current events

Us vs them

The NY Times recently ran a long, interesting article on the Bush presidency–if you haven’t read it already, I encourage you to print it and read it at your leisure. It’s been widely cited in other blogs, especially for the stunning, arrogant “reality-based community” comment.

There’s something else that stood out for me in the article, something that relates to something I’ve been wondering about for a long time.

Bush has very strong support among a lot of people who identify themselves as traditional, conservative Republicans–but Bush is not traditional or conservative, his rhetoric notwithstanding. He has presided over a huge expansion of the government, adding employees as quickly as possible (perhaps to offset the disastrous private-sector job losses the economy has seen) and expanding non-defense discretionary spending faster than any of the last five presidents, dramatically extending government intrusiveness in a way that should–but doesn’t–set off alarm bells for 2nd-Amendment absolutists (though the 2nd Amendment itself has remained sacrosanct), screwing over the military even as he calls upon it for his misguided adventure, and of course passing lopsided tax cuts that benefit the very wealthy.

So why do salt-of-the-earth regular folks like him so much? Well, he certainly has that homespun image down. The way he talks about his record certainly makes him seem like a better president than he is. He’s a hardass on social-conservative issues. So those might all be enough, but perhaps there’s something else:

…Mark McKinnon, a longtime senior media adviser to Bush, who now runs his own consulting firm and helps the president. He started by challenging me. “You think he’s an idiot, don’t you?” I said, no, I didn’t. “No, you do, all of you do, up and down the West Coast, the East Coast, a few blocks in southern Manhattan called Wall Street. Let me clue you in. We don’t care. You see, you’re outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don’t read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it’s good for us. Because you know what those folks don’t like? They don’t like you!”

What I’ve been wondering is whether all those dirt farmers in flyover country know that the effete liberals on the coasts hate G.W, and so they embrace him–“the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. If so, G.W. isn’t the catalyst for our current polarization, he’s the mirror of it. This quote suggests that maybe it’s so. But the enemy of your enemy may just be a different kind of enemy.

Debate moment

There were plenty of moments that got me yelling at the TV during the second debate, but this one took the cake:

MICHAELSON: Mr. President, if there were a vacancy in the Supreme Court and you had the opportunity to fill that position today, who would you choose and why?

BUSH: I’m not telling.

(LAUGHTER)

I really don’t have — haven’t picked anybody yet. Plus, I want them all voting for me.

On reflection, it’s clear Bush means that he wants any prospective justices to vote for him in the election. But at the moment, it just reminded me of the only 9 votes that counted in the 2000 election.

Debate reaction

I wasn’t thrilled with Kerry’s performance, but he did a better job than Bush. Bush was frequently agitated and occasionally at a loss for words. Kerry, who is usually at a loss for brevity, was cool and reasonably concise. Since the value of these debates is as much in the visceral reactions that people have as in the policy points scored, Bush lost ground.

In terms of policy points, commands of facts, etc, one’s analysis almost gets reduced to a question of “who do you want to believe?”. This is, of course, ridiculous–as if there is no objective reality–but partisans will believe who they want to believe, and undecideds will make up their mind based on gut reactions. Both sides exaggerated or mis-stated numbers. The post-mortems have not taken the president to task for the bigger problems in his points–his continued insistence on the Iraq/Al Quaeda links, though Kerry did. Kerry missed an obvious scoring opportunity when discussing the run-up to war: Bush repeatedly insisted we needed to go into Iraq to remove the WMDs. Kerry never asked “what WMDs?? (in The Daily Show’s wrapup, Jon Stewart did ask). Bush has to run on his record–talking about what he will do invites the question “why aren’t you doing it now?”. Kerry has the luxury of talking about what he will do without really being held to account. The tack that he took, of engaging more closely with allies, doesn’t seem likely to gain traction with most people.

The post-debate wrapup (we watched the debate on NBC) struck me as absurd: the network invited each side to give its own spin. This is not acting as a news organization: this is acting as a clearinghouse for press releases.

No soup for you!

