Wednesday, November 30, 2011

National Review misses good ol' civilian-slaughtering imperialism

The ransacking of the British Embassy in Teheran is a very serious, ugly affair. At National Review, it makes Charles C.W. Cooke wistful for the good ol' days—with the Empire would've responded by killing a lot of innocent people. He fondly remembers one Lord Palmerston:
With the British embassy in Tehran under Iranian control, the Foreign Office issued a statement expressing “outrage” and confirming that the move “is utterly unacceptable. The Iranian government [has] a clear duty to protect diplomats and embassies in their country and we expect them to act urgently to bring the situation under control and ensure the safety of our staff and security of our property.” This, to put it mildly, would not have been Palmerston’s response. Having fumed for a while that Tehran was not close enough to water for a quick naval bombardment, Henry John Temple would have sent a blockade to the Caspian Sea and knocked out coastal towns one by one until an apology was forthcoming and a restoration assured. And then he would have taken to Parliament to defend his decision. Moreover, those who would take over the embassy of another nation while their elected representatives shouted “Death to Britain” would be made aware of the consequences of their actions. Were Palmerston around today, his response would ensure that nobody touched a British embassy for 100 years.
Cooke, apparently, is also nostalgic for the days when the British Empire would slaughter civilians in the name of ... trade policy:
When the Chinese had the temerity to restrict trade with the West — in particular by blocking opium exports from British India — Palmerston sent gunboats up the Yangtze River, indiscriminately destroying the small towns along the banks with such confidence that the Chinese quickly changed their minds. The result was the Treaty of Nanking, by the terms of which various trading posts were ceded to the British, and restrictions on imperial trade were summarily lifted.
Good times!

I don't know. Seems to me we can make a vigorous show of expecting Iran's government to honor international norms, with regards to embassies, without pining for the days when Western governments would impose their will on different continents through indiscriminate slaughter. Cooke's nostalgia is morally contemptible.

Glenn Greenwald: You can dissent without being a dick

Forgive the crudeness of the headline. But that's the thought I had while reading Glenn Greenwald this morning, as he weighed in on l'affaire Sam Brownback. If you've missed the controversy, here's the skinny: A Kansas teen-ager who was part of a group visiting the Kansas governor sent out a tweet suggesting she had criticized him to his face; the tweet contained a crude hashtag. The governor's communications staff saw the tweet, and told the teen's principal. It's all been resolved, now, and nobody has come out of it looking all that great.

But the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus wrote a column this morning castigating the teen for her incivility. And Greenwald has piped up criticizing Marcus for showing undue deference to elected officials:
Behold the mind of the American journalist: Marcus — last seen in this space three years ago demanding that Bush officials be fully shielded from all accountability for their crimes (the ultimate expression of “respect for authority”) — wants everyone to learn and be guided by extreme deference to political officials and to humbly apologize when they offend those officials with harsh criticism. In other words, Marcus wants all young citizens to be trained to be employees of The Washington Post. In a just world, Marcus’ column would be written instead by Sullivan’s mother, who exudes what the journalistic ethos should be — “I raised my kids to be independent, to be strong, to be free thinkers. If she wants to tweet her opinion about Governor Brownback, I say for her to go for it” — but people who think that way only rarely receive establishment media platforms. Instead, we’re plagued with the Ruth Marcuses of the world — “inculcate values of respect for authority”!!! — and that explains a lot.
Only it doesn't. Greenwald's criticism of Marcus presumes that dissenting from and criticizing elected authorities goes hand-in-hand with uncivil rudeness. It doesn't.

Gandhi managed to end British rule in India without saying of Churchill that "he blows a lot." Martin Luther King Jr. challenged entrenched racism in the the American south without saying that George Wallace "blows a lot." And I'm pretty sure that Rosa Parks kept her seat at the front of the bus without saying the bus driver "blows a lot."

Civility doesn't equal deference, nor does it equal silence. In the case of King and Parks, in particular, civility was a key component to making a forceful, sustained, morally unimpeachable challenge to the systems that oppressed them. That doesn't always work: Sometimes a little jerkiness does help.  But not always. Again: It's a huge mistake to assume that civility is surrender.

Brownback's staff overreacted. (I once covered a murder trial with his spokeswoman, back when she was a Topeka TV reporter; let's just say I'm not surprised.) And I don't really disagree with the assessment made by Emma Sullivan, the teen tweeter. To the extent that it revealed a paranoid strain in Brownback's governance, maybe she was even inadvertently successful. But thousands upon thousands of Kansans work against the governor's agenda every day—through donations, communication, and lobbying—without resorting to barnyard language. They aren't showing undue deference; they're just behaving like adults.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dirty hippies and the First Amendment

Regarding this: I’ve had to make this point a couple of times in the past few days, so I might as well make it here: You don’t have to *like* the Occupy folks to think that abusive policing is bad.

There’s an old saying that—in my view at least—once represented the American ideal: “I don’t like what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” That ideal has been replaced, it seems, with the idea that dirty hippies deserve whatever they get.

I like the old way better. It does require that I hold myself to the same ideal—that I allow room for people to be (say) bigoted or homophobic or, maybe, just a little too solicitous of the rich and powerful. I should defend their right to speak their minds, and get angry if a cop pepper sprays them for doing so. It’s easy to be gleeful when our opponents are silenced, but it isn't actually right.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Those darned cops

In the aftermath of the much-publicized pepperspray incident at UC-Davis, Ben and I use our Scripps column this week to debate the role of police officers in our communities. My take:
Abusive cops are nothing new: Ask your black and Latino friends about their experiences driving around in white neighborhoods, and you're likely to get an earful. What's remarkable about the recent examples of brutality -- why they have our attention -- is the victims in these cases: White, middle-class kids.

And that's fine, because it lets us finally have a big conversation about the role of police in our communities -- a role that has shifted since the events of 9/11. Departments across the country have become increasingly militarized over the last decade, preparing for a terrorist attack that most will never face. They've purchased tanks and drones, and have generally armed themselves for war.

In the absence of an actual external threat, though, those war-making capabilities have been focused on the communities that police officers are supposed to protect and serve. The result is a deepening alienation that serves neither the police nor their communities very well.

While there are many, many good cops serving our communities, there are also a great many bullies -- men whose proclivities probably would've landed them in jail if they hadn't earned a badge and a gun. It has always been thus.

