Tuesday, July 31, 2007

STATS on marijuana/mental health

Here's a link to a terrific article from STATS, which examines statistics relevant to public policy and the news, on that English study on marijuana and mental health. Oh, heck, it's so good, and it's not all that long, that here's the entire article. Thank you, Maia Svalavitz:

Will One Joint Really Make You Schizoid?Maia Szalavitz, July 30, 2007Just what did a new study on marijuana and schizophrenia actually say – and what did the media leave out?
Watching the media cover marijuana is fascinating, offering deep insight into conventional wisdom, bias and failure to properly place science in context. The coverage of a new study claiming that marijuana increases the risk of later psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia by 40% displays many of these flaws.
What are the key questions reporters writing about such a study needs to ask? First, can the research prove causality? Most of the reporting here, to its credit, establishes at some point that it cannot,though you have to read pretty far down in some of it to understand this.
Second – and this is where virtually all of the coverage falls flat –, if marijuana produces what seems like such a large jump in risk for schizophrenia, have schizophrenia rates increased in line with marijuana use rates? A quick search of Medline shows that this is not the case-- in fact, as I noted here earlier, some experts think they may actually have fallen. Around the world, roughly 1% of the population has schizophrenia (and another 2% or so have other psychotic disorders), and this proportion doesn’t seem to change much. It is not correlated with population use rates of marijuana.
Since marijuana use rates have skyrocketed since the 1940’s and 50’s, going from single digit percentages of the population trying it to a peak of some 60% of high school seniors trying it in 1979 (stabilizing thereafter at roughly 50% of each high school class), we would expect to see this trend have some visible effect on the prevalence of schizophrenia and other psychoses.
When cigarette smoking barreled through the population, lung cancer rose in parallel; when smoking rates fell, lung cancer rates fell. This is not the case with marijuana and psychotic disorders; if it were, we’d be seeing an epidemic of psychosis.
But readers of the AP, Bloomberg, The Washington Post, and Reuters were not presented with this information. While CBS/WebMD mentioned the absence of a surge in schizophrenia, it did so by quoting an advocate of marijuana policy reform, rather than citing a study or quoting a doctor. This slants the story by pitting an advocate with an agenda against a presumably neutral medical authority.
Furthermore, very little of the coverage put the risk in context. A 40% increase in risk sounds scary, and this was the risk linked to trying marijuana once, not to heavy use. To epidemiologists a 40% increase is not especially noteworthy-- they usually don’t find risk factors worth worrying about until the number hits at least 200% and some major journals won’t publish studies unless the risk is 300 or even 400%. The marijuana paper did find that heavy use increased risk by 200-300%, but that’s hardly as sexy as try marijuana once, increase your risk of schizophrenia by nearly half!
By contrast, one study found that alcohol has been found to increase the risk of psychosis by 800% for men and 300% for women. Although this study was not a meta-analysis (which looks at multiple studies, as the marijuana research did), it certainly is worth citing to help readers get a sense of the magnitude of the risk in comparison with other drugs linked to psychosis.
Of course, if journalists wanted to do that, they would also cite researchers who disagree with the notion that marijuana poses a large risk of inducing psychosis at all, such as Oxford’s Leslie Iversen, author of one of the key texts on psychopharmacology, who told the Times of London that
“Despite a thorough review the authors admit that there is no conclusive evidence that cannabis use causes psychotic illness. Their prediction that 14 per cent of psychotic outcomes in young adults in the UK may be due to cannabis use is not supported by the fact that the incidence of schizophrenia has not shown any significant change in the past 30 years.”
Such comments don’t help the media stir up reefer madness, which they’ve been doing, quite successfully, for the last few decades. Perhaps covering the marijuana beat makes you crazy.

reddit_title='Will One Joint Really Make You Schizoid?'

Cannabis and mental illness

There was a story last Friday about a new study in Britain that supposedly showed that smoking one joint would increase your chances of developing schizophrenia and other mental illness by 40 percent, at least as some papers reported it. Scary? It sounded that way, but wait a minute.

Some papers got it right -- this was a correlation, not a demonstration of causation. People who smoke pot are more likely to have schizophrenia. Is this because people with schozophrenia are more likely to smoke pot, for whatever reason? The numbers simply don't tell us.

In addition, as Mark Kleiman, over at The Reality-Based Community (scroll down to Exhale!)points out, if there were anything remotely resembling a cannabis-causes-schizophrenia phenomenon, you would expect those born in 1953, who came of using age at a cannabis peak, to have more schizophrenia than those born in 1963, who came of age during a cannabis-using trough. Sorry, no difference. In addition, an Australian study actually showed a decline in schizophrenia correlated with an increase in cannabis usage.

The Fear Factor

Here's a good little piece from GOP Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul on the importance of fear in stripping people of their liberty. "The psychology of fear is an essential component of those who would have us believe we must rely on the elite who manage the apparatus of the central government." Fear led too many Americans to embrace the Patriot Act and preemptive -- actually preventive, much less justifiable -- war.

Ron is concerned that the level of fear is similar now to just before the Iraq war and urges us to muster up some confidence in the better angels in this country. I hope he's wrong about the fear level.

Tour de France doping

I have not wanted to believe that so many cyclists on the Tour de France were doping, but this piece has me pretty close to convinced. Freelancer Nathaniel Vinton argues that the crises over the doping ring in Spain and Floyd Landis "have only fragmented the sport's authorities, and cycling's culture of cheating seems more entrenched than ever."

The main form of doping seems to be blood-doping -- injecting with enough extra blood to increase oxygen capacity but not enough to show up on a test, and Vinton thinks the peloton members -- the pack of riders at the center, who collude to rein in mavericks, etc. -- are down with it.

If Vinton is right and most of the good cyclists do it, the fans and sponsors tolerate it, knowing it's happening, maybe the way to go is just to make it legal? Again, these are adults who presumably have the right to take whatever risks they want with their own bodies. The rules about what's legitimate performance enhancement -- presumably vitamins, nutrients, rigorous training -- and illegitimate -- blood doping, other drugs -- are pretty arbitrary anyway. There's an ugly puritanical streak to all this rule-making, keeping it "clean" (or pure), and desire to catch people cheating.

Pat Tillman: a start but more accountability

So they've decided to go a pretty far distance up the chain of command in the Pat Tillman case, up to Lt. Gen Philip Kensinger, who was in charge of special forces until he retired last year. They have yet to decide whether a fairly sharp reprimand is enough or whether to strip him of his third star -- which would mean his retirement pay would decline by about $900 a month -- from $9,400 a month. More evidence that "public servants" are a pampered class financially. I remember when the argument was that government employees needed job security and rules that made it almost impossible to fire them because they were paid poorly relative to private-sector employees. No more. They're the ruling class in almost every way now.

I'm sure the government hopes this will be the end of it, but I suspect it's just the beginning. Army Secretary Pete Geren insisted it was just mistakes, that there was no cover-up, and the news stories I have seen report that it was accidental "friendly fire" as if that were an established fact. With the stuff coming out in the last few days -- three bullet wounds in the forehead, probably fired from 10 yards, etc. -- it's looking less and less established.

There's a hearing in the House tomorrow at which Rumsfeld is supposed to testify and to which Kensinger has been subpoenaed. I don't expect anything resembling real candor (as opposed to the faux candor he has mastered) from Rumsfeld. But it should be interesting.

Is the Tillman case a metaphor for the dishonesty -- or refusal to acknowledge the truth when a conmforting myth was easier -- for the war in Iraq and perhaps for the Bush approach to terrorism? Maybe so. I hope it catches public imagination.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Bush's dishonesty

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on President Bush's speech last Tuesday in which he did his best to link the war in Iraq to al-Qaida in Iraq as the biggest, baddest terrorist threat around. We noted the fundamental problem with the argument. AQI did not exist before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and it's still unclear exactly what its relation to "al-Qaida central" (insofar as there is such a thing), is. If it's the biggest threat around it was created by the U.S. invasion.

I don't know whther GWB has even the remotest grip on reality. His speechwrioters did their best with this speech, but he's making such a weak case I don't think much of anybody is listening anymore.

Getting out of Iraq

Here's a link to Peter W. Galbraith's piece in the New York Review of Books, pointing out (as if it were necessary, but it is) that none of the benchmarks for the Iraqi government have been met or are likely to be met. Without a political solution no amount of military success can put Iraq back together.

Galbraith (Ken's son) and a long-time advocate for the Kurds, originally advocated a Shia-Sunni-Kurd partition of Iraq, but he seems to think it's too late for that now. "The Iraq war is lost." Bottom line? "...there are three missions that might be achievable -- disrupting al-Qaeda, preserving Kurdistan's democracy, and limiting Iran's increasing domination. These can all be served by a modest U.S. presence in Kurdistan."

