Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Santorum's Unintelligent Designs

Click here to help oust Rick Santorum

To the behest of our beloved Sen. Rick Santorum, R- Penn. intelligent design recently proved it wasn't a theory meant to weather Darwin's hypothesis. ID, like many other whackadoo theories before it, ironically went the way of the dodo as a federal court the hypothesis a religious contention that advanced Christian beliefs in secular public schools. Santorum, apparently, hadn't noticed the less than hidden link.

I’m all for methodological pluralism and the rigorous scientific testing of hypotheses, but I’m not willing to accept an idea on blind faith. Intelligent design is the belief that life on earth is so beautifully complex, it must have been the product of a supreme being and not the result of mitochondrial happenstance. In other words, God – or some all-powerful being – made fingers on purpose and they’re not modern-day flagella. Wow. Deep.

But if everything is a brilliant, complex plan, why do I always walk into walls? Shouldn’t I have better spacial ability? Was the duck-billed platypus some kind of superior being inside joke? Because that thing is just crazy looking. And are holiday sweaters a test of human will?

There are things about earthly existence that fascinate and confuse. Some can be empirically tested, while others remain mysteries. Faith has its place in life. But this place shouldn’t be in the science classrooms of elementary and high schools. Science – any quality science, that is – relies on the scientific method: observe, create a testable hypothesis, test it empirically, analyze the results, use result to predict future event. Any good hypothesis should have a viable counterargument that [COULD POSSIBLY BE] disproven. The outcome to any scientific experiment should be replicable and observable.

Intelligent design lacks replicability, which means that other scientists can recreate experiments that prove whether a hypothesis is true. ID lacks empirical evidence other than an attractive hunch that the world is so breathtaking it couldn’t have happened by accident. I'm not saying that I've wished for something implausible to come true. I'm just saying I've never taught my wishes as truth in a science class.

As a social scientist, I understand it is nearly impossible to explain all actions and attitudes. But difficulty doesn’t mean impossibility. Experimental designs and tools are constantly improving. Intelligent design is a theory that deserves scientific testing. If it stands up to the rigors of the scientific method, it should rightfully claim its place in the annals of life science textbooks. But intelligent design theory hasn’t been published in renowned scientific journals because it can’t live up to the scientific requirements. If it isn’t true science, it doesn’t belong in a science classroom anywhere.

My final rant goes out to my friend and yours: Sen. Rick Santorum, R- Penn. Upon hearing the federal court decision on the intelligent design case, the good senator pulled his name from the advisory board of the organization spearheading the charge for teaching ID in schools. Sen. Santorum apparently didn’t realize that religion was behind desires to teach ID in public schools, so he removed himself from the board of the Michigan-based Christian-rights Law Center.

It’s an election year in Philadelphia. And this is the first time I can remember Santorum shying away from attempting an establishment of religion in public policy. Santorum, who we all know loves gays and women’s rights, is often at the conservative forefront banging the drum of righteousness. But not during an election year.

In November, Sen. Santorum faces a viable challenger in current ,state Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr. If Sen. Santorum’s primary goal is re-election (as research would say it is), his latest equivocal action was taken to garner much-needed votes. Not a bad move for a conservative senator located in a swing state. But Sen. Santorum’s move is pure posture. His actions betray his true beliefs. He fully endorses infusing policy with right-wing moral propriety. If re-elected, I don’t think he’ll push to have ID become a life science staple, but he won’t be opposed to those who improperly seek its implementation. I actually might be more willing to buy into ID if Santorum flunks his re-election bid.

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Friday, December 23, 2005

The Millionaire's Club

I'm not even a Red Sox fan, and I hate the Yankees for signing Johnny Damon.

You know, when the Yankees won their first World Series in their current run, in 1996, I cheered for them. In my baseball lifetime (starting in roughly 1984) the Yankees hadn't won squat, so at the time they were a novelty. I was going to school in North Jersey, and it was actually really exciting when they were making their run. They were also a gritty bunch of homegrown players and outcasts -- Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Ramiro Mendoza from the farm system, and unlikely heroes Jim Leyritz, Darryl Strawberry, Jeff Nelson and Mariano Duncan off the scrap heap.

Today, the Yankees' core of homegrown talent has dwindled down to just Jeter, second-baseman Robinson Cano, catcher Jorge Posada and closer Mariano Rivera. Instead of scrappy journeymen like Joe Girardi, their roster is stuffed full of millionaire 30-somethings at nearly every important position, -- and the payroll is up around $185 million. The gap between what the Yankees spend on their roster and what the second-biggest spenders -- the Red Sox -- lay out is larger than the entirety of many teams' payrolls.

This is why people hate the Yankees today. It isn't because they're good. The Braves have been good for 15 years, and no one really hates them. In truth, no one likes them either, because their Olympic stadium is usually emptier than a David Brooks column. It's even empty during the playoffs, when the Braves ritually lose in the first round like islanders being fed to King Kong. No, people hate the Yankees because of the organization's mania to turn itself into a high-priced all-star softball team. Consider the Yankees current roster going into '06 -- almost every position is filled by a millionaire 30-somethings brought into New York via trade or free agency:

1B: Giambi (30-something millionaire free agent)
2B: Cano (the exception to the rule)
SS: Jeter (30-something homegrown millionaire)
3B: A-wad (30-something millionaire trade)
RF: Sheffield (30-something millionaire free agent)
CF: Damon (30-something millionaire free agent)
LF: Matsui (30-something millionaire free agent)
C: Posada (30-something homegrown millionaire)
SP: Mussina (30-something millionaire free agent)
SP: Johnson (40-something millionaire trade)
SP: Pavano (30-something millionaire free agent)
SP: Chacon (ok, he's 27)
SP: Wright (30-something millionaire free agent)
SP: Wang (young and homegrown but hurt)
CL: Rivera (30-something homegrown millionaire)
RP: Villone (30-something millionaire trade)
RP: Farnsworth (As of April, he'll be a 30-something millionaire free agent)
RP: Myers (30-something millionaire free agent)

So out of 18 significant roster spots on this team, 15 are filled by millionaire 30-somethings, 9 of whom came through free agency. Another two who were acquired in trades that no other team could have made because of financial contraints. This is like the government going out and extending contracts to the highest bidder for every single budget item. Or like giving out no-bid contracts to Halliburton and other cronies to rebuild Iraq. People hate the government. And now they hate the Yankees.

