Propter hack

Michael Gerson, who liked George W. Bush and his notion of preventative war, does not like Barack Obama.  That's fine.  I don't know why the Washington Post has hired him to say as much however.  Gerson, Bush's former speechwriter, is a party operative, not a disinterested observer.  So when he remarks on how disappointing Obama's Presidency has been, you know something has gone right for Obama.  I remark on this not because I have it in for conservatives.  On the contrary, I'm keenly interested in actual conservative argument.  It's a shame, I think, that the Post hires such hacks (the same would go for Democratic party hacks, if there were any). 

Today Gerson writes:

In 1950, Lionel Trilling could write, "In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition." In 1980, as the Reagan revolution was starting, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan concluded, "Of a sudden, the GOP has become the party of ideas."

Where now is the intellectual center of gravity — the thrill of innovation, the ideological momentum — in American politics? Not in the party of Obama.

This failure of imagination was on full display during Barack Obama's address to Congress. In a moment that demanded new policy to cut an ideological knot, or at least new arguments to restart the public debate, Obama saw fit to provide neither. His health speech turned out to be an environmental speech, devoted mainly to recycling. On every important element of his health proposal, he chose to double down and attack the motives of opponents. (Obama was the other public official who talked of a "lie" that evening.) Concerns about controlling health costs, the indirect promotion of abortion and the effect of a new entitlement on future deficits were dismissed but not answered. On health care, Obama takes his progressivism pure and simplistic.

This, I think, is a specious allegation of fallacy–Obama did attack the motives of his opponents, after pointing out, in the cases mentioned above by Gerson, that they have lied relentlessly about the content of the bills working their way through the system.  When someone, such as Gerson and the people he sophistically defends, distorts the simple and obvious facts open to everyone's inspection, it is well justified to wonder about their motives.  I wonder, indeed, about Gerson's motives in writing such silliness.  He doesn't, you'll notice, even bother to justify either (1) the allegation that Obama was lying or (2) that he attacked anyone's motives–and not their facts.  This kind of sophistry, I think, is worse than lying.  Gerson, or at least the Post (I know, don't laugh) ought to know better. 

Truly hilarious, however, is the idea that Obama is some kind of wicked hardcore lefty, taking his "progressivism pure and simplistic" when in fact he (1) spent the entire summer (not on vacation) trying to negotiate with Republicans and (2) in the very speech in question brought together elements from John McCain and George W.Bush.  Gerson writes:

This is the most consistent disappointment of Obama's young term. Given a historic opportunity to occupy the political center, to blur ideological lines, to reset the partisan debate through unexpected innovation, Obama has taken the most tired, most predictable agenda in American politics — the agenda of congressional liberalism — and made it his own. Elected on the promise to transcend old arguments of left and right, Obama has systematically reinforced them on domestic issues. A pork-laden stimulus. A highly centralized health reform. Eight months into Obama's term, American politics is covered in the cobwebs of past controversies. Obama has supporters, but he has ceased trying for converts.

This should surprise no one. Obama did not rise on Bill Clinton's political path — the path of a New Democrat, forced to win and govern in a red state. Obama was a conventional, congressional liberal in every way — except in his extraordinary abilities. His great talent was talent itself, not ideological innovation. And given the general Republican collapse of 2006 to 2008 — rooted in the initial unraveling of Iraq, the corruption of the Republican congressional majority and the financial meltdown — Obama did not need innovation to win. Only ability and the proper tone.

Not even close.  Notice, however, how Gerson does not bother anywhere in the piece to justify his whacky assertions.  It's as if he did not even see the speech. 

You lie

Here is an extract from the Republican response to President Obama's address to a joint session of Congress:

It's clear the American people want health care reform, but they want their elected leaders to get it right. Most Americans wanted to hear the President tell Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Reid and the rest of Congress that it's time to start over on a common-sense, bipartisan plan focused on lowering the cost of health care while improving quality. That's what I heard over the past several months in talking to thousands of my constituents.

Replacing your family's current health care with government-run health care is not the answer. In fact, it'll make health care much more expensive. That's not just my personal diagnosis as a doctor or a Republican; it's the conclusion of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office – the neutral scorekeeper that determines the cost of major bills.

