Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Progressive's View of Senator Brown's Election

That is, the other Senator Brown. This is about the new guy, not the one from my homestate (and indeed, hometown of Mansfield!) Ohio. But you already knew that. Unless you were living under a rock the past 24 hours, you were almost certainly aware that the voters of Massachusetts elected to the US Senate a little-known local politician instead of the Commonwealth's Attorney General. And as you probably heard since that fairly dramatic upset, this represents real trouble for both President Obama and the Democratic party as a whole, which is fairly astonishing given that Obama and his party swept into power with enormous popularity only one year ago. What seemed inconceivable only a few months ago now seems within the realm of possibility: that the Republican party, who gave us eight straight years of George W. Bush and some of the most odious policies in the history of the Republic, might return to power in the House (it is statistically impossible in the Senate, which has only 17 Democratic seats up for grabs; even if all were lost to Republicans the majority would drop to 52).

So who is responsible for this and what lessons can be drawn? First, one should dispense with some of the  nonsense uttered by some of the Democratic party establishment in Massachusetts. "Any analysis of this that does anything but celebrate Martha Coakley--her service and the efforts of this campaign--misses the boat," says Dem state party chairman John Walsh, in what has to be one of the more spectacular expressions of denial in recent years. Walsh may be trying to protect some turf in his self-serving foolishness, but nearly everyone else recognizes that this was a debacle: Brown's victory occurred in a state where the majority philosophy leans toward the Democratic party, and strongly so. That Brown could have achieved such a large margin of victory, even with a fairly large turnout (2.2 million people voted yesterday), speaks to the complete disintegration of the Coakley campaign. Making pleasant sounds about Coakley in the aftermath, as Walsh suggests, is like putting a cherry on top of a pile of dung and declaring it a sundae.

There are to my mind three major reasons for Coakley's loss: her breathtaking arrogance; the perception that Obama is in the pocket of Wall Street; and the Democratic party's handling of healthcare reform. The first item about Coakley's ineptitude and political tin ear is a relatively local affair and I won't discuss much further, except to note that her fall from grace has been tremendously precipitous. It's not merely that she was nearly 30 points up only a few weeks ago; she was a very popular and well-liked politician in this state, second only to John Kerry, even more popular than the Governor, Duval Patrick. That she could lose by such a large margin speaks to her ability to alienate people, and I suspect she has permanently damaged her brand among the Massachusetts electorate, which is quite a pity since she is a highly competent Attorney General. Simply put, Scott Brown never took one vote for granted and never condescended to the people of Massachusetts. Neither of those are compelling reasons to have voted for the man, but he deserves immense credit for his hustle.

More important for the President are the second two reasons, and Coakley can't really be blamed for either. Leave aside Obama's troublingly cozy relationship with the financial industry for a moment, the question is: with regard to healthcare reform, what should Obama have done differently? To me, the answer lies in two separate flaws in the plan, the first a tactical mistake that is only clear in hindsight, the second--which is much more concerning--lies in a major character flaw of the President.

The tactical mistake was created in the wake of the failure of the Clinton plan in 1993, which was perceived by Congress as being imposing and top-down in structure, with the Clinton White House (and, in particular, its soon-to-be-unpopular first lady) dictating terms to congressional leaders. Obama, hoping to avoid this problem, only created another by "leaving the bill writing to Congress while it tries to charm an industry that controls nearly one-fifth of the US economy," as Ceci Connolly aptly put in the pages of the Washington Post last June. Consequently Obama tended to other duties--which, one grants, are not insubstantial with two ongoing wars, problems with the banking industry, staggering unemployment and a host of other, minor problems such as global warming.

But the tactic backfired: congressional leaders squabbled, "centrists" like Max Baucus and Joe Lieberman suddenly were extracting pounds of political flesh (an apt simile in this case) to a cowed Senate majority leader, while Republicans congealed together a host of exaggerations and outright lies to drag down the popularity of a once-popular notion. By the fall, it was clear the process had run amok, and Obama's hands-off approach in retrospect had failed miserably. Had Obama merely tried to nudge the legislation along, using his formidable powers as an orator to advocate for what he wanted, filling up auditoriums around the country as an out-front advocate for healthcare reform, explaining to the American people his vision for the legislation, a good deal of pressure might have been brought to bear on several senators and representatives who probably intentionally dithered for reasons ranging from humbuggery to outright corruption. Instead, for more than six months there was mostly a vacuum of advocacy, and worse, the White House never really found its footing, saying on one day that the public option was non-negotiable, followed by the exact opposite indicator a few days later. Is it any wonder that Congress couldn't move the proverbial ball past the goal line?

