Sunday, March 31, 2013

Moral Questions, Moral Conditioning, and the New York Times

Science journalist Matthew Hutson had an interesting article in the New York Times this morning about the influence of external factors on our ethical decision-making.  Overall, it's a worthwhile read because it highlights how inherently unstable our reasoning processes tend to be.  However, I found the introductory paragraph to be quite troubling.

Hutson began his article with the following words:

"MORAL quandaries often pit concerns about principles against concerns about practical consequences. Should we ban assault rifles and large sodas, restricting people’s liberties for the sake of physical health and safety? Should we allow drone killings or torture, if violating one person’s rights could save a thousand lives?" (Emphasis added)

That last sentence creates a false moral dilemma.  It puts the deontological respect for human life and dignity against a utilitarian belief in working for the greater good (or the greatest happiness for the greatest number).  However, neither torture nor drone killings, both of which flagrantly value any deontological ethic of human dignity and worth, can be justified on utilitarian grounds.

The CIA has acknowledged that information secured through torture (which, of course, they claim not to do) proved to be false or misleading.  Likewise, Senator Diane Feinstein, who (unlike the public) has had access to the CIA's torture report, sharply criticized the narrative of the film Zero Dark Thirty, which portrayed torture as key to finding Osama bin Laden.

Similarly, drone strikes are not singularly focused on individuals who are about to commit a terrorist attack.  The civilian death toll of U.S. drone strikes might surpass 1,000--although firm data is difficult to attain.  The Obama administration, moreover, has defined the term "militant" so loosely that it includes any military-age male.  I don't see how they can discriminate between an 18-year-old and a 17-year-old when shooting missiles from the sky, so we can probably assume that this means that passing puberty is basically the metric for being a "militant" to the administration. The administration has also defined the concept of imminence (in terms of the imminence of the threat) so broadly that it means, in effect, "not imminent."  Rather than keeping the U.S. safe, drone strikes are leading to the radicalization of the populations that suffer from such an invasion of privacy, sovereignty, and security.

One can, of course, create elaborate hypothetical situations in which one would know with 100% absolute certainty that the drone strike or the use of torture would save a certain number of lives.  However, that is not how the decision-making works in reality.  Hutson's example conditions readers into believing that there are empirical justifications behind the use of torture or drone strikes and accepting the existence of a utilitarian justification (whether or not they are self-ascribed utilitarians). He fails to address the risk potential of radicalization and loss of credibility that results, creating a dilemma that is not only false but disconcertingly simplistic.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

If we "redefine" marriage...

First, we define the definition of marriage, then what will happen to the institution of marriage? Next, we'll start seeing....

**shows in which women compete in a beauty pageant in order to marry a multi-millionaire (and divorce a month later), or

**shows where women compete to marry a man who they think is a millionaire (But secretly isn't!), or

**the White House intern that gave a blow job to an ex-President will host a reality dating show in which men wear masks and compete for a woman's affection (to see if love is truly blind!), or

**we'll have a show that throws couples onto an island, breaks them apart, and sends them off with attractive singles to see if they will all cheat on each other (Spoiler: They all do), or

**we'll have a show where you (yes, you, home viewer!) can vote via phone to decide who gets married.

Oh, wait, those all already happened....

Sunday, March 24, 2013

What We Learn about Our Parties When We Turn Abroad

I know that I’ve heard of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) in the past, but I don’t know if I ever really looked into them. When reading Mike Lofgren’s The Party is Over, I learned—as should be obvious from their names—that they have ties to the two major parties in this country:

"Although organized as nonprofit entities legally separate from their parent parties, they carry those parent parties’ ideological baggage much as the Comintern was the cat’s paw of the Soviet Communist Party. And they are funded by your tax dollars: Both NDI and IRI are categorized as 501(c)3 ‘charitable’ organizations by the International Revenue Services, but they receive the vast bulk of their money not from private donors…but from federal funds appropriated to official government entities such as the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development, and the National Endowment for Democracy" (p. 17).

A quick look at the advisory Boards of Directors and Senior Advisory Committees for NDI and IRI will confirm their partisan ties—despite their official “nonpartisan” tax status. On the Board of Directors for NDI, we find Madeleine Albright, Tom Daschle, Donna Brazile, Howard Dean, among other Democratic politicians, strategists, and donors. Over at IRI, chaired by the “most mavericky maverick of them all” John McCain, we find folks like former RNC chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, Jr., U.S. Rep Kay Granger (R-TX), former Rumsfeld advisor Randy Scheunemann, among others.