This is where conservatives can serve their communities. Many are willing to cry "tyranny!" in the face of new environmental regulations but happy to support cops, no matter how egregious their abuses. (Fox News has been a shining example of the phenomenon this week.) That must change.

Let's sell the tanks and drones. Let's put the riot gear in mothballs.

Police must be allowed to keep order in their communities -- but they usually need not resort to such extremes to do so. Otherwise, if cops keep treating citizens as the enemy, they might one day find out they're right.
Ben's impulses generally run towards civil-libertarianism, but in this week's column his response is: "Yeah, but: Hippies!"

Friday, November 18, 2011

What good is college football?

Ben and I wrestle with the Penn State scandal in this week's Scripps column. My take:
College football is a blot upon the landscape.
The sport distorts the educational mission of participating schools, draws disproportionately from their financial resources and institutional energy, and badly exploits the young men who play the game.
All this, so we fans can have our Saturday tailgates. 
The scandal at Penn State isn't uncommon. As a young reporter in the early 2000s, I wrote about how Terry Allen, then-football coach at the University of Kansas, was presented with accusations that two of his players sexually assaulted a woman. He didn't go to police; Allen punished the players by making them run extra laps after practice. 
After the story broke, he stuck around another year before losing his job over a poor record. Anybody who has spent time around a top-level college program can probably tell you a similar story -- usually off-the-record. 
KU's current coach, Turner Gill, is by all accounts a decent man -- devoted to molding decent men. But he has a lousy record, and so at the end of this season will probably be given $6 million to walk away. That's $6 million at an institution that, like other public universities, is fighting for an ever-diminishing pool of resources to educate students and pursue vital research. 
The Atlantic's October cover story, "The Shame of College Sports," demonstrates further inequities. The players are young men who often sacrifice their health and well-being in hope of earning an unlikely berth in the NFL -- and who receive little compensation for their efforts, even while universities reap billions of dollars from the sport. 
Burn down the system. Let alumni pay to field their own football clubs, if they want, but let's get colleges out of the game. Penn State is one example of the corrupting effects of college football; it is far from the only one.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On hospitalization: Advocate for yourself

Over the course of three surgeries starting in May, I've had the honor of spending 17 days in the hospital in recent months. Before this, I'd not spent a night in the hospital since I was five years old, so I had to learn a thing or two about how best to take care of myself.

What I learned is this: I had to be an advocate for myself.

My second visit to the hospital, in July, was the worst. Part of that was a function of the surgery itself--I was opened up along the entire length of my belly, and surgeons had a difficult time once they got inside. The result was more pain--and more pain medication--than I have ever experienced in my life.

An additional problem, for me, is that I am what's known in the medical industry as a "bad stick." Hospitalization is an unending series of 1 a.m. blood draws--the better to deprive you of needed rest--and what became clear during that second visit is that it was hard for medical personnel to find a decent vein to tap. On one particularly unpleasant evening, the phlebotomist stuck me five times, fruitlessly, leaving an ugly and long-lasting bruise. I warned subsequent needle-bearers they would get two opportunities, tops.

I was ready for the problem this time. Every time somebody new approached me to draw blood, I told them: "I'm a bad stick. It's hard for people to find the right veins. I know you're trying to help me, but I'm not inclined to sit still for repeated stickings." And the results were good: One young lady stuck me three times--once in the hand! digging around!--but everybody else seemed to take extra time and care to finding and preparing the right vein. For the most part, the blood draws were a smooth process this time around.

My other problem during the second visit was room-sharing. I'm not above the company, but I realized--thanks to a nasty panic attack on my last day--that I needed better air and light than I was generally getting. So I told the people in charge of my care that if I shared a room, I needed to be next to the window--which, in addition to providing natural light, also happened to be closer to the air-moving unit in the room. With light and moving air, I could survive better. It's probably not a coincidence that I was moved to a private room after one night during this last visit.

I'm sure I seemed snotty and a little precious in laying down the ground rules to the (really!) great team of medical professionals who were helping me recover from a devastating illness. But the truth is that this hospitalization was the easiest of the three. That's partly because the surgery was less invasive and painful, but also--I think--because I knew how hospital conditions affect me, and what conditions provided the best level of comfort (and thus the least stress) in that setting.

I'm grateful for every single person who attended me during my hospitalizations. I hope I never offended them, though I'm sure I did from time to time. But there's no point in becoming a passive slab of meat once you enter the hospital. Once I figured out what I needed, I asked for it. And generally got it. That made the process much, much easier to endure.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On pooping

A couple of months ago, I took my son to the French cafe down the street, a lovely place full of coffee, brie, and accordion music. He had his usual croissant, I ordered a sandwich and soup, and we were well on our way to enjoying an atypically mild Philadelphia day.

Under my shirt, though, activity was brewing. The seal on my colostomy bag had come loose--and when the poop started flowing again, there was little resistance between it and the outside world. I heard a farting sound and looked down in horror as a dark brown stain spread across the front, the smell of shit muscling aside the aroma of green lentil  soup that had made the cafe so inviting.

I quickly paid my bill, hustled Tobias home, and cursed furiously as I cleaned myself up. And I spent the rest of the day feeling sorry for myself.

Last week, my colostomy was reversed. Early Monday morning, I pooped in the regular fashion for the first time in roughly seven months. For me, 2011 has been the Year of Poop--with much thought given to how it's done, what it's made of, and what it means. I never really made my peace with the colostomy bag, but I'm far more conscious of my poop now, and I doubt that will ever really go away.

Let's back up to where it started. In mid-April, I started feeling lethargic--energy-less, and no appetite to boot. I started to neglect work. I thought I was merely depressed, but soon realized I hadn't pooped in days. Noticing made no difference--additional bran, coffee, water, and other natural aids did nothing to get the flow started. I made a doctor's appointment, even had an X-Ray done: Nothing was found. I was sent home with some home enemas and a particularly powerful laxative.

Instead of pooping, though, I began to vomit--a development that prompted a rush to the emergency room. I sat mostly unattended for a few hours, interrupted only now and again by doctors trying to ascertain my problem. After I was sent for a CT scan, though, I was suddenly surrounded by doctors prodding my midsection: My intestinal tract was swollen and almost entirely closed off; I was in danger of perforating. I needed emergency surgery, a colostomy, to relieve the pressure--and only after the inflammation subsided would doctors be able to search for the underlying cause.

