Sunday, September 29, 2013

What the Shutdown is All About

Kevin Drum is absolutely correct:
The Republican Party is bending its entire will, staking its very soul, fighting to its last breath, in service of a crusade to....
Make sure that the working poor don't have access to affordable health care. I just thought I'd mention that in plain language, since it seems to get lost in the fog fairly often. But that's it. That's what's happening. They have been driven mad by the thought that rich people will see their taxes go up slightly in order to help non-rich people get decent access to medical care.
That's a pretty stirring animating principle, no?
I wish Obama could be as clear about it when he talks to the press.

Update (10/1/13):

Obama says, "I know it is strange that one party would make keeping people uninsured the centerpiece of the agenda, but that apparently is what it is."

It's going in the right direction, Barack, but really needs to be pounded, again and again.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Working Our Way Back to Feudalism

Paul Krugman has a thought-provoking post on his blog today that touches on the increasing economic inequality in America. Here it is, in full:
Mark Thoma has an excellent column at the Fiscal Times linking the fight over the debt ceiling to the larger issue of extreme inequality. (By the way, I start my day, every day, with a quick skim of the Times followed by Thoma’s blog Economist’s View, which is the best place by far to keep up with the latest in economic discourse.) I’d like, however, to suggest that the reality is even worse than Thoma suggests.
Here’s how Thoma puts it:
Rising inequality and differential exposure to economic risk has caused one group to see themselves as the “makers” in society who provide for the rest and pay most of the bills, and the other group as “takers” who get all the benefits. The upper strata wonders, “Why should we pay for social insurance when we get little or none of the benefits?” and this leads to an attack on these programs.
So he links the debt ceiling fight to the influence of the wealthy, who want to dismantle the welfare state because it’s nothing to them, and they want lower taxes. One could add that the very inequality that distances the rich from ordinary concerns gives them increased power, and so makes their anti-welfare-state views far more influential.
How, then, are things even worse than he says? Because many of the rich are selective in their opposition to government helping the unlucky. They’re against stuff like food stamps and unemployment benefits; but bailing out Wall Street? Yay!
Seriously. Charlie Munger says that we should “thank God” for the bailouts, but that ordinary people fallen on hard times should “suck it in and cope.” AIG’s CEO — the CEO of a bailed out firm! — says that complaints about bonuses to executives at such firms are just as bad as lynchings (I am not making this up.)
The point is that the superrich have not gone Galt on us — not really, even if they imagine they have. It’s much closer to pure class warfare, a defense of the right of the privileged to keep and extend their privileges. It’s not Ayn Rand, it’s Ancien Régime.
 Emily pointed out to me this morning that 87 percent of Chicago public school children87 percent! – come from low income families. "Well," you say, "everybody knows that Chicago is the next Detroit, so that's not out of line with what I'd expect."

Okay, how about this: "45.4 percent [of Illinois schoolchildren] qualified for a free or discounted school meal, the highest rate in decades." [My emphasis.]

Good-bye, middle class.

Meanwhile, Ted Cruz and Mario Whatever are doing their best to make sure millions of children don't get health insurance.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Health Care

We've been getting good links pertaining to health care from our vast readership, and will be passing them along as we wait for the Republican Tea Party to destroy the full faith and credit of the United States next week, just to make sure nobody gets health insurance.

The first link is a video provided by Emily. "OK, the guy's style is a bit annoying," she writes, "but there are some interesting tidbits in here." Well, he's a little intense, but we enjoyed it here at Sempringham. Don't miss the reference to the PBS program, Sherlock.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

What Are the Chances?

Three and a half years ago Sempringham pointed you to some photographs of fighting in Afghanistan by NY Times photographer Tyler Hicks.

Tyler Hicks
Hicks is an American, but was born in São Paulo, Brazil. According to Wikipedia, he has worked as a photojournalist in "Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iraq, Russia, Bosnia, Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, Chechnya and many countries in Africa including South Sudan," not to mention Ohio and North Carolina.