Look, I realize that the Yanks pour millions back into baseball's revenue stream in the form of luxury taxes, revenue sharing and increased gate money when they visit poor sodding franchises like the Devil Rays and Pirates. And most of those other franchises have pocketed that money like Rep. Duke Cunningham at a foreclosure auction. A Yankees visit to Colorado surely helps allay the unrelieved tedium of watching the Rockettes get pummeled every night. The Yanks drive up the TV ratings, and they're almost certainly a big part of the reason that baseball has reinvented and saved itself in the wake of the mutual kamikaze run between players and management in 1994. They also do other teams favors sometimes by signing away expensive free agents who would have become albatrosses for their former employers. I mean, how happy are the A's that Jason Giambi took his overpriced steroid show to New York instead of the Bay Area? Does anyone think the Orioles want Mike Mussina back?

But it's time for the Yankees to reinvent themselves too, the old-fashioned way. People like Peter Gammons keep yammering on about the Great Yankee Youth Movement, but all they have to show for it so far is a sore-armed Chinese pitcher named Wang and a slow second baseman named Cano. This has got to be the most disappointing youth movement since Bashar al-Asad took control of Syria after his father died. Surely they could have stuck Bubba Crosby in center, or traded for someone like Seattle's Jeremy Reed.

Instead, they opted for another millionaire free agent, Jesus Damon, ripping the soul out of Boston's championship team. Will it work out? Probably not. But it still sucks.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

I Heart the War on Terror

Tonight I was watching one of the shows on prime-crime TV – that solid block of television from Monday through Friday that concerns people killing other people and then the cops or CSI's creatively and stylishly catching the killers, preferably while clad in black leather boots and low-cut blouses. This one is called NCIS, and like the other CBS crime shows, it is a profoundly conservative affair. The plotlines are unctuously deferential to the military, and to American foreign policy in general. It made me wonder if the show has become part of the Administration's burgeoning propaganda war.

Tonight there was a two-part episode concerning a Mossad (Israeli CIA) agent in the United States who was sent to recover some plutonium stolen by a Hamas cell (yes, this is absurd, but bear with me). The deputy director of the unit, who likes to wear go-go boots and about eight layers of caked makeup, is chatting with Mark Harmon -- one of the agents -- about the stakes. She says that she wants to cooperate with the Israeli secret service Mossad to catch Hamas members so they aren’t “over in Iraq killing our boys.”

I threw up my hands in disgust as this line was uttered because it played into a whole series of Bush Administration fantasies about the War on Terror. First, it does not take a particularly knowledgeable Middle East expert to realize that Hamas is not carrying out attacks in Iraq or anywhere else outside of Israel and the Palestinian territories. It is an anti-Israeli terrorist organization and has absolutely nothing to do with Iraq or the global war on terror. It certainly has nothing to do with al-Qaeda.

More perniciously than a simple factual error, though, the plot conveniently blurs the lines between terrorist organizations, just as the Preznit has been doing for four years. Bush, Cheney, Rice and others have always conflated disparate terror organizations – from Hamas to al-Qaeda to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey – for their own political purposes. Because if all terrorist organizations were created equally, then the methods used to deal with them – for Bush, that would be blunt force – should also be exactly the same. So to enlist Russian aid in the war, for example, we have turned a blind eye as the rotting former Soviet military ruthlessly crushes Chechen rebels and turns Grozny into a festering ruin.

More importantly, it reinforces the long-running Bush storyline on Iraq, which is that Iraq was a “safe haven” for terrorists before the invasion -- which it quite demonstrably was not. If Hamas was and is operating in Iraq, or at least if TV viewers can be led to believe so, then people are more likely to believe Bush is on the right track. Hamas in Iraq killing our boys? Well then, it must be the central front in the War on Terror that it has been so preposterously made out to be. I can just see Americans nodding along to this plotline, and shrugging their shoulders at revelations of the Bush Administration’s illegal wiretapping.

There is a larger story here, though, and a larger worry for me. Network TV has long been used by the government to plant storylines that are approved by the state. E.R., 7th Heaven, and other popular shows have been getting paid for quite some time to push the failed and costly Drug War on reluctant, bong-toking Americans. If you spend five minutes watching network television (as opposed to cable TV), you are bombarded with anti-drug messages. Think back to Carter’s painkiller addiction on E.R. as just one instance of an anti-drug storyline worming its way to the forefront of network plots. It’s even worse on these crime shows, where typically one puff on a joint will land you on a concrete slab being examined by some hottie with plucked eyebrows and a ridiculously fashionable outfit. Can you think of a single character on network TV (outside of the gang on the wonderfully subversive That 70’s Show) who regularly smokes weed and doesn’t end up being interrogated by David Caruso or Gary Sinise?