Since no one offered such a plan, this is a hollow man–one of the many hollow men to inhabit the minds of health care opponents (see the commercial on TV about the alleged horrors of the Canadian system–a model which no current plan follows).  

This strikes me as little different from the "you lie" guy.

Can’t get no satisfaction

Equivocation occurs when you fudge on the meaning of a key term.  Say, for instance, you want to say that there is no war in Afghanistan because "wars" must be declared, therefore, etc.  If you wanted to apply similarly twisted logic to the health care crisis, you might argue as Michael Gerson has done:

And so Barack Obama's address to Congress on health care, at a minimum, must answer the question: What is the crisis? When individuals can't get needed health care, it is certainly a crisis for them. This, Obama might argue, creates moral responsibilities for the rest of us to help. But this would argue for a more incremental approach, adding coverage for the working poor instead of remaking the American health system for everyone.

The overwhelming majority of Americans, by the definition of denied care, do not face a health-care crisis. Most polls show that about 80 percent are "very" or "somewhat" satisfied with their health plans. Those in the greatest need are often the most satisfied — 90 percent of insured Americans who suffered serious illnesses are satisfied with their health care. According to a study published by the Cato Institute, a very small percentage — even of the uninsured — are "dissatisfied or highly dissatisfied" with the health care they get in other ways. On health care, the American public brims with satisfaction — though most are concerned about rising costs.

So perhaps this is the crisis: rising costs that will eventually overwhelm state and federal budgets and consume more and more of individual paychecks. But this is precisely the area where current Democratic approaches are least credible. Obama abandoned his pledge to reduce the government's health costs long ago; now he aims only at budget neutrality. But every pending health-reform bill in Congress would increase both short- and long-term deficits, failing even on Obama's modified terms. Americans get the joke. While Obama has made cost control a centerpiece of his public message, only about 20 percent of Americans, in one poll, believe Obama will keep his promise not to increase the deficit with health reform.

This is very very confused.  According to Gerson, a "crisis" means when people are "dissatisfied" with their health care.  People may indeed be satisfied with their health care on an individual level–they like the nurses and doctors who take care of them–but that is rather different from whether the system, the way health care is paid for, packaged, and delivered is in crisis or not.  That's not a question of perception at the individual level.  Most people seem to understand that and support health care system reform.

Indeed, had Gerson read the article he cites as evidence for his position, he would have noticed the following:

The reason for the apparent paradox is that even though most people are satisfied with their insurance, they harbor deep concerns about losing their coverage or their ability to afford it and medical care if costs continue rising. 

I have to wonder whether this shift in focus in the debate is not intentional.  Every adult knows what the issue at hand is.  It's not whether people like their doctors, or whether they like their current insurance coverage (when they have it).  

We have been talking about this issue for almost one hundred years in this country.  Other countries have figured out that you can get more, pay less, not euthanize your grandmother, and continue to maintain access to clinics that do not allow poor people.

Vengeance is Richard Cohen’s

Few places lend themselves to blood lust like the pages of our nations op-ed pages.  Want to know why so many have been thrust asunder in Iraq?  Go back to the winter of 2003, and read the op-ed pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post.  You'll find Thomas Friedman, noted Middle East expert, advancing the notion that the Middle East needs to be slapped around a bit with a war or that they need to see the mocking genitalia of American servicemen and women

Richard Cohen, on the other hand, is a kind of poor-man's Tom Friedman:

And yet revenge also suggests a proper concern for the dead. The people who died on Sept. 11, 2001, cannot simply be dismissed, erased — as if they had not been killed in a huge crime. It's not just that bin Laden is still at large. So are the Taliban members who sheltered him and stayed with him after Sept. 11. This should not be complicated: The killers of Americans ought to pay for what they've done. It is good foreign policy.

Perhaps I could rephrase a bit: the killers of Americans, and people near the killers of Americans, and future Americans who die in future revenge attacks for our very general notion of revenge, ought to pay for what they've done.   