The second reason underlying Obama's failure to shepherd along a meaningful or decent healthcare bill lies in who President Obama is, and that is, namely, one whose primary aim is to achieve consensus rather than to advocate for a given belief. We have seen what such consensus-seeking did for the Clinton presidency: after the 1994 congressional drubbing that landed the Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, Democratic party faithful were given a moderate Republican president in all but name, who stood before that congress proudly declaring that "the era of big government is over," who happily signed the Defense of Marriage Act, who sought to further enable the kinds of financial shenanigans that led to the economic crisis we find ourselves in right now. It only took a small sliver of disaffected Democrats to turn away from Clinton's successor and hand the Presidency to George W. Bush. Against all odds President Obama has followed Clinton's script. Contrary to the mildly insane claims of some pundits and politicians, President Obama has given his left-leaning base precisely nothing of what it has asked for. Glenn Greenwald pointed out quite accurately today:

In what universe must someone be living to believe that the Democratic Party is controlled by "the Left," let alone "the furthest left elements" of the Party?  As Ezra Klein says, the Left "ha[s] gotten exactly nothing they wanted in recent months."  The Left wanted a single-payer system, then settled for a public option, then an opt-out public option, then Medicare expansion -- only to get none of it, instead being handed a bill that forces every American to buy health insurance from the private insurance industry.  Nor was it "the Left" -- but rather corporatist Democrats like Evan Bayh and Lanny Davis -- who cheered for the hated Wall Street bailout; blocked drug re-importation; are stopping genuine reform of the financial industry; prevented a larger stimulus package to lower unemployment; refuse to allow programs to help Americans with foreclosures; supported escalation in Afghanistan (twice); and favor the same Bush/Cheney terrorism policies of indefinite detention, military commissions, and state secrets. 

This is not the approach of a robust advocate for traditional Democratic policies. This is the winning-is-more-important-than-fighting stance of a neoliberal, like Clinton before him; it is the pose, it pains me to say, of a wuss. And said wuss has fought for very little--indeed, nothing--he promised his base, the very people who catapulted him over the Hillary Clinton juggernaut one year ago. As I recall, this man, who offered such a thoughtful critique of the Iraq war (when it was far from politically expedient to do so), came to us with the promise of hope and change. Since the election we have been given hollow platitudes by a man unwilling to capitalize on his success, proceeding far too cautiously on the national stage (both links to Paul Krugman's column/blog in NYT).

Contrast Obama's lack of full-throated advocacy over the summer with George Bush's re-election in 2004. Bush, you will recall, had just managed to eke out a narrow victory, as a sitting war President, over another Massachusetts politician with a tin ear. Still, despite Bush's underwhelming performance (he garnered 50.7% of the vote and won by 2.4 points) he came before the American people the following day and confidently declared, "I have political capital, and I intend to spend it." Whether or not one finds that statement astonishing in its chutzpah, Bush immediately proceeded to campaign, election-style, for the privatization of Social Security, and did so in the face of enormous uncertainty, given Social Security's popularity. Bush of course did lose that fight, but as I see it the lesson here was that Bush was willing to fight for his party's beliefs at all.

President Obama? I have not only not seen such boldness on the whole, I have seen its opposite. You see, as I write this, the New York Times is leading with a headline that can only be described as dumbfounding. It reads, "Obama Weighs Shift In Health Plan, Seeking G.O.P. Backing." In the first graf: "President Obama on Wednesday signaled that he might be willing to set aside his goal of achieving near-universal health coverage for all Americans in favor of a stripped-down measure with bipartisan support." He has 59 votes in the Senate, and he might be willing to set aside his goal? Would the last President have asked for progressive input had he held a 59-seat majority in the upper chamber? I'm thinking not.

As a progressive, I think there is now only one option, and that is to declare war. On the Obama Presidency. He has not merely lost my support, he has lost my vote. Whether another politician will try to wrest control of the party from him in the coming few years remains to be seen, but barring a total turnaround, I am finished with him.

Update #1: I have some additional thoughts which I can't write until later today, but in the meantime there was one error in the original post: in 1994 the Democrats lost control of both chambers, not just the House. The text above is corrected.

Update #2: Several thoughts.
One reader on Facebook asks: "[Obama's lack of courage] doesn't explain why MA voted for Brown. If voters thought the country so badly needs healthcare reform (and were frustrated for lack of progress), how is electing Brown going to help?" In the short run, of course, it won't--although to my mind even when Kennedy/Kirk was Senator and the Dems did have that supposedly precious filibuster-proof majority, the best the Senate could produce was a handsome subsidy for the private insurance industry. The House in all likelihood would not accept the Senate bill--after all, they still could, and rightly have given no indication that they want to pass it. In the upper chamber, politicians like Baucus, Lieberman, and Ben Nelson to name only a few have made it clear that if even a hair of their version of the legislation is tampered with, there won't be enough votes for cloture. Thus, Brown's presence on the political scene makes only a modest amount of difference. This is President Obama's fault. This is entirely President Obama's fault.