So here’s my question: Is the government paying certain programs to push plots that are friendly to the War on Terror? Before you call me a conspiracy theorist, remember that this is the government that has notoriously been paying several journalists to produce White House-friendly op-eds, planting pro-American stories in the Iraqi media, burying unflattering EPA reports, and threatening to fire Medicare officials who improperly estimate the costs of new government entitlements. In other words, the Bush Administration has turned itself into the most notorious manipulator of information and propaganda in the modern age.

I can rattle off several shows just off the top of my head that seem to push these kinds of plots, including 24, E-Ring, NCIS, CSI Miami and who knows how many others. I can’t bring myself to watch most of these shows, so I can’t say for sure what’s going on in their plots. But this NCIS tonight was fishy enough to make such a scenario plausible to me.

So what, you might ask? The networks have been losing viewers to shows like Rescue Me and The Sopranos on cable for ages, and there hasn’t been a drama on network TV in donkey’s years that even remotely approaches the brilliance of Six Feet Under. Network television certainly does not have the same cultural currency that it once did. But ask yourself if you really want to live in a country where the government is manipulating its own artists to push the standard storyline of the day, whether it’s about drugs, abstinence or the War on Terror. Do you really want your art subject to the strictures of the DEA or the Department of Homeland Security?

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George W. Bush Invades my Love Life

I can only hope that President George W. Bush wasn’t listening to my transcontinental phone sex calls this summer. The recent New York Times article that unpacked the president’s wiretapping habits was terrifying on so many levels. And a girl has needs when she’s thousands of miles from her live-in boyfriend.

I rifle through every article, hoping that an excerpt from my long-distance summer of love doesn’t end up in the belly of a New York Times piece. Could my romantic relationship be the political football that effects the demise of Dubya? Will my parents get the dry heaves when they read it?

My personal quandary aside, my true fear stems from the clandestine nature of our allegedly transparent democracy. This week has been filled with an unapologetic president reasserting his patriotic decision to listen in on approximately 500 domestic phone lines per month – without so much as a warrant. In fact, he’s been lashing out at the traitors who leaked the story to the nefarious New York Times – the teammates of the treasonous. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who has previously denied government’s constitutional right to spy on people inside the United States, claims the wiretapping actually provides for greater civil liberties. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never felt more liberated. For all I know, I’ve checked out the wrong library book, ended up on the Bush naughty list and am now a victim of pernicious and blind pursuit of domestic terrorists.

The patriotic eavesdropping surfaces after a reel of evidence accusing the administration of operating or condoning prisons in which torture was a mainstay. Yeah, it’s been a blissful week in the enlightened Oval Office. Can’t you just hear the echoes of “Joy to the World” blast through the corridors?

With wiretapping policy, Bush took advantage of a largely unknown loophole in the presidential instruction manual. Presidents are allowed to stealthily pass executive orders, which permits the executive to enact laws unilaterally. Giving the executive lawmaking powers is a touchy subject in America’s political design.

The Founding Fathers – nearly all wary of recreating monarchy on American soil – took great pains to create a checked and balanced government that shared powers. They carefully placed the ability to make laws in the hands of Congress – with 535 total members and multifarious interests and constituencies. The diffusion of power was intentional. Congress, like my long-distance relationship this summer, was designed to frustrate.

Bush’s executive order is hurtful on many fronts. First, and most importantly, it flies in the face of our government’s intended structure. Even a basic civics class teaches that the executive’s charge is to enforce the laws made by legislature. When the president engages in law creation, it tests the foundations of American institutional design. Clearly, executive orders have historically been useful tools: The Emacipation Proclamation, integration of public schools and itegration of the armed forces. But they must be used sparingly and carefully: think of the ramifications of Japanese internment camps. Spying on citizens without legal warrant or a really good reason should be condemned and abruptly ended.

Beyond the concerns of our founders, the policy is constitutionally questionable. And questionable is a euphemism. According to security experts, this order represents the first time national authorities tapped stateside without a warrant issued from the secret court designed specifically for this purpose. Not only were National Security Agency employees tapping people suspected of interaction with Al Queda, they tapped a panoply of citizens, tourists and legal residents who merely came into contact with anyone under suspicion. They targeted people without criminal pasts. They might have targeted me, since I sometimes attend parties thrown by Middle Eastern student groups. Or maybe they listened because I spent a suspicious summer in London amid a series of terrorist bombings.

Bush claims to have gained the approval of the wiretapping policy from top congressional leaders. Did he mumble the proposal into his hand when he explained it? Was a really loud background fireworks display muffing the most important nuggets of the conversation? Or did our elected leaders just fail to defend civil liberties?

Our leaders are charged with ensuring our security. Their methods to reach this end, however, have left me anxious and suspicious. I only hope Bush enjoyed my summer phone calls as much as I did. His heartwarming apology will surely restore the American public's trust.

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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Pay the man

It never ceases to amaze me how otherwise normal, sensible people get their knickers in a twist when confronted with the salaries of professional sports players. Stupendous contracts now litter the baseball offseason, doled out to players who are not exactly on the fast-track to the Hall of Fame: $55 million to sub-.500 hurler AJ Burnett, $47 million to reliever BJ Ryan, a man with one year of closing experience, and $21 million to Estaban Loaiza, a guy who has averaged 10.5 wins over the past two seasons, just to name a few.

SI’s Richard Deitsch writes:

I know I shouldn't care. It's not my money. If Universal Studios thinks $160,000,000 is an appropriate budget for Van Helsing, well, bombs away, fellas. If Ben Affleck wants to blow $1.2 million on a shiny pink engagement ring for Jennifer Lopez, well, you can't put a price on love. But thanks to the Toronto Blue Jays, you can put a price on a pair of pitchers with a combined career record of 65-69. And that price is $102 million.
It’s called a market, mate, and it works like this: when there is competition for scarce resources (in this market it is quality pitching), the cost of the commodity skyrockets. But still the pundits have lined up to denounce the $55 million contract lavished on A.J. Burnett by the Toronto Blue Jays, which everyone complains has “skewed the market” or something. Dan Szymborski thinks “failure is more likely” than success. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune calls the contracts "madness" and players like Burnett "unproven." I could go on.