Stay in school

On Tuesday the duly elected President of the United States will deliver a message to students across the land.  The message?  Stay in school.  Fair enough.  Reagan did it, so did Bush Sr.  Bush Jr., I remember, went to read to children in a school back in September of 2001.  Reagan and Bush Sr. delivered explicitly political messages (Reagan even talked about gun control).  Here, for your viewing enjoyment, is the reaction of one particularly unscrupulous right wing talker.  Key point: Obama's stay in school speech is "not entirely consistent with the idea of education." 


Serious Breaches of Trust

David Broder argues today that while he supports accountability for illegal acts and serious breaches of trust, he does not support investigating illegal acts and serious breaches of trust.  I have trouble putting these two claims together:

First, we should investigate and hold accountable the guilty:

My friend and fellow columnist Eugene Robinson has written a characteristically passionate and well-reasoned piece commending Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to name a special counsel to examine possible law-breaking by interrogators of terrorist subjects during the last administration.

But I think he is wrong.

First, let me stipulate that I agree on the importance of accountability for illegal acts and for serious breaches of trust by government officials — even at the highest levels. I had no problem with the impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon, and I called for Bill Clinton to resign when he lied to his Cabinet colleagues and to the country during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

I'm all for that as well.  Now the second claim:

Cheney is not wrong when he asserts that it is a dangerous precedent when a change in power in Washington leads a successor government not just to change the policies of its predecessors but to invoke the criminal justice system against them. 

Illegal acts.  The policies of the previous administration may have involved–may have involved–illegal acts.  Their being policies of an administration does not remove them from the realm of legal and illegal.  At least I hope it does not.  Broder continues.

I think it is that kind of prospect that led President Obama to state that he was opposed to invoking the criminal justice system, even as he gave Holder the authority to decide the question for himself. Obama's argument has been that he has made the decision to change policy and bring the practices clearly within constitutional bounds — and that should be sufficient

Accountability for illegal acts.  Now for some self-congratulation:

When President Ford pardoned Nixon in 1974, I wrote one of the few columns endorsing his decision, which was made on the basis that it was more important for America to focus on the task of changing the way it would be governed and addressing the current problems. It took a full generation for the decision to be recognized by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and others as the act of courage that it had been. 

It's hard for me to understand the logic of this argument.  If Broder took the position that Clinton should have been impeached for lying in a civil deposition (lying to the country and his cabinet colleagues was not the crime in question, I think) about the character of an adult consensual relationship with a former employee, then how does it not follow that much more serious crimes (such as torture, murder, conspiracy, etc.) deserve at least to be investigated by the criminal justice system? 

If you like it so much

This episode has been repeated all over the place, but I'll repeat it here, just because it is so absolutely emblatic of the dismal state of our public discourse on health care.  Maria Bartiromo, a CNBC financial reporter (no really), played the role of a health care pundit yesterday, asking New York Democratic Congressional Representative Michael Weiner, 44, why he wasn't on medicare if he liked it so much.  Here is their conversation:

REP. WEINER: Listen, Carlos talks about Canada. You talk about Europe. Let's talk about the United States of America, Medicare —

MS. BARTIROMO: You have to look at where there are public plans.

REP. WEINER: No. No. The United States of America, 40 percent of all tax dollars go through a public plan. Ask your parent or grandparent, ask your neighbor whether they're satisfied with Medicare. Now, there's a funding problem, but the quality of care is terrific. You get complete choice and go anywhere you want. Don't look at —

MS. BARTIROMO: How come you don't use it? You don't have it. How come you don't have it?

REP. WEINER: Because I'm not 65. I would love it.

MS. BARTIROMO: Yeah, come on.

Now this is an obvious attempt, I stress "attempt" at ad hominem tu quoque.  For those who are new to fallacy analysis, and ad hominem argument is one where you discount a person's view because of irrelevant (that's important) facts about that person.  There are a few ways of doing that.  One way is to call their character into question, assail them with insults, and so forth: "your view is wrong because you have a weight problem!"  Another way–a very common one among small children–is to charge irrelevant hypocrisy.  So if your doctor says smoking is bad, yet she smokes, challenging the truth of the view with the fact of her smoking is irrelevant.  The doctor means that smoking is bad for anyone–including herself.  Indeed, one of the reasons it is bad is because it's addictive.

