Book Review: “The Bomb” by Howard Zinn

The Bomb is a posthumously published essay by noted historian (or “master of agitprop”Howard Zinn. It features a short preface, written by indie publisher and activist Greg Ruggiero, in praise of Zinn’s work and advocacy of civil disobedience ahead of the main text divided in three parts.

Part the first: Introduction. Zinn describes his return to the US for a month’s furlough following the end of the Second World War in Europe. While in New York, he read about the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and recalls rejoicing with his wife over that fact, not knowing what it meant except that his furlough was about to become indefinite since the war was surely over.

Zinn describes some of his experience as a bombardier, far removed from the people and buildings who were his targets from an elevation of 30,000 feet. Indeed, he makes the claim that “to this day, the vicious reality of aerial bombing is lost to most people in the United States,” as it was to him during the war. Despite improvements in technology, Zinn points out that innocent casualties still persist today when the lives of “suspected terrorists” and Afghan wedding parties alike are ended by drone missiles.

But Zinn’s “shock of understanding” came after reading John Heresey’s interviews with Hiroshima survivors. The grisly details of the effects of fallout and radiation poisoning caused him to recall his own bombing missions, during which he “mindlessly dropped bombs on cities without thinking what humans on the ground were experiencing,” and in particular the horror of his last bombing mission three weeks before that furlough, in Royan, France.

Part the second: Hiroshima. In typical fashion in this, by far the longest part, Zinn deconstructs the standard narrative of the need to drop the bomb. Moving from horrific descriptions taken from first-hand accounts of people without hands and feet and eyebrows, moaning and screaming after the shockwave of the explosion had passed, Zinn tries to understand how it is that such a thing could have been done. A major theme throughout the book is the individual’s ability to rationalize away personal responsibility, throwing themselves into the anonymous collective of the nation-state or the military united in common purpose against an enemy, be it facism, communism, terrorism, or whatever other demon is sufficiently established in the public imagination.

There is also a focus on military and government actors. Zinn summarizes his finding, also articulated in his masterwork, A People’s History of the United States, that the war with Japan was more likely a trade expedient than it was an existential defense or a righteous war against teutonic fascism and genocide. Zinn cites the racism of the barring of blacks from the military and the Japanese internment to debunk that last idea that WWII was a righteous crusade to save the Jews. Instead, the thesis appears to be that much of the brutality of the war can be explained by a desire of military elites to exercise new weapons technology and a “euphemism — ‘undermining of the morale'” to justify excesses.

To the first point, Zinn begins by attacking a common justification of the bombings — that they prevented a casualty-heavy and otherwise necessary invasion of the Japanese mainland — as without merit:

There has been endless discussion about how many American lives would have been lost in an invasion of Japan. Truman said “half a million.” Churchill said “a million.” These figures were pulled out of the air. Historian Barton Bernstein’s research could not find any projection for invasion casualties higher than 46,000.

The whole discussion about casualty figures is pointless. It is based on the premise that there would have to be an American invasion of Japan in order to end the war. But the evidence is clear that the Japanese were on the verge of surrender, that a simple declaration on keeping the position of the Emperor would have brought the war to an end, and no invasion was necessary.

So what then necessitated the dropping of the bomb? Zinn posits a host of explanations: pressure from Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project managers to put to use the fruits of their years of toil; questions over whether plutonium fission or uranium fission would “work better” (hence the idea that “no one ever considered the options of delaying the second bomb drop” three days after Hiroshima, the better to test out the plutonium bomb); Truman’s desire to end the war before the Russians entered it and hence take all the glory; a sense that this glory should include the total decimation and humiliation of the Japanese before American firepower (Zinn describes — in what is one of the most memorable takeaways from the book — the final bombing of the war, five days after Nagaski, which included explosives as well as leaflets declaring that “the war has ended with the surrender of your government”); Truman’s desire for personal legacy (his immediate reaction was “this is the greatest thing in history”); and, in that same vein, the nationalistic desire to the show the rest of the world what the enterprising Americans had made.

Part the third: Royan. After reading about these horrors in 1966, Zinn went back to Royan, the site of his last mission during the war, to learn more about his impact there more than 20 years before. The bombing was not tactically or strategically useful, and it happened when the impending end of the European war was all but certain. There are allegations of violations of the chain of command in ordering the raid; to the contrary, that the chain of command was blindly and happily obeyed; the notion that morale necessitated the destruction of a town, any town (“One of the local commanders wrote later: ‘It would have been more logical to wait for the surrender of Germany and thus to avoid new human and material losses,’ but one could not ‘ignore important factors of morale.'”); ending-of-the-war ruthlessness and recklessness (“each one wanted a last moment to distinguish himself and get a bit of glory; moderation was scorned, prudence was seen as cowardice”); and even the idea that it was all just a horrible mix-up, that Royan was “destroyed by mistake!”

But the Royan bombing is famous for being “the first [use] in warfare” of napalm, and this fact is the reason Zinn suggests as the main reason that the bombing occurred. He recalls seeing the bombs “flaring like matches struck in a fog” and being “completely unaware of the human chaos below.” A local journalist summed up the bombing: “Thus was accomplished a deadly work of obvious uselessness, and thus was revealed to the world the powerful destructiveness of napalm.” A doctor and former mayor addressed the controlling general after the bombing: “The Germans had to feel our power! Permit me, my general, to tell you, once and for all, in the name of those who paid the cost: ‘La Victorie de Royan’ does not exist, except for you.” It seems that the desire to showcase a new destructive force trumped prudence, just as seemed to have happened weeks later in Japan.