I don't know if these moves will work out, but in a larger sense all the hand-wringing is nonsense. The truth is that people are still fundamentally jealous of the big, dumb athletes they spend half their lives watching on TV and at the stadium. They look at their own lives and wonder why they aren’t worth $35 million over seven years with an $11 million signing bonus. We figure we’re worth at least a mil for every time we fix the copy machine. Most of all, many people are unconsciously skittish over the role that professional sports play in our lives.

How else to explain the drama over salaries? Here’s the reality: Americans have turned professional sports into the eighth largest industry in North America – a gross national sports product of at least $85 billion. CBS Sportsline, a fantasy sports entity, made $15 million all by itself last year. Of that $85 billion, how much do you suppose filters back to the men and women who leave their hearts and souls on the fields in the first place? How much would be too much? A quarter? Half?

It may be that the Blue Jays and Mets have overspent on key players this winter. Everyone seems to think they’ve indebted themselves into oblivion, and that the free agents they signed are inevitably going to end up soaking their feet in the trainer’s room while watching their minimum-wage replacements get slapped around by the Devil Rays or, God forbid, the Royals.

But championships have been bought with free agents before. Just ask the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks. Or the 1997 Marlins. Randy Johnson’s 1998 contract with the D-Backs – 4 years, $53 million – turned out to 1be one of the greatest free agent signings in history. He went 81-27, and the D-Backs made the playoffs in 1999, 2001 and 2002, winning it all in ’01. Surely there were some writers who thought it was insane to give such a contract to a 30-something left-hander.

I actually don’t care how much money baseball players make. If the owners wanted to make the games cheaper to watch, they could do it in a flash by setting aside certain seats on certain days for low-income families and individuals. Art Moreno does it in California Anaheim Los Angeles. But the owners don’t have any more interest in such niceties than the players do. As long as someone is making coin off of me, it may as well be the players. Many of these guys are from hard-scrabble backgrounds and have busted their balls their entire lives to get where they are.

Years ago, I graduated from high school with a guy who got drafted in the early rounds out of college by the Seattle Mariners. He was a stand-up guy, a straight-A student, and just an all-around good person. He dropped out of the minors after two seasons even though he was doing pretty well. We went to see a Phillies game together, and he told me he just couldn’t take the baseball life. You’re always out on the road, always training, always working. You have no social life. Most of these guys have their normal social and intellectual development short-circuited by spending 24-hours a day with a bunch of other guys who play a child’s game for a living.

For most baseball players, the game is all there is. If it doesn’t work, it’s back to a life of menial drudgery in the hometown, or if they’re lucky, toiling in the low minors as a bench coach or manager in some backwoods hick town. So believe me, I feel no remorse that some of our money trickles down to these guys. If anything, I wish the players' union would look out for the grunts even more by funneling a portion of these huge contracts into pension funds for career minor leaguers and by lowering the number of major-league years it takes to qualify for a pension. The last thing I want anyone to do with that money is stick it back into the pockets of petty plutocratic tyrants like Jeffrey Loria and George Steinbrenner.

The attitude toward sports players making money is the mirror image of how Americans feel about most unions and most wage-earners. They look at striking teachers or auto workers and ask, “How dare these people stop working to make more money? Who do they think they are?” No one wants to take their place though, because they would quickly find out what grueling work teaching or manufacturing really is. They want their education, their cars, and their entertainment for exactly what they think it’s worth – which, strangely enough, is always significantly less than the market will bear.

So I say three cheers for A.J. Burnett, the son of a postal worker and a high school teacher. His family can retire and get a taste of the magnificent inherited wealth of people like billionaire Blue Jays owner Ted Rogers. And it brings a smile to my face to think of Rogers writing out $11 million checks to a nobody from nowhere like A.J. Burnett. It must really eat him alive.

What a pity.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

An Open Letter to Andy Reid and Mike McMahon

I was the fan sitting in the second tier during the Monday Night Football Cowboys debacle. I was yelling, cheering and defending myself from the drunken mooks across the aisle. The redhead, yeah, that was me. I believed. I could smell the win. I was going to join you, Donovan McNabb, when you explained the tenets of teamwork to media-hound Terrell Owens. Instead, I ache.

The trauma – and excessive amounts of alcohol -- have luckily erased many of the gutting details of the final three minutes of the game. I do, however, remember Dave turning to me shouting, “We’re gonna win. We’re gonna win.”
I’m not a gridiron whizkid, but I knew this outburst was bad karma.

“You idiot,” I slurred. “Two minutes is an entire football game. Three minutes is an eternity.” I know this through years of painstaking football indoctrination curtosey of my Giants-fan father.

Now I’m not a fan of Jennifer Love Hewitt nor her new television show Ghost Whisperer or whatever it is. I don’t know what it’s about – other than various perky elements of her, uhm, self. But if I were to guess the plot, it would be something like my experience at Monday Night Football.

I was a prophet. I saw – I did not will – the drastic and humiliating defeat. I wanted, terribly, to thwart the impending doom. But the Eagles lack free will. It is a team destined to collapse. Like a tortured pooch near a piercing dog whistle [I'M NOT SURE ABOUT THIS METAPHOR], I could hear the histrionic cackles of Terrell echo throughout the Link. I felt the pain of McNabb’s sports hernia pulsing through my innards.