I've already written about the colostomy bag, how it frightened and offended me. But I haven't really talked about the poop. Because the colostomy--situated right under my sternum--transformed my relationship with the stuff.

As a society, we're actually pretty good about making it easy not to think about poop. The process generally takes place behind you, after all, and if you're generous in your use of toilet paper, it's possible to take a good dump, cover it with the TP, and flush it down the tubes without ever really seeing it. Those tubes are something to think  about, though: To a large extent, cities are built around the complex process of moving your poop somewhere else--countless tax dollars are spent on sewer systems, after all, and the intricacy of some urban systems must count among the greatest works of man. If we had to handle our own shit all the time, society would be a much different place than our flush-it-down-the-drain culture.

Well, I did handle my shit. Every day. I'd wake up every morning; soon--often after coffee--the bag would begin to fill. There was nothing subtle about the process: It became a nasty brown balloon that billowed under your shirt, creating social anxiety if you were stuck out in the city without a public bathroom nearby. Two or three more visits to the bathroom would follow during the morning, then usually pipe down in the afternoon and into the evening.

A couple of things to note. First: The placement of the colostomy had the effect of parking an anus directly under my nose. I could smell shit all the time, no matter how much time I spent clearing and cleaning the bag--a considerable amount of time, by the way--and even my wife became hesitant to be affectionate the way we usually were, with her parking herself in the crook of my arm and burrowing her face into my chest. The odor never went away.

Second: I became familiar with how much stuff there actually is in poop. This is partly the result of the colostomy--it expelled food that, under usual circumstances, might've been more digested. But lots of unexpectedly identifiable stuff came through: I learned that some foods were probably easier for my digestive system to process--and thus, probably better for my health. And plant evolution began to make sense to me, as well; seeds that survive digestion often carry their genes to new and unexpected places.

I did develop a gross, nervous habit during this time: I became fascinated with the transparent plastic colostomy bag. It let me touch the poop without getting messy. And so I began to thoughtlessly sift my shit with my fingers, feeling around the bag--the way one might with bubble wrap--in search of a seed, or a grain of rice, or a pea or a peace of corn, to hold between my fingers and crush. It was satisfying. It was awful.

The bag is gone now. There is a zippered line of staples holding my torso together. For the last two days, I have been pooping roughly once every waking hour. My anus, so silent for so long, has been experiencing a sort of fecal firework as the ship relaunches.

Already, I don't see the poop as much. But I can't stop thinking about it; I'm afraid that I'll fail to notice my health failing again. It's ok--good, even--that I won't be experiencing quite so directly anymore. Now, I know, though: Shit is real. And it really stinks.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

OK, for real this time

I report to the hospital at 8:15 a.m. for my final surgery. This blog will be silent, by necessity, for at least a few days. Please don't break anything.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Other online products, besides chickenpox lollipops, you should avoid

In light of the chickenpox lollipops scare, here is a list of other things not to buy online:

• Hershey bars laced with syphillis.

• A rack of ribs dipped in dysentery.

• Twinkies covered in vomit.

• Sweet potatoes. I hate sweet potatoes.

Poverty: It's worse than you think

Remember how the New York Times said the other day the Census Bureau's new, fuller accounting of poverty would likely reduce the poverty rate in America? Remember how I bought it?

I was wrong:
There were 49.1 million poor using the SPM definition of poverty, more than the 46.6 million using the official definition of poverty with our universe. For most groups, SPM rates are higher than official  poverty rates.
So that's embarrassing.

The Times' logic wasn't crazy: By adjusting poverty estimates to include more than cash income—things like food stamps and other government-based assistance, and adjusting for regional cost-of-living differences—it seemed likely that the poverty rate would come down. What's a welfare state for, after all?

But the new estimate also improves on the older count by more fully reflecting how people must spend their money. The official definition of poverty from 1964 to this year reflected the cost of food for a small family; the new measure also includes things like taxes, work expenses, child care costs, and out-of-pocket medical bills. On, roughly, the necessities of life—not frivolities.

And it turns out when you actually have to factor in the costs that people have to pay to actually be productive members of society, the poverty rate goes up. This shouldn't be a surprise. (Those medical costs, actually, take up a huge chunk of the bill—which I, about to have my third surgery of the year tomorrow, find not even mildly surprising.)

As Kevin Drum points out, this new measure would be more useful if we had a sense of the trend over time. The country has grown more urban over time, and cities generally cost more to live in than rural areas—they also have more job opportunities—so I wouldn't be surprised to see poverty rates track with the citifying of the nation. It would also be interesting to see what the '90s-era welform reform bill did to these numbers.

Final thought: One conservative line of thought is that if poor people would just get married and have babies, they'd be more likely to enter the middle class. I think that confuses correlation with causation. The new Census measure seems to view kids, economically at least, as a drain on the family resources. It's a good reason not to view everything in economic terms, but I also can't think of any way in which my 3-year-old son actually adds to my income. The new Census figures suggest that kids are less impoverished because of welfare-state programs—and the new methodology suggests not that poor people can escape poverty by making babies, but that people who have escaped poverty are more free to do so. In any case, this report should be fodder for a whole new round of debates.

This is why there's an Occupy Wall Street movement

Because government helps banks, but it doesn't help you:
The largest banks are larger than they were when Obama took office and are nearing the level of profits they were making before the depths of the financial crisis in 2008, according to government data.

Stabilizing the financial system was considered necessary to prevent an even deeper economic recession. But some critics say the Bush administration, which first moved to bail out Wall Street, and the Obama administration, which ultimately stabilized it, took a far less aggressive approach to helping the American people. 
“There’s a very popular conception out there that the bailout was done with a tremendous amount of firepower and focus on saving the largest Wall Street institutions but with very little regard for Main Street,” said Neil Barofsky, the former federal watchdog for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP, the $700 billion fund used to bail out banks. “That’s actually a very accurate description of what happened.”
A recent study by two professors at the University of Michigan found that banks did not significantly increase lending after being bailed out. Rather, they used taxpayer money, in part, to invest in risky securities that profited from short-term price movements. The study found that bailed-out banks increased their investment returns by nearly 10 percent as a result.

Spanking, revisited

My last post on spanking generated quite a bit of discussion at my Facebook page. My position—then and now—is that I have spanked, but within a very strict framework that limits spank-worthy situations. And, I added, not everybody has control enough of their emotions that they should use spanking; it's too easy to let anger take over and turn a swat on the behind into something abusive.

