Sunday, September 30, 2007

Opinion Roundup

This is something I've thought about making a regular feature of this blog, a roundup of some of the better opinion pieces I've read during the week. Sunday night seems to be a good time to do it. Tell me what you think about it.

Gail Collins started out talking about the generation gap between Barack Obama supporters and Hillary Clinton supporters and ended up getting in some pretty good jabs at Clinton...
The Democratic Party seems to be gradually acclimating itself to the idea that Hillary Clinton is going to be the nominee. It’s a little like that frog in a beaker of water that Al Gore talks about in his global warming speech — the one who won’t notice he’s being boiled to death if you turn up the heat ever so gradually. Day by day, debate by debate, poll by poll, the sense of Hillary’s inevitability seems to be seeping in.

She thinks she’s got it nailed as long as she doesn’t make any mistakes, and that can be a trap. It is possible to be so careful that you drive everybody crazy, make them so itchy for adventure, for a noble mission instead of a winnable hand of poker, that they’ll be willing to undo all your hard work just to juice things up.

During the latest Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton was exactly that kind of candidate. When she was asked if she favored lifting the cap on Social Security taxes (currently only the first $97,500 in income is taxed), all she would say was that she wanted to “put fiscal responsibility first.”

As opposed to all the other people who want to put it last.

When the moderator, Tim Russert, asked whether she was completely ruling out the idea of lifting the cap, this is what Clinton had to say:

“Well, I take everything off the table until we move toward fiscal responsibility and before we have a bipartisan process. I don’t think I should be negotiating about what I would do as president. You know, I want to see what other people come to the table with.”

This is an excellent example of how to string together the maximum number of weasel words in one sentence. It was also pretty typical of Hillary’s entire evening. It’s one thing to refuse to answer a hypothetical question about whether there is any circumstance under which you might ever use nuclear weapons against Iran. It’s another to refuse to commit on who you’d root for if the Yankees played the Cubs in the World Series. No young person is going to fall in love with politics because of a candidate who says: “I would probably have to alternate sides.”
Massachusetts recently passed a health insurance reform law which seems much like what Hillary Clinton has proposed for all of us, requiring everyone to purchase health insurance just like we are are required to buy auto insurance. (I say "seems like." It is hard to get details of proposals out of the media-ocraties. They'd much rather talk about how something is playing instead of the specifics of the proposals.) Two doctors, Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein, analyze what's going on in Massachusetts and how the middle-class is ending up in the ranks of the uninsured...
IN 1966 - just before Medicare and Medicaid were launched - 47 million Americans were uninsured. By 1975, the United States had reached an all time low of 21 million without coverage. Now, according to the Census Bureau's latest figures, we're back where we started, with 47 million uninsured in 2006 - up 2.2 million since 2005. But this time, most of the uninsured are neither poor nor elderly.

The middle class is being priced out of healthcare. Virtually all of this year's increase was among families with incomes above $50,000; in fact, two-thirds of the newly uncovered were in the above-$75,000 group. And full-time workers accounted for 56 percent of the increase, with their children making up much of the rest...

While the middle class sinks, the health reform law has buoyed our state's wealthiest health institutions. Hospitals like Massachusetts General are reporting record profits and enjoying rate increases tucked into the reform package. Blue Cross and other insurers that lobbied hard for the law stand to gain billions from the reform, which shrinks their contribution to the state's free care pool and will force hundreds of thousands to purchase their defective products. Meanwhile, new rules for the free care pool will drastically cut funding for the hundreds of thousands who remain uninsured, and for the safety-net hospitals and clinics that care for them. (Disclosure - we've practiced for the past 25 years at a public hospital that is currently undergoing massive budget cuts.)

Health reform built on private insurance isn't working and can't work; it costs too much and delivers too little. At present, bureaucracy consumes 31 percent of each healthcare dollar. The Connector - the new state agency created to broker coverage under the reform law - is adding another 4.5 percent to the already sky-high overhead charged by private insurers. Administrative costs at Blue Cross are nearly five times higher than Medicare's and 11 times those in Canada's single payer system. Single payer reform could save $7.7 billion annually on paperwork and insurance profits in Massachusetts, enough to cover all of the uninsured and to upgrade coverage for the rest of us.

Of course, single payer reform is anathema to the health insurance industry. But breaking their stranglehold on our health system and our politicians is the only way for health reform to get beyond square one.
Maureen Dowd discussed American-Iranian relations and the reactions to Ahmadinejad's visit to New York...
We just can’t stop being nice to Iran.

First, we break Iraq and hand it over to the Shiites, putting in a puppet who leans toward Iran and is aligned with the Shiite militias bankrolled by Iran. Then, as Peter Galbraith writes in The New York Review of Books, President Bush facilitates "the takeover of a large part of the country by an Iranian-backed militia," with the ironic twist that "there is now substantially more personal freedom in Iran than in Southern Iraq."

And on top of all that, we help build up the self-serving doofus Iranian president, a frontman with a Ph.D. in traffic management, into the sort of larger-than-life demon that the real powers in Iran — the mullahs — can love.

