Saturday, December 05, 2009

Lake Wingra on cold December day: This must be what it looks like when hell freezes over

Lake Wingra:  I Think This Is What It Looks Like When Hell freezes Over
It was very cold today, with a fierce windchill. Although it was sunny for part of the day, the white snow everywhere just reflected all the solar energy right back where it came from and it didn't warm up much. (Global warming remedy -- just cover the entire earth with talcum powder?)

I drove through Vilas Park with my camera. Mostly the usual hackneyed first snow scenes. Lake Wingra was still open, the shoreline fringed with ice and peppered with snow. The wind was whipping the waves up into a choppy froth. One result was this white foam, piled up by the wind along the shore next to the Lake Wingra Dam. It didn't act like any lake foam I had ever seen. It had solidified into these cells of frozen white glop, forming a regular, strangely organic pattern, the ridges hardened like baked meringue and edged with ice.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The inalienable American right to be stupid about health insurance

Jill Lepore's brief history of health insurance reform in the New Yorker is enough to make you think that the right to be stupid about health insurance is as deeply American as reverence for mom, the flag and apple pie. It sure goes back just about as long.

More than 90 years ago, in the wake of other progressive reforms like workers comp, universal health insurance was rapidly gaining momentum.
"At present the United States has the unenviable distinction of being the only great industrial nation without compulsory health insurance,” the Yale economist Irving Fisher said in a speech in December. December of 1916, that is. More than nine decades ago, Fisher thought that universal health coverage was just around the corner. “Within another six months, it will be a burning question,” he predicted.
Well, not exactly. Although the idea had widespread support -- including the American Medical Association -- it ran into a snag. In his speech, Fisher made this observation:
“Germany showed the way in 1883,” Fisher told his audience. “Her wonderful industrial progress since that time, her comparative freedom from poverty . . . and the physical preparedness of her soldiery, are presumably due, in considerable measure, to health insurance.”
He was referring to the year that Otto von Bismarck introduced his health insurance bill in Germany -- the same Bismarck who unified Germany and laid the groundwork for the capitalism on steroids that made turn-of-the century Germany an industrial and military juggernaut. And that was the snag.
The United States declared war with Germany in April, 1917. Health care was dead. Critics said that it was “made in Germany” and likely to result in the “Prussianization of America.” In California, where the legislature had passed a constitutional amendment providing for universal health insurance, it was put on the ballot for ratification: a federation of insurance companies took out an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle warning that it “would spell social ruin to the United States.” Every voter in the state received in the mail a pamphlet with a picture of the Kaiser and the words “Born in Germany. Do you want it in California?”
And there you have it. The inalienable right to be stupid -- since health insurance worked for our enemy, we shouldn't have anything to do with it. Cut off your nose to spite your face, whatever.

In today's NYT Paul Krugman writes about the current healthcare struggle Reform or Else. Given the nonstop history of stupidity for most of the last century, the odds are it will prevail again -- unless we make our voices heard.

The Canada geese seemed to be talking about Madison's first snow of the season

Talking About the Weather
Canada geese in Vilas Park during Madison's first real snow of the season. At least they weren't driving. A couple inches of fluffy stuff started falling during the afternoon rush hour, causing numerous fender benders, slideoffs and rollovers and a few more serious accidents. There always seem to be people who need to relearn each year that the white stuff is slippery.

View Large On Black

Thursday, December 03, 2009

From Eisenhower's military industrial complex to our military industrial state

Michael Moore was on the Larry King show after Obama's Afghanistan speech Tuesday night. It was a curious King segment, because at one point King read back to Moore from Bob Herbert of the NYT starting his column on Afganistan last Monday by quoting President Eisenhower.
“I hate war,” said Dwight Eisenhower, “as only a soldier who has lived it can, as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”

