Tuesday, May 31, 2005

BUSH ON STEM CELLS Who said the filibuster is dead? Here's the President at today's press conference:
QUESTION: Last week, you made clear that you don't think there's any such thing as a spare embryo.

Given that position, what is your view of fertility treatments that routinely create more embryos that never result in full-term pregnancies? And what do you believe should be done with those embryos that never do become pregnancies or result in the birth of a child?

BUSH: As you know, I also had an event here at the White House with little babies that had been born as a result of the embryos that had been frozen -- they're called snowflakes--indicating there was an alternative to destruction of life.

But the stem cell issue is really one of federal funding. That's the issue before us. And that is whether or not we use taxpayers' monies to destroy life in order to hopefully find cure for terrible disease. And I have made my position very clear on that issue, and that is, I don't believe we should.

Now, I made a decision a while ago that said there had been some existing stem cells and therefore it was OK to use federal funds on those because the life decision had already been made.

But from that point going forward I felt it was best to stand on principle, and that is, taxpayers' monies for the use of experimentation that would destroy life is a principle that violates something I -- I mean, is a position that violates a principle of mine.

And I stand strong on that, to the point where I'll veto the bill as it now exists.

And having said that, it's important for the American people to know that there is some federal research going on on embryonic stem cells today. There's been over 600 experiments based upon the stem cell lines that existed prior to my decision. There's another 3,000 potential experiments they tell me that can go forward. There's a lot of research going on on adult stem cell research.

We got an ethics panel that has been -- that is in place that will help us hopefully develop ways to continue to figure out how to meet the demands of science and the need for ethics, so that we can help solve some of these diseases.

And listen, I understand the folks that are deeply concerned for their child who might have juvenile diabetes. I know that the moms and dads across the country -- in agony about the fate of their child. And my message to them is is that there is research going on, and hopefully we'll find the cure, but at the same time, it's important in this society to balance ethics and science.
Talk about a non-answer...

FELT WAS THROAT? Vanity Fair says he was.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

KRUGMAN FIGHTS BACK From Sunday's New York Times:
In Daniel Okrent's parting shot as public editor of The New York Times, he levied a harsh charge against me: he said that I have "a disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults."

He offered no examples of my "disturbing habit," and maybe I should stop there: surely it's inappropriate for the public editor to attack the ethics of one of the paper's writers without providing any supporting evidence. He responded to my request for examples with criticisms of specific columns. Those criticisms were simply wrong: in each of those columns I played entirely fair with my readers, using the standard data in the standard way.

That should be the end of the story.

I want to go back to doing what I have been doing all along: using economic data to inform my readers.

Princeton, N.J., May 24, 2005
Good for him. (Here's the link.)

Okrent and Krugman will trade more words about Okrent's smear sometime next week here.

Friday, May 27, 2005

THE LONG MARCH In this post, Billmon eviscerates the administration's song and dance on democracy promotion by juxtaposing a few choice quotes.

If freedom is indeed, "on the march" as the President is fond of saying, it's a march that may take a very long time to cover any real ground.

NOSTALGIA FRIDAY Daniel Drezner posts an homage to Frank Gorshin, who played the Riddler in the 1960s BATMAN television series. He pays special attention to Gorshin's awesome Riddler suit, pictured here.

And I always thought I was the only seven-year-old out there enthralled by the Riddler's wardrobe.

Anyone else?

SMELLS LIKE HOLY SPIRIT Who said there's a conflict between captialism and Christianity?

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

MOVIE OF THE MONTH NASHVILLE got shut out of Time magazine's recent list of the top 100 movies of all time. And my sense is it gets less respect--and has less cultural currency--than other landmark films of the 1970s.

Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that it's difficult to get people to sit down and actually watch the movie: NASHVILLE sports an odd, off-putting dvd cover image; it clocks in at about 150 minutes; and the film's title doesn't exactly have the punch of BADLANDS or CHINATOWN.

But NASHVILLE deserves to be seen--and not just because Robert Altmans's directorial approach is groundbreaking.