In 2011, Hicks and three colleagues were captured by pro-Qaddafi troops and held for six days. Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anthony Shadid was one of the three colleagues. In 2012, in a story you might remember,  Shadid (a Lebanese American born in Oklahoma City) died of an asthma attack while running behind camels (to which he was allergic) as he was trying to escape from Syria.

Tyler Hicks carried his body across the border to Turkey.

Yesterday, terrorist gunmen opened fire in a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing (at last count) 68 people. Tyler Hicks was shopping nearby.
I was at a framing shop in an adjacent mall picking up some photographs that had been given to me as gifts by photojournalists who attended my wedding. I was very close. I didn’t have all of my equipment, just had a small camera that I always have with me in case something happens. [My guess: a Canon G12. - Semp.]
I ran over to the mall and I was able to photograph until my wife [Nichole Sobecki], who is also a photojournalist and was at our house, was able to collect my Kevlar helmet and professional cameras before she came to cover the news herself.
When I left the framing shop, I could see right away that there was something serious going on, because there were lots of people running away from the mall. I ran over there and within minutes I could see people who had been shot in the leg or stomach from what appeared to be small arms fire being helped by other civilians. This went on for about 30 minutes.
From the beginning I wanted to get with some security forces inside the mall.

We managed to find an entrance where people who were hiding inside the mall were coming out. We ran into that service entrance and we hooked up with some police who let us stay with them as they did security sweeps clearing different stores — very much like what you see when the military enters a village. Shop to shop and aisle to aisle, looking for the shooters who were still inside.
You can find his pictures here.

Among literate folks, you will find many who've heard of the bozos we are regularly offered on the Sunday blather programs. But not many who've heard of Tyler Hicks.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Louis C.K. on Smart Phones and Raising Kids

Being a good parent means having the strength to say "no" when all the other parents are saying "yes," and they're wrong.

Louis C.K. has it down.

Anybody notice how quickly I've become an expert on child raising? Nothin' to it.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

I Am Liking This Guy More and More

From the NY Times, in an article headlined "Pope Bluntly Faults Church's Focus on Gays and Abortion":
"Pope Francis, in the first extensive interview of his six-month-old papacy, said that the Roman Catholic Church had grown “obsessed” with preaching about abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he has chosen not to speak of those issues despite recriminations from some critics.

In remarkably blunt language, Francis sought to set a new tone for the church, saying it should be a “home for all” and not a “small chapel” focused on doctrine, orthodoxy and a limited agenda of moral teachings. 

“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” the pope told the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a fellow Jesuit and editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal whose content is routinely approved by the Vatican. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.
How, in a church whose crusty hierarchy has been beating the congregation over the head with dogma for 50 years, did this guy even survive – let alone become Pope?

Anybody Surprised by This?

Two Michigan men shot each other dead in a road rage incident. They both held concealed carry permits.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Smile for You

This woman was waiting for a bus in England, listening to music on her iPod (presumably). A passerby saw her and recorded her dance. It went viral, and the woman and song were eventually identified. The video adds the music, a song called Knock Down sung by Alesha Dixon. Enjoy.

Before the woman and song were identified, several attempts were made to identify the music. It works pretty well to Abba:

And as an added bonus: Ukraine's Got Talent! [Who knew?] You'll want to move the slider past the talking part at the beginning.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Time Magazine Thinks Americans Are Not Serious People

And if you listen to the Tea Party too much, you'll start thinking they're right.

Time covers this week, from around the world:

 H/T to Imgur, who hints: "One of these things is not like the other ones."

Steve Benen

Regular readers will know that I think highly of the work of Steve Benen, currently at the Maddow Blog, but formerly the lead blogger at the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. There's no question that Benen is one of the most influential bloggers in America today. Even Paul Krugman is a regular reader.

