Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A great photo

Got this photo from a good post by Oliver Hart and Luigi Zingales at Foreign Policy’s The Argument.

200903 - 20Dollar-WhiteHouseCredit: KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images 

(If I have mis-credited the photo, please correct me!)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Robert Reich, Soothsayer?

TAP-200904

In the April issue of The American Prospect, former Secretary of Labor under Clinton, and author of Supercapitalism, Reich puts forward his predictions about the American economy. The article begins:

“I've got something of a reputation as an economic soothsayer. Last March I predicted the economy would slide off a cliff in six months. Six months later, it did. How did I know? I'll get to that later. Now, I'm predicting the economy will start to recover in the second quarter of next year.”

Beyond its rather self-important tone, Reich has some good things to say and back up his position. He says it’s important to look at the fundamentals (without saying they’re “strong”, as we know how dangerous that can be), and that in business “what goes down eventually comes up”.

“look at the economic fundamentals -- such as historic ratios of home values to rents and incomes and of stock prices to corporate earnings. At the rate houses and stocks are now dropping, they'll be terrific bargains by the middle of next year. Meanwhile, given how fast business inventories are now dropping, firms will probably start rebuilding by then. Business investments in plants and equipment are now nearing a standstill, so by the third quarter of next year companies will need to replace lots of aging equipment. On the consumer side, the sharp falloff in spending on durables means lots of cars and appliances will begin wearing out by the middle of next year.”

Reich’s argument is that in order to guarantee the traditional mid-term losses in congressional majorities that afflict almost every president, Obama has to have something to show for the stimulus come election day. In order to do this, Reich says, Obama might have to ask for a second stimulus from Congress. Republicans will likely try to block this, as (in a rather unpatriotic display of cutting-their-noses-off-to-spite-their-faces) “the last thing they want is an economic recovery by the midterm elections.”

Obama’s approach to the Wall Street and Big Three bailout could prove pivotal:

“The wild card is the mammoth bailouts of Wall Street and the Big Three, which most Americans almost uniformly oppose. Congressional Republicans claim to be outraged -- outraged! -- as well. So far, Obama has been treading a fine line between criticizing the bailees and still giving them what they want.”

The danger of higher interest rates which could choke off recovery from seeking more government borrowing from Japan and China (the latter growing feisty about possibly moving away from the dollar as a reserve currency), and the possibility of not getting the stimulus from Congress put Obama and his administration in a difficult position. Reich, however, thinks that Obama will be forced into some rapid triage, which could start showing results by the time voters need to wake up again. Reich makes a lot of his prediction about the crash. Let’s hope he’s right with this prediction, too.

News Round-Up #3

Here we go again, with The Nation, The New Republic, and The Weekly Standard.

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Eric Alterman, in “Is Jon Stewart Our Ed Murrow? Maybe…”, discusses the importance of Stewart and also Stephen Colbert. Specifically, they “have the audience that powerful people want to reach; yet at the same time these two men don’t participate in a pack mentality, and that’s what makes them politically invaluable.” The best bit of the article is when Alterman outlines the three main events, perpetrated by these two men who are “just comedians”:

“Stewart pretty much ended Crossfire all by himself and retired the foolish notion that a left/right food fight leads one any closer to truth. Next, Colbert shamed and exposed the pathetic performance of the White House press corps with his brilliant after-dinner speech at the correspondents' dinner. And now Stewart, first by eviscerating the coverage of CNBC and second by forcing Jim Cramer to own up to his on-air hucksterism, has revealed the lie at the center of most business coverage (and just about all cable news)… Stewart and Colbert have done yeoman work for the rest of us by exposing the thoughtlessness of the punditocracy's perpetual-motion machine, which spins itself silly powered only by hot air.”

Other articles of note in this issue are Gary Younge’s “Bonus Outrage: Class Struggle or Class Envy?”, which looks at the outrage over and reaction to AIG bonuses (yes, that’s still going on). An amusing point is that in polls surveying public opinion of the bonuses, 37% said they were “bothered”. That’s almost British.

Ari  Berman asks whether or not the coal industry is really committed to environmental responsibility in “The Dirt on Clean Coal”. (Answer: not so much. They spend more on advertising and improving their image, not a great deal on new technologies, according to the author.)