New York’s hot blast of nastiness, jingoism and xenophobia toward its guest, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, only served to pump him up for his domestic audience. Iranians felt that their president had tied everyone in knots, including the "Zionist Jews," as Iranian state television said. The Times reports that Mohsen Rezai, a former head of the Revolutionary Guards, was on TV criticizing the rude treatment his president received: "It is shocking that a country that claims to be civilized treats him that way."
A related Memo from Tehran says that Iranians are puzzled by the U.S. focus on Ahmadinejad...
Since his inauguration two years ago, Mr. Ahmadinejad has grabbed headlines around the world, and in Iran, for outrageous statements that often have no more likelihood of being put into practice than his plan for women to attend soccer games. He has generated controversy in New York in recent days by asking to visit ground zero — a request that was denied — and his scheduled appearance at Columbia University has drawn protests.

But it is because of his provocative remarks, like denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, that the United States and Europe have never known quite how to handle him. In demonizing Mr. Ahmadinejad, the West has served him well, elevating his status at home and in the region at a time when he is increasingly isolated politically because of his go-it-alone style and ineffective economic policies, according to Iranian politicians, officials and political experts.

Political analysts here say they are surprised at the degree to which the West focuses on their president, saying that it reflects a general misunderstanding of their system.

Unlike in the United States, in Iran the president is not the head of state nor the commander in chief. That status is held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, whose role combines civil and religious authority. At the moment, this president’s power comes from two sources, they say: the unqualified support of the supreme leader, and the international condemnation he manages to generate when he speaks up.

"The United States pays too much attention to Ahmadinejad," said an Iranian political scientist who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. "He is not that consequential."
Thomas Friedman discusses Wal-Mart, China, America, and the environment...
China today is entering a really delicate phase on the climate-energy issue — the phase I like to call “The Wal-Mart environmental moment.” I wish the same could be said of America and President Bush.

The “Wal-Mart environmental moment” starts with the C.E.O. adopting a green branding strategy as a purely defensive, public relations, marketing move. Then an accident happens — someone in the shipping department takes it seriously and comes up with a new way to package the latest product and saves $100,000. This gets the attention of the C.E.O., who turns to his P.R. adviser and says, “Well, isn’t that interesting? Get me a sustainability expert. Let’s do this some more.”

The company then hires a sustainability officer, and he starts showing how green design, manufacturing and materials can save money in other areas. Then the really smart C.E.O.’s realize they have to become their own C.E.O. — chief energy officer — and they start demanding that energy efficiency become core to everything the company does, from how its employees travel to how its products are manufactured.

That is the transition that Lee Scott, Wal-Mart’s C.E.O., has presided over in the past few years...

At such a key time, if the U.S. government adopted a real carbon-reducing strategy, as California and Wal-Mart have, rather than the obfuscations of the Bush team, it would have a huge impact on China and only trigger more innovation in America.

Mr. Bush will be convening his climate photo op — oops, I mean “conference” — in Washington tomorrow, which will include Chinese and Indian officials. But, as Rob Watson, the C.E.O. of EcoTech International, which works on environmental issues in China put it: “The Chinese are not going to take anything we say seriously if we don’t set an example ourselves.”

David Moskovitz, who directs the Regulatory Assistance Project, a nonprofit that helps promote green policies in China, was even more blunt: “The most frequent and difficult question we get in China with every policy initiative we put forward is: ‘If it is so good, why aren’t you doing it?’ It’s hard to answer — and somewhat embarrassing. So we point to good examples that some American states, or cities, or companies are implementing — but not to the federal government. We can’t point to America.”
And finally, Paul Campos wonders if Bill Kristol is respectable, comparing him to his former next-door neighbor, "an extremely successful pornographer"...
All of New York knew that Jay Gatsby was a gangster; all of Boulder knows the Porn King is essentially a glorified pimp. Yet just as much of fashionable society came to Gatsby's splendid parties, many an eminently respectable Boulderite enjoyed the generous hospitality of the Porn King's table.

I myself was more than once invited to partake of his food and drink, but politely declined. Still, I occasionally found myself engaged in a friendly stop-and-chat with my amiable neighbor. I always came away from these trivial moments of social intercourse with a slightly confused feeling. Was it, after all, a bit cowardly on my part to treat him as if I didn't know or care who he was?

All this came to mind last week when I glimpsed Bill Kristol's smooth and amiable face on the television, where it appears so often. Kristol - editor of The Weekly Standard, Fox News contributor, co-founder of the key neo-conservative group the Project For the New American Century, and current visiting professor at Harvard - is the very definition of a well-respected man about town, doing the best things so conservatively.

But how respectable is Kristol, really? Anyone who pays the least attention to him soon discovers that the ruling passion of Kristol's life is to involve the United States in as many wars as possible, with as many enemies as he can find or create.

In short, Kristol thinks about war in much the same way the narrator of Lolita thought about 12-year-old girls: with a constant, obsessive, perverse longing.

I choose this analogy with some care. An overwhelming lust for violence seems to be the common vice that links together Kristol, the various Kaplans (Lawrence, Fred, Robert), and other leaders of the contemporary neo-conservative movement.

All these men appear to genuinely love the idea of war for its own sake. The thought of their countrymen - not they themselves of course, as not one of them has ever come within a thousand miles of a live bullet - inflicting the horrific violence of modern warfare on various hapless foreigners is something that clearly excites these gentlemen quite a bit.

And that, when you think about it, is rather disturbing.
This is a rather long entry. I've also thought about making an "Opinion of the Day" feature instead of this type of opinion roundup. Thoughts? Opinions?

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