Also, it should be noted that (obviously) elections have binary outcomes even though the motivations of the voters run the gamut. (Technically there were three outcomes, not two given the Libertarian party candidate Joseph Kennedy--no laughing out there--but you get the point.) My back-of-the-napkin calculation goes something like this: of Scott Brown's majority of 52%, something like just under 15% represented the hard-core social conservative or ideological libertarian vote, who were not only in the bag but energized to vote. Another 20% represented the moderate members of the Republican base, socially progressive but friendly to business interests, and who generally determine what Republicans are viable for statewide office (Brown slipped by because everyone had left him for dead and no moderate Republican cared to lose to Coakley). About another, say, 13% represent mostly blue-collar workers in the suburbs who usually vote Democrat but were either alienated by Coakley's arrogance or charmed by Brown's little-engine-that-could shtick or both. Now all Brown's gotta do to win is pick off a fairly small percentage of disenchanted voters who are disgusted with "what's going on in Washington," regardless of whether or not they could offer a cogent critique, and wanted "to send a message." Add to that a lower voter turnout than usual due to the off-off cycle (turnout was 40 percent; turnout at Obama's election was a near-record 72 percent; typically in a non-Presidential but regular cycle it would be closer to 50 percent) and a disillusioned base, and bing! You have the making of a stunning upset. Basically, Coakley was able to count on urban voters and lefties (several Republicans in MA are also "liberals," so not the best term even though the two are almost interchangeable outside New England). That got her to 47 percent--actually an impressive number given how small lefty blocs are in other states--but it wasn't nearly enough. There is some question as to whether the other highly qualified candidate, congressional representative Mike Capuano, would have done better in the working class suburbs, but for me that's useless second-guessing. Though I'm glad I didn't wake up Wednesday morning being Capuano, wondering what could have been. Still, one might think that Capuano is actually now the odds-on favorite to win the Senate seat back in 2012, even though Brown just won!

As I said, Brown's ascension to Senator does not help Democrats' goals in the short run. But in the case of Republicans, neither did the wildcat candidacy of Douglas Hoffman in the NY 23rd district, whose tea party run (technically he was the "Conservative Party" candidate) against Republican Dede Scozzafava led to the election of Democrat Bill Owens in a reliably Red district. There, the conservative base found Scozzafava so unpalatable that they would rather have lost the election than vote for her. What did they get in return? In the short run, Owens. But less than two years from now, they are almost certainly going to get "their" candidate, whomever that is (and quite possibly Hoffman himself), on the ticket, and Owens will be playing defense. I think the political views of most of these people are totally nuts, but I deeply admire their resolve, and more importantly, I recognize that their strategy is almost certain to succeed. Incredibly, that strategy may well succeed not only in the NY-23 but in swing districts across the country, returning the Republican party to power only two years after the most disastrous defeat they have suffered in decades.

President Obama, on the whole, bears responsibility for this, and, although I am aware that I am opening myself to the charge of "left-wing nutcase" by suggesting this, he needs to be succeeded by another leader. He seemed like a highly thoughtful, extremely articulate, bold and confident leader. He continues to have the first two qualities but lacks the latter two, and we need the latter two. We have needed them for two generations. Think about this for a moment--here is the list of our national party leaders since our last truly effective leader, Lyndon Johnson (that could start a fight, but I'll stand by it): Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton (blech!), Gore, Kerry, and Obama. With the exception of the current Prez, just look at that list! What a sorry collection of milquetoasts! And, alas, Obama's missteps have shown him to be of a piece with them. Yes, he has three years left and I do realize it sounds insane to write off his presidency. But I've seen not one shred of evidence to suggest that he's capable of even understanding his errors over the past several months, let alone attempt a course correction (or succeed at it). He needs to go, and if party loyalists stick by their man, they're going to go down.

Healthcare reform is quite probably dead for another generation. As I see it, there is only one way to avoid such a mess in the future: take a page from the Republican playbook, and refuse to vote for candidates who do not meet a litmus test, even if it means losing elections for a cycle or two...or more. I am not advocating a wide-ranging litmus test: I have mildly strong opinions about abortion, I have stronger ones about gun control, and stronger ones still about gay rights, but I recognize that the party needs to allow for minority views as part of a successful coalition. But healthcare reform and bank regulation? These seem to me pretty easy issues where Democrats can say, "Look, this party stands for federal government-backed health insurance, period. If you don't agree with that principle, you do not belong here, and we will not vote for you even if it means that we will lose a House or Senate district, or the Presidency itself." Then when you finally do win big, like the Dems did only one brief year ago, you won't squander the golden opportunity that dropped into your lap.