Fred Kaplan, at Slate, respects Galbraith's argument, but thinks there might be some things we can still do in the rest of Iraq. It's a sign of how convinced he is that the lofty goals were never achievable that he limits his suggestion to aiding the Shia and Sunni to separate themselves from each other, helping with logistics and relocation aid and the like, before we leave the southern part of the country to its own devices.

Was Pat Tillman murdered?

When an Andrew Sullivan starts taking the question seriously, you know it's about to hit the mainstream. What troubles plenty of people is a new (well, apparently original, but newly released) medical examiner's report suggesting three bullet holes in Tillman's forehead, probably fired at a range of 10 yards, probably from an M-16; and reports of unidentified soldiers who weren't part of the unit. I don't know if it's true that Tillman had become deeply disillusioned with the war and planned to speak out when his hitch was up, but his brother says that. If it's true that would provide a motive for silencing him.

I still think a tragic "friendly fire" scenario is likely, but let the evidence be made public and let lots of analysts have at it.

Fewer missions, not more troops

You would think more people would be writing such things, but it's rare enough that it's almost enough to make you cheer when you run across something like this by Benjamin Friedman at the MIT Center for International Studies, with the above title. Shouldn't it be obvious?

Frustrated by the mess in Iraq presidential candidates from John McCain to Hillary to
Richardson to Obama to Richardson to Romney are calling for enlarging U.S. military forces. Bush has proposed adding 27,000 Marines and 65.000 soldiers over the next five years.

The problem with this approach, Friedman argues, is that "its advocates ignore the lesson of Iraq, one U.S. leaders long understood but recently forgot: running other countries uninvited is a job the U.S. should avoid. Counter-terrorism does not require counter-insurgency and state-building. These missions are prone to failure, expensive, and a source of anti-American sentiment."

Friedman is bold enough to state what should be obvious" "disorder abroad is generally inconsequential to our security. History is full of failed states, and only Afghanistan, by harbording al-Qaeda, created serious problems for U.S. security." We'll be more effective if we stop trying to sell democracy with bombs. "What the nation needs is not more troops, but more restraint in using them."

Inbterestingly, Andrew Sullivan, a rare war hawk at the outset who has been able to reassess his position based on the mistakes and sad experience of Iraq, may be coming around to a similar position. He sees the possibility of a "new isolationism" in the U.S. "It is not the classic type of before the wars. But the palpable energy behind the Paul and OPbama candidacies and the vacuity of those defending the status quo in US foreign policy contains hints of a new shift toward a humbler view of national security."

Russian enigmas? Maybe not

The New York Times' Serge Schmeman, had a somewhat disappointing column recently on Putin and Russia. The best he can come up with, as a long-time observer (back to the Soviet days) is that "Mr. Putin mirros the contradictions, aspirations and insecurities of his country." He's seen as having brought Russia back from the depression the the immediate post-communist aftermath, but notes that he "represents a real -- albeit selective -- authoritarian drift, and a clear nostalgia for lost empire." However, "[f]or all that, Mr. Putin's Russia is not the Soviet Union ... it's a far freer place than it was two decades ago: The Internet is still unfettered; newspapers are cautious but lively; intellectual life is thriving; Russians and foreigners come and go freely ... " He just wishes Russia would release Andrei Lugovoi to be tried in Britain for the murder of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko.

A more insightful analysis comes from Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center and a retired Russian military officer. Trenin argues that Russian foreign policy "is informed by a clear material interest." With energy prices up, which bolsters the state treasury, its "ultimate interest is a status of a major world power, on par with the United States and China." While it knows what it doesn't like -- being dissed by the U.S., the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty, the "near-abroad" flirting with NATO, U.S. ABM missiles in Poland, and the U.S. "attempts to build a unipolar world," it's not quite sure what it wants in a positive vein. It ratified the Kyoto treaty but isn't really committed, it blew its chance to take a lead on energy issues during its G8 presidency. It hasn't cultivated real allies and "has not been able to make good use of its soft power." So it's alone and adrift, not sure of what it will take to get the respect it craves. Are oil and gas commodities or weapons? Is NATO a partner or a problem. Russia doesn't know yet.

Trenin thinks Russia needs to stop whining about the U.S. and seek common ground on Iran, North Korea and WMD proliferation and access to Western technology for energy extraction. Not that the Bush administration hasn't been typically clumsy. The U.S. would do well to stop trying to reform Russia internally and think about areas where cooperation is possible like Afghanistan, Iran and the Middle East.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Executive privilege squabble

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the coming confrontation over executive privilege. Thought we can see some justification for invoking it, we suggest it is being abused by the White House this time, especially when it comes to Harriet Miers, who is no longer an employee.

Who killed Pat Tillman

Here's Justin Raimondo's take on the death of former NFL player Pat Tillman, killed by "friendly fire" in Afghanistan. The latest wrinkle is that a doctor estimated that the bullets that killed Tillman came from 10 yards away. Justin, of course, is hardly allergic to the provocative, but he stays with the facts as well.

Assessing the NIE

Here's a link to the column I did last week for Antiwar.com. It discusses the brief summary made public of the latest National Intelligence Estimate on global terrorism. The bottom line, of course, is that starting the Iraq war has almost certainly made things worse for the United States. Not only is al-Qaida in Iraq, described as the only al-Qaida affiliate with a stated ambition to attack the United States proper, an artifact of that war, thousands of jihadists are getting trained and "blooded" in actual bomb-making and actual combat, which is much more valuable than studying something on the Internet or even attending a training camp in Afghanistan or Pakistan. We'll be paying for it --perhaps Europe more then the U.S. -- for years to come.

I continue to recommend Charles Pena's "Winning the Un-War" as the best detailed source for the kinds of strategies and tactics that might make the U.S. better off vis-a-vis terrorist jihadism. His strategy, of course, includes withdrawing military forces from Iraq and most of the Middle East, to reduce their values as a recruiting tool for terrorists, not to mention the danger to those troops themselves.

Orchestras go for youth

Symphony orchestras seem to be going for youth these days. The New York Philharmonic just picked Alan Gilbert, a 40-year-old (when I was 25 I didn't consider 40 young but now I do) who is a native New Yorker and son of two Philharmonic musicians, as music director. At least the orchestra knows him; he's been hanging around since he was a kid, and he did a two-week stint as guest conductor last season He has been chief conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic since 2000, music director of the Santa Fe Opera, and a guest conductor with major orchestras.

Of course, compared to Gustavo Dudamel, a 26-year-old Venezuelan considered the hottest conducting property around, who was hired a couple of months ago by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gilbert is almost an old man.

It will be interesting to see how this all works out. The keepers of the institutions are engaged in more navel-gazing than usual about the relevance of symphonic music in the modern world, and agonizing over how to attract audiences with less than fully gray heads. Although I have nothing against people who make "serious" music, one of my great passions, fun, I'm something of a traditionalist. Play it well, play it with passion, don't be too stodgy about new stuff but don't neglect the standard repertoire and those to whom the music speaks will find you. Unfortunately, baffling as it might be to me personally, it's not going to speak to everyone, and I don't know if any amount of music and arts education in schools will remedy that.

But then, when it comes to symphonic music, I've been a traditionalist since I was about 12. It helped that my parents introduced me, but it spoke to me instantly and has never let go. I still have their 78s of Schubert, Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Mahler and Wagner, though I don't have a contraption that will play them.

As to whether it's better to have a youngster or a seasoned veteran conduct an orchestra, there are valid arguments both ways. I was student conductor of the orchestra when I was in high school, and I had friends who I don't think were just flattering me (though I could have been fooling myself) who claimed the group played with a little more energy and passion when I conducted. Maybe, maybe not. But I do think the conducting gene shows up early, and when somebody has it as a conductor, he or she has it at an early age. A younger conductor is perhaps less inclined than a veteran to go through the motions with familiar material, and to view each concert, each piece, as a new challenge.

On the other hand, if you're any good at something, you should get better with experience. A good musician almost always finds something new in a piece of music -- if it's complex and subtle enough for stuff of value to be there -- each time he or she conducts or performs it. So old age and experience have their value.

It will be fascinating to watch and listen to these two.

Lame ducks and history

Here's a pretty good little piece by Carl Cannon of the National Journal on lame duck through the decades. He writes that the term "lame duck" was first used in 1910, and not to refer to a president, but to Republicans who hadn't survived the midterm elections but still had several months to serve before their replacements took over.

I've been calling GWB a lame duck for almost three years now, though some didn't start using the term until after he gave up on Social Security reform, some sfter the Democrats won Congress in 2006, and some not until the latest version of an immigration bill failed. The important thing to remember -- the VIPS group I mentioned in a previous post certainly do -- is that whatever the status of his popularity or his support in Congress, a sitting president still has a great deal of power. He still has veto power, he can still promulgate executive orders and signing statements, and he is still commander-in-chief of the military.

