Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Exercise in make-believe

When I started to read some of the initial summaries of the themes President Bush planned to incorporate into the State of the Onion I though he might have scanned the political horizon, seen what was likely from a newly feisty Democratic Congress, and decided to go for his legacy. Make some bold proposals, perhaps on the order of private Social Security accounts (he did make an effort and I respect him for it), that he knew would never be passed by this Congress but could help to change the terms of debate and might have a chance of being enacted by one of his successors.

Alas, when you got to the details, the proposals were fairly underwhelming. The idea of changing the tax treatment of health insurance is intriguing, but it's a modest change, not a sea-change. It seems crafted with the idea of actually getting it passed this year by this Congress, which is fantasyland thinking.

Indeed, much of the speech was an exercise in make-believe. I'll pretend I'm not sinking in public approval polls and haven't been rejected by the voters on my administration's signature effort (Iraq), that this is an ordinary year with ordinary issues. The Democrats were civil enough, at least this night, to preserve the illusion. And so the bubble around the president remains intact. And the White House still doesn't acknowledge that the republicans lost the election in November mainly because of Iraq.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

State of the Onion

Here's a link to a fact sheet prepared by the White House on tonight's State of the Union speech. I participated in another conference call with White House counselor Dan Bartlett (he seems to be the one they throw to the secondary-market newspaper wolves) earlier today.

The gist: It will be about 50/50 foreign and domestic policy. Foreign policy will be pretty much what it has been -- another effort to sell the surge, increasing the military by 92,000.

On domestic policy, it's likely to be:

Energy: More ethanol. Quintuping the taxpayers' bet on abopondoggle that doesn't conserve energy or improve the environment but fattens Midwestern corn farmers.
Health Care: This convoluted proposal whereby health insurance is taxable income if you get it from an employer, but there's a standard deduction for health insurance, under which a lot of people might come out ahead. Interesting but not likely to go anywhere in Congress.
Education: "Strengthening and improving" rather than repealing the misbegotten No Child Left Behind Act.
Immigration: The usual Bushwa -- more border enforcement, guest worker, path to citizenship ("without animosity or amnesty," not a bad phrase). Maybe with Democrats but dubious.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Outrageous DEA medical marijuana raids

A few observations on the DEA raids of 11 medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles County.

For starters, here's a downloadable pdf file from Americans for Safe access on the dispensary phenomenon. It makes clear that although dispensaries were not mentioned in Prop. 215, the law approved by 56 percent of California voters in 1996 to permit patients with a recommendation from a duly licensed physician to grow, possess and use merijuana medically, it did direct officials to set up a safe and legal distribution system.

SB 420, passed in 2003 by the state legislature, "expressly allows medical marijuana to be cultivated collectively by qualified patients and primary caregivers, and, by necessary implication, distributed among the collective's members." This interpretation was upheld in 2005 by California's Third District Court of Appeal in People v. Urziceanu. So cannabis dispensaries are legal under California law. To try to close down dispensaries is to push valid patients into the black market, something especially problematic for older patients with no experience going after the illicit (though most teenagers could tell you where to get it).

It's still unknown to what extent local law enforcement cooperated with or facilitated with the federal stormtrooper-like raids. But LAPD Chief Bill Bratton has asked for a moratorium on new dispensaries and has been quoted as saying "It's my intent to get rid of these places." Mr. Bratton should be reminded that he is a state law enforcement officer, not a federal enforcer. His duty under the California Constitution is to enforce state law, not federal law. The state constitution has a clause saying that if a California law appears to conflict with federal law, state officers' duty is to enforce California law unless and until a court overturns the state law. That hasn't happened. An attempt by three counties to invalidate Prop. 215 was thrown out of court in December.

To be sure, the feds can argue that marijuana is still strictly prohibited under federal law, and the U.S. Supreme Court has approved that interpretation. However, the Controlled Substances Act, the relevant federal statute, says that for drugs to be placed on Schedule I, which allows for no use whatsoever, it must meet these criteria:

"a) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse, b) The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, c) There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision."

Marijuana meets none of these criteria. I believe it is illegally classified as Schedule I under the applicable law. However no court has ruled on this contention, and since applications for rescheduling are handled administratively, with the head honcho of the DEA having the final word, it's unlikely to get to a court. The only court-like body to consider the issue, a panel headed by Administrative Law Judge Francis Young of the DEA itself, concluded in 1988 that "It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance in light of the evidence in this record."

Naturally, the head of the DEA at the time did the unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious thing and kept cannabis on Schedule I.

