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Afghanistan
November 28, 2009

A variety of reports indicate that President Obama has decided to accede to the demands of advisors who want to expand the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. If that's the case, the main question remaining is whether the president is doing it because he believes the increase might be effective or whether he is simply surrendering to political pressure.

It appears to be an article of American faith that a politician will be damaged more by angering war mongers than by incurring the wrath of people who think that war and military occupation are ineffective and brutal. Whether this is true or not no one actually knows because no national politician has dared to challenge the ruling assumption. We can say many things about American politicians but seldom can we say that they are brave. They are surrounded by armies of advisors who specialize in telling them how to win the next election. And that goal seems almost always to mow down any other goal in its path.

The weak rationalization is that if you're not in office you can't carry out policies so the wise thing to do is to make any compromise that will keep you there. It's a vapid way of thinking but it has great influence among the political classes.

The reason I think that political expediency must have played a fairly significant role in Obama's decision is that the arguments for expansion were quite weak. I listened as carefully as I could to the people who were backing the McChrystal plan and not one of them was convincing. When you consider the vast expenditure in money, and probably in lives, that will come from sending thirty thousand more American soldiers to Afghanistan, it's hard to imagine any outcomes that would come close to balancing it.

The argument that adding thousands of Americans to the numbers already in Afghanistan will deny a "safe haven" to al Qaeda, a haven where they could devise plausible schemes to kill lots of Americans, is farcical. There are dozens of places around the world where al Qaeda people can make plans. There's no evidence that Afghanistan is a better place to do it than lots of other spots they might choose.

The contention that probably weighs most heavily in Obama's mind is that withdrawal while Afghanistan is still unsettled would be viewed by many as”defeat." Presidents are very fearful of being tagged with defeat, whether or not the label has any validity. So the expansion has to go forward and the prices have to be paid.

Each citizen will need to make a judgment about whether political realism -- as it's called -- justifies Obama's decision. I don't think it does, but that's because I am unusually concerned about the killings that American soldiers carry out. I think they damage not only the persons who are killed but our country's reputation and its citizens' well-being. Yet, I admit that's a minority opinion -- at least in the United States. It is definitely a majority opinion elsewhere in the world.

I'm not going to turn against Obama for this decision. I think I understand his reasons. But I will be disappointed if he does as most reporters are predicting.


Viewing the Past
November 27, 2009

Shlomo Sand's book, The Invention of the Jewish People, set off controversy in Israel, where it was first published, and now, with its translation into English, arguments about it have spread into the United States.

Sand's thesis is that the genetic descent of the Jewish people is quite different from what has been presumed in legend. Modern Jews, he says, for the most part did not descend from the people who lived in the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel. They had their origins in eastern Europe. The people in the Middle East now called Palestinians are just as much descendants from ancient Israel as modern Jews are.

The historical arguments for such claims and for opposing contentions are extremely murky. It is very hard to know what happened to a genetic line over the course of three thousand years. The evidence is seldom clear cut.

What seems to be the case now is that scholars frequently link their historical findings to current political issues. Sand has been quite open about this. His historical studies have been motivated by his desire to show that many of the claims made by the Israeli government are false. He is at least partially backed up by consensus among scholars. For example, not many historians believe any longer that a major portion of the Jewish population was ejected from Palestine after the uprisings against Rome in the first century and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. So the great tale that a whole people was forced out of its homeland, wandered for long centuries in exile, was repeatedly mistreated by the populations among whom they journeyed, and then, in the middle of the 20th Century, returned home again is more romance than it is history.

You might wonder why any of this matters very much to modern people. But the founding documents of the modern state of Israel are based to some extent on the story of exile and eventual return. If that story is not historically accurate, then justification for certain political acts is less sound than it was formerly thought to be.

It's pretty clear that none of this will lead to significant modification of the legal system in Israel. But it could, over time, affect how diplomatic negotiations are conducted. And it certainly could influence how the people of Israel view themselves.

This, however, is not simply an Israeli issue. Rather, the concepts that people all around the world hold about their past have major implications for how they conduct themselves in the present. Sand represents a developing phenomenon, that is minorities in many nations who want to tamp down claims of national grandeur in the interest of critical self-examination. The idea that certain nations are destined by fate, or by God, to achieve goals which end up being detrimental to other peoples has been the source of much modern conflict. If we try, say these historical critics, to view the past as honestly as we can we are less likely to get into bloody struggles with other nations because we consider ourselves to be elevated over them.

It's certainly a point pertinent to current American affairs. The notion of American exceptionalism, that is the idea that history has brought forth the United States at the present moment to serve as a model for all the world, forms the core of many of our foreign adventures. We went to Iraq, so say the promoters of that campaign, not for oil, not to eliminate anyone who posed a physical threat to the people of the United States, not to open an area of the Middle East to American investments, but, rather, to teach democracy to the Iraqis, so they could establish a smaller version of the United States in a region that had not been much given to resembling us.

People of critical mind dislike that sort of patriotic promotionalism. They find it suffocating. I suspect that such a reaction has had something to do with Mr. Sand's work and with the attitudes in Israel which support him. After all, governmental proclamations in Israel tend to be hyper-nationalistic, as they are here in the United States. People who are offended by them are still a minority but it's a growing minority. I wouldn't be surprised if the contest between romantic hyper-nationalists and critically-minded citizens turns out to be one of the defining struggles of the 21st Century all around the world.


A Boy in the Arena
November 26, 2009

Joan Biskupic's new biography of Antonin Scalia is receiving considerable attention, which it appears to deserve. The reviews convince me that she did her best to give a balanced picture of the Justice, one that ought to interest anyone concerned about the legal posture of the United States.

My favorite note about the book came from the author herself during a television interview. Scalia told her that during the Nixon/Ford administrations, he was not close to Dick Cheney but they encountered one another enough for Cheney to have an opinion of him. And that opinion was that Scalia was on the right team. The judgment seems still to be a matter of pride to the Justice.

I suspect that playing for the right team is one of Mr. Scalia's principal goals. In that view of things, it doesn't matter what position you play as long you help advance the team towards victory. It's a corollary position to the notion that life is a game which is either won or lost.

It's a clownish idea. "Game" is far from an adequate description for human life. Living to win is an adolescent concept of human existence. When a man holds onto that belief well past his step into nominal maturity, it marks him as a clownish figure, which I think Scalia is.

We have a skewed take on clowns in our society. We tend to think that clownishness removes a man from either influence or depredation. Yet many clowns have played vast historical roles. Their egos drive them to extreme positions.