The film also happens to have a lot to say about where we are, currently, as a nation: Made in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, it takes as its subject (however obliquely) the state of America. The country's political and cultural situation is explored through an examination of five days in the the lives of two-dozen characters tied to Nashville's country music scene.

The tone is frequently sardonic, but Altman isn't pushing any simple message. And what he achieves is more interesting and complicated than a lampoon of the country music industry.

In fact, the humor--to the extent it has a target--seems to be aimed at the very idea of the United States.

Monday, May 23, 2005

NUCLEAR WATCH Something for nothing. That's the only way to describe the deal reached today to avert the nuclear option.

Nuclear option supporters get floor votes on the President's most controversial nominees--there's your "something." But what do opponents get? A worthless guarantee that the nuclear option is off the table as long as judicial filibusters are restricted to "extraordinary circumstances."

Why is that guarantee worthless?

Because it leaves some of the very people who have debased the institution by backing the nuclear option in a position to judge what constitutes "extraordinary." Here's Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH):

Some of you who are looking at the language may wonder what some of the clauses mean. The understanding is--and we don’t think this will happen--but if an individual senator believes in the future that a filibuster is taking place under something that’s not extraordinary circumstances, we of course reserve the right to do what we could have done tomorrow which is to cast a yes vote for the constitutional option.
It's not difficult to see how this unfolds.
1) The President forwards the Senate an extreme Supreme Court nominee; 2) Democrats, citing the nominee's radical record and the recent agreement, filibuster the nominee; 3) Republicans charge that Democrats have broken the agreement, and threaten to engage the nuclear option.
Then we're right back where we started. Except that in the meantime, Democrats have allowed votes on three radical nominees.

They've kicked the nuclear option fight down the road--and bribed its power-hungry proponents for the privilege.

It's a classic something for nothing.

UPDATE: A prescient Josh Marshall said much the same thing (more succinctly) last week:

If the filibuster is 'saved' today at the cost of letting the most constitutionally noxious nominees go through, do we really imagine that the pressure [on nuclear option opponents] will be any less when we get into a Supreme Court battle? The question answers itself. If they can't withstand the pressure now, they certainly won't be able to withstand it then. So such a deal, as near as I can figure it, would 'save' the filibuster in an entirely meaningless way, a right the minority would continue to hold so long as they agree never to use it.
UPDATE UPDATE: Most Senate Democrats have spent the day spinning the press. But Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) is having none of it:
This is not a good deal for the U.S. Senate or for the American people. Democrats should have stood together firmly against the bullying tactics of the Republican leadership abusing their power as they control both houses of Congress and the White House. Confirming unacceptable judicial nominations is simply a green light for the Bush administration to send more nominees who lack the judicial temperament or record to serve in these lifetime positions. I value the many traditions of the Senate, including the tradition of bipartisanship to forge consensus. I do not, however, value threatening to disregard an important Senate tradition, like occasional unlimited debate, when necessary. I respect all my colleagues very much who thought to end this playground squabble over judges, but I am disappointed in this deal.

Friday, May 20, 2005

NUCLEAR WATCH The clock is now ticking:
After a third day of debate on one of President Bush's most controversial judicial nominees, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) filed a cloture motion to end the debate and put the nomination to a vote. The cloture vote, scheduled for Tuesday, would trigger a series of steps leading to the "nuclear option" -- unless a bipartisan group of moderate senators succeeds in negotiating a compromise to head it off.
Looks like Tuesday's the day.

NUCLEAR WATCH The nuclear option's prospects are fluid. But for those keeping score at home, here's our sense of where things stand:
FOR: 45 Republicans.

AGAINST: 44 Democrats, 1 independent and Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-Rhode Island).

UNDECIDED: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Sen. John Sununu (R-New Hampshire) Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania), Sen. John Warner (R-Virginia), Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio)., Sen. Pat Roberts ( R-Kansas).
And here's a column posted over at The American Prospect making the case that Sen. John Warner (R-VA) is the key swing vote.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

NUCLEAR WATCH Assume the nuclear option succeeds: What's next for its supporters? It's a question Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) asked on the floor of the Senate today. And he's not the only one asking.