One of the odd things about Bush is that he seems to live in a bubble more than most presidents, so there's no knowing just how much he lets his current weakened condition seep into his own consciousness. But there's a serious question whether a wounded Bush is more dangerous than a Bush with reason to feel confident.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Quote of the Day

"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." -- H.L. Mencken

Some blowback for anti-marijuana lawmakers

I'm pleased to see that some of those who voted against the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment (which would deny funds for any DEA crackdowns on patients, growers and distributors in states with medical marijuana laws) are getting some negative attention. Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton, CA, a freshman, was the only S.F. Bay-area Democrat to vote against the measure, and according to this story he's being criticized widely and having to defend himself.

Only 15 Republicans (and 150 Democrats) supported Hinchey-Rohrabacher. I'm pleased to note that all the Orange County Republicans, along with Dana Rohrabacher, supported it also -- Ed Royce and John Campell -- along with Democrat Loretta Sanchez. Those outside the Register's circulation area but nearby -- Darrell Issa, Ken Calvert, Gary Miller -- voted wrong, however.

Terror as a pretext for tyranny

Just in case you might have thought that the United States was the only country where government leaders have used terror as a reason to enact law that limit liberties and intrude into the lives of ordinary citizens, rest assured that the impulse is well-nigh universal. This piece from The New Republic's Joshua Kurlantzick focuses on Asia, but it's happening all over the world.

Thailand, for example, has passed an Internal Security Act that "would allow the government to arrest and hold anyone without charge for seven days, subject to infinite renewal, and the people jailed would have no judicial recourse after their release ..." There has been an insurgency in the Muslim south. The Philippines has a Human Security Act, which makes it a crime to "sow and create a condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic among the populace." Malaysia already had a draconian internal security law as a leftover from British colonial days, but they're using it more, and the U.S., which used to criticize the law, remains silent.

Jordan, Pakistan and Uganda also have new laws that vrtually invite abuse like criminal crackdowns on legitimate political dissenters.

Thanks, Osama, for giving them all the pretext.

George Bush cornered

I'm ambivalent about linking to this piece because I'm skeptical about doing a psychological profile of somebody you haven't talked to or met. But this assessment from Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), whose best-known member is Ray McGovern, and psychiatrist Justin Frank, who wrote the book "Bush on the Couch," is whorth some attention. The VIPS people explain that the CIA and its forerunner have been doing what they call "at-a-distance leader personality assessments" since the 1940s, beginning with Hitler, and claim that some were quite useful.

As I say, I'm skeptical, but Dr. Frank's analysis of the Bush personality seems pretty close to this guy, who has never met the guy but has been in rooms where he's spoken, watched him critically on TV innumerable times, and studied his actions pretty closely. Franks contends that Bush has no conscience (he makes much of blowing up frogs with firecrackers as a kid), no shame, regret or embarrassment about things like Katrina, but a fear of humiliation. He's a person who "will not change, because for him change means humiliating collapse." He has a sadistic streak and gets some kind of pleasure or satisfaction from breaking things.

The upshot is that any number of scenarios could cause him to expand military actions or start new ones. A large-scale attack on the Green Zone in Baghdad might lead to military raids against Iran, since so many officials are claiming Iran is behind escalating violence in Iraq. If Israel bombed Iranian nuclear facilities Bush would feel almost compelled to join in, etc.

The VIPS groups thinks the only thing that might restrain him would be the beginning of impeachment proceedings.

AsI said above, I'm skeptical, but I can't deny that this assessment is interesting.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Go, Barry!

Now that Barry Bonds is one home run away from tying Hank Aaron's record of 755 in a career (it's nice that a season ticket-holder caught No. 754), I might as well let you know where I stand. I hope he does it soon, and I don't think he deserves an asterisk.

Years ago, when the minor-league (Single-A) Lake Elsinore Storm team was just starting, I attended an exhibition game and got to talking with some other fans from nearby Riverside, sitting a couple of rows away. It turned out they were relatives of Barry Bonds, who even then had a bad rep as a surly guy who wouldn't talk nice to the press. I told more of the story in a WorldNetDaily column (before they dumped me shortly after 9/11 when it was clear I wasn't going to be an enthusiast of endless wars). The short version is they said Barry wasn't a bad guy, but he'd been burned a few times by reporters and had decided not to talk with them. They admitted it might not have been the best decision, but Barry wasn't the type to kiss up to people. I believed them and found that an attractive characteristic rather then a character defect. I guess I just like individualists, even when they're prickly.

As to steroids, it's never been proven he used them, but I wouldn't be surprised. If you know how I feel about the drug war, you won't be surprised to know I think the whole steroids thing is overblown. Professional athletes are always trying to get an edge, whether by practicing hard, working out, employing a sports psychiatrist or taking vitamins and supplements. I think there's a thin line and a somewhat arbitrary one between steroids (in which I've never had an interest) and supplements (of which I take a bunch). I don't think using steroids is inherently "cheating," although I think it's taking an unwise risk.

I know, steroids can have bad side-effects, perhaps (though it's not conclusive) fatal ones, and the evidence that they change your personality for the worse is pretty strong. I for one wouldn't relish having my testicles shrink. But we're talking about adults here, and adults in a free country should be able to decide for themselves what risks they take with their bodies. Unless we're going to outlaw hang-gliding, mountain-climbing or working in high-risk occupations (carpentry turns out to be more dangerous than police work) the government has no business banning substances just because they have dangerous side effects, especially if it's done on the basis of bad publicity rather than science. Many perfectly legal prescription drugs have more dangerous side effects than steroids.

Now Major League Baseball as an organization, like other professional (and amateur) sports leagues does have the right to ban the use of certain substances whether I think it's a wise move or not. There's no absolute right to play in an organized league, and almost all private organizations have some sort of rules (even if they're implied rather than formal) for those who want to be members. Membership is a privilege rather than a fundamental right. But at the time Barry Bonds is alleged to have used steroids, there was no MLB ban on their use. So even if he did use them, he wasn't breaking a league rule. He's never tested positive since they were banned.

Remember, Barry Bonds was a recognized all-star caliber player long before he is alleged to have juiced up. His talent is undeniable. He hardly ever strikes out, which is unusual for a slugger. When he breaks Hank Aaron's record I'm going to celebrate -- probably with beer, the drug of choice for athletes in the Ruth era, but not with amphetamines, the drug of choice in the Aaron era, according to Jim Bouton's classic book, "Ball Four."

Sauced in space

NASA is scurrying to do the politically correct thing after an independent panel convened after Lisa Nowak, the "astronut," pulled her little driving-with a diaper -- and various implements of potential destruction -- stunt in search of a romantic rival, found at least anecdotal evidence that on two occasions astronauts were drunk enough to have attracted the attention of others. They're promising to get to the bottom of this -- the panel wasn't empowered to do in-depth investigation, just collect preliminary evidence -- and to institute tighter anti-drinking policies and really enforce them this time.

What if it doesn't really matter that much? After all, most of a launch is automated and computerized, with the astronaut's job being mainly to sit in a glorified lounge chair and absorb G-forces. It isn't until well into a flight, perhaps when it's time for a space walk or docking, that real dexterity and judgment are required. I've never wanted to be an astronaut, but it's not hard to imagine thinking that if I were sitting with umpty-ump million pounds of force under my rear end and nothing much to do but hope it doesn't malfunction, that I would like to be a little fortified. In the old days, when most astronauts were former test pilots or combat veterans, they were a pretty hard-living and hard-drinking bunch -- and NASA was a successful and innovative agency instead of a bureaucratized fossil. Maybe there's no relationship, but ...

We're a lot more puritanical about alcohol in this country than 40 years or so ago, and I'm not sure we're the better for it. We're more aware of problem drinkers and alcoholism, to be sure, but also ready to see almost anybody who enjoys a drink now and then as a potential problem. It wouldn't hurt us to lighten up.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

House makes a statement

It might be seen as just symbolic, but I think it's healthy that the House voted 399-24 to adopt a resolution that would limit federal spending "to establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq or to exercise United States economic control of the oil resources of Iraq."

The Republicans didn't put up much resistance, arguing that the administration had no plans for permanent bases anyway. But those who have seen some of the gigantic military installations the U.S. has built in Iraq say they sure look as if they're intended to be permanent. We still have bases in Korea more than 50 years later and in Germany more than 60 years later. Stratfor.com, the private intelligence Website, maintained from the beginning that the real purpose of the Iraq war was to establish bases in Iraq to be used to control the region and go after terrorists. Some administration supporters who claim to be geopolitically sophisticated rather than naive adherents of the "we did it for democracy" line, will admit that permanent bases are one of the goals.