Another friend linked to a piece analyzing the structural peculiarities of the Democratic party. It has a slightly different take from my own, but I don't have any qualms about his writing except for the fact that Republicans, too, have their own structural issues, harmonizing the desires of libertarians, social conservatives, religious fundamentalists, and corporate interests, and they seem to have done a fairly good job of things since Ronald Reagan's election. And while I interpret Obama's motivations differently than Anonymous #1, I certainly see where he or she is coming from.

Update #3: How could the President redeem himself? Here's a thought: the radically right-wing Supreme Court just ruled today in a 5-4 vote that "corporations cannot be banned from using their general funds to pay for political advertising." As Andrew Leonard of "How the World Works" points out, this is going to profoundly influence Wall Street's reaction to the President's come-to-Jesus moment on banking reform, with the likely scenario being a huge influx of money supporting candidates who will block reform at every turn. So what can be done given a demoralized base and a surly electorate? How about a Constitutional Amendment barring such contributions? I'd like to see Joe Lieberman explain his vote against that. I'd also love to see Obama breathe fire on the campaign trail in, say August of this year--setting up a Constitutional Amendment vote just in time for the elections. Make that the story of the campaign. After all, the Republicans thought flag burning and gay marriage were such critical issues that they didn't hesitate to introduce CA's banning them; surely the Dems could do the same, especially as they (theoretically) oppose the Supremes' decision. Will we see the President adopt such aggressive tactics? I'm not holding my breath.

Update #4: I know I'm rambling, but just thought I'd add that the only person on the national stage that I can think of in my lifetime who was a politically viable Dem who simultaneously appeared to show genuine resolve was Howard Dean.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Various Thoughts on Haiti

a. Before starting, if anyone has decided that they would like to make a donation but do not know which group to donate to, please consider making a donation to Hopital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles (about 3 hours northeast of Port-au-Prince). I worked there for a brief stretch during my residency. Their website notes that areas outside Port were affected, and the hospital has been swamped with patients and the doctors, nurses and support staff are stretched very thin. I don't want to divert money from the Red Cross but this is a more "tangible" donation, so if you have not yet contributed please do take a look at their website.


Pat Robertson's insane monologue yesterday is perhaps remarkable only for its particularly twisted form of logic. After all, religious fanatics have been in the business of interpreting natural disasters as divine retribution  for millenia; what makes Robertson's thoughts on the matter so singularly flabbergasting is that he believes that Haitians, who had received a century of the most brutal treatment endured by humans at the hands of Christians, somehow made a "pact with the devil" ("true story!" the Reverend adds helpfully, as if he had found it in Wikipedia just before going on air) by not turning to Christianity. Assuming that he was trying to make any sense at all, I would guess that he's referring to the Haitian practice of voodoo. Even if one ignores his thoroughly peculiar logic, the vast majority of Haitians regard themselves as Christians. If Robertson thinks their particular brand of Christianity, with its African animistic influences, isn't up to Godly snuff, then why hasn't such a calamity befallen Rome? And why did God wait more than 200 years to get around to a punishment like this? No, what is most amazing about a raving lunatic like Pat Robertson--who, it must be remembered, made these comments on a show trying to raise money for the relief effort--is that his network, CBN, reaches millions of viewers in the US and millions more worldwide. "He's not like David Koresh," a colleague of mine quipped today, referring to the religious cult leader at the center of the Waco, Texas tragedy. "I mean, Robertson's got followers."

The irony is that because of their Christianity, a good many Haitians don't disagree with Robertson's assessment, although again I'm not sure they would concur with Robertson's underlying thought process. The quote of note from the writer in the above link: "If God exists, he's really got it in for Haiti."

c. Haiti was not an easy place to spend a month, and I continue to have conflicted feelings about the country. (And it goes without saying that spending one month in Haiti hardly makes me an expert. What observations I have are tentative, and what thoughts I have I myself regard with skepticism.) The story of the Haitian revolution and throwing off the yoke of bondage by the French at the outset of the 19th century has to rank as one of the greatest stories of self-determination in the history of humanity. Based off the very principles that defined the American and French revolutions, Haitian independence was a logical response to French oppression. It should be no surprise that politicians in the United States (Southern or Northern) or anywhere else had absolutely no interest in fostering this nascent state, and so, denied the ability to engage in trade like any other free nation (and Haiti was a country of vast resources at that time, and would have made a powerful trading partner for molasses and rum which were critical parts of the early American economy, to say nothing of the Spanish colonies), nor allowed to develop a navy for basic defense (attacks by the US prevented this), Haiti turned inward and began a two-centuries long process of auto-cannibalism that has been more-or-less uninterrupted. The US was heavily involved in Haiti in the early 20th century, occupying the country from 1915-34 (my jaw dropped when I saw WPA-style bridges there while riding through the countryside, as I had been totally ignorant of my country's involvement in Haiti); the Soviets also added to the infrastructure a bit during the 50s and 60s while Papa Doc Duvalier cleverly played the superpowers against one another. But besides these relatively short-term relationships, few nations have generally cared much about Haiti except for it to serve as a cautionary tale. Paul Farmer, now the famous doctor and subject of the bestseller Mountains Beyond Mountains, wrote about the history of Haiti's relationship to other independent nations over the past two centuries in his book The Uses of Haiti. It is worth the read. To have any hope of understanding the magnitude of the disaster that has just befallen Haiti, one needs to read a book such as this. This earthquake really couldn't have happened to a less prepared country.