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This week’s New Republic takes a look at the Democrats in Washington, D.C. First, Eve Fairbanks writes a positive profile of Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, and how his public persona conflicts with his behind-closed-doors conduct (out of the glare of the media lights, he appears to be very good, and not at all the blow-hard he comes across as in the press – Fairbanks wrote another good article on Reid in December 2008).

The greatest obstacles to President Obama’s success, according to Jonathan Chait, are the Democrats. In “Why The Democrats Can’t Govern”, the author shreds the party for being “congenitally unable to govern”, because

“At a time when the country desperately needs a coherent response to the array of challenges it faces, the congressional arm of the Democratic Party remains mired in fecklessness, parochialism, and privilege.”

Chait is frustrated with the Democrats’ inability to make sense, or to seize the moment to properly and rise to the occasion of setting a new agenda for, and reshape the priorities of the US government. Chait names and shames a number of Democrats who seem to be confused about what they want – “demanding that Obama do more to reduce the deficit while simultaneously opposing his deficit-reducing measures.” The author worries that we will see a re-run of the Carter and Clinton years, when the Democrats turned complete control of Washington into failure. Articulating perhaps the main frustration of non-governmental Democrats, Chait closes his article with:

“It seems impossible to believe that this party, with the challenges before the country so great and the opportunity to address them so rare, would once again follow the path of self-immolation. Yet, somehow, the Democrats can’t help themselves.”

TWS-20090406

The Weekly Standard this week has a number of interesting articles.

“The Beltway is waking up to the realities of President Obama’s budget plan, which taxes, spends, and borrows as fas as the eye can see”, begins the editorial (“A Big, Fat Failure”) by Matthew Continetti. He first exhibits some acceptance of the welfare state that that is encouraging (not to mention refreshing):

“Americans aren't going to dismantle the welfare state. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are--like the Pentagon--here to stay. The task, then, is to ensure that those programs are sensibly structured and financed, and compatible with robust economic growth. And on this score, Obama's budget is a big, fat failure.”

The author points out Obama’s resistance to free trade and how this position will not encourage economic recovery. Continetti includes some rather scary figures (which I haven’t been able to check, so I’ll leave that to you, if you have the time) about the end-results of Obama’s policies:

“tax revenues are plunging thanks to the recession. So the federal government's balance sheet was always going to deteriorate in 2009. The problem is that Obama's policies would move us from deterioration to disaster. The national debt Obama gripes about? His budget will double it to 80 percent of GDP in 2019. Whatever that is, it's not ‘a new era of responsibility.’”

Stephen Moore’s article about the administration’s budget plan and what it will mean in the long run, “Obama’s Fuzzy Math”, will simply scare the crap out of anyone concerned about government deficits (“in the first 45 days of his administration, the federal government has authorized more debt spending than Ronald Reagan did in eight years in office”). He characterizes the “Obama doctrine” in economics as:

“built on the high stakes economic gamble that the public and the bond markets will tolerate trillions of dollars of borrowing to pay for massive expansions in government spending on popular income transfer programs. The corollary to this doctrine is that the left will create a political imperative to jack up tax rates to pay for higher spending commitments made today.”

The article is actually well-balanced (Moore’s not averse to pointing out failures or problems with Reagan’s budgetary discipline), but he certainly leaves little room for optimism. The author’s skepticism about certain Democratic promises of spending dropping off after a few years is also well-founded (it’s not going to happen, when it’s funding for education, child nutrition and Pell Grants).

Moore claims that the period of 1982-2007 saw the greatest creation of wealth and prosperity in American history, with the national debt growing by about $6 trillion and US net wealth by $40 trillion. “A pretty good trade,” he says. Yes, this does look like a pretty good trade, but what was the wealth? If it had been anything but smoke and mirrors created by the causes of the current economic crisis, America wouldn’t be in the state it is today.