What I found most revealing were the institutional ties of the two organizations. The Wikipedia page for NDI (not the most reliable of all sources, but always useful for general facts and organizational info—rather than analysis or details) notes that NDI has ties to Liberal International, Socialist International, and Centrist Democrat International.

Liberal International is the international federation of liberal parties. It is home to the UK’s Liberal Democrats, Germany’s Free Democrats, Canada’s Liberal Party, and many others. You can read their principles here.

Socialist International is the international federation of social democratic parties. It is home to the UK’s Labour Party, Germany’s Social Democrats, Canada’s New Democratic Party, France’s Socialist Party, and many others. You can read their principles and charter here.

Centrist Democrat International is the international federation of Christian Democratic parties. It is home to France’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, and others. You can read their principles here.  (Fun and utterly irrelevant fact:  Their site has music!)

Now, if you read carefully, you’ll notice that several countries have separate political parties that fit in the political span in which the Democratic Party finds allegiance. We see both Labourites and Lib Dems from the UK, both Socialists and UMP from France, and all three major parties from Germany.

The following countries, like Germany, have a member party in each federation: Andorra, Angola, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, Norway, Spain, and Sweden.

Germany, though, is the best example because ALL THREE of its major parties fall in the group of federations with ties to the NDI. These parties—the Christian Democrats, Free Democrats, and Social Democrats—represent quite different ideologies but would probably all find somewhat of a home in the U.S. Democratic Party because of its “big tent” status. I’ve often criticized the Democratic Party for being heavily partisan but weakly ideological, and the ability to span the full spectrum of major German parties—from the center-right to the center-left— exemplifies such an analysis. Although this comparison isn’t perfect, you could probably say that the Progressive Caucus matches with the Social Democrats, the New Dems with the Free Democrats, and the Blue Dogs with the Christian Democrats.

Now, let’s turn to the International Republican Institute. Who are its international partners? We don’t see the grand worldwide federations embraced by the NDI, but we do find the European People’s Party, the federation of European center-right/conservative/Christian Democratic parties. In what worldwide federation does the EPP fall? Centrist Democrat International—one of the friends of the NDI. Reflect on that for a second, and realize what it says about our political parties here at home.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Democratic Climate Hall of Shame

The Senate is currently busying itself with its budget vote-a-rama, where they cast votes for a series of non-binding amendments to the budget in relative rapid-fire and with very little deliberation.  So far, we have seen four votes that teach us quite a lot about where our Senators stand on climate change.


Sen. Hoeven (R-ND)'s amendment approving the climate-busting Keystone XL pipeline passed 62-37 with 17 Democrats voting for it:  Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA).

Barbara Boxer proposed an amendment to counter Sen. Hoeven's; Boxer's amendment would have required further study on the pipeline to protect U.S. national interests.  Her amendment failed 33-66.

The following 13 Democrats voted both for Hoeven's amendment and against Boxer's:

Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR).

Four Democrats strangely voted for both amendments: Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), and Sen. Mark Warner.

Six members of the Democratic caucus voted both against Hoeven's amendment and against Boxer's:

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Sen. Mo Cowan (D-MA), Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Sen. Angus King (I-ME), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), and Sen. Tom Udall (D-CO).

What that means is that only 29 members of the Democratic caucus (28 Dems + Bernie) voted solidly against Keystone.

What is especially disappointing is to see three Senators who had been endorsed by the LCV vote for the pipeline: Casey (my own Senator), Nelson, and Tester.

Just over a year ago, the Senate voted on the pipeline, and it failed to pass 56-42 because it, thankfully, did not muster the 60 votes for cloture.   Five Democrats who opposed Keystone then now support it: Sen. Bennet (D-CO), Sen. Carper (D-DE), Sen. Coons (D-DE), Sen. Johnson (D-SD), and Sen. Nelson (D-FL).


As was the case for Keystone, we saw two votes related to a carbon tax: one for and one against.  Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) proposed an amendment establishing a carbon tax; it failed 41-58.  Thirteen Democrats voted against it:

Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD), Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), and Sen. Mark Warner.

Five of the Senators who supported Keystone also supported a carbon tax: Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), and one Senator who opposed Keystone also opposed a carbon tax: Tim Kaine (D-VA).

