Archive for December, 2012

No healthcare, no gun control, no problem

December 18 2012 Leave a comment

Conservatives are an infuriating bunch. In the wake of the school shooting in Connecticut, the usual cast of blowhards have trotted out the same old defences of the gun lobby.

‘The killer was a crazed madman who could’ve killed just as many people with a sharpened guava. Making “responsible gun owners” complete a tiresome background check isn’t the answer — we need to protect society from madmen.’

This might be an almost-reasonable argument if the same people weren’t also rabidly in favour of dismantling Obamacare. Are they really that insincere? Or will we now hear voices on the right asking whether it would be sensible for the government to provide better care to the mentally ill?

I doubt it. That would be socialism, right?

Fox has even posted a lengthy article from Keith Ablow, its in-house psychiatrist, who does a remarkable job of detailing all the many problems with the mental healthcare system, including the callous behaviour of insurers, while avoiding any mention of Obamacare — or any solutions at all.

But fear not: “Within the week, I will post the rough framework of such a plan here on,” he promises. Isn’t it odd that one of Fox’s in-house doctors hasn’t given any thought to healthcare reform and can’t reel off a few ideas in response to a national tragedy? Perhaps Roger Ailes has to read it first.

In the absence of any solutions, Ablow repeats all the conservative talking points (or they were just pasted in by a Fox staffer, it’s hard to tell). Just one example:

When you hear well-meaning politicians or community leaders talk about gun control as a solution to school shootings, remember that Adam Lanza was mentally ill (in a way that I would label as “violently ill”) in a nation that has no real mental health care system at all, that he used firearms that were legally obtained by his mother and that he could just as easily have used other means to inflict horrible casualties.

We have no time for misplaced efforts.


Though apparently we do have a time to wait a week for Ablow to get his thoughts together.

It’s a shame he isn’t more candid, because his description of the problems is certainly a damning indictment of the current system, as is this article. It’s a mother’s story of coping (or failing to cope) with a violent, mentally ill son.

I love my son. But he terrifies me.

We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael. Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He’s been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work.

At least we have health insurance now. I recently accepted a position with a local college, giving up my freelance career because when you have a kid like this, you need benefits. You’ll do anything for benefits. No individual insurance plan will cover this kind of thing.

When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”

No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”

Contrast that will Bill O’Reilly’s take:

billo talking point 20121217


Guns don’t kill…

December 17 2012 Leave a comment

…but they sure help people who want to.

handgun control

Categories: politics, war & peace Tags:

The sad demise of unions

December 17 2012 Leave a comment
The 1984 miners' strike in Britain, which signalled the beginning of the end

The 1984 miners’ strike signalled the beginning of the end for organised labour in the UK

The passage of a right-to-work law in Michigan has stirred up controversy in the US, but for all the wrong reasons.

Frankly, I’ve never really understood the modern labour movement. The typical rationale for unions is to constrain the power of greedy capital owners by giving workers the power to bargain collectively. Without this power, it is too easy for owners to exploit the workers.

People tend to accept this idea without much thinking, but it is a completely inaccurate description for most unions in the world — and pretty much all of the prominent ones. For the most part, today’s unions comprise civil servants negotiating with taxpayers. Nurses, teachers, police officers, firemen.

As valuable as these jobs certainly are, I don’t understand why they need the ability to organise. The government is not the same as a private employer. It is already accountable to the people through the ballot, so I see no reason for civil servants to be given bargaining power in negotiations with a democratically elected government. There is no imbalance to redress, and any attempts to do so involve shifting power from an accountable body to an unaccountable one.

These civil servants are the least at-risk category of workers in the country, at least in terms of exploitation by their employer, but their domination of the labour movement drowns out the voices of real workers.

Stroppy civil servants also give workers a bad name. Most of the union scare stories that make it into the media involve public-sector workers — teachers who can’t be fired, firemen on six-figure salaries, cops with lavish pensions and entire communities bankrupted by the burden of paying out all this pork.