One step nuclear option suporters are sure to explore is extending the nuclear option to all presidential nominations.

Consider: The pro-nuclear position, right now, is that the filibuster is unconstitutional only when it comes to judicial nominees.

But that argument isn't just laughable--it's more or less incoherent.

Take a look at the relevant clause from the Constitution:

Article 2, Section 2, Clause 2: He [the President] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for.
So how, after reading this language, do you conclude that the filibuster is unconstitutional in the case of judicial nominees but constitutionally permissible when it comes to "Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls"?

I've yet to hear a Republican defense of that tortured bit of constitutional interpretation. But I'd love to see someone take a stab at it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

NUCLEAR HIGHLIGHT From earlier today, courtesy of Brad DeLong, who's been reading Think Progress:
SEN. SCHUMER: Isn't it correct that on March 8, 2000, my colleague [Sen. Frist] voted to uphold the filibuster of Judge Richard Paez?

Here was Frist's response:

The president, the um, in response, uh, the Paez nomination--we'll come back and discuss this further.... Actually I'd like to, and it really brings to what I believe--a point--and it really brings to, oddly, a point, what is the issue. The issue is we have leadership-led partisan filibusters that have, um, obstructed, not one nominee, but two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, in a routine way.
Here's the video.


Tuesday, May 17, 2005

NUCLEAR WATCH Supporters of the nuclear option tend to pepper their arguments with appeals to "democratic" values: The filibuster, they contend, thwarts the will of the American people; it undermines basic majoritarian principles; it allows a relatively small number of senators to hold the Senate hostage.

The most powerful formulation of this argument focuses on numbers. Here's Timothy Noah (writing back in 2000, in an entirely different context) in Slate:

Geoghegan calculates that 41 senators representing about 10 percent of the population can [using the filibuster] block a bill favored by 60 senators representing about 90 percent of the population.
When the argument is put that starkly, it does seem unchallengeable: It's hard to see what's gained by giving senators representing 10 percent of the country veto control over the national agenda.

And if concentrating that much leverage in such a small minority doesn't qualify as undemocratic, it's hard to imagine what would.

At least, until you read a few sentences further in Noah's article:

Similarly, [Geoghegan] points out, 51 senators representing "16 percent and a bit more" could pass any bill they wished, even if 84 percent of the population opposed it.
Think about that.

It means that when the undemocratic group of 41 senators rounds up colleagues from Connecticut, Oregon, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Kentucky (and the Iowa colleague to the 41st senator cited above) representing a measly six percent of the population, they're no longer just a minority with veto control.

They can now--in the absence of a filibuster threat--ram whatever nominations they want down the throat of the 84 percent of the public represented by just 49 senators.

(You can do your own state-by-state mixing and matching here.)

Now, reasonably people can argue about which of these two upshots is more dangerous. (Personally, I think it's more of a threat for such a small minority to be able to effect than quash change.)

But either way, anyone who is being intellectually honest has to agree that neither of these situations is remotely democratic. Both the presence and absence of the filibuster carry the potential for radically undemocratic consequences--and in roughly equal measure.

And so judging between them in terms of their adherence to democratic values is a lot like deciding between two pairs of shoes on the basis of taste.

Of course, the debate over the filibuster isn't really about democracy at all. It's about power.

If democracy was what nuclear option supporters were looking to advance, they'd be talking about getting rid of the Senate altogether--which, incidentally, is what Noah is arguing for in his piece.

Still, I wouldn't expect to see a flurry of Republican-sponsored "Abolish the Senate" constitutional amendment proposals coming down the pike any time soon.

Monday, May 16, 2005

THE TIMES MISCALCULATES Andrew Sullivan has the details.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

NUCLEAR WATCH DemFromCt over at The Next Hurrah offers up an annotated nuclear option head count--the kind of concise, informative analysis that the mainstream media, for some reason, hasn't gotten around to providing.