Sen. Roy Blunt, on the other hand, proposed an amendment that would have required a 3/5 majority for the passage of a federal carbon tax.  This would have passed 53-46, had there not been a 60 vote threshold required.  Eight Democrats voted along with Blunt:

Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV).


Seven Democrats voted consistently for the anti-environment position: Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO),  and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR).

Four more Democrats belong in our CLIMATE HALL OF SHAME for voting both against the carbon tax and for Keystone: Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD), Sen. John Tester (D-MT), and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA).


Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT), Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR).

(I'm sure that Frank Lautenberg would have been on the climate hero list, too, had he been in attendance; unfortunately, he could not be at the vote because of illness).

The Affordable Care Act at 3

This weekend, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (derisively or fondly known as “Obamacare”) turns 3, and according to a new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, the public remains largely uninformed or misinformed about the law.

People both (a) don’t know what is in the law and (b) think things that are not in the law are.

Less than half of the population surveyed knew that the Affordable Care Act closes the Medicare “doughnut hole” (the gap in prescription drug coverage from Medicare Part D) and established a minimum medical loss ratio of 80%, mandating that no more than 20 cents per dollar of insurance be spent on overhead. Almost as many people thought the ACA did not control the medical loss ratio (37%) as knew that it did (40%). This lack of awareness is unfortunate because both  provisions have cross-partisan majority support. 81% of respondents supported closing the Medicare “doughnut hole,” making it the second most popualr provision of those tested; 90% of Democrats, 80% of Independents, and 74% of Republicans viewed the provision favorably. Although the medical loss ratio did not achieve quite as high of support, it still saw an overall favorability rating of 65%--72% with Democrats, 60% with Independents, and 62% with Republicans.

Of the 11 provisions tested, only 4 of them had at least 60% recognition: subsidy assistance to individuals (62%), extension of dependent coverage (69%), employer mandate (71%), and individual mandate (74%). The individual mandate, a philosophically conservative policy that originated at the Heritage Foundation, was both the most well-known provision and the least popular, with only 40% favorability—55% among Democrats, 39% among Independents, and 21% among Republicans. The employer mandate was both the second most well-known provision and the second least well-liked, with only 57% overall favorability (79% among Democrats, 54% among Independents, and 36% among Republicans).

Of the four misperceptions tested, a majority or plurality of respondents answered incorrectly in each case. In what can be considered a mark of tragic irony, a majority (57%) of respondents thought that the Affordable Care Act included a public option. A strong plurality (47%) thought that undocumented immigrants were able to receive subsidies to purchase insurance, and slim pluralities thought that the Affordable Care Act cut Medicare benefits (44%) and established a government panel to make decisions about end-of-life care for people on Medicare (40%). In other words, “government takeover,” “Get your government hands off my Medicare,” and “death panels” live on in the public imagination.

There are several key takeaways from this report. First, most people do not feel that they have enough information to understand how the Affordable Care Act will impact them. By a 2:1 ratio, the uninsured, those whom the law is supposed to help, said that they did not have enough information. Second, as the graph below demonstrates and my comments above explained, many of the most popular provisions are among the least widely recognized—and vice versa.


Moreover, despite the fact that 10 out of the 11 provisions polled garnered at least a 50% favorability rating, and 9 out of 11 garnered over 60%, the bill as a whole remains unpopular. 40% viewed it unfavorably, compared to only 37% favorably and a rather high 23% unsure. A strong party divide remains, but even Democrats don’t seem overly fond of the health reform law. Only 58% view it favorably; however, that’s obviously positive compared to the 31% support from Independents and 18% from Republican.

Interestingly, since the election, Democratic support has dropped quite significantly, falling 14 percentage points. Democratic and Independent support have both been trending downward since the summer of 2010, with Republican consistently low but prone to fluctuation.

The other day, I was re-reading Mike Lofgren’s The Party is Over, and in one of his early chapters, he discusses how Republicans are significantly better at naming and messaging legislation than Democrats are; Republicans communicate like marketing executives, Democrats like professors. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is hardly a user-friendly, relatable name. Would it have been that difficult to name the bill the Helping Every American’s Long-Term Health and Cutting Appropriate Rates and Expenditures (HEALTH CARE) Act—or something similar? Of course, the popular impression of the health reform law would likely have also stayed higher had the Democrats not tried to run from it during the 2010 election, when many ran as Republican-lite. As the provisions continue to roll out, such as the exchanges, the administration has a lot of work ahead of it if it wants to connect with and educate the public and have the law actually achieve its stated effects.