Consider Justice John Paul Stevens's take on Scalia: "He's got to have the last word. But is it really worth it?"

It is to Mr. Scalia. To win and to shock the enemy while winning is his vision of the good life. His notion of reading the Constitution as nothing more than exactly what was in the minds of the framers works better as a weapon than as anything else. It assists him in attacking on all the fronts he sees as battles to be won. It allows him to be simultaneously cheerful and destructive. It's a teenager's version of cool. He's perfectly content to see an innocent man killed by the state as long as the man had a technically valid trial. Those are the rules of the game. And the game is everything. It is certainly superior to life itself.

Is man an appendage to the Sabbath or does the Sabbath serve man. Jesus and Scalia would play on different teams in resolving that question.

Ms. Biscupic tells us that at Georgetown Scalia learned that religion is a game of rules and that you can't separate those rules from the game of government.

I suppose it's charming that we have justices of the Supreme Court who can't grow up. But it's charming in a deadly fashion.


Scam Artists
November 25, 2009

There's a sign that will tell you beyond doubt that you're a target of deception and manipulation. That's when someone informs you that because you are not an expert like he is you can't understand the implications of what's being discussed and what's more will probably never be able to understand them.

A person who actually does know his subject matter -- and wants to speak truthfully -- is fully able explain anything well enough for generally competent people to understand it sufficiently to make reasonable decisions about it.

There have been at least two sure markers of scams in the news lately.

Ira Casson is a physician who has been the cochairman of the National Football League's committee on head injuries. He has consistently argued that there is not sufficient evidence to conclude that concussions lead to permanent brain damage. When Linda Sanchez, a member of Congress from California, challenged him on his stance, he replied, "I assume that the Congresswoman was not a scientist and not a physician. She is not an expert."

Casson recently resigned as the head of the NFL's committee and won't return phone calls from reporters. His expertise appears to have gone into deep hiding.

The Secretary of the Treasury has answered questions about his bailout of A.I.G., which involved giving the insurance giant full value for dubious securities, by saying that his critics are "untainted by experience." Now his critics are becoming legion, so many in fact that his hold on the Treasury appears threatened. I don't know if Mr. Geithner would say that Neil Barofsky is untainted by experience, but the Special Inspector General has issued a report saying, in effect, that Geithner, when he was head of the New York Federal Reserve, failed miserably to get the best deal for taxpayers and turned over billions to Wall Street that were not needed to stabilize the banking system.

Whether you're an expert or not, you can conclude that President Obama's decision to put Geithner at the head of the Treasury Department is turning out to be a disastrous choice. The non-expert evidence indicates -- and pretty strongly -- that Geithner cares a thousand times more about protecting the wealth of Wall Street plutocrats than he does about making life easier for non-millionaire citizens. In some circles, I'm sure, that's what experts do. But in today's political climate it won't win people at the center of national affairs many accolades.

Anyone who claims sufficient expertise to know for sure how complex affairs are going to turn out is either a fool or a charlatan. The reason complicated decisions are hard to make is that there are always factors present whose effects are extremely difficult to gage. The arrogance that attempts to boost itself by denigrating the intelligence of people who are sincerely trying to avoid unhealthy consequences is an expertise I think we could well do without.


The Inner Condition
November 24, 2009

At a local church I picked up a flyer listing "the seven major thought patterns of a spiritual person." After scanning through them I was left feeling that I must be the least spiritual person on earth. My thoughts don't fit with a single one of the patterns that spiritual persons evince.

"Gosh,” I thought to myself, "you'd think I would make at least one out of seven."

I was off on them all, but the one that really settled my absence of spirit was number 7: "I am one with the One, and with the Whole, and move in the creative flow of love and harmony." I'm not sure what it means to be one with the One because I don't know who he, or she, or it is. But to the degree I have a faint sense of the One, my main impulse is to kick him in the rear end.

Number 3 was also troublesome: "I am at the right place at the right time for the right reason." I suppose at times I've been at the right place, but not often. And I can tell you this for sure: there have been so many times I was in the wrong place that one of my most common exclamations -- to myself -- has been, "Lordy, how can I get out of here?"

The first one struck me as being plain out coarse, maybe even tacky: "I accept my heritage as a spiritual person. I am intelligent, intuitive, and inspired." Now you tell me, what kind of person would say, "I'm intelligent, intuitive and inspired." If you heard somebody say that at a cocktail party you'd think he was the biggest jerk you had ever met.

Being as unspiritual as I am is undoubtedly a pathetic condition but there is one tiny positive glimmer in it. When you go as far off the track as I am, you don't even know you're lost, don't even know there's a track. Not knowing about it relieves you from missing it. A guy told me once that I wouldn't really live until I had tasted a certain kind of wine. He may have been right. Who knows? But since I'm not likely ever to taste the magic nectar I may escape learning that my life is a sham.

Wandering in the wilderness, with no spirit to guide you, can be interesting. Though you don't have the slightest idea of where you are, you can be curious and peer around. Occasionally you see something that repays the watching.

If you tried to cram the entire list of thought patterns of a spiritual person into a single sentence, it would be, "Nothing bad can ever happen to you." That cinches it for me. Bad things have happened to me and those I love. Bad things will happen in the future. That's why I'm so spiritless as to want to head them off.


Inevitability
November 22, 2009

The political decree concerning Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is that, regardless of what is done or said at his trial, the government must kill him. Both the president and the attorney general have, in effect, already said so. Consequently, the judge, being a patriot as all judges must be, will overrule any claim by the defense that might lead either to an acquittal or a diminution of punishment. All these rulings will be appealed to higher courts, which out of their patriotism will confirm them.

As David Feige points out in a brilliant article in Slate, published November 19, 2009, the result of all this will be a batch of bad law. If the government had done to an ordinary murderer all the things it has done to Mohammed, the former would have a fair chance of getting off because his legal rights would have been so systematically and massively violated. But since Mohammed must be killed, the rulings that go along with killing him will enter into legal precedent, thus reducing the prospects of all future defendants in capital cases.

The sagacity of Osama bin Laden becomes ever more evident. He has said that all he and his compatriots needed to do was to make one effective strike against the United States and then sit back and watch the country tear itself apart. When future historians add up the injuries we have done to ourselves as a result of the attacks in September 2001, their work will be a casebook for all small bands of fanatics in how to bring down enemies supposedly much stronger than themselves.

Nonetheless politics must be served. U.S. Senators must pontificate about the evils of terrorism. Segments of our own population must be scrutinized more and more carefully, thus alienating some of them. The public lust for revenge must be placated. Mohammed must be killed.