As far as I can tell, public-sector unions exist for no other reason than to bankroll political parties — the Democrats in the US, Labour in the UK. As such, they have forced workers into a hyper-partisan position and, quite understandably, have led Republicans and Conservatives to undermine their power by weakening collective bargaining rights.

This happened in the 1980s in the UK, but is only now happening in the US.

The specific issue in the right-to-work debate is similar to what are called closed shops in the UK — the right of a union to force all workers to pay dues (or, in the UK, to force them to join the union as a condition of employment). The idea behind this is that all workers benefit from collective bargaining, so all should pay the cost of it. (Union dues are typically just a few bucks a month.)

I doubt forced dues would be nearly so controversial if unions weren’t such big political donors, and I doubt that unions would be such big donors if they weren’t dominated by government employees.

In the UK, it was almost entirely public-sector workers who brought about the downfall of the unions. Their endless strikes were utterly pointless and stupid. Government workers don’t have a right to veto government policy just because they don’t like it. If that were the case it would be impossible for the government to ever get anything done.

The sad result is that real workers, who face real exploitation by real employers, have lost many of their rights. The demise of private-sector unions may also partly explain the widening gap between rich and poor.

Or this is how it all seems to me. I often wonder if there’s something more to it, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this discussed as an issue. It just seems to be accepted that public-sector workers have a right to organise. Perhaps I’m missing something.

Categories: economics, politics Tags: ,

Bruce Bartlett and Yves Smith on overhyping the fiscal cliff

December 17 2012 Leave a comment

An interesting discussion about the fiscal cliff between Bill Moyers and his guests Bruce Bartlett, a former Republican economic adviser, and Yves Smith, an author, blogger and financial type:


Why don’t the Swiss shoot schoolkids?

December 16 2012 Leave a comment

Loathe him or loathe him, Piers Morgan did a good impersonation of a human being on Friday when his guests suggested that more guns may be the answer to the school shooting in Connecticut. The former gossip columnist nearly exploded with incomprehension.



In the UK, Morgan rose to prominence at Rupert Murdoch’s flagship tabloid newspaper, The Sun, and is by no means a liberal.

To many of us in Europe, American attitudes to gun ownership are hard to understand. To non-American ears, some of the arguments used by the pro-gun lobby are absurd.

One example I’ve heard repeated recently is that some other countries manage to have high rates of gun ownership without America’s problems. Therefore, the problem is not about how many guns there are, but how you choose to regulate them.

I’m not sure why the gun lobby likes this argument, given that they’re completely opposed to gun control, but there it is.

The argument is also completely wrong, of course.

So, which countries are they talking about? The slightly surprising answer is Israel and Switzerland. Really? The Swiss have a lot of guns? I had no idea. The Israelis… I’m hardly surprised, but I also don’t think Americans would want to live in an Israeli-style society.

But let’s take a closer look at why these countries appear on this list.

The threat facing the average Israeli citizen is orders of magnitude higher than that of the average American, yet the only people allowed to own guns in Israel are those who have reached a certain rank in the military or police. Even then, they’re only allowed handguns and have limited access to ammunition. So, almost all the guns are owned by current or former soldiers or police officers.

The Swiss are a very different bunch to the Israelis, but their gun ownership anomaly is very similar. While Switzerland refuses to take sides in any international conflict (for fear of upsetting the tyrants, dictators and millionaires who hide their swag in its bank vaults) and doesn’t have a standing army, it does require all young men to make themselves available for service in the country’s militia. Those found suitable (ie, fit, healthy and sane) are assigned weapons that they must keep at home. So, almost all the guns are owned by part-time soldiers.

Neither country has anything remotely similar to America’s gun laws, so let’s put this particular myth to bed.

Why does Fox’s CIA “expert” want to torture his daughter?

December 15 2012 Leave a comment

mike-baker-fox-newsFox News interviewed someone they described as “former CIA operative Mike Baker” about enhanced interrogation techniques yesterday, in response to a report by the Senate’s intelligence committee that found they were ineffective.

That doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Members of the FBI have complained about the use of water boarding, sleep deprivation and other techniques since early on in the war on terror. But the issue is still unsettled over at Fox.