Meanwhile, the People For the American Way (PFAW) has set up an interesting, tech-savvy nuclear alert system:

By giving us your cell phone number, we will text message you as soon as Senate Republicans trigger the "nuclear option." Embedded in that text message will be a link to the Senate switchboard. With the push of a couple buttons, your call--along with thousands of others--goes right through to the corridors of power demanding preservation of the filibuster.
No need to fear a barrage of cell phone harassment from PFAW if you sign up: You'll receive one--and only one--text message. At least that's the promise.

Friday, May 13, 2005

KRUGMAN'S KOAN Okay, so it's not a koan exactly. But it sure is a deep, disturbing thought:
Last year Scott Lee Jr., Wal-Mart's chief executive, was paid $17.5 million. That is, every two weeks Mr. Lee was paid about as much as his average employee will earn in a lifetime.
Knock that one around your brain for a few minutes.

THEATER PICKS The Bush Theater production of Mark O'Rowe's HOWIE THE ROOKIE landed at PS 122 in early 2001, but I still remember it vividly. One of the best productions to hit New York that year, it was also one of the most spare: A pair of monologues. Virtually no props. Just talk.

I can't make any guarantees about the revival now in previews at the Irish Arts Center, but if it's anywhere near as polished as was 2001 staging, it'll be a worthwhile evening of theater.

In other theater news, an excellent theater blog (theatre blog?) called The Playgoer has launched.

Full disclosure: It's written by a friend. But even in its first couple of weeks, The Playgoer is already churning out some of the funniest, most candid discussion of the contemporary theater scene you can find on the web or off.

Check it out.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

NUCLEAR WATCH At least for the moment, Senate Majority Leader Frist seems not to have the votes.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

GOOGLE AND SEARCH SPAM Last Monday's Wall Street Journal carried a great column about the proliferation of search engine spam. Some highlights:
This is not the search spam of the early Internet...Rather, it's new and improved spam: pseudo-useful pages that are usually just shells for ads.

In many cases, a page might at first glance seem like a guide to your topic. But after a minute or two, it becomes evident that the information is virtually useless but is surrounded by an ocean of ads.


All of this is occurring because of a number of recent Web developments. The most important is that first Google and then Yahoo and everyone else have introduced advertising programs that make it easy and lucrative to sell ads on a Web site...

Thus, a kind of schizophrenia exists at search-engine companies. Half their engineering staff is busy trying to keep useless pages out of search results; the other half is busy coming up with tools that make it easier for people to create and profit from the useless pages in the first place.

The second development is that Web sites no longer use human beings much to help rank their search results. It's now largely done by software (even though some insiders say that Google and the rest use human editors a lot more then they let on).

The search companies have reduced their reliance on humans in part because they are expensive, and in part because the Web lately has been enthralled by the success of Google's PageRank algorithm, which ranks Web sites depending on who else links to them.

The problem, of course, is that spammers know about these algorithms and are constantly trying to trick them. Search engines respond by fiddling with the algorithm; spammers make their own adjustments; the beat goes on.
A related point.

Google is about to unveil a new advertising program that has at least the potential to exacerbate the search spam problem described above.

The background: Google ads currently operate under a cost-per-click fee structure. The advertiser only pays--and the site serving ads only profits--if users click through an ad to the advertiser's website.

But the new program will introduce a "cost-per-impression" fee model to work in parallel with the cost-per-click program: It'll allow advertisers more interested in exposure than clickthrough rates to pay based on how many people see their ad--whether the ad gets clicks or not.

And that means it may no longer be necessary for search spammers to get users to click on ads to get paid; getting web surfers to navigate over to their sites, alone, may become all it takes make money.

In that kind of environment, a high search-rank becomes an even more marketable asset. Because once the user reaches a site, the site's owner has already made money--even if the high-ranking page contains literally nothing of value to users. And so the incentive to game the system becomes that much more powerful.