The book is a quick read and an insightful one. It suffers slightly from being poorly organized: each part is a dozens-page single chapter of paragraphs. Additionally, many assertions are uncited, or at least difficult to reconcile to the book’s own endnotes. The Hiroshima section, fully half the book, cites only two sources in the endnotes, compared with Royan’s 14. This is especially egregious since Zinn’s claims about the war, and in particular the end of the war in the Pacific, are far from mainstream. On the other hand, Hiroshima has been researched a great deal more than Royan, and Zinn has personal history in the latter event, so it makes sense that he would rely more on fewer, well-established accounts in his discourse about the former. In any event, the prose is easily consumed and primary sources do appear with frequency alongside Zinn’s analysis. Given its length, coming in at under 100 pages, it is well worth the few hours to be exposed to a dissenting interpretation of a pivotal period in world history.

Always the master of agitprop, Zinn concludes powerfully by connecting the threads and emphasizing the need for individuals to stand up and resist the groupthink that leads to atrocities like these:

Everyone can point, rightly, to someone else as being responsible… no one is positively responsible for the horror that ensues. But every one is negatively responsible because anyone can throw a wrench into the machinery. Not quite, of course — because only a few people have wrenches. The rest have only their hands and feet… This may suggest that those of us who have a bit more than our bare hands, and at least a small interest in stopping the machine, that we might play a peculiar role in stopping the social stalemate.

Published 2010, 91 pages.

now he’ll investigate the banks?

The State of the Union speech last night was, as it was certain to be, filled with vague notions about reform and platitudes about the inherent strength of America. But one item under discussion was concrete, focused, and surprising:

Tonight, I am asking my Attorney General to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attorneys general to expand our investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis. This new unit will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners, and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans.

As I said, this was quite a surprise, which is itself quite sad. Recall that Obama campaigned on a return to the rule of law after its manifold abuses under Bush. After the Supreme Court’s June 2008 ruling in the case of Boumediene v. Bush, which upheld the right of habeas corpus even for suspected terrorists being detained in Guantanamo Bay, Candidate Obama said this:

The Court’s decision is a rejection of the Bush Administration’s attempt to create a legal black hole at Guantanamo – yet another failed policy supported by John McCain. This is an important step toward reestablishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law, and rejecting a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus.

Notice the dig on McCain; this was about a week after Clinton had conceded the democratic nomination to Obama, so the latter was shifting into general campaign mode after an unusually long primary season. Then in the same vein, we have this from his inaugural speech:

Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.

The very next day, he reiterated in a press conference that “transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

But what happened next? Certainly no investigation of the economic collapse. University of Missouri law professor William Black says the evidence of Wall Street criminality is so blindingly obvious that the Obama administration must believe they can get convictions, and that only “willful blindness” of that evidence could explain that

there were no criminal referrals from the regulators. No fraud working groups. No national task force. There has been no effective punishment of the elites here.

The Wall Street economic crisis is so involved that I won’t go into details now. Suffice it to say that the lack of prosecutions has upset many. CBS News’s program 60 Minutes featured an interview with Obama last month. Steve Kroft pointed out how “there’s not been any prosecutions, criminal prosecutions, of people on Wall Street,” opined that any civil action which has been brought has been viewed by many as “a slap on the wrist, fines” (more on this shortly), and asked the president if he was “disappointed” by all that. Obama’s response was a dodge:

You know, I can’t, as President of the United States, comment on the decisions about particular prosecutions. That’s the job of the Justice Department. And we keep those things separate, so that there’s no political influence on decisions made by professional prosecutors. I can tell you, just from 40,000 feet, that some of the most damaging behavior on Wall Street, in some cases, some of the least ethical behavior on Wall Street, wasn’t illegal.

Glenn Greenwald excellently deconstructs the hypocrisy of this statement by documenting out how Obama did influence decisions not to prosecute Bush war crimes — apparently, according to one of Obama’s transition aids, because his team believed there might be reprisals and revolts if he did. But how can the president say he doesn’t influence Justice decisions and then say publicly that some of the Wall Street behaviour in question wasn’t illegal? That sounds like influence to me. And can we believe him when fewer than two months later, the same man asks his “Attorney General to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attorneys general” to “hold accountable those [on Wall Street] who broke the law?” That is a huge comment on prosecutorial decisions. In fact, it is a directive that amounts to “political influence on decisions made by professional prosecutors.”

A specific example might help to show what a dramatic reversal this will be (if it happens), not only in word but in deed. In late 2010, good evidence of widespread illegal foreclosures emerged. Banks were foreclosing on homes even while the mortgages were in the process of being renegotiated. In some cases, banks were foreclosing on people and seizing their homes when those banks didn’t legally own the delinquent mortgages they used as justification. Foreclosures were carried out by bank officials without verifying paperwork and sometimes using fake credentials — so-called robo-signing — in violation of laws requiring notaries be present. Banks even changed locks on or broke in to people’s homes to keep residents out and remove their belongings. The practices were so rampant that all 50 states’ attorneys general launched investigations, and as a result many banks halted some or all of their foreclosure proceedings. Yet the response from the Obama administration was to urge cautiously continuing foreclosing while the investigations were ongoing!

And what about those investigations? The state AGs decided to work together, but on a ‘fast track‘ according to the venture’s lead attorney. A settlement idea arose relatively quickly in consultation with the administration whereby the banks would pay a collective fine to the tune of $20 billion dollars — an absurdly small sum given the size of the industry and the magnitude of its crimes, but one which the banks still pushed back against for being too high — but would be spared from civil and perhaps some criminal liability. That’s right, a fast tracked deal for a small fine that releases the banks from further legal proceedings, championed by attorneys general whose job it is to investigate wrongdoing!

A single state AG refused this deal as being too kind to the banks. One might think that a lone dissenter could be ignored, but this AG happened to be the one from New York, the seat of the industry and one vested with special subpoena power under New York state law he intended to use. Amazingly, the Obama administration increasingly pressured him to stand down and accept the deal. Three cheers for the rule of law! Luckily, that deal seems increasingly less likely: my own Senator Cantwell has publicly called for full investigations before any deal is inked.

