Archive | January 2012

Pew News Test: Rate Your News Knowledge

Results of my Pew News Test

After writing the last post, I was thinking about how ignorant Americans are of basic issues. Actually, I was thinking about how ignorant my liberal bretheren are of basic issues and civics but consider that a bit of tough love. I want them to get better. I really do.

I was checking out a couple of chapters from Rick Sheckman’s 2008 book, “Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter,” a compendium of factoids on American ignorance. It turns out we are dumber than I could have ever imagined.

The Pew News Research Center has an online test of news and political knowledge, though. You can test your own news savvy there. I scored 100%. Only 8% of people who take this test score 100%. I feel alone, though I recognize that I border on the obsessive. I’m not surprised that not everybody gets 100%, but I’m pretty shocked that anybody get ALL of the questions wrong.

Try the test out and see where you stand. It updates every few weeks, I think. I promise it won’t make you feel bad.

The NDAA, Infinite Detention, a Writer’s Confusion

Honestly, the last thing I ever want to write about is American politics, though it may be hard to tell from my recent string of posts of Ron Paul. Recent discussions of the latest National Defense Appropriations Bill amongst my friends reminds me why.

Contrary to what appears to be popularly believed, the National Defense Appropriations Bill is much more than just the controversial provisions regarding the detention of military combatants. Defense Appropriations Bills are part of routine policy which is submitted every year to little fanfare and public controversy.

They are mostly a boring affair, documenting how much and for what purpose federal money gets spent on defense activities. For example, the recent bill included provisions regarding personnel salaries, maintenance funds, protectionist measures requiring that the military procure its steel domestically, the relocation of decommissioned portable military buildings to Indian tribes, and prevents the appropriation of funds to groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt.

This year, however, the Senate Defense Committee, sponsored by Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, included text that vaguely details (an oxymoron?) the manner in which members of Al Qaeda or related groups will be detained. Specifically, it gives the executive branch license to have the military detain members of these groups without trial until the end of hostilities. Given the endless nature of the terrorism, it essentially gives the executive powers to detain suspected persons indefinitely without due process.

This essentially codifies existing sections of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists Act of 2001 (AUMF), which the Bush and Obama administrations have broadly interpreted to allow the military to label terrorists or Al Qaeda associates as “enemy combatants.” Guantanamo is an example of this broad interpretation. The controversial sections of the latest NDAA are no different, though slightly more specific. (An excellent legal breakdown of the controversial sections can be found here.)

However, the NDAA also requires that suspected terrorists be held by the military, a requirement the Obama Administration has argued to be unnecessarily restrictive. In essence, an angry Al Qaeda sympathizer in Syracuse who makes bombs in his basement has to be treated in the same manner as Osama bin Laden. The Obama Administration argues that the guy in Syracuse would be better covered and tried under local, state, or federal laws, whereas big baddies like Osama bin Laden would clearly be under the jurisdiction of the military.

Lost in this heated debate is the role of the Senate Defense Committee in crafting and sponsoring the controversial sections. First, the inclusion of the provisions in the latest NDAA was oddly out of place in the context of the entire bill, but this was likely a political strategy. Senators McCain and Graham clearly knew that the Obama administration would have no choice but to sign the bill. The political fallout from shutting down the military would be pervasive, particularly in an election year. In fact, no NDAA has been left unsigned for more than 50 years. Most salient, there were more than enough votes to overrule a Presidential veto, which would have been humiliating for Obama in an election year. The idea the the Obama Administration could have successfully vetoed the measure is absolutely preposterous.

Second, the intentions of the sponsors of the controversial sections of the bill are unclear. It makes little sense that the Senate would seek to grant widened powers of the executive to detain prisoners, particularly if the Executive isn’t asking for them. I can find no evidence to indicate that the Obama Administration requested these provisions, but instead have found nothing but protestations from his advisors, most notably counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, the Department of Defense, and President Obama himself.

Speculating, could this have been a cleverly constructed election year political strategy? My gut says yes, but there’s nothing of note out there to suggest this. I agree that it is an affront to liberty, though I’m hesitant to pin the blame on the Obama Administration here.