He also said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those are cold and not clothed.”
In another speech, his 1961 Farewell Address, Eisenhower coined a phrase and issued a warning that's nearly fifty years old, for all the good it's done us.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Before Obama's speech, Moore published a similar warning about misplaced power, An Open Letter To President Obama On Afghanistan urging him to reconsider and not escalate. He faulted Obama for giving in to what he saw as military pressure.
It is not your job to do what the generals tell you to do. We are a civilian-run government. WE tell the Joint Chiefs what to do, not the other way around. That's the way General Washington insisted it must be. That's what President Truman told General MacArthur when MacArthur wanted to invade China. "You're fired!," said Truman, and that was that. And you should have fired Gen. McChrystal when he went to the press to preempt you, telling the press what YOU had to do. Let me be blunt: We love our kids in the armed services, but we f*#&in' hate these generals, from Westmoreland in Vietnam to, yes, even Colin Powell for lying to the UN with his made-up drawings of WMD (he has since sought redemption).
Two warnings, separated by nearly half a century. The difference seems to be that in 1961, when Eisenhower warned about the military industrial complex, it was seen as a future threat to the existing civilian control of the military that was thought to exist then. Today, we're way beyond that. The military industrial complex is so yesterday. Today we live in a military industrial state, and when Moore says "we are a civilian-run government," it almost sounds like wishful thinking.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

All your holiday needs in one place: Santa costumes, pink flamingos and drugs

All Your Holiday Needs: Santa Costumes, Pink Flamingos and Drugs
Mallatt Pharmacy & Costume, Madison.

Afghanistan: Barack Obama has a dream

The trouble is, it's a dream wrapped in wishful thinking inside a fantasy. So many things in his tepid speech at West Point don't add up that it's tempting to interpret it in political, rather than strategic, terms.

The Afghan surge only seems to make sense if it's seen as an attempt to buy some political cover while staging a disguised withdrawal that can be spun as a victory. But that's also a fantasy. There are too many powerful interests that benefit from the Forever War. The time to stand up to them was now, when Obama still has some public support -- not 18 months from now, when his popularity is likely to have suffered the same fate as most wartime presidents.

It's not the first time the U.S. has escalated a war in pursuit of illusory goals based on a profound lack of understanding of the local culture. The biggest fantasy of all is to see Afghanistan as a "country" in the sense that words like "central government" and "government security forces" have any sort of meaning we recognize. The corrupt Karzai government we installed in power and continue backing after his fraudulent "reelection" has virtually no power outside Kabul.

The Afghans are a fiercely independent people living in different ethnic regions with no tradition of strong central government. Loyalties are to clan and tribal leaders, not a central government, and we're not about to change that in 18 months. (Their last real central government was the one backed by the Soviets, which lasted only as long as it took for opposing tribal groups to get organized and overthrow it.)

Juan Cole's excellent, knowledgeable analysis in today's Salon is especially good on the different ethnic loyalties and the role they play, and how the situation in Afghanistan is completely different from the one in Iraq, which is why the surge in Iraq makes such a poor model for the one in Afghanistan.

As Cole point out, the Afghan government is dominated by Tajiks, while Afhanistan's largest tribal group are the Pashtun (also a minority, but one with a plurality of the population). The Pashtun definitely don't like being ruled by Tajiks, so backing the Karzai government puts us on the wrong side for much of the population.

Guess who else backed the Tajiks? Yes, Cole notes -- the Soviets.
The implication is that often, when we speak of Afghanistan National Army troops patrolling Pashtun villages alongside U.S. or other NATO forces, we may well be speaking of Tajik troops doing so. Many Pashtun clansmen are fiercely proud and independent, and would be humiliated by having Tajik soldiers lord it over them. (In Afghanistan, Pashtuns often unfairly depict Tajiks as soft, urban and effeminate.) The only thing worse than Tajik dominance would be what the Tajiks brought along with them -- Western Christian soldiers outfitted like astronauts. Ironically, the Tajik dominance of the old 1980s communist government of Afghanistan, and their alliance with Russian troops, were among the reasons that impelled the Pashtuns to mount a Muslim insurgency in the first place.
The Soviet government's insistence on using force to support the rule of a Tajik-dominated government eventually brought down the Soviet empire. Now we seem to be making the same mistake, in more ways than one.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

President Obama announces $30-billion expansion of war on cancer to West Point oncologists

Telling West Point Oncologists About $30-Billion Boost in War on Cancer to West Point Oncologists
We're in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country.
Surrounding himself with a military environment, patriotic symbols and medical metaphors, President Obama explained his Afghanistan treatment plan to the nation from West Point. Some in his audience were the very oncologists who will be charged with carrying out his anti-cancer regimen, which consists of targeting and knocking out al Qaeda and bad Taliban cancer cells, while distinguishing good Taliban cells, which may be turned into non-malignant cells with the right treatment. Or something like that.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Madison snatches another sunny, snowless, above-freezing day from winter's calendar

November 30, 2009
November 30, 2009: An enterprising cyclist hauling his boat home for winter storage this afternoon. Probably about time. The racing shell had been stored on the rack in Wingra Park. This time last year they had already been ice fishing on Lake Wingra for a few days. It's been a warm November, but actually only our fourth-warmest.