Last night I saw an ad placed by the Center for Consumer Freedom, an astroturfing, misleading bunch of asshats. The premise behind the ad is that someone, somewhere, is trying to take away your right to stuff your face with Heart-Attack Specials, McCrispeties, and Munchee-os. The ad actually features the Soup Nazi (from Seinfeld) doing his schtick. The website actually uses phrases like “food fascists.” Both the ad and the website are trying to whip up hysteria surrounding problems that do not exist.

While there have been a couple cases of people suing McDonald’s for their obesity, these have been thrown out of court. This organization is clearly a sort of pre-emptive strike against any further actions to hold major food manufacturers accountable for the content of their products. It’s hard to imagine that bad food will be regulated the way tobacco and alcohol are, the terrifying future that fast-food fearmongers foretell. Restaurant food (like tobacco and alcohol) does not even carry labeling disclosing its contents, and the fast-food lobby is a hell of a lot better organized and funded than the, uh, lobby for people who don’t like fast food.

Apparently these industry tools have set up a sort of link farm, with websites to bash the Center for Science in the Public Interest, another to tell the inside story behind such radical groups as the Sierra Club.

On their “about us” page, they say they are “supported by restaurants, food companies and more than 1,000 concerned individuals.” What concerns me (among other things) is that food companies may include industrial ranching operations, which receive government subsidies. Meaning that, in some way, my tax dollars are funding these clowns.

Date authentication

In the slow-motion controversy over the gaps in the record of GW’s Texas Air National Guard Duty, the latest wrinkle has been the emergence of some damning documents that some people are concerned might be forgeries. While I’d be delighted to see Bush publicly embarrassed for shirking his military duty, I have to admit that the documents do look suspicious, and if they are forgeries, whoever is responsible is really fucking stupid.

But enough about all that. This got me thinking: today in the electronic world, there are ways to prove that you are the author of a document. But is there a way to prove that you authored the document on a certain date?

Currently, I don’t think there is a verifiable way to do this. But I can imagine a system that would make it possible.

First, we need to review the general ideas behind public-key cryptography (often abbreviated PKI, for “public-key infrastructure”). Traditional cryptography encoded a text using a single key, and both sender and recipient had to have copies of this key. Moving the keys securely was obviously a very serious problem.

PKI solves this. Everybody has two keys: a public key and a private key. The operations of these keys are complementary: a document encrypted with one’s public key can only be decrypted with the private key. So anybody can look up your public key, and secure the document so that only you can read it. Conversely, a document encrypted with one’s private key can only be decrypted with one’s public key. This allows you to “sign” a document electronically: your public key can be considered well-known, and can only be paired to your private key, so if a document can be decrypted by your public key, that’s evidence that it was encrypted with your private key, and either you wrote it or you left your private key lying around for someone to abuse.

Another important concept is the “secure hash.” A secure hash is a relatively short string of gibberish that is generated based on a source text. Each hash is supposed to be unique for each source text. It is trivial to generate the hash from the source text, but effectively impossible to work out what the source text might be based on the hash. Hashes can be used as fingerprints for documents. (Recently, a “collision” was discovered in a hashing algorithm, meaning two source texts resulted in the same hash, but it would still be effectively impossible to work out the source text or texts from any given hash.)

Now, PKI is fine for authenticating authorship, but doesn’t authenticate date of authorship. Not without some help.

PKI relies on key-servers that allow you to look up the public key of other crypto users. Imagine if we set up trusted date-servers to authenticate that a document was actually written when we claim it was written. It might work something like this: An author wishing to attach a verifiable date of authorship to a document sends a hash of that document to a trusted date-server. The date-server appends the current time and date to the hash, encrypts it under its own private key, and sends it back as a “dateprint. The author can then append the dateprint to the original document. If anyone ever doubts that the document was authored on the claimed date, they can decrypt the dateprint using the date-server’s public key; this will give them the claimed date and the document hash. The skeptic then takes a hash of the current document and compares it to the hash contained in the dateprint: if they match, then the current document is identical to the one submitted for dateprinting.

