selection is drawn away from the presumption of innocence and onto post-conviction events [what penalty the defendant might be given]....

Death-qualified jurors are very different from their excludable counterparts. ...death-qualified jurors are more likely to be male, Caucasian, moderately well-educated, politically conservative, Catholic or Protestant, and middle-class ...

Death-qualified jurors are also more likely to espouse legal authoritarian beliefs. Legal authoritarians are more likely to feel that the rights of the government outweigh the rights of the individual with respect to legal issues and are more likely to be conviction- and death-prone than their civil-libertarian counterparts .... Legal authoritarians are also more receptive to aggravating circumstances and less receptive to mitigating circumstances...

Death qualified jurors are attitudinally distinguishable from ... jurors ineligible for capital jury service. Death-qualified jurors are more likely to be racist, sexist, and homophobic ...

Death-qualified jurors are also more susceptible to the pretrial publicity that surrounds capital cases .... They are more affected by the victim impact statements that occur during the sentencing phase of capital trials ...

Most importantly, death qualified jurors are behaviorally different from their excludable counterparts: Death-qualified jurors are more likely to find capital defendants guilty and sentence them to death. This pro-conviction, pro-death bias has been found in death-qualified jurors' evaluations of both adult and juvenile defendants ... .

Tsarnaev is no angel, but can we really say that, in Boston, he was judged by a jury of his peers?

Saturday, May 16, 2015

To be filed under cupidity or stupidity?

This is what you get when smart psy-ops contractors try to sell the U.S. military on the notion that women might have a stake in reducing violent opposition.

When we see menacing images of men dressed in black wielding swords we should recognize that educated women might be their un-doing. And they know it. That is why Boko Haram abducted over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls. That is why fourteen-year-old year old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the face on her way to school — not just anywhere but symbolically — on her way to school. That is why acid attacks target girls attending school rather than girls in brothels. It is the potential danger that educated girls represent that scares extremists most.

Educated women and girls have the potential to do what drones, bullets and boots on the ground cannot do; they can counter extremism from the inside. Therefore, the U.S. and its allies should adopt an approach that empowers women on the ground in conflict zones to preempt and counter violent extremism. Instead of viewing women in war zones only as victims, we should view them in an irregular warfare context as potentially powerful allies.

... Aligning U.S. security interests and the security interests of women in conflict zones, establishes a platform to develop strategies and programs to empower women and counter extremism. ...

Well, maybe. Women, educated or not, do want peace and security. Actually, so do most men.

But I still suspect that the first instinct of most women where our warriors (of both sexes) are implanted might be to wish the foreigners would stop shooting and go away. The second instinct sometimes is to shoot back.

Photo of a Nicaraguan historical mural showing locals in revolt against U.S. adventurer William Walker's attempt to make himself a pro-slavery president of the Central American country in 1856.

Poet, priest, and political polemicist

Just arrived from Nicaragua, Father Ernesto Cardenal read a few of his poems at the University of San Francisco last night.

Cardenal is 90 years old and not much for walking, but mentally active and still outraged by injustice.

The Nicaraguan also sometimes seemed simply amused. He was introduced as perhaps the most important living figure in Latin American literature; since the death of Eduardo Galeano that seems right.

Here's an English rendering of one of the poems he read:

My friend Michel is an army officer
in Somoto up near the Honduran border,
and he told me he had found some contraband parrots
waiting to be smuggled to the United States
to learn to speak English there.

There were 186 parrots
with 47 already dead in their cages.
He drove them back where they’d been taken from
and as the lorry approached a place known as The Plains
near the mountains which were these parrots’ home
(behind those plains the mountains stand up huge)
the parrots got excited, started beating their wings
and shoving against their cage-sides.

When the cages were let open
they all shot out like an arrow shower
straight for their mountains.

The Revolution did the same for us I think:
It freed us from the cages
where they trapped us to talk English,
it gave us back the country
from which we were uprooted,
their green mountains restored to the parrots
by parrot-green comrades.

But there were 47 that died.


At the reception before the reading, Erudite Partner engaged the poet:

Follow this link for photos from the community Padre Ernesto founded on Solentiname Island in Lake Nicaragua. The proposed Chinese-built canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific threatens the ecological health of the lake and the entire country. Father Ernesto is wroth about what he sees as a corrupt sell-off by his government of the health and beauty of his country.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Friday cat blogging: Mission reverie

Cats like to play with their prey. Encountered on Valencia Street.

Friday cat blogging

Morty's favorite entertainment is tormenting Carly, the pit bull who lives next door. No amount of barking, tail wagging, or jumping against the thick glass of the door evokes visible reaction from the cat.

When he's through exercising the dog, it's time for a nap.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Call me easily amused if you like ...

but I'm delighted by these gay themed pedestrian signals recently installed in Vienna, Austria.