Now, hopefully Google's engineers have thought long and hard about this. And depending on how the program is structured, an even more widespread search spam problem may not be the result. But the potential is certainly there.

QUESTION TIME Okay, so Washington D.C. has a sophisticated system in place to monitor incursions into its restricted airspace. But what about New York? Is midtown Manhattan, for example, a no-fly zone?

A definitive answer is beyond the reach of CONTRAPOSITIVE's crack team of researchers. But this 2003 article from the Gotham Gazette (scroll down to the blue box at right) contains informaton that, if current, isn't likely to reassure the locals:

The way the system usually works is that planes flying above 2,500 feet are under the control of the LaGuardia or Newark air control towers, but planes below that level fly under visual flight rules. Thus pilots flying small planes or helicopters need not ask permission to enter New York's airspace, or identify themselves to FAA regional or local controllers.

In normal times, anyone can fly under visual flight rules below 1,100 feet over the Hudson River or over the East River south of the 59th Street bridge, without even communicating with the FAA. Planes flying above 1,100 feet, or flying at any altitude across midtown and northern Manhattan, must check in with the La Guardia tower, give their tail number, and receive a heading intended to prevent congestion. No security check is involved.

The FAA does not know who is piloting these planes, apart from their tail ID number. Nor does the FAA have any enforcement power. Fighter jets patrolling New York's skies are the major enforcers--although it is not at all clear what behavior would trigger fighter jet intervention.

Anyone with a license can rent a plane at many of the approximately 2,000 general aviation airfields within a short flight of New York. Licenses are issued by civilians on the basis of a pilot's proficiency and training. Easily forged and without photos, pilot licenses are seldom verified at general aviation airports, which in any event have notoriously lax security.

Monday, May 09, 2005

UNDERSTANDING AMERICA Most of the recommendations handed down by The New York Times' "credibility" panel are relatively mundane: Reduce the number of factual errors, limit the use of anonymous sources, make it easier for readers to e-mail writers.

But one of the recommendations sticks out:

The committee also recommended that the paper "increase our coverage of religion in America."
The implicit criticism of the paper's religion coverage is valid--and not just about The Times. Knowledgeable, careful coverage of religion is rare across the entire elite media.

The good news: The May issue of Harper's magazine--available offline only--does its bit to fill the void. Over a pair of long, extensively-reported articles, the magazine puts conservative Christianity under the microscope.

The issue's worth picking up if you come across it.

DEBUNKING BROOKS Paul Krugman doesn't refer to David Brooks by name in his sharp Monday column. But the piece serves as a nifty refutation of the exercise in disingenuous that Brooks allowed to be printed under his name on Sunday.

SERIOUSNESS WATCH A President who was serious about the threat of terrorism wouldn't allow this:
After distributing tens of billions to state and local governments since 9/11, the federal Department of Homeland Security cut New Jersey's financing this year to about $60 million from $99 million last year. Many security experts have complained that the formula--which provides Montana with three times as much money per capita as New Jersey--is guided more by politics than by the likelihood of an attack.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

WHERE WE ARE Rev. Luis Cortes, head of the faith-based Nueva Esperanza, explains his political philosophy:
This is what I tell politicians. You want an endorsement? Give us a check.
Just another day in George W. Bush's America.

Monday, May 02, 2005

WHAT'S GOING ON? The President has been traveling around the country for months complaining about Social Security's "low rate of return."

But on Thursday, he praised a plan that cuts benefits by more than 20% for most workers.

Now, in my book, that seems like a surefire way to diminish Social Security's rate of return, not improve it.

So what's going on? Actually, it's pretty simple.

The Bushies have made the calculation that they won't be able to kill Social Security--at least not any time soon. So, as Paul Krugman explains, they're going to try to wound it: They're going to try to undermine it by reducing the size of the program's constituency.

And then they'll kill it--somewhere down the road. At least that's their hope.

Everything else is beside the point: The strategy behind the new plan really is just that simple.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.