d. You will read multiple descriptions of Haiti in the coming days as a place of "tremendous poverty." While that is undoubtedly true, describing Haiti as "impoverished" doesn't really give one the full scope of the core problems that its people face. For instance, when compared to an African nation of roughly equal population and area, Haiti (168th) outranks Rwanda (179th) in per capita GDP, and by a fairly sizeable amount ($1300 vs. $900; the US ranks 8th at $47,500, while Zimbabwe is last in 194th with a per capita GDP of $200). Rwanda's infant mortality ratio (17th highest in the world) is higher than Haiti's (37th), with similar data for life expectancy at birth (50.5 years versus 60.8). But Rwanda is a considerably more stable country than Haiti, with a government responding to the needs of its people, and there is a general sense among the people that their lives are improving. This is all the more remarkable given Rwanda's recent genocide; Rwanda's near-miraculous turnaround is the subject of New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer's book A Thousand Hills, which has gotten some airplay in the US. In Rwanda, despite its recent horrors, the people have a sense of hope and of common purpose. In Haiti, where its leaders have been either uninterested or unable to help its citizens, there is no similar attitude--or at least, if it is, it is hidden well underneath the surface. I saw no evidence of it when I was there. Instead I often felt a sense of foreboding--especially in Port, where it was impossible for me to walk the streets without being accosted by people wanting my money. By contrast, when my wife worked in Kigali for a few weeks while building a high school there a few years ago, she was a magnet not for money, but for her camera--kids were constantly asking her simply to take their pictures. This in a place that, by the numbers, is even more impoverished than Haiti. So poverty is only a chunk of the problem. I don't want to imply that this is a fault of  Haitians, and I don't want to sound callous to the needs of those people who came up to me on the streets of Port. Rather, my point is that if one only thinks about the earthquake without making some attempt to understand a little of Haiti's history, and if one also regards this as "earthquake hits impoverished place," one won't have understood anything about what's going on there. The earthquake hit a place that most of the nations of the world (including and often especially the US) have used as a punching bag for two centuries, and the people aren't merely impoverished, they are desperate, which to me is a critical difference.

e. At the risk of sounding pedantic, one final point about the scope of the disaster is that Haiti has no real "government" in the sense that we--so far, anyway--think of as "government." Despite some bad apples and assorted pockets of corruption, most Americans tend to think of their police as being there to protect them; there is no equivalent in Haiti. Here we take some of the most important functions of a government for granted, two of which are conspicuously absent in Haiti: garbage removal and a clean public water supply. I can't say how disheartened I feel here when I see families choose brand-name bottled water in their own homes while perfectly potable water taps in their kitchen sinks sit unmolested. Haitians right now would die for such a privilege. And because of the lack of potable water, many more may.

ps--Now at the risk of sounding ridiculous, one small way to continue to make a contribution to Haitian GNP in the coming years, for those of you who like to drink alcohol, is to buy Haitian rum, one of their few true exports widely available in the US. I am a fan of Rhum Barbancourt, and recommend that you check it out the next time you are at the liquor store.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ross Douthat, Professional Yutz

Ah, the New York Times Editorial Page. Though I am not certain, I suspect that the Times readership is overwhelmingly socially liberal--not just by a modest amount but a huge one (say, 70/30 or 75/25, and note that I'm only talking here about views on social rather than financial policy). Nevertheless the Times seems to try mightily to avoid the accusation that it has a "liberal bias," and so retains among its staff a few house conservatives, the ideological descendants of William Safire, just to prove otherwise. Recently this included Bill Kristol contributing op-eds, although mercifully that experiment came to an end. Some centristy readers (among them my mother) find David Brooks intermittently enlightening; for my part I regard him as a harmless ninny. But Kristol's spiritual replacement--that representing the nutter wing of conservatism--was Ross Douthat, and ironically, Douthat's column yesterday centered around a situation in which Kristol The Younger found himself: Brit Hume's indefensible comments about Buddhism. And Douthat, consistent with being a nutter, tried to defend those very comments.