In my fatuity and my abysmal minority status, I continue to wish that we would approach these problems less passionately and more rationally. The most healthy thing that could be done about Mohammed would be for a court to rule that though evidence shows he is guilty of murderous acts, his illegal treatment by the government takes away the government's authority to kill him. That would raise our stature throughout the world and testify that we are committed to fair treatment even in the most difficult of cases. But that wouldn't be patriotic.

The price of patriotism -- at least as we define it -- is quite high. It decrees that we regularly violate our own stated principles and, fairly often, turn ourselves into monsters. That might be not too bad if after these digressions we then returned to who we say we are. But that's not how things work. Digressions have consequences which linger -- and not just for a few years. Still, we have to be patriots -- most of us, at least -- and Mohammed has to be killed.


Less Than Desired Gap
November 21, 2009

If you think, as I do, that George Bush was about as harmful a president as the American people are likely to elect and that Barack Obama is as intelligent as we in our anti-intellectualism can stomach, then you might be asking yourself why there is not a stronger difference between the two administrations than there is.

We need to face the truth that the president, however influential he might be, can't reverse the direction of the country and the even more unpalatable truth that our national government, whoever the president is, will be a reasonably accurate incarnation of the spirit of the people. George Bush's government was not un-American any more than Barack Obama's is.

There's an inclination among the citizens to believe that their views are the true American stance and that anyone who opposes them is supporting attitudes antithetical to genuine American values. But to say such a thing is both illogical and untrue. Whatever you want to call real Americanism you can find strong forces in this country that are vehemently opposed to it. The liberal Enlightenment spirit of the Bill of Rights, for example, is detested by legions of citizens who are no less American for hating it. The first ten amendments to the Constitution, after all, are more a charter of liberties for all people than they are particular American rights. And there are vast numbers of citizens who think the only purpose of the nation is to privilege them more than other people.

Abraham Lincoln is no more American than Glenn Beck is. Rush Limbaugh is no less American than Ted Kennedy. Those who wish to use "American" as a synonym for anything they consider noble are destined to failure.

This is not to say that it doesn't make any difference who the president is. Actually it makes quite a bit of difference. Those who are disappointed in some of Mr. Obama's behavior since he took office - and that group includes me -- need to ask themselves how the country would be faring, right now, if John McCain were president.

Still, who the president is doesn't determine who we are. There may be some shift in our identity rising out of whom we select for the first office. But basically we remain the same people we were before the election took place. So we shouldn't be all that surprised to find that the government maintains certain fundamental characteristics from one administration to the next. None of the forces contending for power have gone away. None of the attitudes driving public passion have evaporated. All that power-seeking and belief finds a place in the government. There is no way they could not. We can hope for a shift of emphasis and that, indeed, is what we have found. Such shifts are significant. They aren't transformative.

Do you ever wonder why polling on certain matters changes so radically over short periods of time? Does it indicate that people have actually changed their minds? I don't think so. Dramatic poll changes are simply reflective of one wave of Americanism sloshing more to the fore than it did a month ago.

Everything that happens in this country, or that is done by this country, is American. The hospital with teams of physicians and nurses working tirelessly to save the life of a single child is equal in its Americanism to the hidden cells in hidden prisons where teams of government agents torture prisoners just as tirelessly. The predators that blow children off roofs to their deaths are just as American as the helicopters that lift children off roofs to save their lives during a flood.

If we want one sort of action to prevail over another we have to recognize that really changing our government means really changing ourselves. And that's a long, hard pull.


The Heroic Occupation
November 20, 2009

David Livingstone Smith's study, The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War, is at the least graphic. I defy anyone to read it and come away thinking that the actuality of war is anything like what we see depicted by Hollywood. For one thing it always stinks, literally. In the midst of war the odors emerging from bodies that have received war's treatment often cause those who are still alive to vomit.

The book's thesis is that war is ingrained in human nature. We have been programmed by evolution to resort to it. Does that mean it is and will continue to be inevitable? Maybe or maybe not. Smith doesn't offer strong hope that we can either rise above war or put it behind us, but he does suggest that if we are ever going to banish it we have to learn to see it for what it is and to see ourselves for what we are when we engage in it.

Neither of those exercises in truthfulness produces pretty pictures.

The main part of the study is an examination of the self-deceptions we have to embrace to convince ourselves that war is either practical or ennobling. We have to make ourselves into heroes and we have to make the enemy into beasts. All of the enemy's goals and motives have to be evil whereas all of ours have to glorious. No virtue can be accorded to the enemy. An act which when performed by our own forces is brave and valorous becomes fanatical and diabolical when the enemy does it. We have to celebrate, as Albert Einstein put it, "all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism."

Why do we have to twist truth so violently? Because evolution has also taught us to be helpful, cooperative and kind. The parts of our brains which rule in ordinary life find it nauseating to kill another person. In fact, people who do kill other persons, for whatever reason, usually sustain severe and lifelong psychological injuries. The American military is so aware of this it is conducting scientific research to develop drugs that will allow soldiers to kill without guilt. We can only wonder what, when it is developed, its side effects might be.

It has been recognized for a long time that the best soldiers are psychopaths. It has even been suggested, says Smith, that a nation should resort to the psychopathic element in its population to staff its armies. The problem of following that path has been, first, that there aren't enough psychopaths to fill the ranks that nations believe they need, and, second,  that there might be difficulties with the heroes after their battle is over and they return to their barracks.

The most intriguing portions of the book describe what combatants do when they have, in one way or another, managed to shed their inhibitions and get into the spirit of things. Here, for example, is one fairly riveting passage:

Mothers were skewered on swords as their children watched. Young women were
stripped and raped in broad daylight, then set on fire. A pregnant woman's belly was
slit open, her fetus raised skyward on the tip of a sword and then tossed onto one of
the fires that blazed across the city.

You may think this is an account from one of the assaults of Genghis Khan but actually it's a report from the New York Times of July 27, 2002, treating a clash between Muslim and Hindu forces in India.

We don't have to read about stuff like this in the newspapers, though. We can go to the Good Book itself.

Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, his sons and his
daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the valley
of Achor. Josuah said, "Why have you brought this trouble on us? The Lord will bring
trouble on you today." Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest,
they burned them.

Keep in mind that this was called for by no less a figure than God -- that is if we can believe Joshua.

If you believe, by the way, that events of this kind are carried out only by non-Americans, Mr. Smith will pretty quickly disabuse you of that notion.