So after years of not investigating Wall Street crooks (while accepting huge campaign donations from them), pressuring those who would into giving into a fast tracked wrist-slap, and then claiming administrative separation as a justification for it all when asked, Obama now claims a total 180 in his State of the Union speech. Why? This is a reelection year, so it might just be empty rhetoric, another campaign promise to break. Or it might be a ruse to get Holder to start an investigation that he knows won’t be properly funded in time and money and then have a convenient scapegoat in either Holder or Congress. Maybe he just couldn’t resist the siren song of a 360,000-strong petition delivered to several of his local campaign offices. Whatever the reason, here’s hoping he means what he said. Let’s just see.

first major entry to Obama’s Record

Inspired by this bit of exciting news, as well as an obnoxious flame war with friends-of-a-friend on facebook shamelessly apologizing for the manifest failings of our sitting president, I decided to compose the first major entry to Obama’s Record. Falling under the category of Civil Liberties, the entry is about the due-process-free assassination of an American citizen. I promise to update it if Eric Holder ends up having something important to say.

My plan for these pages is for each page to bear a major category, like Civil Liberties or Foreign Policy, with multiple points to be addressed under each category. This first post was almost long enough to warrant its own page, perhaps, and I might transform the page structure to be even more granular and hierarchical if the current format proves not to scale. Let me know what you think.

Newt Gingrich is an evil man

There is one good thing we can say about Newt Gingrich: he can play to a crowd. This makes him an effective politician. But on the eve of the South Carolina primary, where Gingrich is either beating Romney by 6 (PPP [pdf]), down by 10 (Gallup), or more or less in a dead heat up by 2 (Ramussen), I don’t think we have reason to fear that Gingrich will be the nominee. That’s because he’s evil.

Gingrich became the Speaker of the House after the republican takeover in 1995. He had helped engineer this takeover with the Contract with America and figured centrally, along with President Clinton, over the government shutdown that year, where federal workers were furloughed over budget intransigence. This wasn’t the first government shutdown, but it was the most widely felt and most politicized, and the republicans ended up taking the blame, aiding in costing the republicans the presidency in 1996. Oops! But Gingrich actually broke laws in addition to being a lousy speaker: he was the first speaker in history to be assessed a fine over an ethics probe and eventually was forced to resign the speakership by his own party after poor showings in 1998 election.

Then we have Gingrich’s poisonous racial and anti-poor views: riding the Reagan-esque rhetoric of “welfare queens,” he helped pass the stringent (and reviled) welfare reform of 1996 which obviously targets racial minorities disproportionately, and he recently defended his offensive declaration that black people ought to “demand jobs, not food stamps.” He has repeatedly called Obama a “food stamp president” since about 15% of Americans now use them, but doesn’t acknowledge the role that the economic collapse and rising poverty might have played: for Gingrich, it is enough just to connect Obama to this statistic. But amazingly, Gingrich himself is the welfare queen: in 2003, he played a major role through vocal advocacy in passing Medicare Part D, the expensive prescription drug benefit that helps explain the yawning federal debt. Welfare for old white people is — of course — a fine thing; it’s when the welfare targets young black people that problems arise.

But Gingrich’s most damning behaviour centers around his views on marriage. Newt publicly supports “traditional marriage” between one man and one woman, including support for DOMA, which he helped to pass as Speaker in 1996 (and a constitutional amendment if DOMA is found to be illegal, and condemnation for Obama’s failure to defend it); opposes adoption of children to gay and lesbian couples, citing religious interests; and, famously, lead the charge to investigate President Clinton for his own marital infidelities shortly before resigning the speakership over that aforementioned ethics problem.

That last issue has had a resurgence in the media after the shocking revelation that Newt apparently sought “an open marriage” with his second wife while he was cheating on her with his third and current wife. It’s no secret that Gingrich has had three wives, and even converted to Catholicism to get with Callista, who is 23 years younger than he. He divorced his first wife, Jackie, while she was recovering from cancer after having an affair with his second wife; and he divorced his second wife, Marianne, after failing to get that open marriage thing to cover his affair with Callista. What’s amazing is that, to gain conservative support for his presidential run, Newt now cites his influential support of DOMA while failing to mention he was cheating on Marianne while lobbying for that bill. Furthermore, he is rewriting history about the Clinton impeachment to try and cover the inherent hypocrisy of vilifying the president for virtually the same thing he was doing at the time. His defense for all this: passionate patriotism drove him to base behaviour, which he regrets in retrospect. Lolwut?

Understandably, all this deserves some media attention as Gingrich courts the GOP presidential nod, and it has commanded attention for years even before the revelations of the second wife. The moderator of the most recent republican debate, the last one before the South Carolina primary, thought the same, and opened the debate with a question about this bombshell. The question was perhaps a poor choice though for an opening question, since it allowed Gingrich to reply thus: “I’m appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” Despite the obvious utility of the question, the relevance of the hypocrisy it exposes, the questions of character it raises, the fact that this is the 20th-or-so debate the GOP has engaged — when can this kind of question be posed if not after hours and hours of televised discussion of the ‘real issues?’ — Newt was able to fire back against the “elite media” in a way that resulted in a majority of conservative pundits calling the debate for him. Look at how skillfully Gingrich can play the crowd!

But my first point, that we have no reason to fear a Gingrich general campaign, is supported by all this. Gingrich has his supporters, but he could not muster a winnable campaign for president. He is too vulnerable to attacks from the GOP on welfare and marital hypocrisy, and from the general electorate on popular issues like gay marriage due to his marital hypocrisy. He is basically unlikable. It seems to me that decent people can only conclude that he is some kind of evil. The republican establishment will not allow him to win the nomination, just as they won’t let Paul win it. The only sober analysis remains, despite ongoing and desperate mainstream media hype trying to suggest otherwise, that Romney is the inevitable candidate. Gingrich might win South Carolina tomorrow, a Southern red state sympathetic to his brand of white racism and male privilege, but I don’t believe it will translate to a mandate for opposing Obama in November.