Though I didn’t see McNabb go down, I knew Mike McMahon’s entrance wasn’t a pre-game plan. I knew this, Andy Reid, I knew. I watched in terror as you blew the 14-point cushion. Even I know you can't force a west-coast offense on a QB will an inaccurate rifle of an arm. A part of me died that day. I knew the people around me that Monday night felt the same because they stopped saying vulgar and suggestive things to me. Now I’m an empty, vacuous shell of a woman because of the Philadelphia Eagles. I can’t look at the color green without pain. I hate Don Henley. Please send help.

Mike McMahon:
You probably don’t remember me, but I was in your Sports Labor Relations Class at Rutgers. I sat in the middle of the room, while you collected with the other football players near the front. We never had any significant interaction beyond a passing introduction, but I think our parallel New Brunswick pasts cosmically unite us.

I’ve been in Philly just a few years more than you. This city will love you, if you treat her right. Expectations for you are not high, Mike. Maybe it’s because you’re a product of the Big East’s personal pigskin punching bag. Between your time at Rutgers and with the Detroit Tigers you did, after all, boast a 25-83 won-lost record. Our time on the banks of the Raritan was special – mainly for the sporadic beaching of dead bodies on the Piscataway breakers. I’ve watched you grow and I was stoked when I heard you were following me to Philly.

New Brunswick and Detroit are cool, but Philly is something spectacular. Love her, but be aware she bites back. Buy your cheesesteak “wit,” and never wince at the thought of Cheese Whiz. You’re the one who can make me believe again. You can be my A. J. Feeley with a twist of Jersey trash. Let’s get a Lager some time. And Mike, that’s Philly for Yuengling.

Andy Reid:
You suck.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Krauthammer does torture

"Torture you? That's a good idea. I like that."

Charles Krauthammer thinks we should torture people, or -- more specifically -- he thinks that other people should torture people, since torture is "as degrading and morally corrupting to those who practice it as any conceivable human activity including its moral twin, capital punishment." So no one in the military is to practice torture. Also, and importantly, conservative opinion columnists named Charles Krauthammer are exempted from having to torture people.

Rear Admiral Krauthammer also has a pretty good idea of who we should torture, and why:

Outside the military, however, I would propose -- contra McCain -- a ban against all forms of torture, coercive interrogation and inhuman treatment, except in two contingencies: (1) the ticking time bomb and (2) the slower-fuse, high-level terrorist (such as KSM). Each contingency would have its own set of rules.

In the case of the ticking time bomb, the rules would be relatively simple: nothing rationally related to getting accurate information would be ruled out.

It should be immediately clear what's wrong with this formulation: who decides which suspects are "ticking time bombs"? What if the suspect was plotting an attack to take place a year hence? Is he or she still ticking? Or are they burning fuses? Could they be remote detonation devices? What if it's a quick-burning fuse? In addition to this terrible metaphorical dilemma, Krauthammer's "rules" for torture could easily be subverted by just about anyone with two electrodes and a brain.

"You there, what are you doing to that man's genitals?"

"Um, well, Sir, what I was actually doing was, um, torturing him. But he's...a...ticking time bomb! That's it! Man, he was about to go boom! And then I stuck these electrodes on his privates and he started talking. Oh, Sir, he told us everything. Names. Places. Apparently the mastermind is--"

"--Let me see that. Sayid Jarrah. Excellent work. That's the Indian guy from Lost."

There's a bigger problem, though. Krauthammer justifies the torture of terrorists by claiming that they operate outside the laws of war and thus are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. The terrorist "does not wear a uniform, he hides among civilians and he deliberately targets innocents."

As for the uniform problem, I've got a great solution for the terrorists: Cafe Press. Something like this. But there are several other problems with Krauthammer's logic: the laws of war were clearly designed to allow advanced, industrialized countries to fight each other. When the conventions were written, most existing countries had big, lumbering armies that dressed their soldiers in distinctive uniforms.

Today's reality is that there are few countries whose armies could last more than a few minutes against the U.S. military. Call it premature capitulation. Does that mean that, logically speaking, enemy armed forces should have no alternative to fighting pitched battles in their Jihad t-shirts and buttons, getting blown away by the next generation of Donald Rumsfeld's weapons? Of course not. The Geneva Conventions should be updated to recognize the necessity and legitimacy of armed guerrilla warfare against numerically and technologically superior occupying forces. (And no, this does not mean I approve of Iraqi insurgent activity. But someday a country that we like will be invaded and occupied by a country we don't like. And then what?)

But there is a bigger problem. Loads of the people hanging around in Guantanamo were picked up in Afghanistan while fighting for the Taliban. Were Taliban fighters terrorists? As far as they were concerned, they were fighting for the legitimate government of Afghanistan -- a government that was recognized by several of the country's neighbors. What if we picked up one of them and he knew of an impending attack? Torture or no torture? What if the torture contravenes the actually existing text of the Geneva Conventions? For instance, what if a former Baathist, wearing the old Iraqi Army uniform for old time's sake and walking brazenly among the non-innocent, were captured during an attack on American forces? What if he could be tortured to give up information on an upcoming bombing? Waterboard him?

As for Krauthammer's repetition of the line that "torture works," he is able to trot out only one example. Apparently, 11 years ago the Israelis tortured a Palestinian and he gave up the location of a 19-year-old soldier who had been kidnapped by militants. As an aside, Krauthammer notes that the soldier was killed during the rescue attempt, but asserts that this does not change his argument about torture's efficacy.