Smith's style is readable so if you would like to get a reasonably quick take on what sort of creatures you live among, The Most Dangerous Animal is not a bad place to start.


Incoherence
November 19, 2009

The Obama administration, led by Eric Holder, has got itself into a huge mess by deciding to try some suspects from Guantanamo in real courts and some in military tribunals. Holder can't give a rational reason for the division and every time he tries he looks foolish.

How can supposedly intelligent people make such a stupid mistake?

I have a theory.

From the start of his presidency Mr. Obama decided to mollify defense and intelligence agency mad dogs by occasionally tossing them hunks of meat. He didn't want them tearing him down from within his own administration and there were so many of them he couldn't weed them all out. I admit, it's a grievous problem for any president who wants to be sensible.

Obama's error was in thinking that war mongers can be pacified. Their essence leads them to be on the attack always. There is no way to win them over to your side unless you join them. Then, you haven't won them, they've won you.

Defense and intelligence agency zealots want the authority to do anything they wish to anyone they decide to call an enemy of the United States. They don't want to be limited by the Constitution or by international law or by treaties entered into by the United States. When they violate these laws and agreements they want to justify it on the basis of national security. And they want to be applauded for the violations.

You can't give them enough meat.

The only sound strategy Obama could have adopted with respect to them would have been to hold them in check with a firm hand. He chose not to do that.

Holding them in check would not have been easy. It would have been an endless headache. They would continuously have sought to undermine his authority through leaks and connections with right-wing politicians. But that's what they're going to do in any case.

I don't know how Obama can get out of the trouble he has caused himself by continuing cankered Bush policies on war making and spying. To adopt the stance he should have taken from the beginning will be twice as hard now. But at the least he's got to put his foot down on nonsense like military tribunals. As long as he plays around with that sort of tough-guy posturing he will look weak to his supporters. And his inveterate foes will give him no credit for it whatsoever.


The Big Clog
November 19, 2009

It becomes increasingly clear that the principal political problem we face in the United States now is the set of bizarre rules the Senate has somehow adopted for its procedures. They make no sense and they seem to have been designed to make no sense. I don't profess to understand them in detail but their effect is to prevent actions supported by a majority from ever being brought to a vote.

I understand that any legislative body must have procedures for bringing legislation to its official attention. Otherwise it would be swamped with frivolous and greedy proposals. But it is not necessary for a legislative body to tie itself in knots the way the Senate currently does. Bills could be reported out of appropriate committees and then voted on by the whole body.

As far as I can tell, the underlying cause for the tangled procedures in the Senate is an internal faith in pomposity which has seized the whole body. Senators seem to believe that they are so grand and gloriously wise that any one of them should have the right to put the nation on hold while he, or she, preens before special interest groups and sucks money out of them. It's a disgusting situation but one so in the weeds, as we say, that the American public can't take hold of it.

The most offensive procedure now thwarting the public will and undercutting obviously needed action is the silliness of allowing forty percent of the Senators to prevent a vote by threatening to filibuster it. The minority doesn't actually have to conduct a filibuster; they just have to say they will. I have not heard a single senator defend this mode of action in the abstract. But practically all of them are eager to use it when it serves their interests. This they will do within months of having declaimed against it.

When they are presented with their inconsistency, they will say as Alabama's Jeff Sessions said recently, the rules have changed. That's enough. They don't have to say what rules they are talking about, or how they got changed, or who changed them. In other words, they retreat to meaningless blather when they want to get away with the indefensible. That's the way of our august Senate. And we let its members get away with it.

It is wise for a political system to adopt provisions whereby a minority can defend its basic human rights against an inflamed and prejudiced majority. If measures of that sort weren't available certain injustices would persist indefinitely. For example, restrictions denying full civil rights to black citizens would not have been eliminated by majority votes in the House and Senate. That's why careful adherence to basic constitutional rights should be maintained in a democracy regardless of what a majority might wish to do.

On the other hand, ordinary legislation not involving unfair treatment of any definable group should be within the grasp of a majority and should not be undercut just because a financial interest is willing to pay for its blockage. To the degree Senate rules enable that sort of purchase to be made they are destructive of public health.

In this country right now we are close to a situation in which a large portion of the U.S. Senators are little more than commodities. The rules of our national legislature are helping that condition to continue. Citizens need to wake up, see what's going on, and sweep these archaic, corrupt rules into the dust bin.


Actual Motive
November 18, 2009

We need to clarify what the real concern of right-wingers is with respect to the trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in New York. It has nothing to do with danger to the American public or threats to New Yorkers.

When the right warns against a cornucopia of intelligence that will be released during a trial they mean only one thing. They're not talking about intelligence in its normal definition. Rather they're worried that the defendants will simply speak of what was done to them.

The common argument on the right is that the trials will give terrorists a soapbox to spread their propaganda. It's a nonsensical charge. Nothing would serve as a greater propaganda coup for Al Qaeda sympathizers than the right-wing desire to try people in hidden kangaroo courts and then kill them. Over and again we have learned that actions of that sort are the most powerful recruiting tool Al Qaeda has.

I just heard Andrew McCarthy being interviewed by John Hinderaker of Power Line, a right-wing web site.  McCarthy is a former U.S. Attorney who now writes for The National Review. He has been out loudly beating the drums against the New York trials. He says that we should have accommodated Mohammed's desire to be executed when he admitted planning the 9/11 attacks. He didn't explain, however, why Mohammed wanted to be executed in that fashion. It's interesting that during the conversation Hinderaker blurted out, "Let's just shoot him."

The most interesting thing McCarthy said was that Mohammed's revelations of what was done to him could result in criminal investigations of Bush administration practices. That's what the right wing is afraid of. It's their only genuine concern about the trials. McCarthy and virtually all other right-wing pundits know that what was done was criminal. He would argue it was only technical criminality and more than justified by the circumstances but still it involved breaking the law.

He suggested that danger would come not from the U.S. judicial system, which is probably too timid to bring criminal charges against Bush officials. Instead it could arise in international courts. If prosecutors there have clear evidence of how the U.S. military and the CIA treated prisoners suspected of having some connection to Al Qaeda they could proceed with charges of war crimes.

Evidence of that sort is what the right wing means by a "banquet for intelligence gathering" (McCarthy's words).

You can think what you wish about the justification of criminal acts by the Bush administration. But you ought not let yourself be fooled into believing that the furor over the New York trials is about anything other than that.