Let me revise and amend my remarks, in light of this New York Times story about spanking advocates Michael and Debi Pearl, and their followers who apparently killed their child.
Debate over the Pearls’ teachings, first seen on Christian Web sites, gained new intensity after the death of a third child, all allegedly at the hands of parents who kept the Pearls’ book, “To Train Up a Child,” in their homes. On Sept. 29, the parents were charged with homicide by abuse. 
More than 670,000 copies of the Pearls’ self-published book are in circulation, and it is especially popular among Christian home-schoolers, who praise it in their magazines and on their Web sites. The Pearls provide instructions on using a switch from as early as six months to discourage misbehavior and describe how to make use of implements for hitting on the arms, legs or back, including a quarter-inch flexible plumbing line that, Mr. Pearl notes, “can be rolled up and carried in your pocket.”
Spanking advocates? I think "beating advocates" is more like it.

Listen: The subject of child discipline is highly fraught, and it's really easy to sit in judgement of people who do it differently than you. But let's be plain: If you read books about how to make weapons to hit your child, you are probably an asshole who doesn't have sense or compassion enough to be a parent.

Philadelphia: Where women are still prostitutes and men are still innocent

It's not just the Mummers club. Apparently, it's really, really hard to get arrested for buying sex in Philadelphia—and really easy to get arrested for selling it. Our latest example is a bust at the Penthouse Club in Port Richmond, where seven dancers and one manager were arrested Friday night on prostitution charges.

And the johns? Off scot-free. Once again.

Some interesting details:

The investigation and subsequent raid by the LCE and the police Citywide Vice Unit had been prompted by community complaints, including those from the spouses of men who'd blown their family's grocery money at the club, said Sgt. Bill LaTorre of LCE. 
At the Penthouse Club, on Castor Avenue near Delaware, men would pay $300 for 30 minutes in the champagne room or $250 for a skybox, police said. There, guys could partake in any number of sexual acts with the dancers, including "the front door, the back door and the upstairs," LaTorre said. 
State Police did not immediately identify those arrested. LaTorre said the seven female dancers and one male manager were charged because they soliticted undercover officers, but he suggested more people could have been involved in prostitution.
I'm going to go ahead and say the men who blew their family's grocery money on sex at the Penthouse Club were involved in prostitution. None of them were arrested. Again.

Again, I'm not sure that prostitution should be a crime—and if it should be, the women who engage in prostitution are often its victims, not merely the perpetrators. But we should all be able to agree that you can't sell sex if nobody's buying. In case after Philadelphia case, though, the official stance is that it doesn't take two to criminally tango. It makes no sense.

I get the police perspective: It's harder to make the cases against the johns—undercover officers aren't necessarily privy to the transactions in which men buy the sex. But the pattern of enforcement in these big stings is that the men whose appetites create the crime are allowed to walk away free, while the women who are the objects of those appetites are burdened with arrests, criminal records, and social opprobrium. 

It's unfair. More than that, it's obscenely wrong.

LaTorre told the Daily News that police will probably doing a lot more of these strip club prostitution busts. If we continue to see these kinds of the stories in the news—where lots of women are arrested, but the johns never, ever are—there will be only one realistic conclusion: That Philadelphia police and prosecutors are happy to engage plainly sexist methods of enforcing the law.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Matt Yglesias on working hard for your riches

The old Calvinist idea about money, as I understood it, was that hard work, discipline, and prudence were moral virtues. They were also things that are more likely than not to lead to personal prosperity. So prosperity shouldn’t be stigmatized as ignoble, it should be rather seen as something likely to flow from virtuous behavior. But this equation assumes that morally speaking what matters is the hard work, the discipline, and the prudence. Cutting corners, lying, cheating, or stealing to make a quick buck doesn’t fit the bill. Earning a multi-million dollar salary to deliver below-average performance as the CEO of a firm and then take a multi-million dollar golden parachute when you get sacked doesn’t fit the bill. Spending your days and nights dreaming up smart regulatory arbitrage schemes doesn’t fit the bill. In terms of what it says about your personal virtue, if you’re going to earn your keep identifying and exploiting previously unknown loopholes in the legal framework, you may as well just go out and break the law.

There’s no particular honor and dignity in owning the copyright to Mickey Mouse or Batman, and then spending money lobbying congress for retroactive copyright extensions. A businessman who takes the ideas of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility seriously would forget all about that nonsense. But the idea is aloft that business executives actually have a moral obligation to spend their days finding ways to engage in profit-maximizing rent-seeking and loophole exploiting. This kind of “you should make as much money as possible through any legal means necessary” spirit is toxic to the kind of ethos that’s made the various forms of modern industrial capitalism successful. Whether or not a person who gets in a car wreck gets free surgery (as in Canada) or merely surgery implicitly subsidized through the tax code (as in the USA) is neither here nor there. A well-designed welfare state is an excellent thing to have, but to have a culture that valorizes hard work you need to actually valorize hard work not just money-making.

Matthew Continetti tries to take a pass on income inequality

In the newest Weekly Standard, Matthew Continetti makes the case that conservatives don't really have to care about income inequality—whether it's growing or not—because it's not government's job to address such issues. 
Inequalities of condition are a fact of life. Some people will always be poorer than others. So too, human altruism will always seek to alleviate the suffering of the destitute. There is a place for reasonable and prudent actions to improve well-being. But that does not mean the entire structure of our polity should be designed to achieve an egalitarian ideal. Such a goal is fantastic, utopian even, and one would think that the trillions of dollars the United States has spent in vain over the last 50 years to promote “equality as a fact and equality as a result” would give the egalitarians pause.
That sounds principled, and maybe even a little bit appealing if you're of the right temperament. But it fundamentally ignores one simple fact: By virtue of taxing and spending, and even of making laws, the federal and state governments have some bearing on how wealth is distributed in this country—even if they're not in redistributionist mode. 

To get a sense of how this might be the case, here is Derek Thompson's graph showing how various income groups would fare under Rick Perry's flat tax plan:

Perry's plan, in essence, would exacerbate inequality by raising taxes on the poor while giving millionaires a tax cut equal to the median income of 10 American households.

Now, I expect the conservative response to this is: "But that's their money, not the government's." Sure. But nobody except a few libertarians is advocating that we do away with taxes entirely, and that we stop paying for government at all. Until we get to that point, there will be taxes. And how taxes are structured will affect how wealth is distributed—even if affecting that distribution isn't the aim.