Honestly, I’ve been vastly confused on this issue since it arose and have pretty much refused to be part of the quite simplistic discussions that are flying around liberal circles. Perhaps this undermines my liberal cred, if such a thing can exist. To speak out in a manner that diverges in the smallest way from progressive hand waving is to be labelled a conservative on the level of Senator Graham himself.

From the beginning I have found nothing but ignorance, vast simplification of the issues, and a refusal of Americans, and specifically progressives, to dig more deeply into what these sections actually say, what the bill is, who is responsible, the realities of American politics and even, sadly, the extent of the Executive powers. Arguments has resorted to impassioned rhetoric and childish, though amusing, photoshopped parodies. Personally, the banal level of discussion and ignorance of the facts have made me ill, though what else is to be expected from an old curmudgeon such as myself? Progressives, though, in this case, have simply got it wrong.

Consider this post my attempt at public service, though it is likely equally simplistic. I welcome discussion.

The President included a signing statement detailing why he signed the NDAA and what specifically the Administration’s reservations were. Presidents often attach signing statements to bills explaining reservations they have with certain sections or why they believe that certain sections are unconstitutional. I have included the full text of it here, knowing full well that no one will read it. Personally, I found it to be the most sober assessment of the issue yet:

Statement by the President on H.R. 1540

Today I have signed into law H.R. 1540, the “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012.” I have signed the Act chiefly because it authorizes funding for the defense of the United States and its interests abroad, crucial services for service members and their families, and vital national security programs that must be renewed. In hundreds of separate sections totaling over 500 pages, the Act also contains critical Administration initiatives to control the spiraling health care costs of the Department of Defense (DoD), to develop counterterrorism initiatives abroad, to build the security capacity of key partners, to modernize the force, and to boost the efficiency and effectiveness of military operations worldwide.

The fact that I support this bill as a whole does not mean I agree with everything in it. In particular, I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists. Over the last several years, my Administration has developed an effective, sustainable framework for the detention, interrogation and trial of suspected terrorists that allows us to maximize both our ability to collect intelligence and to incapacitate dangerous individuals in rapidly developing situations, and the results we have achieved are undeniable. Our success against al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents has derived in significant measure from providing our counterterrorism professionals with the clarity and flexibility they need to adapt to changing circumstances and to utilize whichever authorities best protect the American people, and our accomplishments have respected the values that make our country an example for the world.

Against that record of success, some in Congress continue to insist upon restricting the options available to our counterterrorism professionals and interfering with the very operations that have kept us safe. My Administration has consistently opposed such measures. Ultimately, I decided to sign this bill not only because of the critically important services it provides for our forces and their families and the national security programs it authorizes, but also because the Congress revised provisions that otherwise would have jeopardized the safety, security, and liberty of the American people. Moving forward, my Administration will interpret and implement the provisions described below in a manner that best preserves the flexibility on which our safety depends and upholds the values on which this country was founded.

Section 1021 affirms the executive branch’s authority to detain persons covered by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) (Public Law 107-40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note). This section breaks no new ground and is unnecessary. The authority it describes was included in the 2001 AUMF, as recognized by the Supreme Court and confirmed through lower court decisions since then. Two critical limitations in section 1021 confirm that it solely codifies established authorities. First, under section 1021(d), the bill does not “limit or expand the authority of the President or the scope of the Authorization for Use of Military Force.” Second, under section 1021(e), the bill may not be construed to affect any “existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States, or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States.” My Administration strongly supported the inclusion of these limitations in order to make clear beyond doubt that the legislation does nothing more than confirm authorities that the Federal courts have recognized as lawful under the 2001 AUMF. Moreover, I want to clarify that my Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens. Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a Nation. My Administration will interpret section 1021 in a manner that ensures that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war, and all other applicable law.

Section 1022 seeks to require military custody for a narrow category of non-citizen detainees who are “captured in the course of hostilities authorized by the Authorization for Use of Military Force.” This section is ill-conceived and will do nothing to improve the security of the United States. The executive branch already has the authority to detain in military custody those members of al-Qa’ida who are captured in the course of hostilities authorized by the AUMF, and as Commander in Chief I have directed the military to do so where appropriate. I reject any approach that would mandate military custody where law enforcement provides the best method of incapacitating a terrorist threat. While section 1022 is unnecessary and has the potential to create uncertainty, I have signed the bill because I believe that this section can be interpreted and applied in a manner that avoids undue harm to our current operations.