Excuse me? This is not a minor problem -- the act of torture appears to have gotten this young man killed. It is certainly plausible that he would have been killed anyway, but how are we to know? Was this one man worth the damage done to the Israeli torturers themselves? And is Krauthammer dim enough to believe that terrorists won't figure out a way around this problem? If I were them, here's what I would do: instruct all members of Team Kidnapping to give up false information if tortured (just like John McCain gave his North Vietnamese captors the names of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line) like a false location. Have someone watch that false location. If anyone shows up there, execute the captive, or send up a Bat-signal or something. And it only took me, like two minutes to come up with that.

I don't doubt that at several points in the space-time continuum, people have yielded accurate information when tortured. The question is not whether torture ever works -- it is whether or not, on balance, it works better than standard interrogation and pressure techniques. Who's better at getting a confession -- SVU's Mariska Hargitay, or Lyndie England? Frankly, with civilization really was on the line in Krauthammer's ridiculous nuclear scenario, I'd rather have Mariska in there with KSM instead of sending in some depraved reservist who likes to stack Iraqis on top of one another for fun. Plus she's cuter. And don't tell me that your ideal torture-practitioner wouldn't be crazy; like academics, torture is a self-selecting profession.

Krauthammer's "rules" are in fact nothing more serious than an attempt to excuse specific American behavior. They are designed for our use and our convenience and nothing more. Here's the bottom line: we should not torture people. We should not torture ordinary terrorists, and we should not torture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. We should not torture Palestinians, Iraqis nor members of the Taliban. We should not torture to save one life, and we should not torture to save a million. We should not cut off people's ears while dancing stylishly to "Stuck in the Middle With You" by Stealers Wheel. We should not strap suspects to boards and simulate drowning. We should not torture people to save Charles Krauthammer's life, nor mine. It is morally degrading, it violates the clear intent of the Geneva Conventions -- if not their actual text -- it clearly harms American interests, and there is no systematic evidence that it even works.

However, I'm sure that all pales in comparison to Krauthammer imagining how cool it would be to taunt Osama with "Are you gonna bark all day little doggie, or are you gonna bite?"

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

You want a War on Christmas?

I'm sorry folks, but this column is being published, for real, actual greenbacks, by the Philadelphia Citypaper this week. You can read it here.

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Friday, December 02, 2005

The Bush Leagues

By Wendy Ginsberg

Splashed across the front pages of every major U.S. newspaper is the groundbreaking headline: “Bush has absolutely nothing new to say.” Okay, maybe the wording is nuanced, but the top news story across the nation is the president’s mini-whistlestop extravaganza during which he’ll unpack his nitty-gritty plan for successful Iraqi democratization. First stop: the midshipmen of Annapolis, Maryland.

Along with the song and dance, Bush is peddling his newest cure-all elixer: the “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq." While journalists spend the day tearing into the 35-page exit strategery manifesto, visions of Ikea assembly instructions were surely dancing in their heads. The plan: beat up the bad guys and let the unstructured, ineffective Iraqi security forces do the real dirty work of controlling remaining Saddam Hussein supporters and edgy Sunnis. Like Ikea furniture, this plan will collapse soon after widespread consumer purchase.

Like they’re rallying the team in a locker room before kickoff, Bush, Rove, Rice and Rumsfeld spent the last few weeks chastising the Iraq war nonbelievers and nay-sayers. Dissent was weakness. Questions were unpatriotic. We were to listen to Coach Bush and win the clash. But that’s where comparisons between the White House horsemen and a successful gridiron squad end.

A well-oiled squad gets the game plan well before the coin toss. It took the Bush Administration two and a half years to create its first publicly-available roadmap to success in Iraq. President Bush stressed that the document didn’t offer any new ideas, but it did put them all together in one, neatly typed compilation. One can only assume the classified war plan still exists, consisting entirely of doodles on alcohol-spotted cocktail napkins and any available rolling papers.

Who knew it would only take 35 pages to solve U.S. entanglement in Iraq? Oh, and the first three pages are a summary of the remaining 32. Surely Peyton Manning’s playbook for his weekly three-hour contests contain more substance. Additionally, the government document espouses the benefits of “Victory in Iraq” (because it makes us feel warm and fuzzy – I swear, that’s a reason), but doesn’t investigate the war’s costs ( more than 2,000 American deaths and more than $224 billion).

The Bush White House is right about one thing: there is nothing new or groundbreaking in the strategy document. But they’ve garnered a lion’s share of fanfare to tell the American public absolutely nothing. The plan sounds good in the abstract – create a solid institutional foundation, become regional role model, live long and prosper. The problem is that there is nothing more than the abstract. An evacuation timetable might not be the answer. But concrete, measurable and incremental goals are a must.

For Bush, Iraq is an experimental design. You know, like the old Statue of Liberty play -- use patriotic symbols to exact victory. But democratic institutions have no history in the Middle East. Iraq, according to the White House, will serve as a model for other neighboring states. It could convince despots to relinquish their control and create more stable and legitimate regimes. But the existing playbook comes up short. There aren’t shortcuts to democratization. The same way the Houston Texans won't find shortcuts to pigskin success. Playbooks -- military or otherwise -- can’t overlook the details. Bush can’t expect to hand American citizens a faulty and incomplete game plan two and half years after the clash commenced and expect a unified and organized front. Peyton Manning wouldn’t stand for it, and neither will I.

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By Wendy Ginsberg
When Paul Tagliabue recently announced his desire for an NFL team to return to Southern California, it smacked of deja vous. Not simply because we’ve already seen the demise of not one, but two football teams in that exact location, but because powerful leaders across the board are constantly trying to reignite failed endeavors.

If a government official or CEO believes in a city, person or a cause, they often throw money toward it blindly – ignoring historical evidence that begs them to do otherwise. Though it’s Tagliabue is once again drinking the Los Angeles Kool-Aid, he is just one of many of powerful executives seduced by the sugary prospects of would-be success.