The laws and regulations formulated by government have a similar effect. During the pre-Reagan era, for example, the strength of unions was credited for raising income and living standards for the entire middle class—including non-union members, who enjoyed a spillover effect as non-union employers competed for workers. The decline of union strength over the last 30 years is believed to be one reason that middle class wages have stagnated during that time. Right now, though, there are efforts in several states—including my home state of Kansas—to further undermine the ability of private-sector unions to organize and advocate on behalf of their members. That, too, seems likely to affect the income inequality situation in the United States.

Now, I don't think it would be unreasonable to conclude from the above examples that many Republicans (and more than a few Democrats) tend to pursue policies that exacerbate inequality, often at the best of rich supporters. But there are clearly some conservatives—David Frum, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, Michael Gerson among them—who see inequality as a problem, and want the broader movement to do something to address it.

Not every conservative believes that rising income inequality exists, or that it's a problem. Continetti's point is different: That conservatives don't have to care about it, policy-wise, because such income inequality isn't the government's business. If conservatives believe that inequality is rising, and that it's a problem, then I imagine there are conservative paths to addressing the issue. It may not be the state's role to address income inequality (in the conservative vision) but that doesn't matter: The state affects the situation nonetheless. Conservatives who simply wash their hands of the situation signal where their real priorities lay.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Michael Gerson: Let's focus more on economic mobility than income inequality

Liberals are right that a combination of rising economic inequality (even if the rise is gradual) with stalled economic mobility is an invitation to destructive social resentments. Americans will accept unequal economic outcomes in a fair system. They object when the results seem rigged. That way lies the Bastille.

So the question comes to liberals and conservatives: If social mobility is the goal, what are the solutions? What can be done to improve the quality of teachers in failing schools, to confront the high school dropout crisis, to encourage college attendance and completion, to reduce teen pregnancy, to encourage stable marriages, to promote financial literacy, to spark entrepreneurship?

Both Democrats and Republicans should have something to contribute to the development of this agenda. Neither party, however, currently has much to say. And this is not likely to change until the discussion turns from equality to mobility.

Capitalism comes to Cuba, not with a bang but a whimper

For a half-century now, opponents of the Communist regime in Cuba have been waiting for the moment when it would all be over: Some event, probably Fidel Castro's death, would bring an end to his revolution—and suddenly Cuban exiles and American businesses would be setting up shop once again in Havana.

But with news that the regime is about to allow the buying and selling of real estate, it's worth asking the question: What if "the moment" never comes? Oh, Castro will die all right. But his brother is running the nation now, and he seems to be managing a careful—slow—movement away from socialism. What if the country simply evolves, instead of making a clean break?

It's been a long, long time since the U.S. embargo against Cuba—and our refusal to have diplomatic relations with the government—made sense. Those efforts didn't bring down the regime. (And our relationship with China pretty much undermines any philosophical reason we have for continuing the policy; it's simple geographic spite, aided by politician fears of the exile community.) At this point, the stiff-arm may be costing the United States both the political and economic opportunity to assist that country's evolution. And maybe Cuba is happy to proceed without perceived interference from the yanquis. But we may someday regret the lost opportunity, waiting for a moment that might never come.

What will the new poverty measures mean?

According to the New York Times, the poverty rate in America is about to fall—not because anybody's material circumstances have changed, but because the Census Bureau is adopting a "fuller" accounting of citizen well-being that looks beyond their cash income to also measure the government assistance they receive, as well as account for differences in costs-of-living for local areas. Here's the Times' chart giving an overview of the likely numerical changes:

I'm not sure how detailed the Census numbers will actually end up being: It would be nice if we could determine what percentage of the people who remain in poverty are employed, so that we have a sense of how many of these folks are "working poor"—that is, trying to provide for themselves, but unable to completely do so in the jobs they're able to obtain.

And as the Times notes: "Monday’s release are likely to offer fodder both to defenders of safety-net programs and fiscal conservatives who say the government already does much to temper hardship and needs to do no more." True. But more information will help—the debate should be based on detailed honest data, and not our worst ideological fears. (And that goes for both liberals and conservatives: If things are more hunky dory than we thought, we should focus our priorities and solutions accordingly.) On the surface, though, it looks like the liberals have something to crow about: The safety net really does save lots of people from poverty—which means our Great Recession hasn't been as devastatingly painful as it might otherwise have been.

That said, I'm not sure the Times frames the debate quite accurately: Conservatives aren't just arguing the government "needs to do no more"—many are arguing that government should do less, which seems to me like a recipe for disaster in this economy. Loosening the safety net probably won't grow the economy in any appreciable way, but it might devastate many lives. Republicans would help all of us if they focused less on contempt for the poor and a bit more on measures to give folks the way to earn their way up out of poverty—reducing the need for and strain on the safety net.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

One more Max Boot comment today

Yes, it was the Bush Administration that signed the Status of Forces Agreement that is resulting in the United States pullout of Iraq. But Max Boot has a handy Obama-blaming response to that fact: Bush didn't really mean it:

As Condoleezza Rice notes, “when the Bush administration signed the agreement, it was understood by both the U.S. and Iraqi governments that there would be follow-up negotiations aimed at extending the deadline — a step that would be in both the U.S. and Iraqi interest.” 
Perhaps it really was impossible to reach an agreement on any extension, although I’m skeptical of that argument. But don’t cast the blame on Bush who’s been out of office for almost three years. The failure to renew the troop-basing agreement occurred on Obama’s watch and he will get the blame if Iraq falls apart (as well as the credit if it does not).
If the Bush Administration really thought the United States should stay in Iraq past 2011, one thing it might've done is negotiate a SOFA with a later deadline. It didn't. Once it put that deadline in place, the exiting of U.S. troops was always a possibility. Especially given that Iraq has a supposedly sovereign government that has increasingly itched to demonstrate its independence from the occupiers. Boot keeps acting as though the United States could've kept troops longer in Iraq if only Obama wanted it hard enough, but the legal and political boundaries—and I'm talking about the politics in both Iraq and the United States—are trickier than he suggests.

But I'm not sure why I bother to argue against Boot. He's fairly predictable at this point: Always for more, bigger, and longer war, and always dead-set on portraying the Obama Administration as weak and spineless.