UPDATE: The always-excellent Charles Blow of the New York Times had a column today that echoes many of these points, and also drives home the point that Gingrich cannot be an effective opponent for Obama in the general election. It is for this reason that Gingrich will not win the nomination; the anxiety he causes his party as a result of his fringe views and tepid personality is simply insurmountable.

introducing “Obama’s Record”

For the last two years, I have noticed that a theme has been emerging: Obama is a constitution-shredding war criminal who deserves to be in the big house, not the White House.

Whoa! Did I just say all that? No, I am not a born-again conservative or republican partisan. No, I am not a record-distorting far-left crazy with unreasonable expectations either (at least I don’t think I am). What I have been doing for a while now is paying fairly close attention to political news, and in particular the behaviour of the government. I have read Supreme Court decisions and paid attention to Congressional action, often writing my legislators (to apparently little avail). And most disturbingly, I have witnessed Obama take up Bush’s mantle on most important issues.

I understand that that is quite an assertion. Yes, he did succeed in reversing Bush’s ban on stem cell research. Yes, he did preside over the fairly popular and eventually successful movement to repeal DADT. But in many ways, Obama is a lot like Bush. Even the health care overhaul, his signal achievement, is likely to be an expensive affair, just like Bush’s massive health bill, the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit. And that’s if it survives a Constitutional review by the Supreme Court. But there are other ways that Obama is just like Bush, especially in the realms of civil liberties and the war on Terror. In fact, Dick Cheney is so enamored of Obama’s direction in that department that Cheney essentially heaped praise on them both in an interview with NBC News: “I think he’s learned that what we did was far more appropriate than he ever gave us credit for while he was a candidate.”

So what is Obama’s record, really? And why should it matter? The two questions are related. The mainstream media has done, as is increasingly the norm, an excellent job of distracting attention away from the real issues, instead focusing on the most divisive and rancorous disagreements they can find. This has two effects: first, egregious violations of the law have been ignored, bringing instead to the fore petty disputes and insignificant news. Second, and as a result, facts and analysis have been replaced by wishful thinking and holistic reputations in deciding major questions.

Take for example, this line from Stephen Colbert in an episode of his show from last April: “Yes, Obama duped young people by not doing every single thing they want. So now, they’ll all vote Republican. It’s like when I want some bread, I won’t settle for half a loaf. Instead, I will have a muffin made of broken glass.” Colbert is a jokes man, but an influential one to be sure. Let’s unpack this sentiment, some flavour of which surely is held in earnest by many, at face value.

First, we have a straw man of ‘young people’ who were duped by Obama not doing every single thing they want. The implication here is that these young people expected him to do “every single thing” that they wanted, but no reasonable person could expect that. But more important is the diction: “every single thing” implies that Obama has done a lot of what he said he would do, enough that we can deride the straw man that won’t rest until he gets his entire agenda codified. Is that really a fair assessment of his record, analyzed both in isolation and against his campaign promises?

Second, we get an extreme comparison between Obama and his as-yet unknown republican challenger, as seen from the eyes of this straw man. Obama is only half a loaf of bread, but the republicans are like a muffin of broken glass! That isn’t even a food item! Half a loaf of bread will at least keep you alive, admittedly for only half the time a full one would, but a ‘muffin’ of broken glass will tear apart your digestive tract, leaving you to bleed internally to death. Are the policies of these opposing camps really that dramatically different?

An appeal to the facts is the only thing that can answer these questions. And an appeal to the facts, with my own analysis, is just what I mean to provide in a new page, Obama’s Record. I intend to break down Obama’s word and deed in several key areas, to leave it up the reader to determine for themselves how good or bad a president he has been and whether any of his actions are disqualifying for a second term. This post announces the creation of this series of subpages; at press time, only the parent page exists. But check back from time to time to see updates, and I will write blog posts announcing major entries.

the GOP primary disaster

It isn’t news that the republican party doesn’t have many hopeful options. Romney, the only major candidate from 2008 to try again, is widely reviled and failed to surge at any time, unlike his fellow candidates, in this incredibly drawn out process. But don’t the republicans realize yet that he must be their guy?

All the other candidates are either unelectably crazy/extreme (Santorum for being too dogmatic about nuclear families and hating gays; Paul for not being a “team player” and towing the neocon imperial line, not to mention his array of crazy ideas that are either unpleasant to the right, or the left, or both at the same time; and Bachmann for being almost certainly insane), or else have the kind of baggage that has either forced them out already (Cain, with his multiple sexual harassment allegations, likely years-long affair, and hilarious policy proposals) or is bound to (Perry’s debate gaffes, HPV vaccine waffling, and general unpopularity with his own state; Gingrich’s own affairs, House ethics violation, racial insensitivity, and suicidal mean streak against Romney). The only halfway decent major republican candidate left is Jon Huntsman, the ‘other’ mormon in the race who bet the farm on New Hampshire and came in a definite but distant third.

So given all this, and as this politico analysis makes clear, Romney is pretty close to tying this thing up. Current polls (Rammussen and PPP [pdf]) have Romney in first in South Carolina with at least a 5 point lead over Gingrich, and he’s probably only doing that well given his status as a good old boy from Georgia. This inevitable development has evangelicals who are afraid of Romney desperately scrambling to get behind a non-Romney candidate, and since Santorum is the latest of the non-Romneys to enjoy a polling surge and did well in Christian hicktown Iowa, he’s their man. In truth, we will need to wait at least until South Carolina is decided to know who is likely to be the republican candidate, since South Carolina has a history of being a violent contest that helps zero in on a winner for the ticket (though this would seem to favour Romney since Wikipedia claims that, while the primary has chosen the eventual nominee every time since 1980, it is also “considered a firewall to protect frontrunners.”)