Today I came across a short video profile of Benen produced in 2008, which may as well be 100 years ago in the digital universe. If you're at all interested, here it is.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Syria Again

Kevin Drum gives a summary of the Syria situation so far, and asks, "Epic botch or brilliant diplomacy?"
I am eagerly waiting for some plugged-in White House reporter to write a definitive tick-tock about the whole Syria thing. The beginning of the story is pretty well known. I don't think there's much question that President Obama initially failed to grasp the level of opposition to his plan for air strikes, and that this forced him into a series of clumsy reverses and foolish statements. It was a pretty embarrassing fubar.

But despite the endless petulance from the usual suspects, the past two weeks have been different. By hook or by crook, Obama (a) raised the issue of Assad's chemical weapons to an international level, (b) got Vladimir Putin (!) to take a lead role in reining them in, (c) got Assad to join the chemical weapons ban and agree to give up his stockpiles, and (d) do it all while keeping military pressure as an active option, but without ever firing a shot. Carrying out the inspections and destruction of Assad's weapons will obviously be a Herculean task, but still, this is a good start.

So here's what I want to know: was this all just a lucky accident? I've heard a couple of rumors lately that John Kerry's "off the cuff" remark about Assad giving up his chemical weapons wasn't unintended at all. In fact, he was authorized by the White House to bring it up when an opportunity presented itself, and that opportunity came last Monday. Kerry's actual choice of words may have been a little awkward, but it was no accident. Putin expected it; Kerry knew what he was doing; Lavrov called to coordinate a few hours afterward; and the Russians then made their proposal. But this has all been kept under strict lock and key because the whole point was to make this a Putin initiative, one that he'd have ownership of. If it's his baby, he'll fight for it instead of coming up with endless reasons to nitpick an American proposal to death.

Is this how things went down? I have no idea. But I'd sure like to find out. If it's true, it would be one of the most fascinating pieces of diplomatic legerdemain in recent years. And it would demonstrate an almost unheard-of willingness in a U.S. president to accept mountains of abuse because secrecy was essential to getting the job done.

So: crackpot rumor or actual fact? Someone with good White House sources needs to figure this out.
 [My emphases.]

Addendum: The NY Times certainly isn't taking this tack. According to them:

Secretary of State John Kerry had just made an offhand remark about how President Bashar al-Assad of Syria could avoid a military strike — and now Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s hard-charging foreign minister, was on the phone.

Mr. Lavrov was not about to let the moment pass.

What aides to Mr. Kerry were already trying to roll back, Mr. Lavrov seized on, telling Mr. Kerry he would immediately go public with a Russian-led proposal to dismantle the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal. That prompted a sharp response from Mr. Kerry who warned in the 14-minute call, “We are not going to play games.”

By the time Mr. Kerry’s plane landed back in Washington, the ground had shifted and on Saturday, not a week later, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov completed the plan sitting by the pool at a Geneva hotel.
It is a pact that American arms control experts have scrambled to shape and that the White House believes may be the best way to the uphold prohibitions against the use of poison gas without resorting to military force.  But it is also one that the Kremlin clearly thinks serves the interests of Russia and the Syrian government. 

As the diplomatic technician for his boss, President Vladimir V. Putin, Mr. Lavrov maneuvered to hem in the United States, averting a unilateral military strike and reasserting Russia’s role — all while Russia was continuing to provide weapons to Mr. Assad and diplomatic cover for his effort to suppress an uprising.

More broadly, though, Mr. Lavrov has sought to force the United States into a conversation that the Kremlin hopes will set a precedent, establishing Russia’s role in world affairs based not on the dated cold war paradigm but rather on its own outlook, which favors state sovereignty and status quo stability over the spread of Western-style democracy. 
A senior State Department official said the American side was surprised at a lack of specificity in an opening statement by Mr. Lavrov in Geneva, which prompted American experts to insert detailed provisions and deadlines to try to turn it into a workable plan.
So was it as it appeared? A mistake by Kerry, seized upon by the Russians, then seized upon by the Americans?

Mixed Feelings

Larry Summers has pulled his name from consideration as the next Federal Reserve Chairman.