Max Boot bemoans our lost victory in Afghanistan

Boot is so exasperated with those weak appeasers in the Obama Administration:

One of the most discomfiting aspects of the forthcoming U.S. pullout from Iraq is what it portends for Afghanistan. In a nutshell, it appears more and more likely that Obama will pull out of Afghanistan too, even though the war there is far from won. Thus we read in the Wall Street Journal today: “The Obama administration is exploring a shift in the military’s mission in Afghanistan to an advisory role as soon as next year, senior officials said, a move that would scale back U.S. combat duties well ahead of their scheduled conclusion at the end of 2014.” 
 The Afghan army is capable but still needs time to develop. If we pull out too fast the army could fracture and the entire country could be plunged into a civil war which would, among other possible consequences, allow Afghan territory to once again become a haven for Al Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups. 
That seems a high price to pay for the president to be able to campaign for reelection on a promise of having ended George W. Bush’s wars. In reality these are America’s wars and they cannot be ended with a unilateral pullout—our premature departure simply risks handing an unearned victory to our enemies.
Maybe Max Boot should contemplate the possibility that we've already won in Afghanistan.

Do I mean that Afghanistan has become a Jeffersonian democracy, or that the Taliban have been decisively routed? No. But those weren't the goals of the war when we started. We invaded the country with the hope of destroying or capturing the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, and to punish the Taliban regime for harboring those perpetrators.

Mission. Accomplished.

Boot's second paragraph—"The Afghan army is capable but still needs time to develop"—could've been written any time in the last 10 years, and I predict it will be equally applicable 10 years from now. In certain respects, Afghanistan as a nation-state is a lost cause. So the wisest thing to do is for the United States to invest its diminishing resources in ways that offer our optimal chances at security.

I'm not sure there's enough original Al Qaeda left to have a "haven" anywhere, but the job of the United States isn't to keep Al Qaeda from existing—an impossible task—but to suppress, discourage, and defend against Al Qaeda's attacks. Given that the "homeland" terror attacks of recent years have been small-bore operations—one guy with explosive underwear, one guy leaving an SUV in Times Square, and one self-radicalized Army officer attacking his colleagues—there's very little to suggest that Al Qaeda needs a whole country as a haven, or that mooring of tens of thousands of troops in that country is  a wise use of our resources.

We have been in Afghanistan a decade. We have accomplished the vast majority of what we'll probably accomplish there. And it's not like we're ceding the ground to terrorists: Obama plans to leave counterterror operations in place—there's just going to be a whole lot less nation-building. It's an imperfect ending, but it may be the best we can hope for.

The poor are making poor choices. Right?

I want to read more deeply into this new paper about how debt is swamping the middle class—which makes the suggestion that the leverage problem is holding back America's economy. But in a quick overview, I couldn't help but notice this:

  • The debt is highest among the middle class. Middle-income families before the crisis had a debt-to-income ratio of 155.4 percent in 2007, the last year for which data are available, for families with incomes between $62,000 and $100,000, which constituted the fourth quintile of income in our nation in 2007. This ratio is higher than for any other income group. Families in the top 20 percent of income (with incomes above $100,000) had a ratio of debt to income of 123.6 percent, and families in the third quintile (with incomes between $39,100 and $62,000) owed 130.7 percent of their income. Households in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution (with incomes below $39,100 in 2007) owed well below 100 percent of their income.
In the Facebook thread on my payday loans post yesterday, there was some discussion—typical in these circumstances—that the poor are poor, and dragged down by the burdens of debt, because of the poor choices they make. And in some cases, I'm sure that's true. But honestly: It appears that the low-income folks of America might be the only ones not taking on far more debt than they can possibly afford.

Guilty as charged

Cooking is the easiest thing to do in the house. But what women are still expected to do, what my wife is still expected to do, is to remember when every sock in the house is about to get a hole in it, or when the kids are due for a dentist’s appointment or a play date – that whole recipe for family life, women still feel obliged to do it more than men. And so men do get a certain kind of cheap credit for being a family man just by cooking. Cooking is the showy side of domesticity.

Gonna have to examine my conscience on that one...

Today in inequality reading: Stagnant wages

A new report from the Resolution Foundation, a British research organization that focuses on workers with low income, has done just that. The report covers 10 rich countries, and looks at the growth rate of median pay versus economic growth per capita from 2000 to the start of the Great Recession.

Here’s the key chart showing that ratio:


A higher ratio means that the pace of growth for median pay was close to the pace of growth for output per capita. A low ratio means that median pay grew much more slowly than did the economy as a whole.

Of the 10 countries analyzed, Finland showed the closest relationship between the living standards of the typical worker and improvements in the overall economy. The United States was on the lower end. From 2000 to 2007, median pay increased at a quarter of the pace of output per capita. In other words, the typical American worker did not share much in the country’s growing wealth even when the economy was good.

The unseen casualties of a decade of war, continued

The U.S. is inadvertently financing human trafficking and worker abuse because of the federal government’s poor oversight of contractors operating in war zones, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) told a congressional panel today.

Federal contracting regulations rely on self-policing and reporting to contracting officers, which has not been proven to be an effective way to monitor trafficking, POGO Director of Investigations Nick Schwellenbach told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Although the Department of Defense has made some improvements in combatting trafficking, there is still a notable lack of criminal enforcement. In the few investigations that have been conducted into alleged contractor involvement in human trafficking in war zones, some of the people making allegations were never even interviewed, Schwellenbach told the Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform.

“The lack of oversight of federal contractors has led to taxpayer dollars funding these terrible crimes,” Schwellenbach said. “The U.S. has a moral and legal obligation to do everything it can to protect its contracted workforce in war zones.”

If you haven't read Sarah Stillman's June article in the New Yorker about human trafficking in U.S. war zones, you should. It's a heartbreaker.

We're still talking about Janet Jackson's 'wardrobe malfunction?'

LOS ANGELES (November 2, 2011) – The Parents Television Council® condemned the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruling claiming the Janet Jackson striptease during the 2004 Super Bowl was not indecent and does not merit a fine. The PTC and its 1.3 million members led the public outcry after the incident by calling on the Federal Communications Commission to levy a hefty fine against CBS and its affiliates for violating the federal broadcast indecency law.

You know what's really indecent? That any part of our government is still occupied with a two-second flash of flesh that occurred nearly eight years ago. CBS clearly didn't intend to air such a moment; it hasn't led to a parade of prime-time stripteases—because alienating family viewers clearly isn't in the broadcast network's best interest. End it already.