Ancient History
November 15, 2009

You may recall that when Alberto Gonzales was forced out of the Justice Department for being a dope he was replaced by Michael Mukasey. I remember thinking at the time that I was sorry to see it happen. I had a sneaking affection for Mr. Gonzales. He was like a puppy. And he did have the virtue of never pretending to know what was going on.

At this point, I'm facing a dilemma. I have no word I feel happy using to describe Mr. Mukasey. In any case, my premonition that the replacement was going to result in a decline in what the Justice Department is supposed to do for us was confirmed. Mukasey did say that torture performed by American officials was illegal. But since he was incapable of saying what torture was, the illegality became immaterial. In fact, Mukasey was ingenious in his ability to make any illegality committed by the Bush administration immaterial. His constructions seemed to  extend to any conceivable action administrative functionaries might take.

I notice now that Mukasey is back in the news (I hope briefly). He went to the Federalist Society in Washington and denounced Eric Holder for deciding to hold trials of certain prisoners from Guantanamo in New York. He didn't go so far as to say that these prisoners would get away if taken to New York. But he did say their appearance there would cause the city to become a focus for more murders. I don't know what means. If a place is a focus for murders, does that mean murders will actually take place? Maybe; maybe not. Who knows? But it sounds bad.

Murder, however, is not the main thing the trials in New York will cause. They will constitute a "cornucopia" of intelligence for our enemies. It's difficult to imagine what either enemies or friends will learn from the trials that they didn't know already. Perhaps some extra details of torture will come out. Yet enemies are already convinced that the use of torture by the United States is unrestrained. So it's unlikely they will hear of anything they didn't already believe.

Even worse, perhaps, is that the trial, according to Mr. Mukasey, will become a circus. I've noticed that right-wingers quite often describe trials as circuses. I guess circuses are self-evidently bad. These charges leave me wondering if the right wing would prefer to do away with trials altogether. If that's what they want, what are the alternatives? Should we just kill everybody we don't like or suspect we don't like? Should we cast aside the right of habeas corpus and dump people into holes forever? Mukasey probably would not take a position on such proposals, but his arguments do contain implications.

It may be true that most citizens of the United States are indifferent to the Attorney General and are uncertain about what he does. So the lucubrations of former Attorney Generals probably don't register much on the civic mind. But Mukasey's pronouncements do serve to remind me that I'm glad he's no longer in the office. His use of language accelerated rot of the public brain.


A Passion Over the Top
November 14, 2009

In the United States we love furor. But the hullabaloo over the upcoming trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in New York is pushing our amour to demented levels.

The New York Times this morning has a lead article titled "9/11 Trial Poses Unparalleled Legal Obstacles for Both Sides." The difficulty is that the article itself doesn't mention any obstacles that strike me as unparalleled.

ABC heralds that the trial is risky. But when you get to what the network is actually saying, it turns out the risks are legal and political and have nothing to do with threats to life or limb.

The biggest risk, as far as I can tell from reading and listening to many commentators, is that something might happen during the trial that would prevent the government from killing Mohammed. That would be a total disaster, wouldn't it? We've managed to torture him, perhaps as much as anyone has ever been tortured, so now it would be heartbreaking if we couldn't complete the process by bumping him off. The spirit of all Americans would be dealt a grievous blow. The nation might crumble as a result.

John Boehner, the Republican House leader, warns that the trial will endanger "the safety and security of the America people." The only reason the Obama administration is doing it is to coddle special interest groups (unnamed, of course). How the trial will threaten the safety and security of the American people also remains unspecified. Since, in the Republican mind, the safety and security of the American people is put in danger every second by the existence of Democrats, it's hard to see how the danger can be amplified. But there are, of course, times when we need to be even more frightened than we are ordinarily. And this is one of those times.

Those who are terrified (and terrorized) by the thought of the trial seem to want Mohammed tried in some deep hole in Guantanamo, so that nobody can ever, ever, know what went on there. That would prevent Mohammed from using the trial as a propaganda platform, which he will surely do if the trial takes place in the Big Apple. This trepidation appears to misunderstand how propaganda works. Those who are somewhat less than enthralled by the United States as the beacon of hope and freedom for people everywhere are already using Guantanamo as a potent symbol of their misguided mistrust. If Mohammed is tried and then killed secretly -- as he surely would be as the result of a Guantanamo procedure -- the symbol will then gain added power. If we wish to make Mohammed into a shining martyr, whose appeal will last for decades and recruit many young men who will dedicate their lives to killing Americans, the Guantanamo strategy is perfectly suited.

It's inevitable that a trial of this sort will draw attention. But to transform it from a legal procedure into gigantic political theatre is bound to publicize all the features critics say ought to be damped down. But that love of furor: it's really something, isn't it?


Less Than Seven Years Ago
November 13, 2009

The revelation by the New York Times that Peter Galbraith has gigantic financial interests in Kurdish oil fields has set off in me a chain of recollection which though it may not be "news" still strikes me as worth recording. I'm not sure that Mr. Galbraith's business concerns undermine his foreign policy recommendations as completely as some of his critics are saying. But they are troubling.

They lead me to recall the atmosphere in the spring of 2003, when George Bush and his cohorts were ramping up their campaign for war. In March of that year, Mr. Galbraith signed a public letter calling for the invasion of Iraq. He was joined in that epistle by, among others, Bill Kristol, Max Boot, and Robert Kagan. It's not a trio I would want to be attached to.

The Washington Post lauded the letter. You might even say they went goo goo over it. At the same time Richard Cohen and David Brooks, columnists who like to present themselves as thoughtful, moderate voices, were writing some of the vilest opinion pieces ever to be foisted on the American public. Cohen, for example, after Dennis Kucinich suggested that the desire to control Iraq's oil had something to do with the rush to war, asked, "How did this fool get on Meet the Press?" There has been considerable evidence since that quite a few people pushing for the war had some thoughts about oil profits, so, perhaps, Mr. Kucinich was not quite so foolish as Cohen supposed.

My point in noting this brief history lesson is to remind us of how quickly we forget the atmosphere of just a few years ago and the secondary figures who played such a large part in creating it. We don't hear much of Richard Perle now, but his presence was fairly potent then and the consequences of his actions are still bearing on our lives.

I remember thinking in the spring of 2003 that the pronouncements of leading government figures and establishment journalists constituted the nastiest, most untruthful commentary I had ever heard in my life.  It was a brew so toxic, so lethal, I thought it would remain sharp in the memory of everyone who experienced it. I was wrong about that. Memory is America's least developed ability because, after all, we need to move on.