The only disquieting thing about this is that President Obama was ever seriously considering him for the post. That's a VERY bad sign.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Musical Interlude

Via Andrew Tobias comes this little music lesson about a composer named Jacob Gershowitz. Less than 5 minutes, and worth it.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


If you grew up dusting off fossils in Kenya (with your father, Richard Leakey), you might not be the best public speaker. But you might have some very interesting things to say, anyway.

Like: We white guys are only about 3,500 generations away from our ancestors in Africa. And I mean ONLY.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Braggin' Time

I've got three nephews in the music biz, and all three are doing great.

How did that gene skip over me? I struggled for months to learn three guitar chords, and my fingers hurt like the dickens.

But this isn't about me.

My solo musician nephew, Jason Charles Miller, made a big change a couple of years ago: from industrial goth to country. And he's made the transition really well. I got a chance to catch his show when he was in Chicago recently, and he was really happy about how things were going. No wonder.

Check out this article.

Calling him a Renaissance man may be going a bit far. That's a term I usually reserve for ... um ... well .......................... myself.

But he sure is good.

From the article:
Getting back to Miller’s album, Natural Born Killer, I have to ask the obvious question: Woody Harrelson or Dexter inspired? Neither. “The title track is a song from the perspective of a bourbon bottle. It’s a cautionary tale of the devil inside of alcohol.” The lyrics are dark and foreboding, foreshadowing a grave finality: “I’m a natural born killer. I don’t need no gun, I like to take my time, there ain’t no need to run, so don’t be scared if you see me there, just throw back another one. I’m a natural born killer, Kentucky’s oldest son.”
I've written before about Chromatics, the band my two other nephews are in.


This month they're playing at the Hollywood Bowl.  Enough said.

[You can click the picture for a better look – at my nephews, of course. (They're on the left.)]


What to do? Ugh.

The NY Times' columnists had at it today. For the sake of those who don't subscribe, I'll provide below what I think are the best bits. This is a pretty long post, and you're entirely justified in not reading it; after all, what we think about this will have absolutely no effect on what happens. None at all. But the political scientist in me still tries to understand the issues and search for something called wisdom. Unfortunately, as Tom Friedman writes, a perfect solution to Syria "is not on the menu."

First Frank Bruni:
Our country is about to make the most excruciating kind of decision, the most dire: whether to commence a military campaign whose real costs and ultimate consequences are unknowable.

But let’s by all means discuss the implications for Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Iowa, New Hampshire and 2016. Yea or nay on the bombing: which is the safer roll of the dice for a Republican presidential contender? Reflexively, sadly, we journalists prattle and write about that. We miss the horse race of 2012, not to mention the readership and ratings it brought. The next election can’t come soon enough.

So we pivot to Hillary Clinton. We’re always pivoting to Hillary Clinton. Should she be weighing in on Syria more decisively and expansively? Or does the fact that she authorized the war in Iraq compel restraint and a gentler tone this time around? What’s too gentle, and what’s just right? So goes one strand of commentary, and to follow it is to behold a perverse conflation of foreign policy and the Goldilocks fable.

The media has a wearying tendency — a corrosive tic — to put everything that happens in Washington through the same cynical political grinder, subjecting it to the same cynical checklist of who’s up, who’s down, who’s threading a needle, who’s tangled up in knots, what it all means for control of Congress after the midterms, what it all means for control of the White House two years later.

And we’re doing a bit too much of this with Syria, when we owe this crossroads something more than standard operating procedure, something better than knee-jerk ruminations on the imminent vote in Congress as a test for Nancy Pelosi, as a referendum on John Boehner, as a conundrum for Mitch McConnell, as a defining moment for Barack Obama. 

You know whom it’s an even more defining moment for? The Syrians whose country is unraveling beyond all hope; the Israelis, Lebanese and Jordanians next door; the American servicemen and servicewomen whose futures could be forever altered or even snuffed out by the course that the lawmakers and the president chart.

The stakes are huge. Bomb Syria and there’s no telling how many innocent civilians will be killed; if it will be the first chapter in an epic longer and bloodier than we bargained for; what price America will pay, not just on the battlefield but in terms of reprisals elsewhere; and whether we’ll be pouring accelerant on a country and a region already ablaze. 