Big corporations pay a lower tax rate

You often hear people argue that the United States’ corporate tax rate of 35 percent is much higher than other nations, but don’t be fooled. Thanks to loopholes, the actual tax rate is much lower—about 18.5 percent according to a survey of the 280 largest publicly traded companies by the left-leaning Citizens for Tax Justice. About a quarter of the companies paid less than 10 percent in taxes over the past three years, while 30 companies—including Boeing, Wells Fargo, and GE—appeared to pay no taxes whatsoever.

I don't actually have a clean take on this, though I thought it was important to note. It could be an argument for tax reform—lowering the rate but removing the loopholes. On the other hand: The loopholes always seep back in, and the new lowered rate would probably be seen as the ceiling, meaning that eventually the government would be deprived of necessary revenue.

And on the other other hand: Maybe the loopholes aren't always bad. Boeing didn't pay taxes, for example, because it used tax credits for creating 9,000 jobs. Would those jobs exist without the tax credits? I don't know; I suspect they probably would. But the incentive probably doesn't hurt, either.

George Will wants freedom of association ... for conservatives

There's a lot to unpack in George Will's column today about Vanderbilt University's decision to withhold recognition from the Christian Legal Society, a campus group that (naturally, given its orientation) wants to ensure that only Christians can be in its leadership.

I think Will goes wrong by starting to compare apples to oranges. Will must be quoted at length:
In 1995, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the private group that organized Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade to bar participation by a group of Irish American gays, lesbians and bisexuals eager to express pride in their sexual orientations. The court said the parade was an expressive event, so the First Amendment protected it from being compelled by state anti-discrimination law to transmit an ideological message its organizers did not wish to express.

In 2000, the court overturned the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling that the state law forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation required the Boy Scouts to accept a gay scoutmaster. The Scouts’ First Amendment right of “expressive association” trumped New Jersey’s law.

Unfortunately, in 2010 the court held, 5 to 4, that a public law school in California did not abridge First Amendment rights when it denied the privileges associated with official recognition to just one student group — the Christian Legal Society chapter, because it limited voting membership and leadership positions to Christians who disavow “sexual conduct outside of marriage between a man and a woman.”
It seems to me that these three cases, though, are entirely consistent. The first two uphold the rights of private organizations to choose their members and their message. The third doesn't change that! The Christian Legal Society still has a right to exist in the California case—it just doesn't have the right to use the college's funds and facilities if it's going to exclude some students from membership. As Justice Ginsburg said in writing for the majority on that case: "In requiring CLS—in com­mon with all other student organizations—to choose be­tween welcoming all students and forgoing the benefits of official recognition, we hold, Hastings did not transgress
constitutional limitations. CLS, it bears emphasis, seeks not parity with other organizations, but a preferential exemption from Hastings’ policy."

If anything, Vanderbilt has a stronger defense of its policy to deny the CLS the use of its funds and facilities: Unlike Hastings, it's a private university! Surely it, like the parade organizers and the Boy Scounts, has the right to chose its own expressive associations as well! But Will smells the smoke of pernicious progressive plotting:
Although Vanderbilt is a private institution, its policy is congruent with “progressive” public policy, under which society shall be made to progress up from a multiplicity of viewpoints to a government-supervised harmony. Vanderbilt’s policy, formulated in the name of enlarging rights, is another skirmish in the progressives’ struggle to deny more and more social entities the right to deviate from government-promoted homogeneity of belief. Such compulsory conformity is, of course, enforced in the name of diversity.
Shorter Will: Freedom of association is important ... for conservatives. If a private entity wants to exclude gays, he will defend to the death its right to do so. If a private entity wants to exclude a club that excludes gays, though, it's the death of freedom. Such a one-way conception of liberty isn't really liberty at all, is it? The shape of Will's argument is—as Justice Ginsburg suggested—seeking a privileged position for social conservatives under the rubric of seeking parity. That's usually what conservative groups accuse gay rights activists of doing!

It's worth mentioning that Will's column appears the same week as news emerges about Shorter University, a Christian college in Georgia that is now requiring its employees to abstain from pre- and extra-marital sex, including homosexual sex. I don't agree with Shorter University's theology—but it is a private university which takes no state or federal money. So even though I won't be sending my son there, I will defend the college's right to choose its associations. George Will would too, I imagine. He just doesn't apply the same standards in the opposite direction. Which means he's less attached to the liberty he claims to espouse than he is to opposing gays and liberals.

Community colleges on the rise

Comparatively affluent students are picking community colleges over four-year schools in growing numbers, a sign of changing attitudes toward an institution long identified with poorer people.

A recent national survey by Sallie Mae, the student loan giant, has found that 22 percent of students from households earning $100,000 or more attended community colleges in the 2010-11 academic year, up from 12 percent in the previous year. It was the highest rate reported in four years of surveys.

In the lengthening economic downturn, even relatively prosperous families have grown reluctant to borrow for college. Schools are finding that fewer students are willing to pay the full published price of attendance, which tops $55,000 at several private universities. More students are living at home.

My son's just 3 years old, but I've already spent a lot more time than I expected thinking about how best to provide his education. When he was born, I think I had a plan to get him into an Ivy League school. Now...not so much. It depends on his gifts and interests, of course, but I'm not interested in saddling either him or me with huge amounts of debt for his college experience. College will probably be important. An expensive college? Maybe not.

Solving the jobs crisis through despair

Some goodish news from the Fed...
The unemployment rate, it predicted, would still be at least 8.5 percent at the end of 2012, at least 7.8 percent at the end of 2013 and at least 6.8 percent at the end of 2014.
But at least that's a drop in unemployment, right?
Such reductions probably would come in part from people abandoning the search for work, rather than those finding new jobs.
 (Sigh.) Expect government officials to tout the falling unemployment rate even as other indicators—median wages, number of households in poverty—continue to stagnate or get worse.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The unseen casualties of a decade of war

Adolescent boys with at least one parent in the military are at elevated risk of engaging in school-based physical fighting, carrying a weapon and joining a gang, according to research presented today at the American Public Health Association’s 139th Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.


The study by researchers at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health looked at the strain of military deployment on U.S. families, particularly its toll on adolescent boys and girls whose parents are on active duty. The research is based on data from the 2008 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey of more than 10,000 adolescents in the 8th, 10th and 12th grades of public schools.