Now in this circumstance, Bartiromo, who I am not kidding is a financial reporter for a major US business cable channel, alleges that Rep.Weiner is a hypocrite for not opting for a health plan (medicare) he is not eligible for.  That means he can't even be a hypocrite.  Now all of this is even more silly from the point of view of the public option–where the government would offer a low cost alternative to private insurance.  It's a public option–not a public requirement.

When I hear this stuff–which is all of the time–and then I hear the likes of Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for George W. Bush (think, "axis of evil" and other belligerent pro-life Christian phrases) pronounce:

The incompetence of President Obama's health-care reform effort is undeniable, and unexpected. 

No amount of competence could counter the massive lies, distortions, scare tactics, and sheer ignorance of what calls itself "opposition to health care reform."  That is the premise of Obama's "defeat."

The ____r is now the ____d

Richard Cohen watches too many movies.  For the basis of his op-ed on torture is the ticking time bomb scenario:

Call him Ishmael.

Call him a terrorist or a suicide bomber or anything else you want, but understand that he is willing — no, anxious — to give his life for his cause. Call him also a captive, and know that he works with others as part of a team, like the Sept. 11 hijackers, all of whom died, willingly. Ishmael is someone I invented, but he is not a far-fetched creation. You and I know he exists, has existed and will exist again. He is the enemy.

Now he is in American custody. What will happen? How do we get him to reveal his group's plans and the names of his colleagues? It will be hard. It will, in fact, be harder than it used to be. He can no longer be waterboarded. He knows this. He cannot be deprived of more than a set amount of sleep. He cannot be beaten or thrown up against even a soft wall. He cannot be threatened with shooting or even frightened by the prospect of an electric drill. Nothing really can be threatened against his relatives — that they will be killed or sexually abused.

He knows the new restrictions. He knows the new limits. He may even suggest to his interrogators that their jobs are on the line — that the Justice Department is looking over their shoulders. The tape is running. Everything is being recorded. He is willing to give up his life. Are his interrogators willing to give up their careers? He laughs.

This is really beginning to sound like a joke: the uber terrorist (played, believably, by Maori actor, Cliff Curtis), who knows our legal system and its "rights" so that his sneering makes Cohen's blood run cold.  What about that guy, he wonders, what about that guy?  

Well, I'll tell you what about that guy.  He is the basis of Cohen's "hard case" moral lesson.  A "hard case" should you wonder is a notion used by philosophers of law to think about the limits of general rules and such.  But it also sounds like the title of a legal-themed adult movie, which is closer to Cohen's point anyway.  Here's the moral lesson:

This business of what constitutes torture is a complicated matter. It is further complicated by questions about its efficacy: Does it sometimes work? Does it never work? Is it always immoral? What about torture that saves lives? What if it saves many lives? What if one of those lives is your child's?

Deep thinking.  What if blowing up a planet deep in space with creatures uniquely able to suffer pain infinitely saved your child?  Would you do it?  Well, would you?

In case you weren't shocked by your own willingness to torture people to save "many lives" or "your baby," maybe you'll be impressed by a little bit of absurd moral equivalence:

Attorney General Eric Holder has named a special prosecutor to see whether any of the CIA's interrogators broke the law. Special prosecutors are often themselves like interrogators — they don't know when to stop. They go on and on because, well, they can go on and on. One of them managed to put Judith Miller of The New York Times in jail — a wee bit of torture right there. No CIA interrogator can feel safe. The interrogators are about to be interrogated. 

No seriously, I didn't alter that at all.  He really wrote that.  We have reached new levels of badness here.  Skipping to the end:

The questions of what constitutes torture and what to do with those who, maybe innocently, applied what we now define as torture have to be removed from the political sphere. They cannot be the subject of an ideological tug of war, both sides taking extreme and illogical positions — torture never works, torture always works, torture is always immoral, torture is moral if it saves lives. Torture always is ugly. So, though, is the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center once stood.  

First you get a little bit of the "who's to say. . . in this complex modern world of ours" argument–call it the self-serving pseudo skeptical argument.  Then Cohen converts it into a full-tilt "both sides" are wrong, there must be some middle ground.  Top this off with an almost full tilt ever since 9/11 I've been enraged by Chappaquiddick