If you weren't glued to Fox a week ago Sunday, what Hume said, in an offhand remark at the end of a panel discussion, was this: "The extent to which [Woods] can recover seems to me depends on his faith. He is said to be a Buddhist. I don't think that kind of faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger is, 'Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.'" [my emphasis]

(The comments--clip below--are followed after a cut by Kristol, a Jew, shifting in his seat just a touch uncomfortably, for a split second, as he tries to finesse Hume's remark. Makes for amusing theater.)

Hume's statement caused the usual mini-media tempest--and I even made my own brief contribution to it at the end of a recent entry. Douthat's editorial yesterday took on that tempest with the goal of lecturing "liberals" on "liberalism." Said Douthat: "In practice, the admirable theory that nobody should be persecuted for their beliefs often blurs into the more illiberal idea that nobody should ever publicly criticize another religion. Or champion one's own faith as an alternative. Or say anything whatsoever about religion, outside the privacy of the church, synagogue, or home."

(Um...are the words "mosque" and "temple" deliberately missing there?)

Ever since college I have regularly encountered this hide-behind-free-speech argument and I remain unimpressed by it. Those who advance it, like Douthat, appear to willfully confuse criticism of some person for their ideas with persecution of that same person, and then try to bask in a little feelgood (and consequence-free!) martyrdom. Did anyone suggest Brit be imprisoned for his ideas, or be punished by some legal means? No. All Jon Stewart did was laugh at him because of Hume's perfect arrogance that Douthat seems to be incapable of understanding. (It's instructive to watch the clip particularly because it reveals Fox News's hypocrisy with respect to their own obviously obnoxious pronouncements on Islam.)

Douthat notes that "the debate [about the value of religion in peoples' lives] kicked off by Brit Hume a week ago is still worth having." That may be so. But the outrage, which Douthat condescendingly describes as "knee-jerk," centers around how poorly Hume chose to frame the debate--not necessarily the debate itself, and Douthat has missed this point entirely. For instance, did Brit Hume make this conclusion based off of his expansive knowledge of Buddhism? Did he, for instance, do a survey of Buddhist teachings and conclude that there would be no chance that Woods would find redemption through that faith? I'm thinking, um, not. So if he knows little about Buddhism, what's he doing singling out Woods when he seems to have not made a peep about current Christians with issues astonishingly similar to Woods, such as Mark Sanford (R-SC), John Ensign (R-Nev), David Vitter (R-LA), and that great miscegenist in the sky, Jesse Helms (R-NC)? No, it's something much more simple than all of this, and is the reason why so many thoughtful people, Christians and non-Christians, believers and non-believers alike, were outraged: Hume was talking smack.

Honest public discussions about religion, race, sex and sexuality should not be mere free-for-alls where anything goes, and Douthat knows this. He blathers on about how America should be a marketplace of ideas where open competition between different perspectives is welcome. I agree with him--but that doesn't mean that major TV networks have a responsibility to allow airtime to racists and bigots! We give Nazis and their ilk the right to say what they want as a matter of law, but that's not the same as giving them a platform. There is such a notion as "polite" discourse where some kinds of talk (that is, racist and/or bigoted dialogue) are deemed out-of-bounds, and where there are consequences to violating that etiquette. And Hume (who has only appeared to gain status on Fox, getting a cushy interview from Bill O'Reilly, allowing him to defend himself without having to actually face a critic), clearly violated that etiquette. In discussions about race we've grown sensitive enough as a culture to punish people who step out of line, as in the case of Jimmy The Greek's racial theories on the origin of the black athlete or Rush Limbaugh's goofy thoughts on Eagles' quarterback Donovan McNabb. But because Hume took a shot at Buddhism and not, say, black people, he has only had to suffer minor ridicule at most.

What might a thoughtful Christian have said? Not being Christian I cannot fully presume, but I have some ideas about a reasonable way to inject religion into such a conversation. Hume might have said, "I have been following the Tiger Woods saga. For me, Christianity has provided the possibility for redemption and forgiveness." That way it's really a discussion about Hume's own experience and is not a judgement on the inadequacy of some other faith. Hume has had his share of tragedy, as his son commited suicide in 1998, which triggered his religious awakening (he is described in Wikipedia as being Episcopalian), and has given interviews to which I have no objection, where he describes the role his renewed faith has played in his life.