Other articles of note:

  • William J. Stuntz interesting piece on the need to “Look to Lincoln” for inspiration on how to approach today’s problems (a refreshing look at something other than Lincoln and the Civil War), comparing the long-term effects of these policies with FDR’s New Deal
  • P.J. O’Rourke continues to not amuse in “Doubling Down on the Welfare State”
  • Reuel Marc Gerecht, in “The Return of Weakness” takes a look at Obama and Iran. Gerecht accuses Obama of “mirror-imaging” when it comes to dealing with the Mullahs, as well as a distinct Western imperialist guilt that colours much of Western diplomacy. “Nowhere has [the] American sense of guilt been more on display than in the Middle East”
  • Fred Barnes argues that Republican senators have a big job in front of them, their work cut out, if they are to halt the “liberal onslaught” that includes “government-run health-care, a cap-and-trade carbon tax, a vast array of personal and business tax increases, and government authority to seize financial institutions in addition to banks.” I still don’t understand why affordable health-care for all is so terrible. The tax bit is a little shrill, and the article is a little too doom-and-gloom. With takeover authority… well, Barnes has a good point about letting AIG go bust and having a judge sort out all the things Obama/Geithner’s not able to do.

That’s it for now. This takes way too long, so from now on I’m only going to point out the good articles that I think are worth reading, or perhaps the occasional one that I have a considerable problem with. Next up? I’m sure there’s going to be something in The Atlantic and The American Prospect to write about.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

That Pesky Media Bias Again…

Fox

(Advert from this week’s Weekly Standard)

Week’s Media Round-Up #2

Still catching up this week, here’s a quick look at the notable articles from The Weekly Standard and National Review.

TWS-20090330 In The Weekly Standard, William Kristol turns his attention and derision on Obama’s recent contact with the leaders of Iran. Kristol clearly thinks Obama’s lost the plot, arguing that with the communication he “bends over backwards to reassure the mullahs that our government wishes them well”, and accusing the president of “kowtowing to a regime that is anything but republican, implicitly foreswearing any plan – any hope – of regime change to free the Iranian people.” The letter is “vague enough to be nonthreatening”, and Obama appears to believe “that we should speak nicely to our enemies, but carry no stick.”

P.J. O’Rourke, in “Special Envoy to the Taliban”, continues to provide evidence that he’s losing his edge. After a very good article about liberal excesses (in a nanny-state-type setting, rather than spending – a nice change for a conservative paper), which could have been written by Stephen Colbert (I’m still sure the joke was on Republicans, but others aren’t sure), he’s starting to lose it. His ‘humour’ is becoming more patronising, rather than clever. I think the main problem is that it’s all so over-written. Like Terry Pratchett’s first Discworld novel, Colour of Magic, it’s as if there’s not enough space for all the ‘jokes’ or ‘gags’, which makes it groan under the weight of bad timing. I didn’t finish the article, though – maybe it improved later.

Cathy Young profiles and goes after Naomi Klein in “Basking in the Financial Crisis” (different title online, for some reason). What’s interesting is that, as the author points out, profiles of Naomi Klein often have the air of the impressed but also skeptical. This might be because many recognise Klein’s positions and arguments as oversimplified (disappointing, given the length of The Shock Doctrine) Young explains Klein’s basic message, in a fair assessment, as

“Capitalism is evil, countless crimes have been committed in its name, and much of the foreign policy of the United States and its allies in recent decades has been driven by the twin forces of greed and free-market fanaticism.”

Stephen F Hayes has a good article about Christopher Hill’s “rogue diplomacy” (“The Insubordinate Ambassador”), how he seems to always do what he’s expressly told not to do. Hayes does have a point:

“[Hill’s] rank insubordination and cavalier disregard for presidential prerogatives were surely grounds for dismissal. Instead, Bush kept him in place, and now Barack Obama is rewarding him with what is arguably the most sensitive and important U.S. ambassadorship [in Iraq].”

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Another good issue from National Review – I always end up reading most of each issue; the writing’s consistently good and it lacks the occasional frothing tone of The Weekly Standard.

John Bolton takes issue with Obama’s letter to the Russians (“Diplomacy by Bumper Sticker”), arguing that offering withdrawal of missile defense as payment for delivery (or helping to deliver) a nuclear-free Iran is a terrible idea, outlining three specific failings (e.g. sets wrong precedent, wrongly narrows NMD scope to just Iran, Russia might not even try very hard). Equally, Bolton takes issue with the apparent belief in the Obama administration that the simple act of changing administrations will help solve the problems created by the Bush administration.