If you want to know more -- a lot more -- with all due modesty I recommend my book, "Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana."

No charges have been filed against those operating the dispensaries yet, though several were taken into custody. If no charges end up being filed, the raids will be revealed for what they are: a bunch of thugs steaking property under color of law and acting in a way that is morally indistinguishable from terrorists.

New/old cancer drug?

It will be fascinating to see how the interlocking regulatory/corporate structures handle this one. A group of scientists at the University of Alberta in Edmonton have tested an existing drug, dichloroacetate (DCA) on human cells cultured outside the body. It killed lung, breast and brain cancer cells but not healthy cells. It also shrunk tumors in rats.

DCA has been used to treat rare metabolic diseases and has been around so long, used with relative safety, that it is out of patent. That's a two-edged sword. It means any generic company could manufacture it and it would be relatively cheap. But since no company can repatent it and make the big bucks, none might be willing to sponsor clinical trials that would demonstrate efficacy more soundly.

Doctors can prescribe drugs for "off-label" uses, or uses that weren't part of the original approval process but were discovered later. But the FDA, not exactly a big fan of the First Amendment, has been known to discourage or even prohibit advertising of off-label uses. A non-pharmaceutical example is the half-aspiring that has been shown to be good for heart health. When the studies first came out and the news was featured, aspirin use went way up. But because the FDA censored ads by aspirin companies that would have been nothing more than citing solid, peer-reviewed scientific studies, aspirin use then tailed off. It would be difficult to calculate how many unnecessary deaths have resulted.

I'm hoping for an aggressive generic company to run with this and advertise heavily, challenging the FDA if the FDA is in a censorious mood. There are attorneys around who could help them.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Stem cell breakthrough?

I didn't get a chance to blog about this when the news first came out, but it's still worth noting. According to the AP, "Researchers at Wake Forest University and Harvard University reported Sunday that the stem cells they drew from fluid donated by pregnant women hold much the same promise as embryonic stem cells."

This is still a very preliminary finding, but it holds some promise of taking some of the politics out of the stem cell controversy, which would bode well for real progress. The contention has been that stem cells harvested from an embryo are more versatile than stem cells (cells with the potential to become or replicate any number of organs) harvested from adults. But harvesting them from embryos destroys the embryo, and for a significant number of pro-life Americans that is a moral problem -- perhaps not equivalent to outright murder, but the destruction of something that would grow to be a human under the proper conditions.

It is at least morally questionable to take tax money (forcibly by definition) from people to fund research they believe to be immoral. That's why the question of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research will always be politically contentious. But if cells with similar promise can be retrieved from amniotic fluid without harming either the mother or the fetus, the problem would seem to disappear.

Even if the promise of amniotic stem cells is as great as currently hoped, I suspect the political controversy won't disappear for a while. Scientists do believe continued research on embryonic cells is still justified, and those who favor it don't seem content to have it funded privately. Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is part of Nancy Pelosi's "100 Hours" agenda. Both sides are locked into viewing the issue from the perspective of the political process, which is rife with opposition and polarization. Once you've entered the political game it is all too easy to begin to act as if it's the only game -- that nothing good will happen unless you win politically. And there's a certain enjoyment to playing the political game that regrettably I cannot deny.

If amniotic stem cells really are promising, however, eventually their promise could make the political game irrelevant. Good.

Cell phone batteries in cars

The interesting thing about this story, noting that General Motors has unveiled a prototype electric car, the Chevrolet Volt, is the part about batteries. "GM hasn't given a date when consumers can buy the Volt because the advanced lithium-ion batteries needed to power the vehicles -- similar to technology used in cellphones -- are still years from widespread use in automobiles," according the the Washington Post story.

"Similar to technology used in cellphones." That's an interesting bit of technology crossover if it works. It strikes me -- I don't know all the details behind this development -- as an adaptation more likely to happen in a free economy rather than a planned economy. I've been fascinated by the capabilities of a cellphone, even though I use mine mostly to stay in touch with family. But the fact that they can pack Internet technology, a video camera, games and other cool stuff into such a small package is pretty neat. So who came up with the idea that a similar battery might be able to power a car (the battery problem -- they're clunky and heavy and take up a lot of room so far -- and the fact that they're more expensive, has deterred real progress toward consumer-friendly electric cars despite tax breaks and other inducements) with a similar battery? Colleagues probably told him or her it was a crazy idea at first. But not all crazy ideas turn out to be crazy.

I wouldn't mind at all if somebody came up with a practical electric car. I drove a prototype somebody -- I think the electric company -- brought around to the paper 10 or 12 years ago, and while it didn't have much pick-up it negotiated city streets quite satisfactorily. But the battery took up a huge space and it was considerably more expensive than a comparable gasoline model. And it didn't catch on.

