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34 posts from August 2009

August 31, 2009

Michael Pollan: Farmers trump healthcare reform

Foodie guru Michael Pollan says he won't join the boycott of Whole Foods markets, even though he disapproves of CEO John Mackey's attempts to kill healthcare reform. Because the self-proclaimed "ethicurean" can't bear to forgo golden raspberries?

Not exactly. In a post on the conservative New Majority blog, Pollan argues that Whole Foods' support for farmer trumps the CEO's views on health care. On a personal level, Pollan says he hopes that health care reform will be a force for reform in the food system because when health insurers have to cover everyone, they will be motivated to push for prevention: If insurers had to cover everyone with type 2 diabetes, they'll want to make sure the food supply isn't creating more type 2 diabetics.

Yet, he's not bothered by the fact that Mackey is crusading to let insurers pick and choose which conditions to cover:

Repeal government mandates regarding what insurance companies must cover. These mandates have increased the cost of health insurance by billions of dollars. What is insured and what is not insured should be determined by individual customer preferences and not through special-interest lobbying. [WSJ]

If you're an insurer, it's way cheaper, and more reliable, to refuse to cover type 2 diabetes than it is to lobby for fresh, local, sustainable food. 

Pollan accepts the premise that consumers should use their buying power to push for social change, he just assigns a lower priority to healthcare reform than he does to farmers' markets. This is dismaying because justice for workers is supposed to be a core component of his vision for a new food policy.

Lack of access to affordable healthcare is the single biggest issue of distributive justice facing America today. Insurers rake in billions by charging more and more to cover less and less. Ever-rising healthcare costs are cutting into workers' standards of living.

The profit-driven insurance industry is screwing management as well as labor. Our employer-based health insurance system is a drag on the entire economy. American companies are less competitive because employers foot the bill for insurance instead of the government.

Mackey and Pollan are being astonishingly short-sighted. Ultimately, the gastro-industrial complex persists because it delivers cheap food. If we got real reform, more consumers could afford a healthier and more sustainable diet (perhaps even from Whole Foods).

Correction: In an earlier version of this post I mistakenly wrote "farmer's markets" instead of "farmers."

August 29, 2009

Post hoc ergo propter hoc: Torture edition

Washington Post reporters Peter Finn, Joby Warrick, and Julie Tate lend credence Dick Cheney's fallacious argument that because Khalid Sheik Mohammed began cooperating with U.S. authorities after he was tortured, torture made him cooperate.

The story is based the reminiscences of unnamed intelligence officers who observed Mohammed in 2005 and 2006. They say that he evolved from defiance to enthusiastic cooperation. But it's not clear whether any of these anonymous officials watched the metamorphosis from the beginning. The story seems to imply that they showed up 2 or 3 years after he started cooperating. In which case, why should we trust their hunches about what turned the prisoner?

And if they were around for the torture, how much stock should we put in anonymous anecdotes from people who might be facing criminal charges? Of course they're going to say that the program was dazzlingly effective. At this point, good PR is their best chance of staying free and employed.

The WaPo's sources claim to have observed Mohammed directly. Surely, only a handful of people would have been allowed access to the U.S.'s top terror detainee. Chances are, anyone who got that close has a vested interest in presenting the program in the most flattering light. For all we know, the WaPo interviewed Khalid Sheik Mohammed's torturers. If the reporters grappled with this potential conflict of interest, they don't let on. 

Cheney and his allies stress that KSM only started talking after he was waterboarded. The thing is, the CIA waterboarded him as soon as they got their hands on him--183 times during his first month of captivity.  We're supposed to believe that the hundred-and-eighty-third time was the charm? Good thing there was no ticking bomb. 

With no control group, we have no way of knowing whether KSM broke any faster than he would have with traditional rapport-based interrogation tactics. For all we know, torture actually prolonged the process. Torture can harden the victim's resolve to resist the torturer.

Note that torture defenders aren't even trying to argue that KSM gave up valuable information while he was actually being tortured. (He falsely confessed to all kinds of crazy stuff including the murder of Daniel Pearl.) You might think this is evidence against the efficacy of torture. But here's where the Cheney faction does a bit of logical jujitsu: They point to the fact that KSM started talking after he was waterboarded. So, the waterboarding must have softened him up. The more parsimonious hypothesis is that once U.S. stopped torturing the prisoner, the real work of interrogation could begin.