Take the saga of the Florida Marlins, for example. Here’s a team that clinched a World Series victory only to watch the general manager dismantle the winning rhythm in the off season and trade off the most successful players. MLB officials should have seen this firesale coming. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, was similarly flippant with team members when he was the holder of the Expos wallet. Since the Expos ceased to exist as Quebecois at the end of Loria’s tenure, one can only think that Major League Baseball’s decision to hand him a new franchise on a silver platter was not the best of decisions.

The Expos reappeared last season in Washington, D.C. as the Nationals. The head honchos at MLB – the very same men who let Loria purchase the Marlins after running the Expos into the ground – run the Nationals organization. It’s a hardball case of foxes guarding the lime-lined, diamond shaped henhouses. Loria ransacked one franchise and was handed a new one. The bequeathers of franchise happily picked up with tattered pieces Loria left behind. MLB officials continue to excuse and bail out Loria, a man who has single-handedly turned the entire city of Miami into basketball fans.

But members of the NFL and MLB aren’t the only multi-million dollar monstrosities who continue to make poor investment choices. Government technocrats make similar miscalculations. The federal government, for example, has a solid history of continuing to bail out failing carmakers, awarding contracts to corrupt construction giants and implementing tax breaks for human-rights violating textile companies. These struggling, corrupt and often-failing organizations consistently receive government’s red carpet treatment.

Sure there are situations in which government intervention – or the wisdom of Paul Tagliabue – is necessary. When Art Modell smacked heads with the city of Cleveland over the construction of a new stadium, Tagliabue could have intervened and prevented the team’s controversial move to Baltimore. Similarly, when gas prices skyrocketed after Hurricane Katrina, government could have fined those involved in price gouging.

In the long run, Tagliabue can appoint task force groups to examine the profit potential for new franchises in areas with burgeoning populations. This plan could avoid the inanity of taxpayer money being put toward construction of a goliath stadium in a small and short-term market (see Milwaulkee’s Miller Park). Government, on the other hand, could invest heavily in a public relations campaign to encourage the use of public transportation or it could subsidize hybrid car sales. On another front it could award government contracts only to companies that adhere to international human rights requirements.

None of the institutions – neither the panoply of major league sports organizations nor the houses of American government – needs to succumb to the whims of a fickle market. Both need leaders that understand harsh vicissitudes of the American consumer. But pouring money into faulty foundations is foolish.

For major-league sports, the options are clear: invest in new, emerging cities with ripe markets (see Las Vegas). Don’t plug franchises into cities where they’ve already failed or the market is weak (ahem, Los Angeles). That’s like continuously bailing out Chrysler, Ford or various airlines. Maybe the deal looks great on paper, but it hasn’t worked -- and it probably won’t work again. Instead, pro sports should look at burgeoning cities like Las Vegas or build up a sports-jonezing city like Portland. The Marlins, who struggle with an empty stadium even when they’re World-Series bound, are seeing the light and contemplating a move to Sin City.

Government has an obligation to look out for the welfare of all its citizens – even if they live in a struggling post-industrial town. But this charge doesn’t mean tax dollars should be spent bailing out companies with faulty organizational foundations. Instead, entrepreneurs with new technologies and bold business plans can be offered tax breaks and grants to move to economically struggling areas. Come on, Tagliabue, we’ve been here before. Don’t invest in the broken. Find the most promising seedbed and plant your new franchise there.

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Thursday, December 01, 2005

Put Fish on Ice and Ship Them To Vegas, Baby

Baseball’s latest relocation fiasco has commenced following the Florida state senate’s rejection last spring of a proposed $420 million retractable-roof stadium for the two-time world champion Miami Aquatic Dwellers. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, who has been given permission by baseball to look elsewhere, is threatening to move the franchise to greener (as in dollars) pastures. If I were one of the five or six Marlins fans left in South Florida, I’d not only wish them good riddance, I’d buy the airfare for Loria and his depleted bunch of post-firesale ballplayers. And then I’d send them a fruit basket to thank them for getting the hell out of my life.

If Loria wants to reach deep into his millionaire pockets and buy a stadium for himself, that’s fine with me. And indeed the team is willing to pony up about half the cost. But the era of generously-funded stadiums seems to have come to a crashing halt with the advent of Bushonomics. Baseball parks are an inextricable part of the "Beast That Must Be Starved," known in more treasonous left-wing circles as government. And let’s be honest here -- even today, $420 million is a lot of greenbacks. It could pay for six hours of the war in Iraq, a day and night of Bill Bennett’s gambling or even part of Duke Cunningham’s house.

I’m not going to lie to you: I don’t know the first thing about Miami. I’ve never been there, I have no intention of visiting, and, frankly, I resent them for playing host to that awful version of CSI with a brooding David Caruso offering up his best "Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven" impression every Monday night. But my guess is that like every other major urban center in this country, there’s barely enough money for essentials like schoolbooks or the mayor’s prostitutes, let alone for a giant, manicured sandbox littered with luxury boxes for America’s burgeoning millionaire population. The wise legislators of Florida -- previously known for creatively stripping released felons of their voting rights -- have decided that with whole portions of their hurricane-stricken state to rebuild, it might look a bit gauche to give millions to a baseball team.

As everyone with access to Lexis-Nexis knows, baseball stadiums tend not to do very much in the long run for local economies. Camden Yards, for instance, may bring a net benefit of $3 million a year into Baltimore. But the $110 million price tag may take more than 35 years to recoup. And by that time the ghost of Peter Angelos will undoubtedly be clamoring for a multi-purpose underwater stadium for Baltimore Harbor -- just to keep up with the times.