Margins of error

If you haven’t checked out Electoral Vote, do so. It has daily updates on all the polls, and shows how the electoral vote is shaping up in map form, along with histories, spreadsheets, a real info-junkie’s dream.

A lot of the states are shown as statistical ties or near ties, meaning that one candidate’s advantage is less than the margin of error. But today, Kevin Drum shows us how this is misleading. When an advantage is less than the margin of error, it doesn’t mean “oh, we really can’t tell,” it means that we’re simply less confident about the data. That margin of error does not becloud all differences smaller than it. Go read Kevin’s post: it’s informative.

Who hates what?

It has almost gotten to be a joke: a progressive criticizes G.W or one of his policies, and a conservative fires back “Why do you hate America.” (It’s gotten to the point where it may be more likely to be another progressive asking the accusatory question, except in jest.)

This is a neat trick for changing the terms of the debate–rather than answering the criticism, you put the critic on the defensive by questioning his patriotism–but it is also evidence of a kind of dangerous L’état, c’est moi, or more accurately, L’état, c’est lui kind of thinking, which I thought went out of fashion with Louis XIV. Who knew the Republicans were such Francophiles?

He’s dead

More 80s nostalgia. Now everyone’s talking about Reagan. The revival of the Flashdance look was bad enough.

Through much of the Reagan administration, I wore an “Impeach Reagan” button. And I meant it. So I’m a little disconcerted by the almost universal hagiography upon his death, and slightly cheered by the occasional writer who will call a spade a spade.

But one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, so I’ll say this: in his two terms in office, Reagan was less destructive than G.W. has been during his one.

Another wrinkle in the abortion debate

The original Roe v Wade decision was founded on the justices discerning a right to privacy lurking in the Constitution. This has been criticized on occasion, by Justice Ginsberg among others, as a weak foundation for an important right, but there it is.

The most recent attack on abortion rights at the federal level is the “Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.” This law itself is under attack at the moment. As part of its defense, the Justice Department originally sought to subpoena abortion records (though it has now withdrawn this “in the interest of a prompt completion of the trial”); these records would be used to make the case that late-term abortions are never medically necessary, hence a ban could be upheld. If the law stands, doctors who perform late-term abortions will be prosecuted, and will be required to prove medical necessity. As the NY Times put it

But once this question is resolved, the next round of subpoenas will have a different purpose. It won’t be to determine whether partial-birth abortion is ever necessary. It will be to determine whether each partial-birth abortion was necessary.

If the ban is upheld, any doctor found to have performed the procedure will be subject to a two-year prison term unless he or she can prove that the procedure was “necessary to save the life of a mother whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury.” To settle that question, the court will need details about the patient.

What’s interesting is the reversal in legal thinking: Once upon a time, the right to an abortion was based on the right to privacy; now, the Justice Department’s position is something more like “if you want that abortion, you forfeit your right to privacy.

Uninsurable

The NY Times Sunday magazine had an article on wealthy, healthy Americans who are
uninsurable. In their cases, it was apparently because of A) an excess of honesty on their part when attempting to get individual insurance, reporting picayune details like a brief bout of tooth-grinding, and B) an astounding zeal for disqualification on the part of insurers.

This is surprising. I first got health insurance when I was 27 or so, and the carrier was recommended to me by a professional acquaintance who is an insurance broker. This company jacked up my rates 10%, 20%, even 30% a year, with my paring back my coverage until a year or so ago, when I just couldn’t take it. I found a new carrier that covered me with no exclusions (much to my surprise) despite the accidents I’ve had in the past that could turn into complications in the future. So it’s all the more surprising that these people had so much trouble.

Lots of interesting facts in this story. I was somewhat surprised to learn that only 15 million Americans buy their own coverage (I’m one); that’s less than half as many who are completely uninsured. Meaning that nearly all Americans who are insured get their coverage through a group plan. Perhaps it’s not surprising after all: my own insurance is what I morbidly refer to as the “don’t get sick” plan, in other words, catastrophic coverage.