But let’s remember the function of the primaries! It is to choose a candidate for president that the republicans both want to and think can win in the general election. Even suspending disbelief long enough to suppose that Santorum might win the GOP nod, I leave it to the intrepid reader to consider how much of a chance he will have at unseating Obama, who remains inexplicably popular (hovering around the mid-to-high 40s despite war crimes, an intransigent congress, and sustained economic hardship — more on these in coming posts). Romney, for all his faults, seems like the only candidate with any chance of having broad enough appeal to seriously challenge the sitting president, a fact which his team has been betting on for some time.

But that’s just the problem. Romney is deeply unpopular among republicans for the same reasons he will be unpopular generally. He has flip-flopped shamelessly on important topics like abortion and health care. He is an unlikable millionaire thanks to his prowess at aggressively reorganizing businesses, often by firing people and retaining large payments even when he failed. A sign of desperation among his opponents is that even they are attacking his record at Bain Capital. If republicans think they can get away with attacks like those, surely democrats will be able to. And in the present climate, that sort of attack is likely to resonate with a lot of moderate voters, if not a few out-of-work conservatives. That means the impending Obama-Romney matchup is not going to be the slam dunk for the challenger we’d expect it to be with high unemployment and simmering civil unrest.

All things considered, the republicans have wasted a perfect opportunity to unseat a failed incumbent, and all because no one was available or willing to rise to the occasion. In a nation of 300 million people, is this disaster the best they could offer?

UPDATE: Hours after posting this entry, Jon Huntsman’s staff leaked that he will be withdrawing tomorrow. This is not surprising given his finish in New Hampshire, but it does make his bizarre enthusiasm on finishing third even more cringe-worthy, and it is quite sad in light of the fact that The State, a South Carolina newspaper, just endorsed Huntsman earlier today. Given that I just named him the only other half-decent candidate, Romney is that much closer to securing the nomination and probably losing the election. Barring further economic decline or some spectacular disaster (imagine an analogue to the gulf oil spill that people might actually care about), it just doesn’t seem possible that Romney could win, unless of course millions of center-left nonpartisans commit suicide out of abject hopelessness.

Michael Tanner’s (latest?) incomprehensible snow job

Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute (a fiscally conservative small-government think tank co-founded by billionaire asshole Charles Koch), has a new op-ed in the National Review Online, that preeminent organ of right wing opinion. It caught my attention with the provocative headline “The Income-Inequality Myth” and is sufficiently horrible (for many reasons which I will discuss below) that it deserves a sound deconstruction.

Tanner’s off to a wicked start by including a CBO graph from October 2011 that shows the share of income ‘after transfers and federal taxes’ for the top 20% of American income earners grew roughly 10% from 1979 to 2007, while falling about 2% for everyone else. Maybe the point is that it might have been worse since the rectangles aren’t that different? So far I’m not convinced that income inequality is mythical, but if that isn’t bad enough, the first two paragraphs aren’t a substantive analysis of why income inequality is a dirty leftist lie, but rather a purely ad hominem broadside against Occupy Wall Street and a summary of a dystopian Vonnegut short story about a society which employs a “Handicapper General” to ensure that its citizens live in perfect equality.

Finally we get down to business: “most studies of inequality” have it all wrong, Tanner asserts, and he knows this thanks to studies about how the tax code has evolved over time done by one of Cato’s own, Alan Reynolds! As near as I can tell through the confusing and poorly worded summary of Reynolds’s findings, changes to capitals gains taxes and the 1986 tax reforms resulted in more wealth becoming taxable income. Basically, the rich aren’t getting richer, it just looks that way since more of the vast wealth they already had is taxed these days! Meanwhile, poorer workers are increasingly being compensated in less tangible “non-cash benefits” like health care and pensions, which are often not taxed, so pay hasn’t risen as sharply as it might have otherwise and the data are skewed. Tanner even repeats a claim that any perceived inequality can be explained away when you consider how ludicrously expensive health care has become. Yippee? Most obnoxiously, he seems to suggest that when you account for “non-cash social-welfare benefits such as food stamps, housing subsidies, and Medicaid” that “the gap between rich and poor may not be nearly as large as thought.” Allow me to rephrase: “Yes, you may be so crushingly poor that you can’t even afford housing and food, but an inadequate and shrinking safety net virtually makes up for that, so quit whining! And hands off the Benz.”

But then, without warning, Tanner shifts from arguing that inequality is just a talking point for Obama, a “significant misreading of the data,” to admitting it exists and that it is all the fault of “high-school dropouts” and “large segments of our society [that] remain unprepared for a 21st-century economy.” Whatever the reason for this inequality that suddenly does exist after all, Tanner tells us not to blame the Bush tax cuts or “tax cuts for the rich.” Why not? Because anonymous “studies” tell us it isn’t their fault!

Get ready to shift gears yet again, because now the discourse becomes not about whether income inequality exists, but rather about how inequality is good for us! In order to see this comes a three-part assault on rules of logic and composition.

First, we get a hypothetical scenario in which everyone’s income is magically doubled, and we avoid the ensuing catastrophic inflation troubles (as well as a discussion of how that was possible, or even that it would be an issue) to discover we have eliminated “an enormous amount of economic hardship” but at the expense of increased inequality! Wrapping up the thought experiment is Margaret Thatcher condescendingly channeling Ayn Rand (is there any other way?) in this choice straw man assault: “So long as the [income] gap is smaller, [those who would obsess over inequality] would rather have the poor poorer.” Yes, nothing like those bitter, success-hating liberals to ruin a perfectly good plutocracy.

Next, we get a rousing defense of live-and-let-live, reward-driven capitalism, but with a twist: the economic pie is not fixed, implying a zero-sum game; no, “in reality, though, the size of the pie is infinite.” Yes, in reality, pie is infinite in extent! It gets better in the very next sentence, where we have suggestions for the sort of ambitious risk-takers “ever striving for more” that we need to “make it grow.” That’s right, we need to grow an infinite pie! Surely his point is clear enough if you’re willing to assume he meant something other than what he said, but shouldn’t we expect better metaphor from a man the New York Times called “a lucid writer and vigorous polemicist”? After all, the Times is usually top-notch at telling it like it is.