The advantage to leaving development to the private sector rather than having the government offer inducements like tax credits or development subsidies is that the necessity to make a profit tends to concentrate the mind on coming up with something consumers might actually want to buy for more than it costs to make it. Subsidies distort that equation and induce false signals.

Take heart or . . .

I'm not sure whether to take heart from or be suspicious of this story. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has announced that President Bush will not reauthorize the program of warrantless (or unwarranted, as I usually prefer to put it) domestic spying on alleged terrorism suspects. This is the program that created such a fuss when the New York Times exposed it, of skipping the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act special secret court designed to issue warrants when the government wants to eavesdrop on a U.S. resident.

Gonzales now says that with recent changes to the law the government can go ahead and get warrants from the FISC. The inference is that there must be some kind of expedited procedure that allows warrants to be issued almost instantaneously.

Does this mean that the relentless criticism from libertarians, civil libertarians and a few conservatives has had an impact? Or does it just mean the administration found out it could spy on Americans just as efficiently using the revised FISA rules? Or did it discover -- which wouldn't surprise me though I doubt if anybody in officialdom will ever admit it -- that the NSA unwarranted spying program was simply a big waste, that it didn't produce much of anything in the way of valuable information, especially when weighed against the cost.

I don't know for sure, but I'm glad to see the program ended.

Libertarianism 101

Here's a link to an excellent group of essays by Sam Wells, a long-time libertarian, exploring variouos aspects of the freedom philosophy. The first, "What Libertarianism is -- and What It Is Not" is especially worth reading if you want either a primer or a refresher.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Playoffs just right

Well, let's see if writing a new post will get the previous one published, as sometimes happens. No luck the first few times, but keep trying.

The NFL playoff games today were both worth watching, and on balance I liked the way they turned out. It's nice to see Peyton Manning get a little farther in the playoffs, and even more interesting to see the Indianapolis defense be the key to winning the game.

And the Saints! I really must find a way to visit New Orleans sometime this year and see for myself the extent to which it's rebuilt and/or how prmanent some destruction seems. But the Saints seem like a harbinger of rebirth.

Of course I want the Chargers to win tomorrow, then win again and then beat the Saints. But I hope it is the Saints in the Super Bowl.

Friday, January 12, 2007

An isolated president

My ego is pretty healthy, so I hardly ever feel envy at what somebody else has written. One of the few who occasionally provokes a touch of the green-eyed monster at the facility of her writing is Peggy Noonan. She's a loyal Republican -- speechwriter for Bush 41, coiner of "thousand points of light," took a leave from the Wall St. Journal to work for Bush 43 in 2004. So when she expresses disappointment at President Bush's speech Wednesday, as she did in her column today, you know there's a professional eye at work. You also get the feeling that if Peggy Noonan feels this way the president must be increasingly isolated.

"I had the odd and wholly unexpected experience of feeling supportive of a troop increase until I saw the president's speech arguing for it. What a jarring, furtive-seeming thing it was," she writes.

One more paragraph: "There was something unnerving about the speech, from the jumpy beginning to the stumbles to the sound glitches. A jittery affair, and some dusk hung over it. [I don't know just what that means, but it's evocative, isn't it?] At the end I suspected the president's aides had instructed him again and again not to strut or have an edge. He perhaps understood that as: Got it -- don't be me. He couldn't do wounded wisdom, but he could repress cocky cowboy. The result was that he seemed not chastened but effaced, not there. it was odd. One couldn't find the personal geography of the speech."

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Not quite

I'll give George W. Bush points for seriousness. He didn't smirk inappropriately, he didn't whine, and he even uncharacteristically took some personal responsibility. At the same time, however, he didn't exactly come off as the prototypical inspiring commander in chief. He looked almost frightened, at least to me, but it didn't serve to humanize him that much. He read the speech capably enough as these things go, though with some stutters, but he looked as if half the life had been drained out of him.

No doubt he recognizes at some level that this was his defining moment and he wasn't handling it well. Somebody in Washington, I've forgotten who, told me in the last few days that of course the people at the White House knew how badly things were going in Iraq and had known for some time. Despite all his assurances that we were on the right path and even winning, George Bush had to know it too. I'm not sure why it surprised me so much that people in Washington thought they knew that the White House knew, but it did. I guess I had assumed that the cocoon really did shut out reality, but apparently it simply masked reality and postponed any felt necessity to deal with it.