What do Americans think about the hundreds of thousands of lives the invasion of Iraq destroyed? It may be the case that since few Americans knew any of the people who were slaughtered, they don't much care. That brings up our second least developed ability, imagination. It takes only a little of it to project oneself into the feelings of a mother whose baby has just been blown to bits by bombs, even though we might not know her name, or where she lived, or when her baby was born. The event itself ought to have some influence on one's thought. If it doesn't that person must be in a state of mania.

If human life is something to be guarded and protected, then taking it away is not a thing to be done recklessly. I don't think there's any doubt among rational people that the invasion of Iraq was an act of recklessness.

I am brought back to the odious letter of March 19, 2003. I don't know what Peter Galbraith had in mind when he signed it. I don't know whether oil was in his thoughts. I don't know if he imagined the human bodies that were bound to be ripped apart if his advice were followed. Yet it does leave me a bit queasy to think of his making tens of millions of dollars off of a connection that would not have been possible had the invasion not taken place. I find it hard to forget that.


Who We Follow
November 12, 2009

The editors of the Atlantic Monthly have compiled a list of the fifty most influential opinion makers in America. These they call "The Atlantic 50."

I've just spent a few minutes poring over the top twenty on the list and have discovered that seven of them are almost complete numbskulls. That's 35%.

Come to think of it, that percentage may well be an accurate measure of the portion of the U.S. population that lacks good sense.

We have to take into account that about half our fellow citizens have no sense at all with respect to public issues. Many of this half may be sweet and pleasant persons, but if asked, they couldn't start to distinguish the policy differences between Joe Leiberman and Ron Paul -- and so on. I really don't know what to think about them. Some of them do vote, of course, but for what purpose I can't imagine.

My point is, it's probably useful to acknowledge the separation between indifference and absurdity, slight as that difference may be so far as policy formulation goes.

Returning to the 35%, whom I guess I have just reduced to 17.5%, I am curious about why they can have the influence on our collective behavior that they do.

One reason is that they tend to make more noise than other people. Mere noise ought not to drive policy but I'm afraid that in America it does. We ought to examine why we are more susceptible to noise than other nations -- if we are -- but that would be a long, grueling and controversial enterprise.

The main reason, I suspect, is that they are not restrained by respect for either truth or reason. They can, and will, say anything that gives them emotional satisfaction. Consequently, they get the ear of the media more easily because what they say is more sensational than what anybody else says. The media like sensation. It drives up ratings, which is pretty much what the media are about.

Consequently, this somewhat less than 20% of our people constitute an ongoing challenge to social well-being. We don't yet know how to deal with them. It would be nice if we could just ignore them but since they are untruthful, irrational and loud that doesn't seem to be possible.

Dealing with them is long-term work, and since it is we can be grateful to the Atlantic for listing their voices. Their list gives us a place to start.


Rights and the Deceased
November 12, 2009

The CNN commentator Wolf Blitzer has drawn considerable attention for raising the question of why John Galligan, a former Army lawyer, should defend Nidal Hasan.

Mr. Galligan answered Blitzer's question competently, noting that the the America legal system provides that all persons accused of crimes should receive legal counsel. It was the obvious response to a creepy question. But Blitzer couldn't let it go at that. He found it necessary to assert that he was sure Hasan would get more due process than the people who were murdered at Ft. Hood.

Blitzer seems not to know what murder is. People who are murdered receive no due process. That's the nature of the act. As a result of it they are dead. They have lost their being. There remains a memory of them in the minds of those who knew them, and if we can speak of a memory having rights then it deserves to be grieved over and commemorated. But the dead person is gone and, consequently, not capable of getting anything.

We have a loose way of saying that we provide "justice" to a murdered person by convicting his or her killer. But that's nonsense. There's no justice for a dead person. He's dead and, therefore, removed beyond any human treatment, whatever it might be.

It's our refusal to face the nature of death that brings forth specious blather like that practiced by Blitzer yesterday. It also keeps us from grasping the full enormity of murder. If we tell ourselves that we can give a murdered person justice we feel that we have somehow lessened the impact of the deed. But we have done nothing for the dead person because we can't. Death is the removal of the possibility to do anything for the former person. That's the reason murder is so hideous; it takes away everything.

After a murder, we are left with the problem of what to do about it. But it's our problem, not the dead person's. Whatever we do, it will have an effect only on the living, not on the dead.

We provide counsel to persons accused of crimes not only to protect them against false accusation. We do it because they remain living persons, no matter what they did. And somewhere in the dim reaches of our minds we understand that if any person is to be assured of fair treatment then we must work to construct a system where all persons will get fair treatment. And fair treatment involves more than acquittal in cases where someone has been falsely accused.

The mind of Wolf Blitzer is evidently so dim he can't understand that there are questions other than whether the accused person did it. That's why John Galligan is serving as counsel to Nidal Hasan. It would be a great blessing to the world if we had more persons with the character of Mr. Galligan, and fewer who actually think in media-speak.


National Weirdness
November 10, 2009

The time has come to ask whether the United States has become such a freakish nation that collective action to benefit all the people of the country is now impossible.

Consider:

  • A Republican Congressman brings a six month old baby onto the floor of the House, holds her up, and announces that this is Mattie and that she believes in patient-controlled health care and freedom, this while Mattie, staring about her, seemed to register no belief whatsoever but rather total astonishment that the world even exists.

  • A former politician, considered by the media to be such a major figure that she may become president, reveals that she is disturbed because the inscription on new coins has been moved nearer to the coins' edge. This, to her, presages something ominous.

  • A justice of the Supreme Court proclaims that, in the interest of retribution, we should seek lifelong punishment of teenagers who commit serious crimes.

  • The Pew Public Perceptions Poll informs us that 14% of the population thinks that Fox News is mostly liberal.

  • The CEO of the nation's largest bank tells a reporter that he's really a blue collar guy, and that he's working for a social purpose even though in 2007 he paid himself $68 million and owns more than half a billion dollars in his company's stock.

  • Two leading U.S. senators want the United States to launch a military attack on Iran so that Israel won't have to do it and thus become more unpopular than it is already.

  • A Congresswoman warns against the influence of Muslims by saying, "Look who runs all the convenience stores across America."

  • A leading cleric, who draws crowds of thousands, supports his faith by saying that he asks God to find him good parking spaces and that God often comes through.

  • A former president of the United States signs up to be a speaker at an event which is described by its organizers as a seminar which "packs more into a single, life changing day than any other event in America."

  • The nation, in 1968, sells $36.4 billion worth of weapons to the rest of the world -- out of a total international trade of $53 billion -- while its politicians regularly proclaim it to be the greatest champion of peace history has ever known.