Finally, we get some stirring quotation from Nobel Prize winner — and former Cato Institute fellow! — F.A. Hayek, who concluded that rapid progress requires inequality and would “be impossible without… some far in front of the rest.” No rationale is provided for this view, but I guess we should take Hayek’s word for it. After all, Nobel Prize winners are always deserving, and it provides a nice segue into a closing platitude about how we all want a “prosperous, growing economy, with less poverty.” Amen!

However, a cursory inquiry into the context of this Hayek quotation yields significantly more insight than Tanner is willing to impart through his spare reproduction of it. Taken from Hayek’s 1960 work The Constitution of Liberty (which coincidentally made the National Review‘s top 10 list for best 20th century nonfiction), a lengthier reproduction (with the bit Tanner cherry-picked in bold) is worthwhile to see that Hayek was not talking about the virtues of income inequality at all:

New knowledge and its benefits can spread only gradually, and the ambitions of the many will always be determined by what is as yet accessible only by the few. It is misleading to think of those new possibilities as if they were, from the beginning, a common possession of society which its members could deliberately share… it will have to pass through through a long course of adaptation, selection, combination, and improvement before full use can be made of it. This means that there will always be people who already benefit from new achievements that have not yet reached others.

The rapid economic advance that we have come to expect seems in large measure to be the result of this inequality and to be impossible without it. Progress at such a fast rate cannot proceed on a uniform front but must take place in echelon fashion, with some far ahead of the rest. The reason for this is concealed by our habit of regarding economic progress chiefly as an accumulation of ever greater quantities of goods and equipment. But the rise of our standard of life is due at least as much to an increase of knowledge which enables us not merely to consume more of the same things but to use different things, and often things we did not even know before. And though the growth of income depends in part on the accumulation of capital, more probably depends on our learning to use our resources more effectively and for new purposes.

Tanner has taken the sentiment completely out of context. If anything, I would guess that income inequality is, in Hayek’s view, a tragic artefact of the slow pace of innovation, imperfections and lag time in distribution, and a reluctance to adopt and apply new modes of knowledge and information; not an indispensable precondition for progress. The inequality Hayek refers to is that of access to “new knowledge and its benefits,” and he even criticizes the view that “growth of income” depends mostly on “the accumulation of capital” and the “accumulation of ever greater quantities of goods and equipment.” Tanner’s use of this quotation in concluding his thesis — self-aggrandizingly calling it out as coming from “another Nobel Prize winner” — is shamefully dishonest.

Now I don’t want to make a habit of writing a critical op-ed twice as long as the one it criticizes; if I did that every time some horrible op-ed came along, I would have no time to do anything else. But this Michael Tanner hack seems to be a big deal. I’d never heard of him before I stumbled upon this disgrace, but according to his Cato biography, Tanner has written several books that were well-received, frequently appears in prominent newspapers and on cable television, has testified to Congress many times, and helped Cato to launch the “Project on Social Security Choice, which is widely considered [by whom?] the leading impetus for transforming the soon-to-be-bankrupt system into a private savings program.” Obviously that last remark allows us to take anything Cato has to say with a grain of salt, since so-called experts disagree about the viability of Social Security. But the point is this guy matters to the mainstream media (despite his opening salvo in this piece against the mainstream media), and more importantly, to the conservative masses.

But more than that, this op-ed in particular is the sort of thing that poisons the discourse on a centrally vital topic. Citizens United wouldn’t be such a horrible decision with democracy-altering power if wealth distribution weren’t so wildly skewed toward corporation-people and the top hundredth (and even more, the top thousandth) of income earners. The fact that it is, and is only likely to get worse, is among the worst properties of American political life today. So purveyors of noise like Cato Institute senior fellow Michael Tanner, whether out of thinly veiled self-interest or the almost inconceivable notion that they actually believe this shit, are a huge problem that needs to be reckoned with. No wonder he starts out with a baseless attack on Occupy Wall Street, one of the few groups that has been able to halfway decently sound this alarm. It is important to see that dishonest, illogical tripe like this miserable op-ed is about the best the right wing has to offer to justify its transparent greed.

Supreme Court unanimously supports arbitrary discrimination in churches

In a rare unanimous decision, the Supreme Court today held (pdf) that churches are free to hire and fire ‘ministers’ without regard to anti-discrimination law. At issue was the case of Cheryl Perich, a teacher at the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church and School in a suburb of Detroit. She developed narcolepsy and began the 2004-2005 school year on medical leave. After a while, Perich announced her fitness and intent to return, but school administrators seem to have convinced the congregation that this was unlikely to be true, and it offered to pay some of her medical expenses if she would resign: pure Christian love. Perich refused and instead obtained a doctor’s note certifying her again to work by late February, but the school had already contracted another teacher to replace her and seemed intent to block her. Perich appeared on the first day she was certified to work again, but was asked to leave and told she was likely to be fired. She responded by threatening legal action under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Chief Justice Roberts notes in the unanimous opinion that her termination letter was quick to follow, citing as grounds “Perich’s ‘insubordination and disruptive behavior,’ as well as the damage she had done to her ‘working relationship’ with the school by ‘threatening to take legal action.’”

Roberts writes for the Court that ever since the Civil Rights Act, there has been a ‘ministerial exception’ for employment discrimination prevention, which he defends at length (more on that shortly). Because Perich conducts religious instruction 45 minutes every day and attends a weekly religious meeting with her class; and because her title of “called” teacher means that the Lutherans believe she has been literally called by God (and the congregation) to her position and was required to take some religious instruction herself, unlike “lay” teachers the school also sometimes employs to perform many of the same religious functions when God hasn’t gotten around to calling someone; and the fact that the majority of her instruction is in a wide variety of secular matters, owing to her four-year run as a kindergarten teacher and most recent year in the fourth grade, notwithstanding; the Court decided that she is a ‘minister.’ Indeed, in a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas notes that it ought to be up to the church to decide who is and is not a minister. And in a concurring opinion written by Alito and joined by Kagan (that’s right, Alito and Kagan agreeing on a concurring opinion!), the Justices argue that the term ‘minister’ itself ought not to be used at all, since many religions don’t have such a term.