For a magazine whose roster is populated by university graduates and intelligent people, this issue has another article taking issue at Obama’s desire to make college more affordable and accessible for the masses. But, John Hood, in “University Aid”, does have a couple of very good points that point out problems with Obama’s rhetoric. Specifically, that the US could never have the highest number of college graduates in the world because if simple demographics (there’s no way the US is going to have more than China or India); and also that throwing money at universities in the form of tax credits and grants won’t improve graduation levels, only attendance levels. While this is a rather dour outlook, Hood does have a point. The same happened in the UK – Blair and New Labour pushed for something like 50% university graduation level. Fine, so we’ve all learned some more, but there was no comparable boost in the number of graduate jobs – this is why we have people with law degrees working in T-Mobile call-centres (a reality – I just renewed my contract with someone today, and we had a short chat about university). Therefore, Hood has a point about rather focusing on reducing high school drop-out levels. His point about retention of students not equipped for university well: “many will either drop out… or further depress academic standards as the faculty inflates grades to keep them enrolled and happily filling out laudatory course reviews.” As a teaching assistant at Durham University, I know where he’s coming from: there’s nothing preventing my students from just coasting, doing the bare minimum and still passing (with 40%).

Gordon Chang says that the economic downturn will be much worse for China than it will for the US, in “Eastern Exposure”, arguing against the “dominant narrative” about the crisis which is that it “will hasten American decline and accelerate Chinese ascendancy”. Chang explains how China is once again plagued by strikes and protests as millions are left jobless because of factory closures in costal regions, effectively putting into reverse the greatest mass migration in history.

Two articles address the media. James DeLong writes about the decline of newspapers and what this means for conservatives:

“conservatives, frustrated by the dirigiste liberal bias of the mainstream media, should approach print journalism’s disintegration in the spirit of Rahm Emanuel – ‘You never want a serious crisis to go to waste’ – focusing on how to fashion a vibrant, open and diverse news business out of the wreckage of the old newspaper business.”

There are two interesting things about this passage (that sprung to mind without too much thought going into them):

  1. First, for a magazine (not to mention political movement) that often pokes fun at or vilifies the ‘elitist’ habits and mannerisms of Democrats… “dirigiste”? Really?
  2. Also, about the “liberal bias” – for a group that supports non-intervention by government in business, and free markets, surely the strength of any liberal bias is because more people watch liberal news? In other words, people are exercising their own right to watch what they wish. Adam Smith would approve of this, no? (Correct me if I’m wrong.)

DeLong writes plenty that is good in the rest of the article, and he’s right to characterise much of the news business as “McNews”.

The second article, “Media Realism”, is by Edward Gillespie. I’m sure Mr. Gillespie would have a lot to offer on the state of journalism today, but after a self-involved page that could easily have been replaced with just the word “ME” in really big letters, I got bored and stopped reading. (The personal pronoun “I” appears 27 times in two pages – 21 times on the first page!) John Derbyshire and Mark Steyn, writing opinion pieces, have 15 between them (not counting reported speech/quotations). This is not what we’re looking for, and I’m sure my journalism professors would have failed him, or at least made him re-write the whole thing. Steyn’s and Derbyshire’s pieces are both good.

I’m sure I’ll get around to the monthlies soon, but I think I might just start doing this for articles that happen to catch my eye. This is taking way too much of my time.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Bunch of hoodlums…

Just what kind of person is Durham University accepting when staff feel the need to put up one of these signs:

Don't Destroy Shit

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Week’s Media Round-Up #1

This is a new thing I’m going to be trying out. Each week, I’ll put together a short round-up of best (and worst) stories in the vast array of magazines I read and subscribe to. I’ll do this every Saturday or Sunday, as the majority of magazines either come out on Saturday or arrive somewhere around then. I’ll try to link to the stories whenever possible, to make it easier for people to find. This isn’t going to be some scholarly exercise in media criticism or discourse analysis; merely my opinion on the journalism published each week.

So, starting with three weeklies, we have The Nation, The Economist, TIME; and for the monthlies there’s Foreign Policy, and US News & World Report.

TN-20090406 In The Nation, Chris Hayes writes a good comment about the AIG Bonuses. Alex Cockburn gives us his opinion of NATO at 60 (“It needs to disappear into the trash can of history along with the cold war that engendered it”), in an article good for many reasons, but specifically for informing the reader that in the 1940s, there was a publication called Armored Cavalry Journal. David Cole takes a look at the Obama administration’s “attempts to shield illegal exercises of executive authority from judicial review”, in a disturbing continuation of a Bush administration policy. And Katha Pollitt explains why she doesn’t like Ross Douthat and his recent appointment to be the second conservative columnist at the New York Times (his latest article, here), and how “Douthat seems unusually averse to engaging with women intellectually”.