  • A senator from Oklahoma is going to the international conference on climate change in Copenhagen, at the head of ”Truth Squad," to announce proudly that the Senate will do nothing to reduce air pollution.

  • A poll done in a northeastern state finds that 18% of the residents there who call themselves conservatives think that the president of the United States is the Antichrist.

  • The same Supreme Court justice who is up on retribution announces that "This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is actually innocent."

I could continue, but you get the point. In any large populace there will be, of course, vicious and unbalanced people. But if that percentage of the population rises well into double figures, then society as a whole begins to be paralyzed. If we're not at that point now in the United States, we're pretty close to it. When considerable numbers begin to shout that an attempt to extend health care to everyone is the same thing as Nazi genocide, we're not in a healthy condition. And what's worse, we don't, at the moment, have a medicine to cure ourselves.


Relevant?
November 9, 2009

Here are messages from a set of signs at the recent Tea Party march on Washington:

Amensty

Make English America's offical Language

Not A Extremist
Just Extremy Over-Taxed
No Amesty

No Amnety

Obama Has a Crisis of Competnce

Birth Certififiet
Where Obama

America Help Us Boycott Mexico
Respect Are Country
Speak English

This is America and our only Lanaguage is English

One Hugh Mistake America

Get a Brain! Morans

Thank You Fox News For Keeping Us Infromed

I'm reminded of when I would point out irregularities in grammar and spelling on my students' papers. I would often be told, "Well, you know what I meant."

Sometimes I did. Sometimes not.

I don't guess it really matters if people use peculiar spelling on protest signs. Maybe they paint up their complaints in ill-lighted garages. These signs, though, do afford a certain tone to the nature of the event where they appeared. And I suspect that tone is a fairly accurate measure of the mentality of the protesters.

I see that Sarah Palin is warning about the movement of the engraving "In God We Trust" to the edge of new coins. Even though the placement of the engraving was approved by President Bush, Ms. Palin says it's a disturbing development. I guess once "In God We Trust," is close to the edge it could be shoved right off.

It's comforting that we're having these many dangers pointed out to us. Patriots, these days, are everywhere.


Ft. Hood
November 7, 2009

Murder is a hideous act. Perhaps it's even more hideous when the persons killed were selected randomly, though I'm not sure about that. But in any case, when murder occurs, that's what should be the focus of our attention.

If someone decides to take the lives of other people, it's the decision to kill that ought be of primary concern. The attitudes, beliefs, and opinions that led up to the murder are so secondary they shouldn't be talked about in the same breath. After all, murders are said to occur for all sorts of so-called reasons - because someone is jealous, because someone is frustrated in traffic, because someone feels he has been insulted. But these are not the actual reasons. Most of us have been, at sometime, jealous, frustrated by other drivers, insulted. Our response was not to go out and commit murder.

It's true that certain subjects may have greater potential to push people over the edge than others. Religion, for example, is so packed with intensity it can, and often has, driven people crazy. We all know this. But usually when a person of a particular religious group does something terrible we don't castigate the beliefs of the other members of that group.

We have in the United States a much higher murder rate than occurs in any other Western nation. For example, the American murder rate is six times as high as it is in Germany. You would think we would be interested in why. Yet outside fairly narrow sociological circles and groups of civil rights activists that question is seldom examined. It's unlikely that Americans are more frustrated, more jealous, more insulted than other people. So, the ostensible "reasons" for murder are not an explanation. We need to know why, in America, killing is so often selected as a way of responding to dissatisfactions. Yet we make little effort to find out.  Truth is, murder, as murder, doesn't draw a great deal of attention in the United States.

We are obsessed with the supposed motives of killers. These are spun out endlessly, and often quite ignorantly, on countless TV shows. If someone is disgruntled, we go on forever about the disgruntlement -- was it justified, was it insane, was it unpatriotic, was it petty? We don't find it bizarre, though, that someone should choose to kill other people as a result of disgruntlement.

Might it be that our expectation lies at the core of the explanation? We expect angry people to resort to murder. It becomes normal to say that if a person is angry enough he'll try to kill someone. So, we concentrate on the emotion and not the act. We bemuse ourselves with the notion that if we can subdue certain attitudes, certain beliefs, certain emotions then bad things won't happen. But the bad thing is not the emotion; the bad thing is the choice to kill.

If it's terrible to kill in one situation then it's terrible to kill in all situations. That's not to say that killing is never a sane option regardless of circumstances. Sometimes it is. But it's still terrible.

I suspect we have so much murder in the United States because we, in the main, don't think of killing as terrible. Often we believe it's just the right thing to do to solve our problems. And if we as a society think that, then the idea will filter down to individuals. Keep in mind that almost every murderer, at the moment of killing, thinks he is achieving something by taking other people's lives.


Stagnation
November 6, 2009

The political theme of the moment is that Obama, by trying to appease Republicans, lost the initiative that would have allowed him to win victories for himself and for the nation. I'm not sure that hypothesis is correct but I tend to think it is.

An element of knowing your enemy is to face the truth that he is, indeed, your enemy. Obama appears to have been beguiled by the notion that Republicans and Democrats could join hands and march together towards national grandeur. He forgot that what one party sees as grandeur the other sees as hell. The difference between Republicans and Democrats is not a quarrel over tactics. It is rather clashing desires about what they want the nation to be.

If everything Obama wants were brought into being and if it proved to function just as he said it would, the Republicans would still hate it. They don't want everybody to have health care. They think it should be reserved for people who deserve it, and it turns out that those who deserve it, in Republicans' minds, are people much like themselves. They are not racists or bigots, you know; they just don't like anyone who is not the same as they are. Consequently, there could not be health reform, no matter how well it worked or how little it cost, that Republicans would approve.

What we can say about health care, we can say about any other national policy -- foreign affairs, infrastructure, schools, environmental measures, banking, food supply, public religion and so on. Anything Democrats supported in those endeavors, Republicans would hate, and vice versa.

It would be pleasant if the adherents of the two major parties were not so at odds with one another. But they are and there's no sense in trying to hide from the truth.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats make up a majority of the nation. Together they probably comprise slightly over half. The rest are called independents, and the great political wisdom has pronounced that winning over the independents is the key to political heaven. There remains a question, though: what will win them?