Some people say health care is a right. My own opinion is somewhat less bleeding-heart. I feel that everyone who has the means to get coverage is responsible for their own coverage, but that a civilized society will do right by those who can’t manage to get coverage on their own. In a very imperfect way, this is the way things work in the USA right now. But when people earning six figures can’t find coverage, perhaps something more fundamental is out of whack.

Who hates freedom?

So, in our “war” on terror (it’s not a war, it’s a “war”), against those who “hate freedom,” the current administration has curtailed the freedom of U.S. citizens. On that basis, it sounds like the other side is winning.

As part of this, err, war, about 400 men, some rounded up in conflict areas and some not, some of them citizens of our allies in this war, are being interned indefinitely at Gitmo under the convenient legalism of “enemy combatant,” freeing the administration from providing them with even the most rudimentary due-process rights accorded to prisoners of war. So they have no recourse to any kind of court where they might be able to contest their enemy-combatant status. We have only the current administration’s word on it that they are, in fact, enemy combatants. Who supposedly “hate freedom.” We’re not doing a very good job of showing our respect for freedom or even the rule of law. Their case is before the Supreme Court right now. The administration’s argument is that the courts have no review over the executive and legislative branches’ actions in matters of war. So much for that pesky checks and balances.

Meet the new jefe

So just a few days after the shocking bombings in Madrid, the ruling right-wing party, notorious for its support of the war, has gone down to defeat in Spain’s elections.

Although the government initially blamed ETA, the Basque separatists, it looks more and more like it was Islamic militants behind the attack. If nothing else, the fact that the date fell exactly two and a half years–or 911 days–after 9/11 seems too symbolic to overlook.

I ask myself how American voters would swing if this country suffered another attack right before our elections in November. Something tells me a large number of people would rally behind the president. Some swing voters would probably vote against him in disgust, and perhaps even a few solid Republicans would as well, but I feel there’s something fundamentally conservative in the collective American unconscious right now that would get people out to the polls to support the commander in chief.

The war with Iraq was much less popular in Spain (indeed, everywhere) than it was in the USA, and that might explain the difference, but I wonder if that’s all there is to it. I hope we don’t have a chance to find out.

I voted

For Dean. Hey, he’s still on the ballot, and he’s the guy I wanted to vote for. I realize the vote is symbolic, but perhaps not a completely empty symbol. Kerry’s got the nomination locked up, but at this point, every vote for someone else is a reminder to him: “Hey, there’s a constituency out here that you need to address.”

At the sign-in table, there was one Republican judge, one Democrat, and two other guys who didn’t have any party role to fill. As I walked up, one of them asked me if I was voting Democrat; another said something like “he couldn’t possibly be a Republican.” There was some more partisan joking. The lone Republican kept his tongue. This was the first time I could ever recall election judges publicly making partisan jokes, and I have to admit, it struck me as a little unseemly. But very interesting. I live in a pretty progressive neighborhood, and this seems like a sign that the general election will be extremely polarized (not that it would come as much surprise).

Putting gay marriage into perspective

An article in today’s NY Times does a good job of putting the debate on gay marriage into more productive terms, and comes to the same conclusions I do, but gets there by different means.

The writer, Nathaniel Frank, helpfully clarifies that the “for” and “against” sides are talking past each other–the against side pitches its argument in terms of marriage’s social role, the for side in terms of individual rights–and he points out that both aspects are relevant.

My main disagreement with Frank is brought into sharpest relief by this paragraph:

The argument is not so much that individual straight couples are threatened by gay marriage, but that the collective rules that define marriage are being undermined. Instead of feeling part of a greater social project that demands respect, people will feel that breaking their vows offends only their spouse, not the whole community. Knowing that their friends and neighbors no longer hold marriage sacred can make it easier for people to wander.

The problem with Frank’s argument here is that he fails to acknowledge that this dread is ultimately rooted in bigotry: if the “greater social project” is somehow debased by gay marriage, it is because some feel that homosexuality is icky, and do not want to be forced to acknowledge the legitimacy of a gay relationship.