So it's not a bad thing for the House to be on record against permanent bases.

Executive privilege showdown

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the House Judiciary Committee's decision to issue contempt citations to White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers. Several points are worth noting. First is that the words "executive privilege" appear nowhere in the Constitution, though many president's have claimed it. Second is that the law is far from settled. The Supreme Court's U.S. v. Nixon decision recognized the claim could be valid to make sure a president got candid advice, but the privilege wasn't absolute, and it forced Nixon to turn over tapes to the special prosecutor anyway. He did so two weeks later and four days after that resigned.

The other is that it's ridiculously partisan. Democrats thought Clinton was protecting the institution when he invoked executive privilege, while Republicans thought he was abusing power. Now the tables are turned (the Judiciary Committee vote was along party lines).

The comments of Bruce Fein, Reagan Justice Dept. official and head of the American Freedom Agenda organization, here, and here, are worth some respect. He says even the "candid advice" argument is a little phony; there's always an exception for criminal investigations and every presidenial aide knows there's a strong likelihood of leaks, but in his experience they're candid anyway; they would have to be, at least to the extent that the president himself can handle candor.

Cruel and dishonest drug warriors

Sometimes the sheer hypocrisy and dishonesty of the drug warriors gets to me and I'd just like to ... calm, down, Bock.

The Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment failed again in the House on Wednesday, by a 262-165 vote, despite the Democrats being in charge. This is the fifth year the amendment to the Justice Dept. appropriations bill, which would bar the department from spending money to prosecute people who use, grow or distribute cannabis for medicinal purposes in states that have passed medical marijuana laws. It has gotten more votes each year, but this year was especially disappointing. Nancy Pelosi had voted for it in the past, but obviously she put no effort into supporting it.

What really got to me, however, was the smug comment from one Tom Riley, spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "You can fool some of the people some of the time," he said. "And this medical marijuana has become one of those (issues) for the last few years. But I think that the hand is starting to get played out here. More and more people are realizing there is a con going on -- that a lot of the people who are behind it aren't really interested in sick people who need medicine, they're interested in marijuana legalization and they're playing on the suffering of genuiinely sick people to get it."

Assume he's right (which he isn't). Is it more reprehensible to play on people's sympathy for sick people to get a step you think might lead to legalization, or is it more reprehensible to deny genuinely sick people a medicine that, according to the government's own Institute of Medicine report in 1999, (it's downloadable) "might offer broad-spectrum relief not found in any other single medication" for those suffering with "AIDS or who are undergoing chemotherapy, and who suffer simultaneously from severe pain, nausea, and appetite loss"?

I don't deny that I'm for full legalization of cannabis. But what led me to write a book about medical marijuana was my acquaintance with a wide range of patients who found relief from it in ways they didn't get from any other medication.

There's a way for the government to call the bluff of this "con." That would be to permit the medicinal use of marijuana as a prescription drug, to be used 0only under a licensed physician's supervision. Codeine and morphine are used that way, and while there's some leakage into the black market it's not a serious problem. Doing this would eliminate a slice of people whom most Americans find very sympathetic -- people with serious illnesses -- from the drug reform movement, and allow the government to concentrate on the recreational users it finds so evil and harmful to society.

In fact, this would be perfectly in line with federal law as written. The Controlled Substances Act has five "schedules" or lists of drugs subject to different levels of control. The criteria for Schedule I, drugs that are not allowed to be used legally at all, are:

"(A) The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse.
"(B) The drug or toher substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.
"(C) There is a lack of accepted safety for the use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision."

As DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young ruled back in 1988, marijuana does not meet any of these criteria. If you simply understand the law as written, it is illegal to keep marijuana on Schedule I. In fact, when the controlled substances act was passed in 1970, Congress put marijuana on Schedule I as a temporary measure, and was assured by administration spokesmen that the issue of where marijuana actually belonged would be considered and determined on the basis of scientific evidence.

That never happened. Not only has the determination been made strictly on the basis of political pandering, the government has consciously repressed scientific inquiry into therapeutic uses of marijuana. It's a policy worthy of the Dark Ages -- though in fact the authorities in the Dark Ages would almost certainly not have attemmpted something so foolish as trying to prohibit a plant! In fact, they didn't.

Not to toot too much, but all this and more is in my book, "Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana."

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Justifying torture (again)

Last Friday Bush signed and published an executive order that most news accounts reported as ending official justification for torture. While the order clearly forbids "torture" and "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment, however it still doesn't offer the kind of clearcut definition real opponents of torture would like to see. As Iraq veteran and attorney Phillip Carter argues, it "does nothing to repudiate earlier interpretations of the Bush administration, which narrowed 'torture's' scope to allow coercive interrogation techniques including sleep deprivation, water boarding,and extraordinary rendition, among others. Instead of proscribing torture, it adds yet another layer to the legal regime supporting those earlier policies."

What gets Carter's hackles up is that the order cites two of the most objectionable documents produced by the administration, the January 2002 memo by then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, calling the Geneva Conventions "quaint," and the February 2002 directive saying Geneva didn't apply at Gitmo.

It's been a couple of years, but when I read the Gonzales memo and a later memo, they struck me as the kind of thing a Mafia lawyer would write to let his boss know how to get away with murder and other crimes by offering fanciful but not utterly ridiculous legal arguments that it wasn't really murder. How do you do the nefarious things you want to do but stop just short of outright breaking the law? That's what those memos offered.

Given the fact that all the experienced interrogators I've talked to and recent articles by military interrogators say that torture is not a reliable way to get reliable information, it's difficult not to conclude that those in and out of the administration who are so eager to justify torture are motivated more by something resembling sadism -- if only vicarious sadism-- than by a desire to get reliable information. That's sad, but I think it's true.

Musharraf's limited options

Here's a reasonably insightful piece by Teresita Schaffer, who directs the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In wake of the Pakistani Supreme Court's decision to reinstate Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudry, whom Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had kicked out back in March, Schaffer believes:

"Musharraf faces an unpleasant choice: either to undertake a period of authoritarian rule (he has said he won't) or to take his chances on an electoral process that has become much more uncertain for him." After some analyisis and description she receomends: "Rather than simply sticking to Musharraf like Velcro, we should emphasize the larger dimension -- Pakistan itself. U.S. policy and public diplomacy should focus on the need to respect Pakistan's law and constitution and carry out genuinely free elections ..."

I think the U.S. should distance itself from Musharraf too, but also distance itself from the very notion that it ought to have a big say in Pakistan or should spend resources trying to influence the country. We might need a proper relationship to get permission to go after bin Laden in the Northwest provinces (if the U.S. really wants to do that, which I wonder about), but that doesn't necessarily imply supporting or opposing the current president.

Chavez wrecking Venezuelan oil?

Some years ago, around the time of the attempted coup against Venezuelan "strongman" Hugo Chavez, I talked to Roger Fontaine, a Latin American expert who has spent considerable time in Venezuela. He said it is a beautiful country but the society is pretty screwed up. They have crony capitalism instead of a free market, which means the wealthy had become accustomed to luxury guaranteed by good relations with the governmment, often fueled by bribes and the like, while poor people see little hope of improving their lot. Interestingly enough and somewhat counterintuitively, however, he said, the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, was reasonably well-run and efficient, and somewhat insulated from day-to-day politics.

I figured when Chavez announced plans to take over Venezuelas de Petreoleo and run it in a more hands-on fashion, and to take over foreign companies operating in the country, he would eventually run it into the ground, so to speak. Dictators who depend on oil revenues to fund all the promises they've made to the poor are not interested in long-run efficiency but in short-term revenues. And any state enterprise is inevitably going to experience corruption as well as inefficiency.

Even I am surprised at how quickly he and his cronies seem to have wrecked the company. According to this International Herald Tribune piece, the company is "shaken by claims of corruption and by internal dissent." Rafael Ramirez, energy minister and VdP CEO has acknowledged that it can't hire enough drilling rigs to meet production targets To date it has hired only 40 percent of what it thinks it needs this year, and this has led to a crisis. Production is down. Venezuela "claims to produce almost 3.1 million barrels of oil a day, but institutions like the International Energy Agency in Paris put output at 2.37 million barrels a day, down about 230,000 from a year ago.

With production down 7 percent, oil exports have fallen 15 percent from last year. Government income from oil could decline from $60.4 billion last year to $45.6 billion.

Chavez might get bailed out by $100-a-barrel oil. But that won't last forever. The sad truth is you have to run even a state-owned company in a reasonably businesslike manner, not put iedologues and cronies in charge.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Paying dead farmers

The General Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report saying the Agriculture Department distributed $1.1 billion over seven years to the estates of farmers who had died. The department is permitted to pay subsidies for two years after a farmer dies, to give the heirs time to get through probate and decide what to do. But then it's supposed to have local officials check to make sure farming is being done, and that the land isn't being held merely to collect subsidies. In 40 percent of the cases the department didn't check at all, and in 38 percent it went ahead and paid despite weak paperwork.