I have concluded that section 1022 provides the minimally acceptable amount of flexibility to protect national security. Specifically, I have signed this bill on the understanding that section 1022 provides the executive branch with broad authority to determine how best to implement it, and with the full and unencumbered ability to waive any military custody requirement, including the option of waiving appropriate categories of cases when doing so is in the national security interests of the United States. As my Administration has made clear, the only responsible way to combat the threat al-Qa’ida poses is to remain relentlessly practical, guided by the factual and legal complexities of each case and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each system. Otherwise, investigations could be compromised, our authorities to hold dangerous individuals could be jeopardized, and intelligence could be lost. I will not tolerate that result, and under no circumstances will my Administration accept or adhere to a rigid across-the-board requirement for military detention. I will therefore interpret and implement section 1022 in the manner that best preserves the same flexible approach that has served us so well for the past 3 years and that protects the ability of law enforcement professionals to obtain the evidence and cooperation they need to protect the Nation.

My Administration will design the implementation procedures authorized by section 1022(c) to provide the maximum measure of flexibility and clarity to our counterterrorism professionals permissible under law. And I will exercise all of my constitutional authorities as Chief Executive and Commander in Chief if those procedures fall short, including but not limited to seeking the revision or repeal of provisions should they prove to be unworkable.
Sections 1023-1025 needlessly interfere with the executive branch’s processes for reviewing the status of detainees. Going forward, consistent with congressional intent as detailed in the Conference Report, my Administration will interpret section 1024 as granting the Secretary of Defense broad discretion to determine what detainee status determinations in Afghanistan are subject to the requirements of this section.

Sections 1026-1028 continue unwise funding restrictions that curtail options available to the executive branch. Section 1027 renews the bar against using appropriated funds for fiscal year 2012 to transfer Guantanamo detainees into the United States for any purpose. I continue to oppose this provision, which intrudes upon critical executive branch authority to determine when and where to prosecute Guantanamo detainees, based on the facts and the circumstances of each case and our national security interests. For decades, Republican and Democratic administrations have successfully prosecuted hundreds of terrorists in Federal court. Those prosecutions are a legitimate, effective, and powerful tool in our efforts to protect the Nation. Removing that tool from the executive branch does not serve our national security. Moreover, this intrusion would, under certain circumstances, violate constitutional separation of powers principles.
Section 1028 modifies but fundamentally maintains unwarranted restrictions on the executive branch’s authority to transfer detainees to a foreign country. This hinders the executive’s ability to carry out its military, national security, and foreign relations activities and like section 1027, would, under certain circumstances, violate constitutional separation of powers principles. The executive branch must have the flexibility to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers. In the event that the statutory restrictions in sections 1027 and 1028 operate in a manner that violates constitutional separation of powers principles, my Administration will interpret them to avoid the constitutional conflict.
Section 1029 requires that the Attorney General consult with the Director of National Intelligence and Secretary of Defense prior to filing criminal charges against or seeking an indictment of certain individuals. I sign this based on the understanding that apart from detainees held by the military outside of the United States under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, the provision applies only to those individuals who have been determined to be covered persons under section 1022 before the Justice Department files charges or seeks an indictment. Notwithstanding that limitation, this provision represents an intrusion into the functions and prerogatives of the Department of Justice and offends the longstanding legal tradition that decisions regarding criminal prosecutions should be vested with the Attorney General free from outside interference. Moreover, section 1029 could impede flexibility and hinder exigent operational judgments in a manner that damages our security. My Administration will interpret and implement section 1029 in a manner that preserves the operational flexibility of our counterterrorism and law enforcement professionals, limits delays in the investigative process, ensures that critical executive branch functions are not inhibited, and preserves the integrity and independence of the Department of Justice.