But even with this possible more gentle comment that could have been hypothetically posed by Hume, I still have to hold my nose a bit because it's really not a piece of advice to an actual person but rather a bland pronouncement. Tiger Woods isn't some guy that Brit Hume is on intimate terms with, I am nearly certain. Instead Woods is just really just a concept in Hume's diatribe rather than an actual person to whom he is giving genuine advice. Is that what Hume has learned from his faith--to use people as props in an attempt to evangelize? And is that what Douthat considers worth defending?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Mike Leach Debacle Wrap-Up

I grew up as a boy in the 1970s and '80s in a small industrial town in northern Ohio, which is another way of saying that I grew up a rabid fan of football in general, and of the Cleveland Browns in particular. After owner Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore because the taxpayers of Cuyahoga county declined to build him a new stadium (so that he could go from being merely wildly rich to uber-rich), I gave up following professional football. At that point I turned my attentions exclusively to my "other" team in the collegiate ranks, the Ohio State Buckeyes. But over the past ten years even following college football has left rather a sour taste in my mouth. College football is deeply corrupt--huge amounts of cash slosh around the system, coaches get millions while their players get, at best, a free education typically valued at something like $15,000 per year, and a huge number of these boys are duped because they aren't equipped for college and can't make the NFL--and is only surpassed in ickiness by (men's) college basketball.

And then comes Mike Leach.

Leach, for the non-football fans reading this who aren't aware, was the coach of the Texas Tech Red Raiders. He had just finished a successful season and was one year into a five-year, $12-million stint as the boss. Alas, reports began to surface before their bowl game that he had locked a player in a confined area because he had complained about suffering the effects of a concussion. In the sports media, there was an amazing attention to what to me seemed fairly unimportant details: the player (Adam James) was the son of an ESPN analyst so there was a question of the boy using his father's leverage to exact revenge against the coach; James was described by Leach as "lazy" and not having a solid work ethic; James was placed in an unlit space with no room to move...or maybe not, and maybe was well-lit, or remarkably dark. Yet despite multiple stories combing over these details, the essential fact never was in dispute: Coach Leach took one of his players and locked him away as punishment for some infraction. Does anything else really matter, like whether he was in a dark or lit room? I say no. I call this a sadistic act of a megalomaniac--and any waffling about the particulars ignores this reality.

Suppose, for one moment, that Adam James was lazy and had no work ethic. So what? The coach has the option of benching the player in the hopes of motivating him (cf Nate Robinson's 41-point return to the Knicks after being benched for a month). He can exclude him from practice. He can, as an extreme, drop the player from the team. But locking a kid in any kind of closet is assault. I am glad his ass got canned, and pray that his work as a head coach in the college ranks is over. (I noted that a quick blurb on says he might be up for the head coach job at the Oakland Raiders for next year. Let's see you try those motivational tactics out with professionals, Mike!)

But Leach's story is really only the most disgusting in a year where some exceptionally ugly facts about all levels of football have come into sharp relief. The columnist Gregg Easterbrook has a really good discussion about the significance of Leach's firing. His main point:

You don't need to be a bully to be an effective football coach -- you can treat players in a respectful manner, while holding your own ego in check. But bullies are drawn to football coaching, and the fact that so many coaches get away with little-god behavior is an indictment both of the sport's culture and of the lack of supervision by the schools coaches work for.

At the Rubin blog, we agree. And the Leach incident is trivial by comparison to death by heatstroke, with one of the most recent episodes happening to a 16 year-old kid in Maryland this past July. Of the 39 heat-related football deaths since 1995, 29 have occurred at the high school level. Normally this is exactly the kind of statistic that drives me bananas--40 kids dying over a 15-year period is a remarkably small number compared to the overall number of total deaths of kids under 18 for that time span (roughly the number would be something like just under 200,000). But these are, in theory, totally unnecessary deaths, and appear to occur because some small-time coach with a big-time Napoleon complex thought that a kid asking for water on a 90-degree day while running drills was only something a sissy would ask for. Think I'm kidding? Follow this link to learn of Coach David Jason Stinson of Louisville, KY, who was charged with reckless homicide and wanton endangerment after a player died of heatstroke in 2008. Coach Stinson "ordered [wind sprints] as punishment for lack of effort on a day where the temperature...[was] 94 degrees." Despite such compelling facts, it took the jury 90 minutes to acquit Stinson. Stories like these make Billy wish he did have conventional religious beliefs about the afterlife, because then he would rest more comfortably in the knowledge that Coach Stinson would roast in hell for eternity. Alas.

To cap things off, the NFL has been dealing with the problem of concussions, and doing it rather poorly. Despite mounting, compelling data suggesting that frequent hits to the head in football dramatically increase the risk of later neurologic problems including dementia, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell dragged his feet until the season was nearly over before issuing an allegedly "stringent" new concussion policy in December. Again, the small number of NFL players affected does not make this a public health problem. But as the above article notes, "the culture of playing through brain injuries in the NFL has also influenced younger players...because the governing bodies at the college and high school levels do not have rules regarding concussion management, amateur players routinely return after concussions, even after they are evaluated by a doctor or athletic trainer." [my emphasis]

Now that's a public health problem.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Harvard on "Consultant" Pay--a Step in the Right Direction

It took some time, and, while "Harvard" (see further as to why the quotes) isn't the first institution to institute new and considerably more sane policies about conflict-of-interest in medical academia, it is the most renowned.