For a long time, I was ambivalent about gay marriage: on the one hand, I was inclined to be tolerant, on the other, the idea inspired cognitive dissonance–it didn’t fit my notion of marriage. Then, about ten years ago, the Economist published a cover story (as they are doing again this week) making the case for gay marriage–“Let them wed” the headline read. And I realized that my objections were hollow.

Why does John Ashcroft hate America?

A pirate posting of a recent Vanity Fair profile of John Ashcroft makes for an interesting read (it’s long but worth reading–you might want to print it out). It doesn’t have a lot of profound insights, but it does have numerous alarming anecdotes from people who have worked closely with the man.

One point in particular jumped off the page at me, though:

He has supported an additional 10 amendments to the Constitution (including one to make it easier to amend).

Here’s the thing: America is an unusual country in that at its root, it is founded on a document, the Constitution. Older countries–France or Japan, for example–are at root basically big tribes: they are countries because there are more-or-less cohesive ethnic/linguistic groups within their borders. France and Japan have been through any number of different forms of government–monarchy, military dictatorship, republic, etc–but nobody would ever dispute that each was the same country throughout. Many newer countries, for better or worse, are artifacts of colonialism or European tussles, with artificially drawn borders that artificially group together nationalities that probably wouldn’t choose to share citizenship with each other. We saw that with Yugoslavia before, and we’re seeing this in Iraq right now.

The idea behind the USA is that people are made American by their choice to accept a certain set of rules for what it means to be American, and that set of rules is expressed in the Constitution. Change the Constitution and you change the country. Right now there are 7 articles and 27 amendments to the Constitution and Ashcroft would add 10 more? Clearly, he is not happy with this country as it is constituted and wants it to be something very different. Rather than radically change the country to suit his tastes, he’d be better off finding a country that’s closer to his liking and moving there. The rest of us would be better off, too.

Something to hide?

A recent Metafilter discussion on the rumor that dare not speak its name led to a helpful link to the Texas State Republican Party platform. What’s perhaps most interesting about this is that it is hosted at the Texas Democrats website; apparently the state Republicans have not made it public. One can only speculate as to the reason why.

It’s an interesting grab-bag. Following is my grab-bag from their grab-bag. These quotes are in no particular order and are not contiguous in the original.

Here are a few things that jumped out at me where I agree with them (at least with what they’re saying, if not the intent behind it).

A perpetual state of national emergency allows unrestricted growth of government. The Party charges the President to cancel the state of national emergency and charges Congress to repeal the War Powers Act and declare an end to the previously declared states of emergency.

We support regulations based on proven science and support congressional oversight over administrative edicts.[though something tells me they want to the arbiters of what’s “proven.”]

support…prohibition of internet voting and any touch screen voting or other electronic voting which lacks a paper trail

But the hateful, weird stuff is so much more plentiful. This is hardly complete–just the stuff that struck me as particularly interesting or evil.

We believe that human life is sacred because each person is created in the image of God, that life begins at the moment of conception and ends at the point of natural death, and that all innocent human life must be protected. [Note that all life is sacred, but only innocent life must be protected.]

The Party supports needed legislation to restore integrity to the voter registration rolls and to reduce voter fraud. Furthermore, we support the repeal of all Motor Voter laws [translation: we want fewer voters, especially black ones]

The Party opposes any so-called “campaign finance reform” [don’t you love the disdain?]

The Party urges repeal of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances law.

The Republican Party of Texas reaffirms the United States of America is a Christian nation [This makes me feel ever so welcome]

The Party acknowledges that the church is a God-ordained institution with a sphere of authority separate from that of civil government; thus, churches, synagogues and other places of worship, including home Bible study groups, should not be regulated, controlled, or taxed by any level of civil government, including the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service. We reclaim freedom of religious expression in public on government property, and freedom from governmental interference. [go ahead, put your megachurch in my neighborhood!]

Our Party pledges to do everything within its power to restore the original intent of the First Amendment of the United States and dispel the myth of the separation of Church and State. [yeah, where did that crazy idea come from?]