Don’t bomb Syria and there’s no guessing the lesson that the tyrants of the world will glean from our decision not to punish Bashar al-Assad for slaughtering his people on whatever scale he wishes and in whatever manner he sees fit. Will they conclude that a diminished America is retreating from the role it once played? Will they interpret that, dangerously, as a green light? And what will our inaction say about us? About our morality, and about our mettle?  [My emphasis.]

These are the agonizing considerations before our elected leaders and before the rest of us, and in light of them we journalists ought to resist turning the Syria debate into the sort of reality television show that we turn so much of American political life into, a soap opera often dominated by the mouthiest characters rather than the most thoughtful ones. 

Last week, in many places, I read what Sarah Palin was saying about Syria, because of course her geopolitical chops are so thoroughly established. A few months back, I read about Donald Trump’s thoughts on possible military intervention, because any debate over strategy in the Middle East naturally calls for his counsel.
 Ross Douthat (a lost soul):
It is to President Obama’s great discredit that he has staked this credibility on a vote whose outcome he failed to game out in advance. But if he loses that vote, the national interest as well as his political interests will take a tangible hit: for the next three years, American foreign policy will be in the hands of a president whose promises will ring consistently hollow, and whose ability to make good on his strategic commitments will be very much in doubt.
This is not an argument that justifies voting for a wicked or a reckless war, and members of Congress who see the Syria intervention in that light must necessarily oppose it.
But if they do, they should be prepared for the consequences: a damaged president, a potentially crippled foreign policy and a long, hard, dangerous road to January 2017.
 Tom Friedman (actually from Wednesday's paper):
... [T[he most likely option for Syria is some kind of de facto partition, with the pro-Assad, predominantly Alawite Syrians controlling one region and the Sunni and Kurdish Syrians controlling the rest. But the Sunnis are themselves divided between the pro-Western, secular Free Syrian Army, which we’d like to see win, and the pro-Islamist and pro-Al Qaeda jihadist groups, like the Nusra Front, which we’d like to see lose.

That’s why I think the best response to the use of poison gas by President Bashar al-Assad is not a cruise missile attack on Assad’s forces, but an increase in the training and arming of the Free Syrian Army — including the antitank and antiaircraft weapons it’s long sought. This has three virtues: 1) Better arming responsible rebels units, and they do exist, can really hurt the Assad regime in a sustained way — that is the whole point of deterrence — without exposing America to global opprobrium for bombing Syria; 2) Better arming the rebels actually enables them to protect themselves more effectively from this regime; 3) Better arming the rebels might increase the influence on the ground of the more moderate opposition groups over the jihadist ones — and eventually may put more pressure on Assad, or his allies, to negotiate a political solution. 

By contrast, just limited bombing of Syria from the air makes us look weak at best, even if we hit targets. And if we kill lots of Syrians, it enables Assad to divert attention from the 1,400 he has gassed to death to those we harmed. Also, who knows what else our bombing of Syria could set in motion. (Would Iran decide it must now rush through a nuclear bomb?) 