Promises vs. reality: Whatever happened to those 5 million green collar jobs?

Greenhouse Effect
Although slowed by the recession, power plants and motor vehicles are still spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Global warming hasn't gone away, but the will to do something about it seems to be ebbing, given the more immediate concern about jobs.

On ABC's This Week Sunday morning there was a story on a new ABC Washington Post poll that showed eroding support for action on global warming.
On policy, 76 percent now favor unspecified government action on global warming, down from 86 percent in summer 2008. This now includes 55 percent who favor the United States taking steps even if countries such as China and India do less; that's down from 68 percent.
The discussion focused on how people seem to want to do something about global warming during good times, but put the idea on the back burner when they're more concerned about jobs. The talking heads focused on "either or" rather than a connection between the two -- that is, the idea of creating "green collar" jobs in industries that lessen our dependence on fossil fuels.

That seems odd, given that little more than a year ago, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were campaigning on which of them could more effectively create 5 million new green collar jobs. The goal was featured on Obama's website and helped create the aura of fresh new thinking and hope associated with his campaign.

What happened? At the very time we need jobs and we need to do something about global warming, hardly anyone is talking about addressing both concerns at the same time by funding new green jobs and technologies. One exception is that voice in the wilderness, Bob Herbert at the New York Times -- but nobody seems to be paying attention.

In two recent columns Herbert talked about his visit to Detroit. The first described the devastating urban blight and unemployment in the city that used to be the world leader of the auto industry. He talked to Detroit native Harley Shaiken, a professor at Berkeley who specializes in labor issues.
“We’ve been living with the illusion that manufacturing — making things — is so 20th century,” said Mr. Shaiken, “and that we could succeed by concentrating, for example, on complex financial instruments while abandoning the industrial base that sustained so many American families.”
The second column was titled Signs of Hope and was about creating jobs in the new green technologies pioneered by Stan Ovshinsky, inventor of amorphous solar panels and other green technologies.
The point is that these (and many more) brilliant, innovative technologies are here. They are real, tangible. They exist. What’s needed now is the will to develop policies that will vastly expand these advances and radically reduce their costs. The United States should be leading the world in the creation of whole new energy technologies and industries, instead of allowing the forces of the old carbon-based industries — coal, oil, gasoline-powered vehicles — to stand obstinately in the way of real progress.

“Now,” Mr. Ovshinsky told me, “is when we have to build the new industries of the future.”
We've been hollowing out real jobs and replacing them with financial manipulation for years now. It's as if Americans decided to stop making things and skip ahead to making money directly, without any of that messy work that used to be involved. We see where that's gotten us. Maybe it's time to take another look at those 5 million green jobs.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

When healthcare is all in the luck of the draw and a losing hand can be fatal

Healthcare in America is all in the luck of the draw, and a losing hand can be fatal. Life and death decisions about medical treatment are made not by mythical government-run death panels, but by our patchwork health insurance system of coverage for some and none for others and the way it can end up denying the most basic human right of all to those without.
A Harvard study, to be published next month in the American Journal of Public Health, suggests that almost 45,000 Americans die prematurely each year as a consequence of not having insurance.
That's from Nicholas Kristof's Op-Ed in today's NYT, Are We Going to Let John Die? The study he mentions doesn't include the unnecessary pain, fear and suffering of many thousands of other people. Kristof writes of a heartbreaking case in Oregon that involves not only excruciating 24/7 pain but may well result in one of those premature deaths due to lack of insurance coverage. His column begins this way:
If Joe Lieberman or other senators came across John Brodniak writhing in pain on the sidewalk, they presumably would jump to help him and rush him to a hospital.

Unfortunately, an emergency room won’t help — indeed, the closest E.R. has told him not to come back, he says. So, for those members of Congress who are wavering on health reform, listen to John’s story.
Read John's story at the link. It will break your heart, and you'd have to have a heart of stone not to wonder how this could happen in the richest country in the world. We like to think of ourselves as advanced, but we still practice human sacrifice. How can we sacrifice so many lives each year on the altar of some kind of free-market ideology?