The Party believes that the practice of sodomy tears at the fabric of society, contributes to the breakdown of the family unit, and leads to the spread of dangerous, communicable diseases. Homosexual behavior is contrary to the fundamental, unchanging truths that have been ordained by God, recognized by our country’s founders, and shared by the majority of Texans. Homosexuality must not be presented as an acceptable “alternative” lifestyle in our public education and policy, nor should “family” be redefined to include homosexual “couples.” We are opposed to any granting of special legal entitlements, recognition, or privileges including, but not limited to, marriage between persons of the same sex, custody of children by homosexuals, homosexual partner insurance or retirement benefits. We oppose any criminal or civil penalties against those who oppose homosexuality out of faith, conviction, or belief in traditional values.

We also believe; that no homosexual or any individual convicted of child abuse or molestation should have the right to custody or adoption of a minor child, and that visitation with minor children by such persons should be limited to supervised periods. [note how gays get lumped together with child-abusers]

Because of the personal and social pain causes by abortions, the Party calls for the protection of both women and their unborn children from pressure for unwanted abortions. [pressure?]

Corporal punishment should be used when appropriate and we encourage the legislature to strengthen existing immunity laws respecting corporal punishment.

The Party believes that scientific topics, such as the question of universe and life origins and environmental theories, should not be constrained to one opinion or viewpoint. We support the teaching equally of scientific strengths and weaknesses of all scientific theories – as Texas now requires (but has yet to enforce) in public school science course standards. We urge revising all environmental education standards to require this also. We support individual teachers’ right to teach creation science in Texas public schools. [somebody needs to clue these guys in as to what is science and what is not]

A one world government is in direct opposition to the basic principles of the United States of America eroding our sovereignty and our goals for leadership in world affairs. [Funny, I thought Lyndon LaRouche was a Democrat]

Kevin Drum has a helpful shorter version of the platform

Talk about scandalous

In case you need any help decoding this story, the governor being mentioned is our own Rick Perry, who, as rumor has it, was caught by his wife in flagrante delicto with a young man.

Now what?

So Dean has dropped out. I think it’s a damn shame–I didn’t even get a chance to vote for him. Some people are pinning the blame on Joe Trippi for being out of his depth, others on other Democrat muckety-mucks to smack down the non-annointed and over-popular candidate. Both these arguments seem to have merit.

But Dean’s Internet-oriented organizing and fundraising approach has paid off for Ben Chandler of Kentucky.

The Wired article in the second link quotes the guy behind the Daily Kos as saying “What I fear is that candidates will see blog readers as ATM machines.”

It could happen, but I’m hopeful that it won’t. Implicit in making a pitch to bloggers is being responsive to them; bloggers are happy to say what they like and don’t like, and are accustomed to immediate feedback. So politicians start putting the touch on the blog community, I predict they’ll be held up to pretty close scrutiny, and will have to give something back.

The more interesting lesson here is that the Internet makes it a lot easier for a local candidate to raise funds from everyday people who aren’t in that location, but feel they have a stake in the outcome. I keep meaning to donate money to the guy running against Tom Delay…

Scandalous

I suppose I should be used to it by now, but I’m not.

When it comes to policy matters, the mainstream media will sit on its thumbs indefinitely, taking a position that purports to be objective but is in fact a form of cowardly post-modernism–that there is no true and false, no right and wrong, but that there are simply two sides to every story.

But when a juicy personal scandal comes along–one that is tangential or irrelevant to policy, then the press extends its claws.

I speak, of course, about Bush’s history in the “champagne unit” of the Texas Air National Guard, his, uh, undocumented presence for duty, and the newfound interest in it.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me why this wasn’t an issue in 2000, or before for that matter. It’s been known, and it’s been covered intermittently since then, with some interesting angles. Something–I don’t know what–poked the press in the side and whetted their interest in this. Which is fine in and of itself: as a bellicose president, Bush of all people should be held up for close scrutiny when it comes to his own military service. But there have been so many issues of more immediate concern during the past four years that went underreported that the renewed interest in investigative journalism comes across as tawdry.