This confirms that the farm payment system is basically a way to transfer money rather than to support real farmers, especially family farmers. In 2004 a third of payments went to "very large" operations (over $250,000 a year income). And a WaPo investigation found the government "gave $1.3 billion between 2000 and 2006 to landowners who did not farm at all."

The whole farm program -- subsidies, price supports, import restrictions, everything -- should be scrapped. Food is essential. The taxpayers don't have to subsidize people to grow it, raising prices in ways that affect poor people most in the process. Unfortunately, the Dems' "reform bill contains only minor tweaks.

Funny poll result

Here's a curiosity. According to this week's CBS/New York Times poll, "support for the initial invasion of Iraq has risen somewhat as the White House has continued to ask the public to reserve judgment about the war until at least the fall.


Specifically, support for the invasion was at an all-time low in May, at 35 percent, but in the poll taken over this past weekend, 42 percent of Americans say they support the initial invasion. 51 percent say the U.S. should have stayed out, while 61 percent said so in May. The number of people who say the war is going "very badly" has fallen from 45 percent in June to 35 percent now.

This makes no sense. At least not logically. I can understand a lower percentage saying the war is going very badly now; there have been stories of tribal leaders deciding to oppose al-Qaida and all. But why should that fact change your perception of whether we should have gone in in the first place? If you really think it was a bad idea, the fact that it isn't going as badly as a few weeks or months ago shouldn't change that judgment. Should it?

It's enough to make you think Bryan Caplan has something with his "Myth of the Rational Voter."

Monday, July 23, 2007

Ron Paul gaining R-E-S-P-E-C-T?

More slowly than the phenomenon warrants, Ron Paul is gradually getting a little attention from mainstream and quasi-mainstream outlets. Patrick Ruffini, over at Hugh Hewitt's blog, predicted last week that "Ron Paul Will Place Second at Ames." That's the GOP straw poll in August that may or may not tell us much about the outcome of the Iowa caucuses next year (McCain and Giuliani say they're not contesting it) but will say a little about early support in Iowa.

Ruffini's reasoning? Ron "leads the second tier in cash-on-hand. He was able to get 1,200 people out to the Hy-Vee [the "debate" from which he was excluded] (has any candidate done something that big on their own, not at an RPI event?)."

Ruffini notes that Ron is up to 3 percent in a Gallup poll, ahead of Huckabee and Brownback. He makes a completely unnecessary comparison to Lyndon La Rouche (Ron Paul has been elected and reelected to Congress and LaRouche has never been elected to anything) but wouldn't be surprised if Ron becomes a factor if not a winner.

Mainlining Kristol meth

Here's what Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, one of the major intellectual/propagandist architects of the war in Iraq wrote just before the invasion (thanks to Andrew Sullivan for finding it):

“We are tempted to comment, in these last days before the war, on the U.N., and the French, and the Democrats. But the war itself will clarify who was right and who was wrong about weapons of mass destruction. It will reveal the aspirations of the people of Iraq, and expose the truth about Saddam’s regime. It will produce whatever effects it will produce on neighboring countries and on the broader war on terror. We would note now that even the threat of war against Saddam seems to be encouraging stirrings toward political reform in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a measure of cooperation in the war against al Qaeda from other governments in the region. It turns out it really is better to be respected and feared than to be thought to share, with exquisite sensitivity, other people’s pain. History and reality are about to weigh in, and we are inclined simply to let them render their verdicts,” - Bill Kristol, March 17, 2003.

It's fascinating that somebody who has been so wrong at almost every turn about the Iraq war -- and has not only never apologized for being wrong but never evinced even the slightest hint self-doubt or even of wondering why he was so wrong or had a moment of concern about the young men and women sent to death of lifelong maiming -- is still given the opportunity to express himself on all kinds of media with virtually no challenge to his previous wrong-headed statements and predictions. Meanwhile, those who were closest to right before the war -- heard from Scott Ritter lately?-- are still relegated to the fringes and considered slightly kooky. What a media culture, where being wrong but sounding confident gains you more credibility than being right!

China blundering (?) pre-Olympics

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on China's clumsy and tyrannical moves against journalists duiring the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. China is trying to burnish its image, but in some ways failing. It plans to relocate a bunch of scruffy rural people who have moved to Beijing and other major cities in search of work to make the city seem "cleaner." And they're cracking down on opposition leaders and journalists. Not exactly a good way to make your country seem the very model of openness and modern, enlightened attitudes as you showcase yourself to the world.

Anti-smoking ads backfire

A professor at the University of Georgia has found that those annoying anti-smoking ads on TV have the exact opposite of their (presumed) intended effect. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, "The more exposure middle school students have to anti-smoking ads, the more likely they are to smoke."

This should hardly be surprising to anybody who has raised (or been) a teenager. Teens (at least a lot of them) are rebellious to some degree, and the more some authority figure tells them not to do something, the more likely they are to want to do it.

UGA professor Hye Jin-Paek's suggestion for making the ads more effective strikes me as rather lame also. "Rather than saying, 'don't smoke,' it is better to say, "your friends are listening to this message and not smoking," she said. "It really doesn't matter what their peers are actually doing." So you lie to teens and try a little peer pressure? Sure. that'll work.

How about just stopping all this Nannyism?

More on Turkey

Talked with James Coyle, who directs Chapman University's Global Education Project (U.S. students studying abroad, foreign students coming to Chapman) and before that served two years with the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. His view is that Turkish voters were not voting for an Islamic philosophy/theology so much as for continued prosperity. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has instituted numerous economic reforms, in part to make Turkey eligible to join the European Union (which might or might not ever happen) and Turkey has experienced remarkable economic growth, up to 7 percent a year. A lot of Turks with better jobs than they had before or more prosperous businesses didn't want to mess with that. The AK party has fewer seats in the parliament than before because three parties rather than one passed the 10 percent benchmark to gain representation, but increassed its vote percentage from 34 percent in 2002 to 46 percent in 2007.

Jim also believes the election results will not make it more likely that Turkey will eventually undertake cross-border military action into Iraq -- the Turkish military will make such a decision and the nationalist parties didn't gain ground -- but he figures there's a 50/50 chance that will happen unless the PKK Kurdish separatists stop their cross-border raids. That would present U.S. government and military officials, the de facto ruling power in Iraq, with a dilemma. Do they pull forces from other conflicts in Iraq to subdue the PKK, which would probably be Turkey's preference? Do they pressure the Kurds, who aren't currently giving them trouble, to subdue the PKK? If Turkey attacks, do they support a military opposition or content themselves with s stern note through diplomatic channels, which would mean se facto acquiescence in a Turkish military incursion into Iraq? None of the choices is especially attractive.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Quote of the Day

"The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern." -- Lord Acton

Hillary-Pentagon tiff

It's fascinating just how tone-deaf Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman must be, responding to a request from Sen. Hillary Clinton as to what kind of redeployment and/or troop drawdown contingency plans the Pentagon might have with a condescending letter (two months later) suggesting that such talk encourages "enemy propaganda." and all but saying that you should stay out of this, little lady, war is for menfolk. Hillary of course capitalized on it immediately, going into high dudgeon. Now Defense Secretary Robert Gates has had to step in to try to defuse the situation.

I don't know if this is a window into how high Pentago officials really think, or a tactic by the administration -- conceding that they've lost the majority of Americans over Iraq but continue to talk tough to keep the base on board. The simple fact is that if the Pentagon doesn't have contingency plans for withdrawal, it's not doing its job. The Pentagon is constantly making and revising contingency plans for all sorts of possibilities, likely and unlikely.

Bush/al-Qaida symbiosis

Here's a piece by Robert Parry of consortiumnews.com, contending that Bush and al-Qaida have developed a symbiotic relationship, needing each other and feeding off one another. Remember in his recent speeches Bush has said that the main enemy in Iraq now is al-Qaida, "the same people who attacked us on 9/11." That's clearly incorrect. Al-Qaida in Iraq wasn't formed until after the U.S. invasion, and only later petitioned to be an al-Qaida affiliate. It's still unclear just what the relationship is with al-Qaida Central, if there is such a thing. But Bush obviously believes he can bolster support if he links the midbegotten war in Iraq with al-Qaida.

Parry argues that the National Intelligence Estimate released last week makes it clear that "Bush's repeated warnings that the United States must fight Islamic estremists in Iraq so 'we don't have to fight them here' or so 'they won't follow us home' turn out to be the opposite of the truth: because U.S. forces are occupying Iraq, al-Qaeda has more resources and more recruits determined to bring the war to the United States.