My main issue with this ruling is that it smells like melodramatic bullshit. Roberts spends pages talking about the historical rationale for and the application of the first amendment, going from implementation failings of the magna carta’s promises of popular freedom to issues about territorial governance to clashes between slave owners and abolitionists to issues of property rights. Roberts and Alito both avoid the obvious likelihood that this isn’t really about the need for religions to have the power to choose their ministers free of governmental meddling, the latter opinion expressly prohibiting an inquiry to determine whether that argument isn’t just a convenient excuse, a ‘pretext for discrimination,’ since that would require making ‘a judgment about church doctrine.’ But isn’t that really the point?

Here we have a woman who is going to be terminated first for having a medical condition and second for trying to sue over that attempt to terminate her since All Good Lutherans settle their disputes within the church. The merits of the ADA suit aren’t even addressed in this decision; the suit simply is dropped since this school teacher is actually a ‘minister’ because she prays with her class and teaches them about God 15% of the time in a church-run school. Do we really suppose the Lutherans want to fire this woman because narcolepsy is a sign of satanic possession, or because their eleventh commandment is ‘Thou shalt not sleep on thine job’? But Roberts waxes poetic about what an order to reinstate, or even pay damages to, the complainant would mean: “Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.”

But how far do we take this? Couldn’t this church fire anyone it pleases and claim immunity to accountability since it might be that doctrine supports the decision? Is there not now an incentive, under the concurring opinions, for faith-based organizations to label anyone a ‘minister’ (or corresponding title) in order to secure legal exemption for civil wrongdoing? Roberts condescendingly refutes this argument that the Court’s decision opens the door to ‘a parade of horribles,’ dispelling the spectre of church-and-hence-state-sanctioned child-molesting priests (never could happen!) by explicitly noting that criminal acts and police investigations are not granted this blanket immunity and absolute prohibition, respectively, under this ruling. But a host of noncriminal activities appear to be fair game, modern civil rights and fair employment legislation notwithstanding, under this unanimous decision; and all thanks to an amendment which sought, according at least to Roberts’s own opinion, mainly to prohibit the government from installing its own religious leaders. Is that really the only thing that makes religious groups more sacred (forgive the pun) than every other social organization recognized by law and answerable to the ADA?

Some experts are not pleased. As usual, Nina Totenberg at NPR did some excellent journalism (increasingly a rarity at the offices of her august employer) to find out what people who matter think about this:

“It’s unanimous that she counts as a minister, it’s unanimous that ministers can’t sue, it’s unanimous that it doesn’t matter that whether the church had a religious reason or not,” [University of Virginia law professor Douglas] Laycock said. “The courts can’t inquire into that. That’s the story here today.”

“When the court says you can have no inquiry into whether this religious reason is pretextual and just a cover for some kind of discrimination, that’s a big deal,” [George Washington University law professor Ira Lupu] said.

The only silver lining is that this decision might not carry much sway as a precedent. The majority opinion was clear that while Perich is a minister, the Court is not establishing a minister test with this ruling. Still, it is clear that our secular democracy still has a healthy — even unanimous — respect for faith, and common sense and civil rights be damned.

Book Review: “Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View” by Stephen Breyer

Making Our Democracy Work is the work of a left-leaning sitting Supreme Court Justice, Stephen Breyer. Well-titled, the book is a treatise that explains the goals of the Court as set out in the Constitution and its successes and failures over the last couple centuries, as well as the means that its author believes ought to be emphasized today in order to realize a constitutional democracy based on civil rights, not simply on paper but in actual practice.  Justice Breyer suggests an arsenal of tools and focuses that he believes — convincingly — the Court can and should use to maintain a public trust in enforcing “our Constitution’s liberty-protecting limits.”

The book is just as no-nonsense as you might expect and require of a sitting high court judge: it is divided into discrete, functional parts that each build in their own way in spare but effective prose to the ultimate and multifaceted thesis.

The first part explores the historical basis for the remarkable trust and deference that the American people grant the Court, explicitly relying only on well-accepted but detailed historical accounts of a few important cases. Breyer explores in entertaining prose the first great test of the nascent Court in Marbury v. Madison; points out a miscarriage in the treatment of the Cherokees under the Jackson administration when he ignored a Court order protecting their rights; visits what is hailed as one of the worst decisions the Court ever made in Dred Scott; counters with a triumph of cooperation between the judiciary and the executive in Brown v. Board of Education and school integration in Little Rock; and concludes with an analysis of the contentious 2000 decision Bush v. Gore. The exercise was to demonstrate that ours is “a nation that has gradually come to place confidence in the Court.”

The second part is Breyer’s vision for the manner in which the Court ought to function to preserve Constitutional guarantees by maintaining the public trust while not yielding to political pressures. This is clearly easier said than done, and the proffered mechanism of emphasis on the purposes (whether determined or inferred) and the consequences (more often real than imagined) of legislation — as opposed to fealty to wording or precedent or archaic interpretation, which are acknowledged as well to have a place in crafting decisions — seems phrased specifically to convince strict constructionists like Breyer’s colleague Antonin Scalia. But it is easy to forgive the explicit emphasis on these tools given the herculean job Breyer performs in justifying their application both through specific examples and accessible abstractions. Breyer’s approach is multifaceted too, as he also explores justifications in depth for qualified deference to the specialized expertise of executive administrations, state authorities, and lower federal courts. I was struck by the breadth and restraint of Breyer’s judicial vision.