Other provisions in this bill above could interfere with my constitutional foreign affairs powers. Section 1244 requires the President to submit a report to the Congress 60 days prior to sharing any U.S. classified ballistic missile defense information with Russia. Section 1244 further specifies that this report include a detailed description of the classified information to be provided. While my Administration intends to keep the Congress fully informed of the status of U.S. efforts to cooperate with the Russian Federation on ballistic missile defense, my Administration will also interpret and implement section 1244 in a manner that does not interfere with the President’s constitutional authority to conduct foreign affairs and avoids the undue disclosure of sensitive diplomatic communications. Other sections pose similar problems. Sections 1231, 1240, 1241, and 1242 could be read to require the disclosure of sensitive diplomatic communications and national security secrets; and sections 1235, 1242, and 1245 would interfere with my constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations by directing the Executive to take certain positions in negotiations or discussions with foreign governments. Like section 1244, should any application of these provisions conflict with my constitutional authorities, I will treat the provisions as non-binding.

My Administration has worked tirelessly to reform or remove the provisions described above in order to facilitate the enactment of this vital legislation, but certain provisions remain concerning. My Administration will aggressively seek to mitigate those concerns through the design of implementation procedures and other authorities available to me as Chief Executive and Commander in Chief, will oppose any attempt to extend or expand them in the future, and will seek the repeal of any provisions that undermine the policies and values that have guided my Administration throughout my time in office.

My Dying Uncle vs. Ron Paul: A Public Health Disaster in the Works

I’m going to tell a story. My uncle is 52 years old; that’s ten more years than I. When I was a kid he would introduce me to all kinds of amazing 70’s rock and psyche records. My uncle, like much of my family, is mentally ill.

Specifically, he fights severe depression; though through medication, he has been able to maintain a minimal standard of living and assisted my grandfather through his arduously long passing. Like many caregivers, his efforts are little appreciated nor recognized.

After my grandfather passed, my uncle had a job but lost his health benefits. Unable to obtain a new prescription for his depression meds, he started self-medicating through alcohol. Most people in his family are addicts. Little understood is the role that depression plays in addiction. Without anti-depressants, my uncle will drink almost constantly.

Recently, I went to see him. He looked nearly 20 years older than his actual age, was incontinent and hadn’t eaten in nearly two weeks. He subsists off calories from beer. I left heartbroken.

Six weeks ago, I received a call that my uncle had been admitted to the ICU. He had a stroke while buying beer at a local convenience store, fell and fractured his skull. Somehow, he managed to walk home and locked himself in his house. Someone found him and brought him to the hospital, where he was operated on for a brain hemorrhage. He then later had second stroke, fell again, and had to have the surgery once more.

My uncle has since relearned to walk, but has no use of his hands. I must stress again that he has no health insurance. The hospital discharged him since he could not pay. Now, he lives alone in his house, with no power, heat, nor food, he is barely mobile and will never be able to work again.

I tell this story because it fills me with rage. The Republican Party would happily let my uncle die. That we live in a country where basic health care is available only for the rich, and requirements that everyone enter into some kind of health plan are viewed as “Hitleresque” fills me with an indescribable rage. It’s almost cliché to point out that we live in the wealthiest country on the planet (by GDP), yet still can’t seem to figure out how to provide for the health of all of our citizens.

By far, out of all of the Republican candidates, , Ron Paul has the worst suggestions for what to do about the uninsured, let alone what to do about health care in the United States. He believes that insurance companies should be allowed to insure whomever they wish. That no one should be forced to pay for the health care of another individual. That hospitals should be allowed to decide whom to exclude treatment to.

Paradoxically, he believes that the solution to the problem of health care in America is to shift the burden of cost to doctors themselves. He believes that doctors should volunteer their time and resources to assist the poor so that they will stop troubling the rest of us.

Presumably, he’s never asked doctors whether they like working without being paid. Or that most of the cost of health care is for materials and services that do not involve the practitioner. Nurses, for example, are they to work without getting paid as well? Are doctors merely to absorb all the costs of care from their own incomes? If they pass these costs on (as they are now) to other patients, does that not also violate Paul’s ideas of forced remuneration from those who have? Paul, though, waxes nostalgic on health care pre-1965, ignoring the fact that health care was less complicated, less costly, less effective and less accessible in the good old days. But then we should expect no less from bull-headed Ron Paul.