"The underlying reality is that Bush remains the perfect foil for al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists. The surging anti-Americanism, which derives from a widespread hatred opf Bush, represents a recruitment boon for al-Qaeda, so much so that Osama bin Laden understand that Bush and his stubbornnessare indispensable assets to their cause."

Parry isn't always right -- he sometimes lapses into left-wing cliche -- but he's right often enough that I'm adding consortiumnews to my blogroll.

Islamists win in Turkey

As expected, prime minister Recep Erdogan's moderate Islamist party (AK) won today's elections in Turkey, though with a slightly smaller majority than before (341 seats of 550, down from 351). The major way this is likely to affect the United States is that the Turkish government will be under more pressure to undertake cross-border raids into Iraq to go after the PKK Kurdish guerrillas who have been using Iraqi territory to do raids into Turkey, part of an ongoing resistance/revolutionary/separatist Kurdish movement. Whether they'll do it is unknown, but if they do it will present a dilemma for the U.S.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Quote of the Day

"The state calls its own violence 'law' but that of the individual 'crime'" -- Max Stirner

Clinton says she'll end medical marijuana raids

Ready for a little more good news on the medical marijuana front, especially in light of the DEA going after dispensaries in Los Angeles and elsewhere in California? Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana (a project of the Marijuana Policy Project, a generally effective outfit) sent me a news release last week last announcing the Sen. Hillary Clinton has taken a firm position against the DEA raids in states which have legalized medicinal use of marijuana. Key paragraph:

"During a Manchester campaign [stop] on July 13, Len Epstein, a volunteer for Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana (GSMM), told Sen. Clinton: 'Twelve states allow medical marijuana, bu5 the Bush administration continues to raid patients,' to which she responded, 'Yes, I know. It's terrible.' Epstein then asked, 'Would you stop the federal raids?' Sen Clinton responded firmly, 'Yes, I will.'"

Of course, I remember when another Clinton was elected, the drug law reform community was for the most part ecstatic, believing that -- especially since everybody was pretty sure he had inhaled and more -- he would lend a sympathetic ear to reform ideas. (Part of the story is in my book, he says blatantly self-promotingly.) However marijuana arrests actually increased dramatically during his administration. Never underestimate the capacity for hypocrisy of politicians.

Celebrating on ID cards

Here's a link to the Register's editorial written after the Orange County supervisors voted 4-1 to establish a medical marijuana ID card program in Orange County, generally viewed as one of the most conservative counties in the country. I think we tried to present the opposing argument -- that a decision should be postponed until after San Diego County's challenge to Prop. 215, California's Compassionate Use Act, runs its course -- fairly before rejecting it. The S.D. case has already been thrown out at the district court level (S.D. is appealing). And you know if there were a real chance of having the law invalidated due to federal "supremacy," they would have tried it immediately after Prop. 215 was passed. They had a fair amount of legal talent assembled to discuss what to do, and they decided not to file a court challenge. That should tell you something.

Why have a Surgeon General?

A couple of weeks ago Richard Carmona, former Surgeon General under Bush (2002-2006) told the House Oversight Committee (that would be Henry Waxman making trouble for the Bushies again) that the Bushies "muzzled him on sensitive public health issues" and "blocked him from speaking out on public health matters such as stem cell research, abstinence-only sex education and emergency contraceptive Plan B," as the WaPo put it. C. Everett Kook, SG under Reagan, and David Satcher, SG under Clinton, also complained of politicization of the Surgeon General's office.

Grow up, folks! it's a politically appointed position and will always be inherently political.

Meanwhile, Bush's current appointee, James Holsinger, has come under fire for having written an article back in 1991that came pretty close to saying being gay is an affliction and that it leads to certain kinds of debilities and susceptibilities to medical problems. He says he's "grown" since then.

The best solution to all this is to abolish the office of Surgeon General. The office grew out of the Civil War, but there's no real need for it. In modern times the SG serves as sort of a national scold on health issues, but we have plenty of those in the private and independent sectors. And because everyone knows the SG is a politically-determined position, instead of having more credibility because he's the gummint's chief medical officer, he has less than the most interest-driven private-sector health scold.

Turkish election important

Turkey is having an election Sunday, and unfortunately, because it has become so entangled in the area, the United States will be affected.

The biggest area of concern for the U.S. has to do with Turkey's shaky relations vis-a-vis northern Iraq, the area populated mostly by Kurds, which is rapidly becoming a de facto Kurdistan. If that were all, it could point a way forward for Iraq -- de facto partition, regardless of what the formal political structure is. However, there are Kurds in Turkey and Iran as well, and especially in Turkey they have been battling the central government for independence, autonomy or something for many years. The Turks haven't exactly been kind over the years either.

The main anti-Turkish vehicle has been the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. PKK guerrillas have been establishing camps in Iraq, from which they raid into Turkey. Turkey has begun to take a hard line, amassing Turkish troops on the border, threatening cross-border raids (it's probably already done some already) and calling on the U.S. (as if it didn't have enough problems in Iraq) to control the PKK or pressure the other Iraqi Kurds into doing so.

Naturally the Kurd situation is an election issue. The majority party, the Justice and Development Party, the AK, has been relativey restrained regarding the Kurd raids so far, but several nationalist parties are pressuring it to do more. Meanwhile, the AK has other issues. It is a moderate Islamist party, and since taking power with Recep Erdogan as prime minister a few years ago, it has acted moderately.

But Turkey was established as an explicitly secular state (by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s, as the Ottoman Empire was crumbling) and Turkey's secular elite is worried about even a moderately Islamist party in power. The military, self-proclaimed guardian of secularism (it has taken power four times) has issued veiled threats. It's especially concerned that Erdogan has nominated a religious Muslim, Abdullah Gul, to be the next president if the AK wins. Turkey's future as a secular state may be in the balance, though I doubt it.

At the same time there's the question of whether Turkey will ever be allowed to join the European Union. Erdogan has done most of the right things, making the kinds of reforms the EU says it wants, but both France and Germany are dragging their feet.

Those who claim to have a handle on such things think the AK will stay in power but with a smaller majority. That's likely to mean more pressure to do something active or military about the PKK Kurds raiding from Iraq, which will almost certainly affect the United States as long as the U.S. maintains a presence in Iraq. Turkey has been considered a U.S. ally or at least generally friendly (though if you remember it didn't allow the U.S. to use its territory to invade Iraq), but that status could be changing.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Harry Potter and international culture

I will always be grateful to J.K. Rowling because the Harry Potter books taught my youngest son, Stephen, that a long book could actually hold his attention. For a while there I worried that he would not be a reader -- and he is more of a visual learner than a reading learner. Since the Potter books started coming out, however, he's read them all and actually gone on to read other books, including non-fiction (college helped).

That said, I confess I haven't read any of them. It's seemed a frivolous thing to do when there was another book like "The Empire Has No Clothes" or something on the Iraq war to absorb. I have seen a couple of the movies, however, and I could hardly avoid absorbing something about Harry just by living in this culture.

So I thought this TNR piece by one Daniel Nexon, who teaches at Georgetown and has actually edited a book called "Harry Potter and International relations," would be interesting to others as well. We read that Harry Potter is an international phenomenon (interesting for something so identifiably English), having been translated in 66 languages and all that, but Nexon has actually peered into the influence it's had.

"Harry Potter, in fact," he writes, functions something like a Rohrschach Blot: In countries around the world, it captures various national anxietiues about contemporary culture and international affairs. French intellectuals, for example, debate whether or not Harry Potter indoctrinates youngsters into the orthodoxy of unfettered market capitalism. Some Swedish commentators decry what they poerceive as Harry Potter's Anglo-American vision of bourgeoisie conformity and its affirmation of class and gender inequality." And do on.

He points out that religious traditionalists, from fundamentalist Christians to traditional and Wahhabist Muslims find the whole magic thing unsettling. Translators often incorporate local myths and culture into their translations, and there Potter knock-offs or "further adventures, in local locations and with local added characters, in India and Indonesia.

Quite interesting: He says "we still tend to think of cultural globalizatin as synomomous with 'Americanization.' The Harry Potter books -- with their distinctively British boarding school setting, slang, and cuisine -- provide a subtle rejoinder to such impressions and subvert the equation of globalization with relentless homogenization."

Fake beer belly

No great significance expect this has to be one of the weirdest products I've encountered. Who would seriously use it? Thanks to Jack Dean for pointing it out to me.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Quote of the Day

"Extended empires are like expanded gold, exchanging solid strength for feeble splendor. -- Samuel Johnson

More on DEA's war on patients

I learned a little more today about the DEA's assault on medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles. As noted previously, the DEA has sent letters to 120 or 150 (news accounts vary) landlords of cannabis dispensaries in Los Angeles informing them that if they don't stop the illegal marijuana distribution on their property they'll be subject to felony charges that could bring 20 years in prison and having their property forfeited (seized, or to be plain, stolen). Few property owners, no matter how sympathetic, relish facing that, so many have told their renters to get out.