Most political pundits go about answering that question in the wrong way because they don't know the nature of the people they are trying to answer it about. The wise heads think that if they can discover what the independents want, they can tell either party how to woo them. The truth, though, is that the independents don't want anything, or at least not anything that can be articulated in political terms. With rare exceptions the independents simply want everything to be okay so that they can feel good. This, they are convinced, they deserve.

So what is it that wins them over? Perceived success. If the Democrats seem to be carrying their program, the independents will flock to them. And they will flock just as avidly towards the Republicans if the GOP seems to be in the driver's seat.

Those who seize the initiative, regardless of what their opponents think, are the darlings of the independents. The Republicans understand this more clearly than the Democrats do. There is, however, one qualification of the rule. The initiative to be seized has to fall within the broad confines of sanity. This is a point the Republicans have missed.

You can, for example, pursue an aggressive foreign policy and carry the independents with you. But if you start talking about dropping atomic bombs on Iran, then the independents will begin to mumble and shake their heads.

It remains to be seen whether Obama has some long-range strategy that will catapult him to an appearance of success after having lulled his enemies by a deceptive timidity. I hope that's the case. Right now, though, I'm not sure it is.


The Way It Ought To Be
November 5, 2009

One of the heartening stories of medical research over the past decade has been the creation of a drug to control blood cancer which has, beyond doubt, saved thousands of lives. Since one of those lives belongs to my son-in-law, I have taken a strong interest in this discovery, and so I am glad to learn that the trio who built the drug, Brian J. Drucker, Nicholas B. Lydon and Charles L. Sawyers have won the Lasker-BeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, the most prestigious prize in American medicine.

Before the drug, sold as Gleevec, became available, sufferers from chronic myeloid leukemia were virtually doomed. Those over forty had maybe a year to live, that is if they wanted to delay their deaths by taking a medication that made them sick all the time.  Younger patients could risk a bone marrow transplant, which was extremely dangerous. Even those who survived it often had severe after effects.

Now, with Gleevec, those with myeloid leukemia can look forward to a normal life. It does, occasionally, have some unpleasant side effects but they are minor compared to what a patient with leukemia would have faced earlier.

Claudia Dreifus of the New York Times published an interview with Brian Drucker a few days ago, in which he explained how Gleevec came to be and what happened to patients before they could get it. It's a graphic story. During the latter part of the interview he also explained that he hasn't made a penny from the marketing of Gleevec. Two hundred thousand people around the world are now taking it and, as a consequence, are living rather than dying. Drucker says that's more than enough reward for him.

We don't need to feel sorry for Drucker. He's a leading research physician and has, I'm fairly sure, a more than decent income, which he amply earns. But I think it is worthwhile to compare him and his motives with those for whom the marketing of drugs is simply a means to rake in lots of money. Most of them, of course, don't discover anything. They just get patents and use them to sell drugs at high prices (Gleevec, by the way, costs a lot and Drucker has nothing to do with its price).

The basic problem in the world today is how we can get more people like Drucker and fewer like the heads of most big banks and corporations. We're not making much progress in that direction because our values are less than sterling. Still that's all the more reason to admire researchers like Drucker, who are using their brains and talent to make the world a less hideous place.

You can be sure of this: before Gleevec, myeloid leukemia was hideous.


A Mythical Point
November 4, 2009

Perhaps the most hoary admonition in American politics is the directive to move towards the center if you want to be successful. But what if you don't know where the center is? Even more puzzling, what if there is no center?

I confess that if I wanted to be a centrist I would have no idea what to do. How would I express my centrism? How would I change my current naive support of policies I think are healthy and opposition to those I think are harmful?

Take health care for instance. Republicans don't want health care reform. Democrats want changes that would make medical attention available to anyone who needed it. What does a centrist want? Changes that wouldn't make any difference?

If you run through the various issues that are driving political struggle in this country -- Afghanistan, rebuilding the infrastructure, strengthening employment, making big banks less toxic, investment in medical research, civil liberties, incarceration practices -- it's hard to know what the centrist position is or what it would produce.

The centrist problem is related to the question of how to appeal to independents, who are said to be the fastest growing segment of the electorate. Independents are people who don't want to associate themselves with either of the two principal political parties. But what does that tell you about what they do want? You could be a fascist and be independent; your neighbor could be a communist and independent. What might a politician say to the two of you together to win you over?

As far as I can tell, an independent centrist is generally a blank. He's a guy who sits around and says, "I don't know about all of this stuff. None of it makes much sense to me." Then when you ask him what does make sense, he says, "Well, I don't know; I just want them to do something that's good."

I'm weary of people who are independents and centrists. And I'm even more weary of the argument that appeals to them are the only means to achieve political success.

What's wrong with knowing what you support and why you support it? Is that terribly radical? Is it un-American?

There is no such thing as a centrist policy in the United States, and therefore no way to march to political glory by advocating it. The centrist prize will always slip away from the grasp of anyone who tries to seize it. It's the goal of people who don't have any goals. It's emptiness idealized.


Rake-Offs
November 3, 2009

The insurance giant Kaiser Permanente has compiled a series of charts depicting the costs for various medical procedures in the United States and Europe. In every case the cost in the United States is higher than elsewhere. Consider a CT scan, for example. In England, a scan costs $161; in the United States it costs between $950 and $1800, depending on where you get it.

In England, the $161 is sufficient to pay for everything necessary to complete the scan -- that is, the room, the scanning equipment, the salaries of the technicians, et cetera. But in the United States you have to pay about $1200 more to get the same thing. The question is, who gets the $1200. And the answer is, lots of people who have nothing to do with the effectiveness of the scan.

What enterprise means, basically, in America is finding ways to rake money out of processes without contributing anything to them. We think that's smart; we think that's clever; we think that demonstrates initiative. So many people have been doing it for so long they have come to think of it not only as normal but as a right to which they're entitled. And then we ask: why is reform so hard?

In the United States we fail to do much that needs doing because we spend our money on rake-offs rather than on useful products and services. We don't build and staff good schools. We don't have highways and bridges in good repair. We don't have an adequate electrical network. We don't generate energy in intelligent ways. We don't clean up the environment. And why not? Because hundreds of billions are going each year to people whose entire function is to milk the system.

You could argue, I suppose, that these people use the money they get to buy stuff, and thus to support the economy. The trouble is, they don't buy the things that make for a healthy society. The goods and services we need the most in the country right now are paid for with taxes. And in America we have gobbled up the notion that all taxes are bad. So, we can't have the things we need because a derogatory name has been put on the money we would use to pay for them.

Both in getting and spending we promote Fruit Loops over oatmeal -- so to speak. Our system is making us very sick. But those rakers really love their money.

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