For the cover-story, we see the magazine partaking once more of the print media’s favourite pastime – reporting on its own imminent demise and the dire consequences this will have for American democracy. Rather than just explain why it’s declining, authors John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney offer their prescriptions of how we might go about fixing it (it includes at least a $20 billion investment from the state). It’s a very good article, and as someone who did a (not entirely satisfactory) MA in International Journalism at Cardiff University, their proposal that the government fund training courses in journalism starting in high school meets with approval.

Economist-20090330 The Economist this week, in the most notable leader-article twofer, looks at how China sees the world, with a pretty good cover image to go with it. Now that China’s rise is witnessing an accompanying decline in the West, China should be able to satisfy its nationalist fringe. There is discussion about internal issues facing China and also the country’s record on the international scene. Some quotes:

“Far from oozing self-confidence, China is witnessing a fierce debate both about its economic system and the sort of great power it wants to be – and it is a debate the government does not like.”

“China’s leaders also face rumblings of discontent from leftist nationalists, who see the downturn as a chance to halt market-oriented reforms at home, and for China to assert itself more stridently abroad.”

“China’s record as a citizen of the world is strikingly threadbare. On a host of issues from Iran to Sudan, it has used its main geopolitical asset, its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, to obstruct progress, hiding behind the excuse that it does not want to intervene in other countries’ affairs.”

TIME-20090330In this week’s TIME, the AIG bonuses scandal takes pride of place. Bill Saporito’s 6-page feature discusses the failing of AIG (including a very short, very clear explanation of what the scandal actually is), and Justin Fox explains what we ought to take away from the whole scenario. Josef Joffe looks at NATO at 60, writing a better article than and taking a different view to Alex Cockburn (The Nation, above), arguing that it is still going strong. Joe Klein asks for patience, to give Obama’s policies time to actually happen before we write his presidency off as a failure.

FP-200903In the March edition of Foreign Policy (now available trhough Zinio), there are a couple of particularly good articles (among the rest of a very good issue). First off, there’s Niall Fergusson’s cover story, “The Axis of Upheaval”. Cheng Li’s “China’s Team of Rivals” discusses the internal factions of the CCP, its future leaders (who have already been chosen) and how the divisions might affect China’s future, and how they affect the present; it’s very good for anyone studying or with an interest in Chinese domestic politics. “Inside the Ivory Tower”, by Daniel Maliniak, Amy Oakes, Susan Peterson and Michael J. Tierney, takes a look at opinions of leading foreign policy and international relations scholars, and what they think Obama’s attention should be focused on. With other articles about different opinions on the future of globalisation, this is, overall, a very good issue.

USNews-200903 US News & World Report. In April’s environment and energy issue, there are a couple of stand-out articles. The first is on the greening of the US army: Anna Mulrine explains why there’s a growing desire for the DoD to “untether” itself from fuel – convoys are popular targets for insurgents, high fuel-consumption is a logistical issue, not to mention the expense (e.g., in 2008, Air Force used $7.7billion of fuel) – there are actually some rather surprising and enterprising, low-tech methods used. Kent Garber, in “Taking Some Risk out of Nuclear Power”, tells us about the benefits of using thorium to generate nuclear power (its potentially safer, and lasts longer so there’s less waste, which isn’t viable for nuclear weapons, apparently). In this issue’s Two Takes, Fred Krupp and William L. Kovacs argue their sides of the argument about Kyoto Protocol-type treatise: Krupp says “The moment has arrived for Congress to take bold action”, advocating renewable energies and cap-and-trade policies, and leading by example; Kovacs, on the other hand, seems to take a “why should we if they won’t” position, pointing to developing nations’ exemption from emissions caps and greater competitiveness through lower production costs. Kovacs does, however, point out certain hypocrisies of ‘clean’ nations who buy ‘dirty’ energy from other nations (e.g. Austria).

In the next round-up, I’ll look at the latest issues of The Atlantic, The American Prospect, The Weekly Standard, and National Review.