Well, maybe the cocoon really is more powerful. Dubya's plan may be the best they could come up with given the circumstances of an overstretched military and the notion of moving people from posts like Europe or South Korea or Okinawa, where they're not doing much except to serve as tripwires, being apparently too far out of the box for anybody to entertain. It might provide cover for a future decision that we gave it our best shot, we did get rid of Saddam, we did kill a lot of terrorists (never mind the civilian collateral damage), we did pump in a bunch of aid and train a lot of military and police, but the Iraqis just weren't ready to hold up their end and it's time to leave. I still doubt if that will happen on Bush's watch, but the ground may be prepared.

The plan may provide cover but it doesn't look like a winning strategy. I hope I'm wrong, but I don't think 21,500 more troops, even with a somewhat different mission, will be enough to quell the violence enough for an Iraqi civil society to emerge. And while it's still way too early to tell if it will make a significant difference to Americans who have run out of patience, I suspect most Americans have simply tuned the president out. He's as lame a duck as we've seen in some time.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Bush's challenge

I just got off the phone with White House Counselor Dan Bartlett -- it was one of those conference calls whereby they try to give 8 or 10 of us out in the provinces the illusion of access, so don't get too excited -- and I'm still unsure just how this speech of President Bush's tonight will go over.

The synopsis Dan (our new best buddy, who took care to call everybody by name when they asked questions) gave us was similar to what has been leaked extensively already. About 20,000 new troops, five brigades to Baghdad and one to al-Ansar province, center of Qaida and Sunni insurgency. Well, not new troops exactly, but more on the ground ready for combat, to be accomplished by keeping some in-country longer than planned, speeding up deployment of others, and issuing stand-by be-ready notices to reserves and National Guard.

Here's the gist of Bartlett's contention. The previous assumption was that progress on the political end by the Iraqi government would lead to reduced violence. That assumption has proven incorrect, so they've done a reall reassessment this time. They now think they need to quell the violence first and that the Iraqi government and military is better prepared and (perhaps more important) more seriously committed to creating a national rather than a sectarian regime. Maliki has been told privately that the U.S. won't stay around indefinitely while they dither. But the U.S. recognizes that the Iraqi military is not quite ready yet to put down the insurgency/sectarian fighting but can do so with more help from the U.S. The U.S. will have several roles: embeds in Iraqi units (an effective force multiplier, Bartlett says), as independent combat units as needed, and as support units, supplying communication, transportation, intelligence, airstrikes, etc.

Bartlett was cagey about the time frame, but it sounded more like months than years. He did say the new resolve by the Maliki government was to go after killers/lawbreakers of all ethnicities, and in response to my question said this meant Moqtada al-Sadr but he wouldn't be mentioned by name.

I'm still skeptical. Successful counterinsurgency traditionally requires a lot more troops and much more time than we're in a position to commit. But Bush might be able to sell "give us one more chance to get it right" or at least to create enough of an impression of a success that the U.S. can save face. But I doubt it.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Saddam's execution silenced a witness

Robert Parry, the former AP and Newsweek reporter who runs, is usually just a little bit more ready than I am to attribute sinister motives to the Bush administration. But in this post he just might have a point. The New York Times ran a story about Saddam, based on a tape used in the ongoing trial of other Saddam-era baddies, about the lethal power of chemical weapons the regime was getting ready to unleash on the Kurds. It's pretty incriminating stuff, and having it come out in open court might have made it all the more crystal-clear just what a cold-blooded killer Saddam was.

Parry points out, however, that examination or cross-examination in court might have led to questions about just where Saddam acquired chemical weapons during the 1980s. And that would lead to the United States. It's well-known that Don Rumsfeld was a special envoy during the 1980s and a good bit of his responsibility was supplying weapons and logistical help to Saddam during the decade-long war with Iran. Present Defense Secretary Robert Gates and then-vice president George H.W. Bush were also involved in the effort. Parry suggests that having this discussed in open court could prove embarrassing to people the Bush administration would prefer not to have further discredited.

Maybe. For sure the pirated cell-phone video, showing Shia guards taunting Saddam and making the execution look more like ethnic payback than justice turned the execution into something negative for the current Iraqi government and the U.S. government. The Bushies presumably didn't know this was going to happen. But did they have reasons to want Saddam rushed to the hangman before he had a chance to testify on potentially embarrassing chemical weapons issues. It's an interesting speculation.

Things we've learned

Here's a fun link to a piece by Jeff Houck of the Tampa Tribune. He pored through news archives to find 50 things we know now that we didn't know a year ago. What with Britney and war and politics we sometimes miss things that turn out to be significant later on. If he had gone through scientific journals he probably would have discovered stuff the news media missed altogether rather than stuff they simply downplayed or didn't feature.