It’s bizarre to think that small-government conservatives are happy for the federal government to torture people in secret through the CIA, while at the same time claiming to be so distrusting of the government that they demand to be allowed to keep a small arsenal at home. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

Anyway, there was one line that particularly caught my attention — at the end of the segment, when Baker makes this extraordinary claim about current US military guidelines for interrogations: “I couldn’t break my teenage daughter with the Army field manual techniques, it’s just not gonna happen.”

He couldn’t “break” his daughter? What on earth is he talking about? Why would he want to?

Let’s imagine the situation: his daughter has fallen in with the wrong crowd and is suspected of committing an act of domestic terrorism. They call in her dad to speak to her. What does he do?

Well, apparently, this guy thinks he would need to water board her to get the truth. I think that says all we need to know about the CIA’s expertise in interrogating suspects. And I’m sure his daughter is really charmed by the analogy.

The idea that you need to “break” someone to get information from them is feeble-minded nonsense — it’s the stuff of Jack Bauer and Hollywood movies. Even the police would blush at such attitudes.

Of course, Baker was certain the report basically represented the views of civil liberties groups and throughout the interview he gave no indication that a subtle thought had ever crossed his mind.

“It’s inane to say that they didn’t work ever. The reality is always a little bit more complicated — the reality is sometimes enhanced techniques work, sometimes they don’t.”

The report isn’t public, but I’d be very surprised if it said that enhanced interrogation techniques don’t work ever. Still, who expects competent analysis from the CIA these days?

Categories: war & peace Tags: , ,

Of dogs and men

December 12 2012 Leave a comment

malcolm gladwellMalcolm Gladwell told Stephen Colbert on Tuesday that the domestication of the wolf was possibly the most narcissistic thing mankind had ever done.

What a bleak vision of the relationship between man and dog! I prefer to think of us as co-dependent — that we evolved together. And there’s plenty of good science to support this view.

Indeed, it’s even possible that dogs domesticated us. Rearing cattle or goats would have been much easier for the farmer who had a dog, and we can be fairly confident that dogs were hanging around with us before we gave up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The oldest dog found by archaeologists dates back about 30,000 years to a cave in France. And our relationship almost certainly goes back quite a bit before then.

So perhaps dogs really did help hunter-gatherers settle down and become farmers — and perhaps we owe them part of the credit for civilisation as we know it.

And before they domesticated us, it’s possible that dogs also domesticated themselves. Wolves are generally wary of humans, for good reason, but this wariness varies from one individual to another. Wolves that were less afraid and had the confidence to scavenge from our rubbish might have gained an advantage, particularly when food was scarce in the wild.

Over generations, these individuals might have produced offspring that were even less wary of humans, until eventually they saw us as fellow members of the wolf pack. Soviet scientists conducted their own experiment to see if they could domesticate a fox by selecting for friendliness. And it turns out that you can.

But the most interesting lesson from this experiment was that breeding for friendliness also changed the fox’s physical appearance. They even looked friendlier!

This is fascinating, and suggests that we might have had nothing to do (directly, at least) with dogs becoming man’s best friend — they did it to themselves. By selecting out their fear of humans, they simultaneously selected in the traits that make them so irresistible to us.

Is there a more remarkable story in the animal kingdom? I don’t think so.

There are competing theories of course, but I like the explanation that gives us the least credit, not because I’m a misanthrope (which I am), but because it seems much more likely that bold scavengers would emerge again and again, wherever humans set up camp. This would create lots of opportunities for domestication.

Another theory is that we took in lost or injured wolf pups and nursed the poor little things into dogs, so to speak.

Sure, some wolf pups probably did end up in human care, but the Soviet experiment suggests that, although changes can happen relatively quickly, it still takes multiple generations to breed in friendliness. Wolf pups do not make good pets!


I will try to add in some links when I get the chance to find some of this stuff. There’s a particularly good documentary with footage of the friendly foxes. They also bred some mean foxes, which are awesome too.

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