The study finds that military deployment is associated with a 1.77 higher odds of physical fighting and 2.14 higher odds of gang membership among adolescent boys in 8th grade. Girls in 8th grade with at least one parent in the military were at twice the risk of carrying a weapon.

Media Research Center on the Herman Cain scandal: Clinton! Clinton! Clinton!

The Media Research Center seems to think the media is proving its liberal bias by covering the Herman Cain scandal so closely, whereas it strained to ignore the Clinton sex scandals of the 1990s. Which is weird, because my memory of the late 1990s is that political coverage was dominated, for a time, by news of Clinton's sex scandals. There was even an impeachment or something.

Nonetheless, MRC concludes:
When one contrasts the sexual harassment scandals of Democrat Bill Clinton, which included on the record accusers, with the hazy allegations against Republican Herman Cain, it becomes clear that the networks have enthusiasm for one and ignored the other.
That's interesting framing, because the "hazy allegations" against Cain are actually confirmed cases that were settled with monetary payouts a decade ago. That makes them somewhat more tangible than the MRC suggests, it seems to me.

Thomas Sowell defends usury

At NRO today, Thomas Sowell gets cranky about a California newspaper's investigation into "payday loan" companies and their practices. He particularly objects to a line suggesting that customers of such institutions are charged what amounts to an annual interest rate of more than 400 percent:
The 460 percent figure comes from imagining that the borrower is not just going to borrow the money for a couple of weeks, but is going to keep on borrowing every couple of weeks all year long.

Using this kind of reasoning — or lack of reasoning — you could quote the price of salmon as $15,000 a ton or say a hotel room rents for $36,000 a year, when no consumer buys a ton of salmon and few people stay in a hotel room all year. It is clever propaganda, but do people buy newspapers to be propagandized?
Sowell, having raised such questions, might've attempted to answer them.

That might've detracted from his screed, though, because the evidence is that quite a few customers actually do get caught in a debt spiral with these companies. In 2007, Michael Stegman did an overview of the industry for the Journal of Economic Perspectives:

Sowell, in the end, decries the story as part of a lefty plot to keep payday lenders from defending themselves:
Instead, we get the story of how the payday-loan industry, like most other industries, has lobbyists contributing money to politicians to try to be spared more regulations. This the investigative reporter calls “protecting” the payday-loan industry.

Protecting it from what? From the politicians. Some would call their campaign donations “protection money,” in the same sense in which the mafia collects protection money.
Not exactly. In California, the payday loan industry has put its muscle behind a bill that would boost their profits by letting them lend greater amounts of money at higher rates of interest. That's not defensive, it's aggressive. If Sowell's mafia analogy is correct ... well, let's just say the payday industry would be the guy in the leather chair, stroking a cat.

I suspect the broader argument is that payday companies provide a valuable service, which workers are free to use or not use. But it certainly appears that the systemic incentive is to put the working poor on the hook and encourage them to stay there for as long as is profitable. Sowell's fellow conservatives like to talk a lot about liberty from government, but payday loan lenders offer plenty of evidence there are other institutions that offer oppression, which is no less pernicious.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Rand Paul is really angry about the Herman Cain scandal story

Paul adds that fear of sexual harassment suits damages workplace relations.

“There are people now who hesitate to tell a joke to a woman in the workplace, any kind of joke, because it could be interpreted incorrectly,” he says. “I don’t. I’m very cautious.” 

You know what else damages workplace relations? *Sexual harassment.* It's ok, I think, to be cautious about telling that dirty joke.

We know how to help the economy: Aid distressed homeowners

I found this recent magazine article very interesting. Here are a couple of key paragraphs from it:
Underwater homeowners can’t refinance at today’s rock-bottom interest rates, because they’re considered bad credit risks. They can’t move to where jobs are more plentiful or the pay is better, because if they sell their home, they end up owing the banks a bundle. But if they lose their job, their wages drop. If they have a medical emergency, they may fall behind on their mortgage payments and be foreclosed upon. If that happens, they and their family can lose both their home and their credit rating.

We don’t need another stimulus to fix what ails the economy. We need to fix the housing market. And the way to do that is to allow a mortgage cramdown in the context of a personal bankruptcy. Put simply, someone who owes $450,000 on a house worth $300,000 isn’t going to be helped that much by a lower interest rate. He would be helped​—​as would the housing market and the larger economy​—​if the lender could be compelled in a bankruptcy proceeding to write down the loan amount to $300,000, which is all the lender would recover in any case were it to foreclose on and then auction off the property.
Oops! That's actually two different magazine articles—the first paragraph comes from Robert Reich's piece in November's American Prospect, a liberal magazine. The second—and this is kind of shocking—is from Ike Brannon, writing in the conservative Weekly Standard.

Reich and Brannon have slightly different approaches to the issue, but their bottom line is roughly the same: Distressed homeowners should have their mortgages written down to reflect the post-bubble value of their homes—so that those owners don't owe more than what the house is worth. Banks make no less money than they would if they were forced to foreclose, but owners gain back some of their money and freedom to move to a new job.

Free those underwater homeowners, and they might start buying stuff again. When people start buying stuff again, demand will rise and the people who make and sell stuff will likely start hiring more people to make and sell that stuff. The economy would get new life.

Smart people on the left and right can see this. Yet a serious effort to help these homeowners doesn't seem to be in the offing, either from the president, his GOP rivals for the office, or Congress. Why not?

Blog news

First of all, a thank you to everybody who reads this blog regularly: October was the best traffic month I've had since returning to this Blogspot site after leaving Philadelphia Weekly. It's more gratifying to write this stuff when people are actually reading it.

Second of all: I'm certain I won't break that record in November. I have my (knock on wood) final diverticulitis surgery on Nov. 8, and preparations are already consuming my time and mental energy. I won't be here quite as much this month. I'm sorry about that. My hope is that being restored to full health allows me to write and opine more vigorously than before.

I had thought, for a little while after the first of my three surgeries, that I might abandon political blogging entirely. What I've discovered in recent months is that I have a passion for understanding and making sense of how the country is run, and how it might be run better. I want the blog to reflect my other interests, too: Parenting, cooking, reading, movies. But the core of it will continue to be learning and thinking about policy and politics. My hope is not to hew to orthodoxy, but to be an independent thinker. Maybe even "original thinker" on occasion, but I'll settle for independent at the least.

So I hope you're still here when I come back. Thanks again for reading.