The third and final part is devoted to an exploration of the Court’s duty to protect individual rights. Between detailed and painful discussions of Court failures with WWII Japanese internment cases and recent relative successes with Terrorism cases like Hamdi and Boumediene, Breyer demonstrates how the Court has and (sometimes) uses the power to check executive excesses to guarantee constitutional liberties. Importantly, he underscores the tenuous successes of the Court in maintaining a functioning democracy by quoting Bush 43’s reaction to the Boumediene ruling: “We’ll abide by the court’s decision — that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it.”

Overall, the book is an eminently readable, educational treatise unlikely to be less informative than any text book on the subjects it addresses, and it has an aggressive collection of notes. There are also a pair of appendices: the first is a collection of images relating to the cases discussed throughout the book that Breyer hopes will remind readers that they “were decided by, and the principles have a profound effect on, human beings” in order to drive home the real importance of these issues; the second is among the shortest and most effective descriptions of what it is the Supreme Court actually does that I have ever read, which is indispensable for anyone unfamiliar with or prone to needing to explain to others the function that our government’s third and ‘weakest’ branch (according to Hamilton) performs.
I fault the book for repeating certain phrases and themes a little too often, but that seems more like a failing of sloppy editors, a symptom of the desire to make the book exceedingly consumable to the layman, or perhaps a forgivable idiosyncrasy of the author; and it is my only major criticism. I recommend the book heartily, and close with the final passage from its conclusion, which summarizes its laudable purpose:
The stories this book sets forth are told from the point of view of one judge. I have drawn my own lessons from them. I hope that they lead others to study the stories and ponder their lessons about our constitutional history. Then they too will be better able to help make our democracy work. I hope so.
That is why I have written this book.
Published 2010, 270 pages.

Iran and nuclear physics

Shit’s heating up with Iran. There’s an intended pun here, since the news of the day is the IAEA (the ‘nuclear watchdog’ arm of the UN) claims it can confirm that Iran is enriching uranium at up to 20% at a heavily guarded underground bunker. According to the IAEA’s own report from last November (pdf here), this was all according to plan and was reported to the IAEA in June of 2011. So the fuss appears to be that it is actually happening, and predictably the fuss is a loud one from typical hypocritical whiners like the US about how “this means Iran’s building a bomb which will destabilize the region and oh mercy won’t somebody think of the children.”

(To make my point, it’s time for an aside for those unfamiliar or curious, as I was, about uranium enrichment and its role in making deadly weapons. If you are already an expert on these subjects, then please skip to the close parenthesis.

Recall from high school chemistry that all matter is composed of atoms, each of which in turn contains a nucleus at its center made up of electrically neutral neutrons and positively charged protons. These nuclei are stable against the incredibly repulsive force of those protons through a medium called the strong nuclear force [clever!], but for very heavy nuclei — those containing lots of protons and neutrons — the strong nuclear force could be subverted by the weak nuclear force [yay!] if only there were a little energy to get those protons ‘over the hump’ as it were. This would cause the nucleus to split into two [sometimes three] pieces, thereby releasing all that energy the strong force was keeping pent up, in a process called fission.

The famous Manhattan Project was commissioned during the second world war in order to kill unsuspecting Japanese civilians by finding a way to unleash this explosive force on command. The idea was to get a lot of these heavy nuclei together and hit them with something. More precisely, certain nuclei are unstable enough that if you hit them with a neutron, they will split apart into two smaller nuclei, some extra free neutrons, and a fair amount of energy. Those neutrons hit other unstable nuclei, and before you know it, you have an explosive chain reaction.

It turns out a good choice for the heavy nuclei are a particular isotope of uranium, U-235. You hit one with a neutron, it becomes U-236 just long enough to break apart in a shower of smaller nuclei, neutrons, heat, and light. The problem is that the vast majority of uranium on earth is a much less radioactive (and hence less unstable) isotope, U-238. Wikipedia says U-238 is about 140 times more abundant, and that’s saying something since there isn’t much of that lying around either. While radioactive, you just can’t get the chain reaction with this heavier stuff. To make matters worse, it’s pretty much all mixed together: there aren’t chunks of pure U-235 conveniently scattered about the New Mexico desert. So what did those clever Manhattan Project scientists do? Basically, they devised elaborate techniques to ‘enrich’ the uranium, or in other words to toss the U-238 and keep the U-235.)

But now let’s consider the hype. The same wiki article linked above and quoted below indicates that commercial nuclear reactors often use uranium enriched to between 3 and 5% U-235, while noting that ‘research reactors’ — so called for their use in producing radioisotopes for medical research and treatment, among other things — can use enrichments as high as 19.75%. Indeed, the 20% number bandied about so hysterically is a threshold between Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) and High Enriched Uranium (HEU). Apparently a ‘crude weapon’ could be fashioned with the best LEU, but ‘usually’ weapons-grade uranium is 85% HEU or better; Little Boy of Hiroshima fame was 80%, and that bomb was crude compared to today’s standards. The nuclear cores of atomic submarines usually contain ‘at least 50%.’ Perhaps most tellingly, modern US nuclear weapons are comprised of two stages: the first is a different nuclear fuel, Plutonium-239, to create an initial nuclear explosion, which then sets off a chain reaction in a 40-80% HEU  core. Even with bottomless pockets funding a half century of research and development to create a two-staged nuclear explosive, we still need to enrich that stuff so that the concentration of U-235 is at least 50 times higher than in nature. The best Iran is talking about now is only half that concentration.

Could Iran use this uranium they are enriching to create a nuclear bomb? Probably, but only a very crude one. But could uranium enriched to that purity also have legitimate non-WMD purposes, like what Iran has been saying all along? I believe so, based on a cursory investigation into the nature and uses of enrichment. And all this is a totally separate question to whether Iran would dare use a nuclear bomb even if they could make one. There is a lot more to say about the present situation with Iran, and I plan to say at least some of it soon, but the fuss about enrichment activities is clearly less about safety or stability and more about regional control and possibly even warmongering jingoism. Look out below?