But our response must not stop there.
We need to use every diplomatic tool we have to shame Assad, his wife, Asma, his murderous brother Maher and every member of his cabinet or military whom we can identify as being involved in this gas attack. We need to bring their names before the United Nations Security Council for condemnation. We need to haul them before the International Criminal Court. We need to make them famous. We need to metaphorically put their pictures up in every post office in the world as people wanted for crimes against humanity.
Yes, there’s little chance of them being brought to justice now, but do not underestimate how much of a deterrent it can be for the world community to put the mark of Cain on their foreheads so they know that they and their families can never again travel anywhere except to North Korea, Iran and Vladimir Putin’s dacha. It might even lead some of Assad’s supporters to want to get rid of him and seek a political deal.
When we alone just bomb Syria to defend “our” red line, we turn the rest of the world into spectators — many of whom will root against us. When we shame the people who perpetrated this poison gas attack, we can summon the rest of the world, maybe even inspire them, to join us in redrawing this red line, as a moral line and, therefore, a global line. It is easy for Putin, China and Iran to denounce American bombing, but much harder for them to defend Syrian use of weapons of mass destruction, so let’s force them to choose. Best of all, a moral response — a shaming — can be an unlimited response, not a limited one.
A limited, transactional cruise missile attack meets Obama’s need to preserve his credibility. But it also risks changing the subject from Assad’s behavior to ours and — rather than empowering the rebels to act and enlisting the world to act — could make us owners of this story in ways that we do not want. “Arm and shame” is how we best help the decent forces in Syria, deter further use of poison gas, isolate Assad and put real pressure on him or others around him to cut a deal. Is it perfect? No, but perfect is not on the menu in Syria.
Finally, there's Nicholas Kristof. Kristof is the most humanitarian reporter I know of. I really respect him. Where there's war and misery, Kristof is there, finding out what he can about it, and how to stop it, and letting us know. And here's what he has to say:
As one woman tweeted to me: “We simply cannot stop every injustice in the world by using military weapons.” 

Fair enough. But let’s be clear that this is not “every injustice”: On top of the 100,000-plus already killed in Syria, another 5,000 are being slaughtered monthly, according to the United Nations. Remember the Boston Massacre of 1770 from our history books, in which five people were killed? Syria loses that many people every 45 minutes on average, around the clock. 

The rate of killing is accelerating. In the first year, 2011, there were fewer than 5,000 deaths. As of July 2012, there were still “only” 10,000, and the number has since soared tenfold. 

A year ago, by United Nations calculations, there were 230,000 Syrian refugees. Now there are two million

In other words, while there are many injustices around the world, from Darfur to eastern Congo, take it from one who has covered most of them: Syria is today the world capital of human suffering. 

Skeptics are right about the drawbacks of getting involved, including the risk of retaliation. Yet let’s acknowledge that the alternative is, in effect, to acquiesce as the slaughter in Syria reaches perhaps the hundreds of thousands or more. 

But what about the United Nations? How about a multilateral solution involving the Arab League? How about peace talks? What about an International Criminal Court prosecution? 

All this sounds fine in theory, but Russia blocks progress in the United Nations. We’ve tried multilateral approaches, and Syrian leaders won’t negotiate a peace deal as long as they feel they’re winning on the ground. One risk of bringing in the International Criminal Court is that President Bashar al-Assad would be more wary of stepping down. The United Nations can’t stop the killing in Syria any more than in Darfur or Kosovo. As President Assad himself noted in 2009, “There is no substitute for the United States.” 

So while neither intervention nor paralysis is appealing, that’s pretty much the menu. That’s why I favor a limited cruise missile strike against Syrian military targets (as well as the arming of moderate rebels). As I see it, there are several benefits: Such a strike may well deter Syria’s army from using chemical weapons again, probably can degrade the ability of the army to use chemical munitions and bomb civilian areas, can reinforce the global norm against chemical weapons, and — a more remote prospect — may slightly increase the pressure on the Assad regime to work out a peace deal.

If you’re thinking, “Those are incremental, speculative and highly uncertain gains,” well, you’re right. Syria will be bloody whatever we do. 

Mine is a minority view. After the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the West is bone weary and has little interest in atrocities unfolding in Syria or anywhere else. Opposition to missile strikes is one of the few issues that ordinary Democrats and Republicans agree on.

Some military interventions, as in Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Kosovo, have worked well. Others, such as Iraq in 2003, worked very badly. Still others, such as Libya, had mixed results. Afghanistan and Somalia were promising at first but then evolved badly. 

So, having said that analogies aren’t necessarily helpful, let me leave you with a final provocation. 

If we were fighting against an incomparably harsher dictator using chemical weapons on our own neighborhoods, and dropping napalm-like substances on our children’s schools, would we regard other countries as “pro-peace” if they sat on the fence as our dead piled up?
So, what would you do if you were in charge?

An aside:  I sometimes wonder if my NY Times online subscription is worth the $35/month I pay for it. The answer is always: I would be lost without it.