Even worse yet, Paul believes that one of the solutions to health care in the United States is to support “alternative therapies,” such as as vitamin therapy, a movement that believes that massive doses of vitamins can cure cancer. Maybe he also supports aromatherapy?

He even fans the flames of a vast government conspiracy to control the supply of vitamins. What a great idea! It’s cheaper than surgery, and even cheaper than chemo! In Paul’s massively unrealistic world, if the vitamins don’t work, then there will always be a kindly doctor willing to step up and provide multi-million dollar cancer treatments for free to anyone who wants it.

Paul hates the FDA,, who ensure the safety of pharmaceuticals marketed in the US. He hates any hindrance to quackery and the protection of public safety , assuming the free market will weed out dangerous pharmaceuticals. It seems he never considered all of the people that have to die first, or the desperation of the poor who have to balance safety, cost, and the potential for relief.

Paul rightly recognizes that health care is costly, but wrongly believes that the free market will contain costs, assuming that health care is subject to standard models of supply and demand, an assumption that has been repeatedly proven wrong. Have you ever tried to bargain with your emergency room doctor for a better price?

He hates Medicaid, SCHIP, and Medicare. I would venture to assume that he even hates employer-provided health plans, which do not allow individuals to opt-out. In fact, the only insurance plan he seems to support is that of health savings accounts (HSAs).

The math might work out for Paul, but not for my uncle, who skated by on less than $20,000 a year. HSAs are hardly realistic. Even if he were to hypothetically save 2.5% of his income for thirty years (which is nearly impossible, the poor spend everything they earn) and receive a 5% annual interest rate, he would still only end up saving approximately $30,000. He hospital bill well exceeded $30,000 the first night he spent under surgery.

Worse yet, Paul believes that all foreign aid should be rescinded.

This includes successful programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which has provided HIV medications for more than 1.2 million people in Africa. Paul believes the private sector should provide these funds and made all kinds of grand predictions about PEPFAR that didn’t come true. Here’s Paul on PEPFAR, spouting the same condescending and borderline racist nonsense that he disavowed from his newsletters:

“I concede it’s very well intended,” Rep. Ron Paul said, “[but] I think if we’re going to be doing any social engineering or social suggestions it ought to be here, and we ought not be naive enough to believe we can change habits that occur in Africa.

In discussion of foreign aid, he ignores that fact that the Global Fund to Fight HIV, TB, and Malaria is overwhelmingly funded by public sources. The private sector provides a little chump change to improve their sales figures (e.g. the (RED) Campaign) but in reality, nothing substantive in comparison to public funding. Please note that Bill Gates is the exception, not the rule.

A Paul presidency would mean that scores of people around the world would die, simply for the crime of having been born poor and not having a little blue passport. It pains me to laud the health successes of the Bush Presidency, however, the Obama Administration has been embarrassingly lackluster compared to Bush, barely mentioning world health issues in his four years in office. I fear that the rise of extreme right-wingers like Paul signals a general indifference of America—and not only to world health issues—and that the day will come when programs such as PEPFAR are lost to history.

Paul’s attitude toward health care is akin to Jehovah’s witnesses who refuse to provide blood transfusions to dying children. He would let the world suffer and die for the sake of a pig-headed adherence to a limited ideology but what else should we expect form the guy who supports nuclear proliferation?

Václav Havel, the former dissident-turned-President of Czechoslovakia who just passed away this past December, argued in his seminal essay, The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe, that, “Ideology, in creating a bridge of excuses between the system and the individual, spans the abyss between the aims of the system and the aims of life. It pretends that the requirements of the system derive from the requirements of life.” Unfortunately for my uncle and millions like him, ideology is a prescription destined to fail each and every time. For Paul, it’s a talking point engineered to sell more newsletters and pad his pockets.

Domestically, the health concerns of the poor are not to be heard on the campaign trail. Republican voters simply don’t want to hear about it. Worse yet, conversations about Paul’s health care policy are absent amongst his youngest supporters, who seem to be more concerned about legalizing weed and the waning wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The young and healthy, it seems, think little about the sick.

Fortunately, Paul will not become President. His ascendency, however, signals that a large sector of America is comfortable letting people like my uncle die.

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