And Camden Yards is a success story. Many cities build stadiums far from city centers, like Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park. These venues are designed with huge parking lots for suburbanites to zip in and out of Philly's boundaries without having to interact with the scary superpredators of the inner cities. Most of the jobs created by the new construction are part-time Burger-King-level concessions and gatekeeper positions that add very little to the local economy and offer less than a living wage. And sometimes no one even goes to the fancy new park because the team is still rotten, as the Detroit Tigers found out the hard way.

Voters seem to have seen through the myth that sports stadiums can act as catalysts for citywide revivals. This knowledge even appears to have performed the marvelous trick of penetrating the consciousness of Florida’s legislators. But Floridians are not only bitter about the economics – they are in the process of getting screwed by the Marlins for the second time in eight years.

Let me give you a short history of the Florida Marlins: Baseball decided to expand for the 1993 season. That expansion has been a disaster -- mainly because of where they chose to locate the teams. One of them went to Denver, where the thin air has turned the Rockies into a softball franchise that can’t attract decent pitching. The other went to Miami, where the clamor for major league baseball was so loud that you could almost hear it in the other room.

The Marlins and their thrifty owner, Blockbuster magnate Wayne Huizenga, endured three expansion-quality seasons before making a splash by signing Kevin Brown prior to the 1996 season. He was a bigger smash than the Marlins could have imagined, winning 17 games with a microscopic 1.89 ERA. He helped bring the Marlins respectability with an 80-82 win/loss record. Then Huizenga green-lit an even bigger spending frenzy and the Fish went out and signed Moises Alou and Alex Fernandez in the ’96 offseason. The team, which drew respectable crowds in 1996, suddenly became a big draw again -- like they were in their inaugural season.

And then the Marlins went all the way to the wretched 1997 World Series. There they faced off with the pitiful ’97 Indians and gave us the most error-filled, mistake-laden World Series in modern history. Still, it went seven games, and Miami had its champion. At which point Huizenga claimed he wasn’t making any money on his beloved champions because of their outdated stadium, and decided to perpetrate the greatest firesale since Charlie O torched the Oakland A’s in 1975. In the offseason and early in the 1998 season, the Marlins traded or shed the entire core of their world champions, including Moises Alou, Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown, Devon White, Jim Eisenreich, Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson, Al Leiter, Robb Nen, Jay Powell, and Dennis Cook. They turned a championship-caliber team into 108-game losers. Miami fans had to watch in horror as guys like Leiter, Brown, Sheffield, and Nen took their teams to the World Series over the next eight years.

This was worse than anything the Expos ever did to Montreal. It was worse than Art Modell moving the Browns to Baltimore. In fact, it was probably the greatest and most lovingly-rendered kiss-off to the fans of any major city in all the years of American professional sports. Huizenga took the beating heart of the Marlins franchise out of Miami’s chest cavity like the deranged pagans in The Temple of Doom, and tossed it into the festering swamps of the Florida Everglades. He then lit a cigar and went back to ripping off Blockbuster’s customers. The only people who showed up to watch the feeble Triple-A team masquerading as the Marlins in 1998 were the people who didn’t realize that the team had been sold off for a bag of baseballs and some crap prospects like the immortal Oscar Henriquez. Attendance dwindled year-by-year until only a few more than 800,000 showed up to watch the 2002 Marlins go 80-82.

In 2003 the Marlins miraculously won the World Series. But they still finished 15th out of 16 National League teams in attendance, outdrawing only the Puerto Rico Expos. They barely drew half the fans they had in 1997. To any clear-eyed observer, the Marlins had permanently squandered their goodwill with the Miami community. This is why they were on the short list for the contraction that commissioner Bud tried to pull off by the 2002 season. Cooler heads prevailed, and the Marlins were sold to Jeffrey Loria, who had helped destroy the Montreal Expos and perhaps defrauded his partners to boot.

So this (cough, alleged) fraud Loria then had the temerity to demand from Florida’s taxpayers, who were still putting makeup over the bruises Huizenga gave them, a gigantic, completely unnecessary stadium with a retractable roof (so the Marlins wouldn’t lose revenue to all those April rainouts). There are several profoundly disturbing things about this demand, the first, however, is the $420 million price tag. Camden Yards, which opened in 1992, cost $110 million. Are you telling me that the price of baseball stadiums has increased 400 percent in 15 years? Even allowing for soaring real estate prices and general inflation, this is rather hard to believe. Even the Money Pit better known as Citizens Bank Park didn’t cost that much money, and I think the cost of living is just a touch higher in the Northeast than it is in Florida.

The more disturbing point is that Loria thinks anyone in Miami cares whether he takes his team to Las Vegas or Charlotte or Monterrey. And to highlight his own stupidity, he shows his ongoing goodwill by selling off the remnants of his 2003 World Champions, trading young, cheap Josh Beckett -- the undisputed hero of the ’03 postseason -- along with Mike Lowell and Guillermo Mota, to the bloody Red Sox for some double-A prospects and a basket of warm bread. Carlos Delgado, signed only the year before to a monster contract, is now a New York Met. Ace starter A.J. Burnett and closer Todd Jones will not be re-signed. Is this supposed to make the people of Miami regret the decision of their representatives not to authorize the stadium? It’s like dumping your boyfriend for cheating on you and then watching him go sleep with ten people in a week. There’s nothing more satisfying than realizing you’ve made the right call.

I have no idea where the Marlins will end up. Right now no one has a working stadium for them, so they’re stuck in Miami until at least 2008 with a dwindling base of bitter fans. And instead of groveling for Jeffrey Loria to keep his band of merry teal warriors in Miami, the good citizens of South Florida have sent the man a message that ends with “So long and thanks for all the fish.”

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