"When I was in Iraq, the few times I saw people use harsh methods [in Iraq in 2006], it was always counterproductive,” explained veteran interrogator Matthew Alexander, author of "How To Break a Terrorist, “the person just hunkered down, they were expecting us to do that, and they just shut up. And then I’d have to send somebody in, build back up rapport, reverse that process, and it would take us longer to get information.”

Interestingly, the anecdotes from the anonymous officials who observed KSM suggest that his captors got their best information by exploiting the his intellectual vanity, not by beating confessions out of him. KSM's captors shrewdly gave him a blackboard and let him "lecture" CIA agents about terrorism while they took notes. A lot of crazy claims have been made about the efficacy of torture, but no one's going to claim that waterboarding put KSM in the mood to deliver his "Advanced Topics in al Qaeda" talk. That gambit was the result of an astute interrogator who got to know the prisoner well enough to exploit his weaknesses. Torture only gets in the way of those kinds of discoveries.

[x-post at Obsidian Wings]

Update: Marcy Wheeler notes that after the CIA stopped torturing KSM, they went back to rapport-based interrogation. The WaPo doesn't mention that critical and widely reported fact, of course.

August 28, 2009

Think Progress rolls back the AHIP astroturf

Some great original reporting from Think Progress on pseudo-grassroots lobbying against healthcare reform by AHIP, the voice of the health insurance industry.

Glenn Beck claims Americorps will be Obama's SS

Seriously, folks. Glenn Beck and his cronies believe that Obama wants to enlarge Americorps to be his shock troops, his fedayeen. Beck and his guests convince themselves that Americorps will be the ones who will disarm the radical militias in South Texas if the military refuses to follow the president's orders.

In the clip, Beck claims that Americorps has "just received half a trillion dollars in funding." What the hell is he talking about? Half a trillion dollars is $500 billion. Half a trillion dollars would put Americorps in the same league as the Pentagon.

For FY 2010, the president requested less than two billion dollars for Americorps' parent agency, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and congress appropriated $90 million less than he asked for.

Half a trillion dollars for Americorps would the agency in the same league as the Pentagon. Is Beck talking about the $5.7 billion national service bill which, amongst many other things, would put Americorps on track to grow significantly between now and 2017.

Update: Commenters tell me that Beck corrected himself later in the show. A grownup must have realized the claim was too preposterous, or more too easily falsifiable, even for the Glenn Beck side show.

It's even funnier that Beck's guests played along with the half-trillion claim. Surely they knew it was false. This wasn't just an incidental mistake, it was the hook for Beck's crazy conspiracy theory.

August 27, 2009

Alties vs. healthcare reform

Dr. Amy Tuteur, the Skeptical OB, notices that multi-millionaire crackpot Andrew Weil is making the case against healthcare reform at the Huffington Post. (Update: In a follow-up post, Dr. Amy takes a closer look at Dr. Weil's natural products empire.)

Why? Because he thinks the reforms are inexplicably focused on saving money while curing diseases with medicines. Weil thinks we should scrap that model and focus on making people "healthy," i.e., plying them with his industry's products.

Dr. Weil is so warm and cuddly and charmingly befuddled that it's easy to forget his an advocate for an industry that's every bit as mercenary as Big Pharma. All these special interest groups are vying for government giveaways under the guise of reform, and Big Placebo is no exception.

August 26, 2009

Sen. Edward Kennedy (1932-2009)

Kennedy, originally uploaded by Lindsay Beyerstein.

We lost one of the strongest progressive voices in the senate last night. Sen. Edward Kennedy succumbed to brain cancer at the age of 77. During his 46-years in the senate, Kennedy's name appeared on virtually every major piece of progressive legislation from civil rights to labor to voting rights. Kennedy famously called the quest for universal health care "the passion of my life."

I took this picture at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last year. Everyone was stunned and delighted that Kennedy was well enough to speak. His appeal for healthcare reform conveyed a special sense of urgency. This man was dying but he was still here rallying the troops one last time for reforms he'd probably never live to see. If he was willing to devote his final months to this struggle, what excuse did the rest of us have?

For further thoughts on Kennedy and the prospects for healthcare reform, check the latest edition of The Media Consortium's The Weekly Pulse.

August 25, 2009

Duke Cunningham pushed for death squads

Quite the scoop from Jeff Stein of CQ's SpyTalk blog:

"Every single time, at every meeting or hearing on counteterrorism, [Cunningham] was trying to steer the conversation toward assassinations," the source, a former top intelligence committee official, said in an interview.