Then just this week, the DEA issued indictments against a chain of cannabis dispensaries in central California, along with ones in Morro Bay, Bakersfield and Corona. The DEA emphasized that they had made (gasp!) profits, as if there were any other way to sustain an operation. When I talked to Dale Gieringer, director of Cal NORML, he said all of those dispensaries had had raids or other run-ins with the DEA in the past and it wasn't that surprising they had been targeted. Te reason for targeting, of course, is that they were for the most part well-run and successful, and the DEA just couldn't stand it.

I was surprised to learn that there are a number of other cannabis dispensaries in Los Angeles that had not been targeted by the DEA forfeiture letters. Dale said for the most part those that had made themselves prominent, especially by advertising, were targeted. Only clubs in Los Angeles city were targeted. The prominent West Hollywood clubs were not. Quite a few others in L.A. -- 50 to 75 perhaps -- have been operating with a much lower profile and have been left alone.

Forfeiture threats are a relatively efficient way to snuff out dispensaries. The DEA doesn't have enough agents in Southern California to go after them one by one, and doing so is bad PR. If the DEA is successful in closing a significant number, of course, the upshot will be that more patients will have to rely on the black market, with all its uncertainties and risks. So like most drug enforcement actions, the result is to strengthen dealers skilled at concealment and sometimes violence. The drug warriors and cartels are symbiotic creatures, and it's hard to tell which side is more existentially criminal.

This instance of conspicuous -- perhaps symbolic, perhaps even desperate -- enforcement just might increase support for the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, which would direct the DEA not to spend any funds going after patients and caregivers in states that have adopted medicinal marijuana laws. It's likely to come up in the House next week.

Tillman cover-up continuing

This one's a real desk-pounder as far as I'm concerned. The White House as the WP put it, "has refused to give Congress documents about the death of former NFL player Pat Tillman, with White House counsel Fred F. Fielding saying that certain papers relating to discussions of the friendly-fire shooting 'implicate Executive Branch confidentiality interests.'"


You probably remember the Pat Tillman story. He gave up a million-dollar-plus NFL contract to volunteer for the Army Rangers shortly after 9/11 and was deployed to Afghanistan. When he was killed in 2004 the Pentagon at first conjured up a story of heroism under withering enemy fire. It took weeks and months for the real story -- that he had been killed by U.S. forces in a tragic "fog of war" mix-up -- to emerge. (The term "friendly fire is another of those Orwellian terms the military seems to love that means almost the precise opposite of what it seems to say.)

The real story might never have come out if Tillman's family -- his father is an attorney -- hadn't been persistent and then increasingly angry. There was no real reason to concoct the hero story. Americans know mix-ups happen in war. Whether it was some PR genius's idea that Tillman's death deserved a legend worthy of his remarkable patriotism or an instinct for lying I just don't know. (There's a theory going around that Tillman was disillusioned and planned to express his gained-by-experience opposition to the way the War on Terror is being conducted when he returned home, but I don't have enough information to express an informed opinion. Some even think the military had an inkling of his plans and arranged to put him in a dangerous situation, but I'm skeptical.)

To be sure, Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Government Oversight committee, has been holding hearings calculated to embarrass the Bush administration, and no doubt hopes to find something embarrassing here. But that's no excuse for withholding information about how Tillman's death was handled. It only increases the suspicion that the White House has something to hide.

Politicking with the stars

Here's an interesting piece on which candidates have received donations from various entertainment and sports figures. Paul Simon, for example, has stumped across Iowa with Chris Dodd. Jennifer Anniston has given $2,300 to Obama, and George Clooney and Matt Damon, along with Edward Norton, say they're for him too. "Babyface" Edmonds performed at a Clinton rally, along with Katherine McPhee from "American Idol." Randy Travis has given money to Bill Richardson, and Barbra Streisand says she's undecided but has donated to Clinton, Obama, Edwards and Dodd. Casey Kasem has given $250 to Kucinich.

Any Republicans? Kelsey Grammer has given $2,300 to Giuliani and Adam Sandler has given Rudy $2,100. Chuck Yeager has endorsed Duncan Hunter. And in more recent news, Barry Manilow, in addition to donating to several Democrats, has sent money to Ron Paul. (One wag on the Reason comment board wondered if he thought he was giving to RuPaul.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

On to Jamaica

I did another little stint on Jamaican radio today. Years ago, before the Iraq war, I did a two-part piece for the Register on the history of Iraq, outlining the religious and ethnic divisions and forecasting some of the difficulties an invading army was likely to face. It got a little circulation on the Internet, and some people at the radio station in Kingston decided I was some kind of expert on the Middle East so they have had me on the radio -- usually on the "breakfast club" show -- every few months.

Today it was the evening "beyond our shores" show, 15 minutes on the U.S. Senate's failure to get enough votes to force President Bush to change his Iraqi policy. The Jamaican questioners seemed baffled that despite getting a majority in the last election the Democrats had so little real power. I talked about the separation of powers, the natural proponderance any president has when it comes to foreign affairs, the need for a super-majority in the face of a veto, but predicted that as slow and agonizing as the process seems, the U.S. government will almost certainly have to turn around a bit on Iraq. I noted that the courts have started to slap the executive branch on the wrist from time to time, notably in regard to Guantanamo.

I'm not sure I'm as confident as I sounded. Dubya, like many incurious mediocrities, is a remarkably stubborn man and he may really believe he will be revered in the future for standing firm, like Winston Churchill or Harry Truman.

We also discussed how the most recent National Intelligence Estimate, without quite coming out and saying so (at least in the unclassified summary that's been released, shows rather clearly that invading Iraq has almost certainly made the United States less safe than we would have been had we not invaded Iraq -- especially if we had focused more on bin Laden and made it clear that we had no desire to invade or occupy any Muslim country. The NIE identifies al-Qaida in Iraq as the affiliate (whatever the real relationship is) most likely to have the desire and capacity eventually to carry out an attack on American soil. It didn't exist before the invasion, and the occupation has been an invaluable recruiting tool for al-Qaida and other jihadists.

As before, I was impressed with the knowledgeable questions and comments my Jamaican interlocutors came up with. They pay close attention to U.S. politics and to the world at large.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Funny polling

Jonathan Schwarz over at A Tiny Revolution has an interesting post on a recent Newsweek poll on stability in Iraq. What almost frightens me is not only that "U.S. occupation" is not a choice but that the majority of their respondents actually picked "Al-Qaida in Iraq."

Al-Qaida threat

It's terrible to be so suspicious, but our government has certainly done enough posturing, misleading and outright lying to warrant suspicion. So I can't help wondering whether at least some of the hoopla over the National Intelligence Estimate, an unclassified summary of which was released today, has something to do with diverting attention from the mess in Iraq.

If the assessment is valid -- and I suspect it is to some extent, but remember that the U.S. "intelligence community" has a long record of getting things wrong -- that al-Qaida is better organized and a bigger danger than in recent years, it spotlights the extent to which invading Iraq was a huge strategic mistake. "Al-Qaida in Iraq" didn't exist before then, and the invasion diverted attention and resources from going after bin Laden and other al-Qaida leadership. It also made it virtually impossible to conduct a "war of ideas" by cultivating moderate Muslims as a counterpoint to the radical Islamists and jihadists.

The estimate is still pretty vague -- the threat is over the next several years; nothing imminent in the U.S. is identified -- but it will be spun as one more reason why we can't get out of Iraq "precipitously" because then "al-Qaida in Iraq" (about 5 percent of the insurgency) will have effective control of the country and be poised to attack Europe and the U.S. Sure. The likelier outcome is that the Iraqis would handle the foreign fighters rather handily (AQI is Sunni and the government and the most ruthless militias are Shia) although in ways that might not be for the squeamish.

Ron Paul winning military-contribution race

All the candidates blather on about how they support the troops, but whom do the troops support? Thanks to FEC contribution reports, we now know. The Website The Spin Factor analyzed which GOP candidates got the most contributions from members of the military, and the winner was -- perhaps not a surprise to you, but still possibly counterintuitive -- Ron Paul.

Specifically, Ron Paul got 52.53 percent of contributions from members of the military, while John McCain got 35.4 percent. The others got a smattering: Romney, 7.9, Giuliani, 5.2, Hunter, 2.2, all the rest, 2.6.

This suggests that members of the military know better than almost anyone else that this war was a mistake and run stupidly and it's time to begin to end it. I suspect that of those in the military who still support the war McCain got the bulk because he seems most serious.