It's hardly news to parents who have lived through those years that "The part of the brain that regulates reasoning, impulse control and judgment is still under construction during puberty and doesn't shift to autopilot until about age 25." Of course. But I'd like to know more about the "autopilot" phase. Does it suggest that after 25 people (or most people) stop reasoning originally or simply don't process new information that doesn't fit their preconceptions? I discover evidence for that hypothesis almost every day.

Blue light fends off drowsiness in the middle of the night. Certain brain chemicals in our tears are natural pain relievers. The hole in the earth's ozone layer is closing even though greenhouse gases are increasing. Hmmmm. 30 minutes of continuous kissing can diminish the body's allergic reaction to pollen. Red wine contains anti-inflammatories and the chemical resveratrol, found in red wine, can stave off obesity and the effects of aging in mice. DNA analysis has determined that the English are descended from a Spanish fishing tribe that crossed the Bay of Biscay some 6,000 years ago.

More things in heaven and earth . . .

Thursday, January 04, 2007

More snail mail searches

The Bushlet is at it again with signing statements, his patented way of turning legislation designed to limit presidential power into new assertions of presidential power. Congress passed a mostly technical postal reform bill that included reinforcement of protection of First Class mail from being searched without a warrant from a court. In his signing statement Bush asserted that he reserved the right in an emergency -- not closely defined -- to search mail without a warrant. Does the misnamed "war on terror" count as an emergency? Is he assertng a power he plans to use in the near future, or one he is already using, or is this more of a formality, claiming a power he doesn't intend to use just to build (or rebuild, as Cheney seems to believe) the power of the presidency in case a real emergency arises? Stay tuned.

Negroponte to State

The news is that John Negroponte, the recently-created Director of Intelligence who supposedly guides and serves as filter for the entire intelligence community, will become deputy Secretary of State. On paper this is a demotion, from the top intelligence guy in government to number-two in a State Department that has seemed increasingly irrelevant. I suspect it's a last-ditch effort to rescue administration Iraq policy.

Creating the new position never made a whole lot of sense. Putting Negroponte, a career diplomat, in charge made a certain amount of sense in that he had been a consumer of intelligence and might have been expected to know what people who use intelligence in formulating policy need. But he had not been an executive or in the intelligence old-boys club before, and it's doubtful he had much luck in getting all the long-standing intelligence agencies, especially military intelligence, to snap to when he gave orders or change the way they had been mishandling their responsibilities very much. He might have become frustrated at how little real influence he had, despite the fact that it's oh-so-prestigious to give the president his daily intelligence briefing.

There's also a certain amount of evidence that Condie Rice needed a rescue operation over at State. She's been almost invisible lately. This is not surprising. Though she held the post of Provost at Stanford when I interviewed her years ago, which is essentially an administrative position, her background was as an academic. She had little operational experience in the big world outside academe. She's obviously intelligent, but she doesn't command much respect. It may be impolite to point it out, but while things are changing oh-so-gradually, women still aren't taken very seriously in the Middle East, and many of our current foreign policy crises are centered in the Middle East. This was a problem when Madeleine Albright was Secretary of State, though hardly anybody chose to mention it.

Negroponte was the first U.S. ambassador to Iraq in the post-Saddam era, but he spent little time in that post. While he has undertaken projects there, Negroponte is hardly a certifiable expert on the Middle East. So I'm reluctant to predict, as some are, that his move to State reflects a desire for more solid expertise about Iraq. He may be more open to it than you-know-who, but he doesn't have much of it himself, which may affect the way he receives and processes information.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

State funeral excess

I think my previous posts show that on balance I admired Jerry Ford, although I question his judgment on the Iraq war. If he was opposed to the military invasion of Iraq at the time, as he told Bob Woodward, why didn't he say something at the time? It might not have done any good, but it might have helped a few Republicans develop some spinal starch.

All the funeral hoop-te-do over what seems like two weeks now, however, have me questioning how much of this was necessary. We seem to want to turn our presidents -- even a president who was never elected and lost his bid to be elected to continue to serve to Jimmuh Carter, for heaven's sake -- into demigods and encourage near-worship. I was disgusted that some young lady on the news last night said that viewing the coffin in Grand Rapids was an "awe-inspiring" experience. If anything the experience should have encouraged some perspective, a recognition that president are mere mortals like the rest of us.

I like to think Jerry Ford might have shared my perception that the whole thing was a bit overdone.