The story appeared in the Saturday NYT and I noticed a similar one in the Boston Sunday Globe. They note that Partners HealthCare, the parent corporation of two of the largest of the hospitals affiliated with Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Brigham and Women's Hospital (thus technically not the medical school itself), have established a set of rules intended to minimize conflict-of-interest and draw a sharper line at the boundary between industry and academia.

I say, "Bravo!" This is a huge step in the right direction. And because of the cachet that the name "Harvard" carries, other academic medical institutions are sure to follow suit. There are two main restrictions on academic physicians. First (and, to my mind, most important) is that docs affiliated with Harvard can no longer accept "speaking fees" from drug companies. For those unaware, these "talks" frequently come in the form of an after-dinner lecture where the drug company in question pays for dinner for the audience. These dinners aren't held at Burger King, it should be said. Officially, the editorial policy of drug companies is completely hands-off with respect to the content of the talk except for the general topic (like, say, emphysema). That said, only a fool would believe that there isn't an implicit plug-our-product directive, and that the audience isn't in on the arrangement. These speaking fees can net a doc who's willing to hustle a very nice little side income: say, $40 or 50 grand annually for two or three talks a month. That little gravy train is over at the Partners hospitals now.

The second restriction is on senior faculty who sit on the boards of various pharm companies. These policies apply to a much smaller group of physicians, and because of Harvard's privileged status, there's a disproportionate number of Harvard faculty on such corporate boards. The limits are still quite generous: they are allowed compensation for corporate board work, but now set the limit at "a level befitting an academic role," which the article states should be no more than $5,000 per day (!). The article further helpfully notes, just in case you're startled by this seemingly large amount, that "some [faculty] had been receiving more than $200,000 per year." There is also a great line by one Dr. Dennis Ausiello, who was compensated by Pfizer to the tune of $220K per year, about how he'll continue in his role on the Pfizer board with less cash in hand. "I think I should be compensated fairly...but if my institution rules otherwise, I will continue to work on the board." Apparently he thinks that five large a day isn't "fair compensation." Poor Dennis!

There are some quotes in the article from some academics expressing outrage at the leniency of the new policy, but for my part I am heartened. The problem of the relationship governing the most highly placed senior faculty making beaucoup bucks on the boards of Big Pharma seems to me to be minor compared to speaker's fees. The lecture circuit is widespread, obviously corrupt to anyone willing to think for more than two or three seconds, and virtually everyone's in on the joke. When medical faculty play along, they are sending an explicit message of "not to worry--you deserve these freebies that the drug companies toss out to us. You get the free fancy dinners, I get a thousand or two dollars. After all, aren't we entitled to this because we work so hard?" Needless to say, as much as I like nice dinners and making money, I don't think this is a good message to be sending in the medical community. And Harvard just took a definitive step toward shutting that message down. The battle ain't over, but I think that we just witnessed the turning of the tide.

Other stuff:
a. I had, of course, meant to write about some great books that I read in 2009 (a short list includes the fantastic book by Steven Johnson The Ghost Map about the cholera outbreak in London and the genius who solved the question of cholera's cause, John Snow; John Barry's classic book of a few years back but no more relevant than in 2009 The Great Influenza; The Wine Trials--don't ask as to why I think that belongs in a blog about medicine; Adam Gopnik's quirky little book about Darwin and Abraham Lincoln--a great book for the sesquicentennial of the publication of Origin of Species--called Angels and Ages). That got swept under the rug due to time and family constraints. But for those who are fans of Malcolm Gladwell, he has a new book that is a collection of his writings during his past 10+ years at The New Yorker, called What the Dog Saw. In it there is a gem of an essay about the development of the pill, women's menstrual cycles and its relationship to "female" cancers, and living in the industrial age. You will get your money's worth if you read nothing other than this essay. That said, the rest of his writing is equally riveting. For those who have the time for audiobooks, Gladwell reads his own work, and he's an exceptionally powerful reader. Leave aside his talent as a writer, I would say his reading ability is second only to that of the immortal Scott Brick. But this may be getting too far afield except for the die-hard audiobookers.

b. Did Brit Hume really say that? You gotta love the guy. Oh, wait. No, you don't. The skinny is that Brit took a potshot at Buddhism while discussing the recent troubles of a fairly well-known golfer who, according to Hume, "is said to be a Buddhist." Hume then explained that turning to the Christian faith would far outstrip whatever Buddhism had to offer. One of the comments at the website above notes, "I've said it before: there was a very good reason why Rome threw them to the lions." Billy couldn't help but chuckle.

c. Also in the "I wanted to write about this but no time to give it its proper due" category was this excellent discussion of the difficulty surrounding the use of sedation in end-of-life care. It's a Sunday NYT piece so it takes some time, but I recommend it highly.