You would think this would be the kind of man-bites-dog story the newshounds in the so-called mainstream media couldn't wait to jump on, adding some interest to an otherwise ho-hum waiting-for-Fred-Godot race. But it's apparently hard for political reporters to break out of preconceived story lines about who is "top-tier" and who is marginal, even when developments warrant a reassessment.

Medical marijuana progress

It's a local Orange County story, but perhaps of some significance. I went to the O.C. Board of Supervisors meeting today, where they considered instituting a program of issuing ID cards to medical marijuana users -- and passed the resolution 4-1. In some ways it wasn't that big a deal -- the state legislature passed SB 420 in 2003, setting upo the state ID card system and directing county health departments to handle the initial application and checking-doctor-recommendation part. As the county is legally a subdivision of the state, it didn't really have much choice -- but it's been a fairly long struggle anyway.

Lots of credit goes to board chairman Chris Norby, a Republican with libertarian leanings, and his chief assistant Bruce Whittaker. They persisted despite objections and arguments for delay, and ended up winning the day. It may be significant in the sense that while the board is nominally non-partisan, I believe all the members consider themselves Republicans, yet they were amenable to reasonable arguments, they listened with attention patients, doctors and others, and made the right call (except for Janet Nguyen, the newest member. I like to think the Register, which has editorialized relentlessly on the issue, helped out a bit as well.

This is far from utopia, of course. It doesn't deal with questions about dispensaries, about which the DEA is playing hardball in L.A. County by threatening landlords with forfeiture of the property. Nor does it offer guidelines about production and distribution of medicine. But the cards will offer patients who want them additional protection from being hassled by the cops.

I called Maurice Hinchey's (D-NY) office to see if he will offer something like the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment to a Justice Dept. appropriations bill again this year. The amendment would deny any funds to the DEA for enforcement activities on medical marijuana in states that have authorized medicinal use. It failed last year (got 150-160 votes) but Democrats control the House now. I had some hope that with Democrats in charge they would simply put the provision into the appropriations bill, but apparently that's not happening. So Hinchey will offer his amendment again, probably next week. His office didn't sound enthusiastic about the prospects of winning.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Lukacs' Kennan book

Here's a link to the review I did for the Register on historian John Lukacs' little book on George Kennan. Kennan may be almost forgotten these days, or if remembered only as the reputed architect of the "containment" strategy during the Cold War, though his famous 1946 "X" piece in Foreign Affairs. But there was much more to his life, and John Lukacs (who was a friend) offers a short but eloquent appreciation of his life and character. "George Kennan: A Study of Character."

The real enemy in Iraq

I'm glad several people, in the MSM and elsewhere, have called President Bush (and most official spokespeople) on his assertion in a press conference last week that the most formidable foe in Iraq is al-Qaida in Iraq, or al-Qaida in Mesopotamia. It's an obvious propaganda ploy, calculated to try to connect the war in Iraq with the people who flerw airplanes into building on 9/11 -- even though the group named al-Qaida in Iraq didn't form until after the U.S. invasion, and petitioned bin Laden for recognition, which he seemed to give grudgingly.

This WashPost article, however, makes a strong case that the Mahdi Army, led or inspired by the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. which had laid low for a while when the "surge" began, has once again become the most dangerous group in what is clearly at least in part a civil war between Sunni and Shia militants. (In fact, it's more complicated and probably more intractable, especially by foreign forces, than a classic civil war.)

In West Rashid, a Baghdad neighborhood, the Mahdi Army controls power distribution, the housing market, gas stations, and the loyalty of most residents. The neighborhood used to be 80 percent Sunni, but so many Sunnis have been killed or driven out that it's now 80 percent Shia. Meanwhile Moqtada al-Sadr still plays a role in government -- perhaps a key role in offering support prime minister Maliki can't stay in power (whatever that means these days) without.

Given complications that get more complicated by the day and paralyze what passes for a government in Iraq, it's hard to see the "surge" having anything like a decisive impact in any period of time measured in units shorter than decades. I don't think the American people will stand for that, but so far 70 percent opposition to the war has had virtually no impact on policy.

Pakistani blowback

Well, it looks as if the blowback from the Pakistani government's raid on the Red Mosque is beginning, though it seems way too early to guess what the eventual outcome will be. On Sunday a fresh wave of bombings in the North West provinces, where Osama bin Laden is believed to be holed up, killed at least 44 people. The violence apparently marked the end of a 10-month truce between the government and tribal leaders in the region -- where no central government has ever really held sway. Maybe U.S. officials will be secretly glad, because many had expressed the opinion, in commentary surrounding the leak of a new National Intelligence Estimate last week, that the truce was a significant factor in al-Qaida being able to rebuild its leadership base in the area.

It may be that the Pakistani government, by appearing strong in the wake of the Red Mosque affair, will strengthen its faltering grip on the rest of the country. Or it may be that it will find it is biting off more than it can chew.

In this respect if is especially dismaying that the U.S. government seems to be approaching the problem the same way it seems to think it can solve every problem -- by throwing money around. The government plans to spend $750 million on "winning hearts and minds" in the region, by building hospitals, paying off tribal leaders and the like. However, as the NYT reports, "even before the plan has been fully carried out, documents and officials involved in the planning are warning of the dangers of distributing so much money in an area so hostile that oversight is impossible, even by Pakistan's own government." I suspect it will make a few people rich and just about everyone contemptuous of Uncle Sucker.

When will we get a government that sees its security mission as defending a tightly defined set of core interests rather than trying to fix every problem in the world and win "hearts and minds" when those hearts and minds don't affect the core security interests of the United States? For an elegant academic argument along these lines, I can't recommend "Isolationism Reconfigured," by the late Brown University professor Eric Nordlinger, highly enough.

Sen. Vitter and Hookergate

Louisiana Sen. David Vitter has finally made a public statement, beyond a written statement that seemed to acknowledge that he had patronized the "D.C. Madam" the feds are going after, and he seems to deny that he patronized hookers in New Orleans during the 1990s, as at least one New Orleans madam has alleged -- although the statement is just vague enough to be close to a non-denial denial. He says God has forgiven him and so has his wife, which I have no reason to doubt. Now we'll see if his constiuents forgive him.

I've tried to avoid feeling too much Schadenfreude over this episode, but it's hard not to think that if this damages his career Vitter is getting pretty much what he deserves. If you're going to politick on the basis of your strong support for "family values" and morality, it should seem pretty obvious that it would be a good idea to avoid prostitutes.

I admit to a certain amount of befuddlement. I've never patronized a prostitute, but it may be that it's as much because I'm too cheap and perhaps even too timid as that I am anything like a moral avatar. I have done things my wife has had to forgive me for. But I wonder whether some of these holy rollers emphasize sex so much because they have a stronger lust for illicit sex than some of the rest of us -- think Jimmy Swaggart and a few others -- and are really talking about the things that tempt them so strongly that they know it just can't be right. If so, you might think they would just shut up about it, but that doesn't seem to be the way for many of them.

Maybe they think talking about how sinful it is will stop them. I don't know, but there's a strange psychology with some -- not all, of course -- of these people who want to talk about morality in a public and political context all the time. Or perhaps most of them are just natural-born public scolds who feel superior or better about themselves or something when they're deploring the behavior of others.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Quote of the Day

"Books constitute capital. A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, it is their only capital." -- Thomas Jefferson

Ron Paul wins when people hear him

Here's a link to an interesting piece by Arizona attorney Jennifer Haman, noting that in the online polls each of the networks that carried presidential debates, Ron Paul came in either first or second. In other words, of those that watched the debates and were interested enough to show a preference, Ron Paul is pretty close to the hands-down winner. You would think this would be an interesting story for the mainstream media, but so far even mentions of Ron Paul are few and far between. Thanks, however, are due to the Washington Post, ABC News and Washington Times, which have begun to take note of the Ron Paul phenomenon.

The London-Iraq connection

Here's a link to the piece I did last week for Antiwar.com on the bungled bombings in London and Glasgow. I didn't discuss the doctor connection -- I'm still trying to figure out if that was really significant or not, except in confirming that jihadism is not necessarily an outgrowth of poverty. Many jihadists have good educations and advanced degrees.

Supremes move right

Here's a link to the piece I did for the Register's Sunday Commentary section on the Supreme Couyrt term just ended. Long story short: With Sam Alito replacing Sandra Day O'Connor the court has moved modestly -- not dramatically as some would contend -- to the right as these things are understood in judiciary-land. It's not so much whether it's activist. I didn't have an opportunity to explicate my own way of looking at matters, learned from the late Bernard Siegan, author of "Economic Liberties and the Constitution." The court should be faithful to the constitution and invalidate those laws that go beyond it and leave alone those that don't. That's not activism, that's its job. From that perspective both "liberals" and "conservatives" on the court are inconsistent, voting more like politiciasn than judges.