"It was his favorite idea, to go after terrorists, to take it to them," the official said of Cunningham, who resigned from the House in 2005 after pleading guilty to charges of accepting $2.4 million in bribes to steer defense and intelligence contracts to friends.

Can we have our blood and treasure back?

Today's under-reported story: Hamid Karzai's vote tally is so ridiculously high that a UN official told the Guardian that it would have to be "massaged down" for the sake of appearances.

Of course, the hawks will say that just proves we need to stay in Afghanistan forever because the Taliban scared the real voters away.

How many rationales have we burned through already?

Spreading democracy is passe. Osama bin Laden may well be dead. The public has figured out that the optimists think counterinsurgency will take 15 years and billions of dollars. (We don't have a control group so it's hard to say how quickly the violence would subside if we weren't there.)

Now we're in Afghanistan to stabilize Pakistan by bombarding it with killer drones, or something.

August 23, 2009

My first Obsidian Wings post: Did Bushies push to flout threat alert rules on election eve?

My first post for Obsidian Wings. Tom Ridge claims that Rumsfeld and Ashcroft pressured him to raise the terror threat level to orange over the release of a new Bin Laden tape. Ridge says that Rumsfeld and Ashcroft sought to influence the outcome of the election. But how does Ridge know what their motives were? Rumsfeld admits that he pushed for an eleventh-hour terror alert, but he says that he was going on the intelligence. Ashcroft has yet to comment publicly.

I considered the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory system to be pure political theater from its inception. It was never a serious public information tool. The threat levels were too vague to be useful for anything besides provoking free-floating anxiety. The early HSA threat increases were the equivalent of screaming, "Alert: Something bad might happen somewhere in the world!"

In 2003, Homeland Security tightened the guidelines for increasing the threat level. In order to go from yellow (elevated) to orange (high), there had to be specific, detailed, credible evidence of an imminent attack in the U.S.. 

As I argue at ObWi it's very unlikely that the Bin Laden tape even came close to that threshold. Yet Bush administration officials were reportedly pushing for an orange alert anyway.

The Republicans were selling themselves as the only party capable of defending the nation against terrorism. Their ground game was all about suppressing voter turnout. So, a last-minute terror alert would have been doubly advantageous for the GOP. 

(Note: I won't be giving up Majikthise. Some of my posts will appear on ObWi and Majikthise, but there will continue to be Majikthise-only content.)

Tom Ridge complained about frivolous terror alerts in 2005

Former Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge made headlines this week when his publisher offered a sneak preview of his forthcoming memoir. In the his book, Ridge reportedly claims that Sec Def Donald Rumsfeld and AG John Ashcroft tried unsuccessfully to pressure him into declaring a spurious terror alert to influence the 2004 presidential election.

Some of Ridge's critics have wondered why Ridge is suddenly speaking up after all these years. Actually, according to a contemporary report in USA Today, Ridge started complaining about other members of the administration pressuring him to declare terror alerts based on flimsy evidence in Nov 2005, less than a year after he left office.

The USA Today story also has some interesting background information on who set the threat level:

The level is raised if a majority on the President's Homeland Security Advisory Council favors it and President Bush concurs. Among those on the council with Ridge were Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI chief Robert Mueller, CIA director George Tenet, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

As secretary, Ridge would have been responsible for setting the threat level in consultation with the Homeland Security Council. Notice that the council that was advising Ridge consisted of some of the most notorious politicizers of pre-war intelligence on Iraq.

Also keep in mind that, thankfully, Homeland Security doesn't have its own intelligence-gathering apparatus. Which means that Ridge was dependent on the likes of George Tenet for raw intelligence. Tenet became notorious for his willingness to distort intelligence on Iraqi WMDs to justify Bush's invasion of Iraq.

Suspicions that the terror alert system was politicized take on heightened plausibility when we consider who was making the decisions. As in so many other areas of the Bush administration, the same tightly-knit clique of ideologues were calling the shots. There was no independence or control for conflicts of interest. For example, if Donald Rumsfeld wanted to use security theater to drum up support for the Iraq war, he would have been well-positioned to lobby for an increased threat level.

One major elevation of the threat level came just before the invasion of Iraq. Granted, the U.S. invading a Muslim country was a massive provocation to terrorists around the globe. So maybe they had real intelligence. But it was never clear whether all that talk about stalking up on duct tape and plastic sheeting ahead of a chem-bio attack was based on evidence of a specific chem-bio threat, or just a desire to reinforce the connection between Saddam Hussein and WMD.