I think next time I’ll probably also write less, as this turned out to be considerably longer than anticipated… I might just do individual magazines as and when they come in and after finishing them. This at least will break things up.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Frightening…

From David Rothkopf’s post:

“According to Forbes, the official magazine of Wall Street greed, the world's billionaires managed to misplace $1.4 trillion in the past year, their ranks thinning from 1125 to 793.” [emphasis mine]

The rest of the post (“The world’s biggest losers”) is pretty good, too.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Obama on Leno

“It’s like American Idol, but everyone’s Simon Cowell…”

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Republican Flip-Flopping

In this short post about a couple of Republicans’ outrage over the AIG bonuses, Suzy Khimm provides everything you need to know to get a very clear image of how some in the Republican party are doing and saying anything just because it’s opposite to what Obama said/believes/wants, or because it’s an opportunity to point the finger and holler like a petulant child. (Ronald Brownstein could write a whole new chapter about this, no doubt…)

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senators Jim DeMint and James Inhofe all come in for a lashing, as their positions are so transparently partisan (or they just didn’t think things through, reacting in the first knee-jerk way they could think of) to blame Obama and Geithner for the excessive bonuses.

“What was once emblematic of a free-market economy – the ability of private industry to determine its wages - is now the sign of a Democrat-led ‘fiasco’ caused by a ‘lack of transparency and accountability,’ in the words of DeMint’s letter to the Banking Committee. Of course, there are plenty of good reasons to be steamed about AIG's bonuses, but it sure would be nice if Senate Republicans spared us the rank hypocrisy next time.”

My own humble opinion? The AIG bonuses should never have been given. The company’s received somewhere in the region of $150 billion in Federal Bailout money – this is not the situation when you give out bonuses!

As President Obama put it in Costa Mesa, California:

“It’s hard to understand that a company that is relying on extraordinary assistance from taxpayers to keep its doors open would be paying anyone lavish bonuses. It goes against our most basic sense of what is fair and what is right. It offends our values.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Even more on Stem Cells!

Ok, I know this is starting to go on for a bit longer than many people are interested, but Chris Orr at The New Republic’s “The Plank” blog recently wrote a post about the Kinsley-Douthat jousting. Like me, Orr finds this issue more one of curiosity rather than expertise.

Orr initially just mentions what’s been going between the other two journalists, but he has his own good points to make over the fact that IVF treatment is considered wonderful by the pro-lifers, even though fertilized eggs are guaranteed to be destroyed (which is their argument against stem-cell research). He highlights the contradictory position held by the pro-life movement thus (emphasis mine):

“Insofar as there is any organized pro-life effort to regulate fertility clinics and reduce the number of eggs that will ultimately be destroyed, it seems marginal to the point of invisibility. This is particularly true given that, to a far greater degree than stem-cell research, IVF is not only a public policy question but an issue of individual morality. That is to say, the pro-life movement could presumably put a significant dent in the number of unnecessary eggs created without passing a single law or enacting any new regulations, simply by aggressively publicizing the issue. If pro-life priests and pastors were alerting their flocks to the hundreds of thousands of human deaths (in pro-life terms) caused by IVF and shaming congregants into avoiding the process, if activist groups were taking out regular ads in national newspapers and magazines, these actions would have presumably have a real impact. But as best I can tell, they occur infrequently if at all.”

I thought this was rather well put, which is why I’ve included it here. Again, this is an issue more of curiosity for me than expertise, as I believe the pro-life position has so many holes and contradictions which, to me, largely look petulant and deliberately intended to differ from a liberal, pro-choice/-stem cell research position. If Douthat responds to either Kinsley or Orr, I assume I’ll bring you that, too.

Monday, March 16, 2009

More on Stem Cells…

Ah, this is more like it: Michael Kinsley responds to Ross Douthat’s critique of Kinsley’s article on Obama’s recent lifting of the ban on stem cell research.

A good passage:

“Furthermore, if you’re going to draw a line to facilitate compromise, the line between embryos used for research and embryos simply destroyed is an odd one to draw—at least if your intention is to ban the research but allow the pointless destruction to continue. Why not the other way around? Also, while stem cell research involves the destruction of embryos, IVF involves the purposeful creation of embryos with the certain knowledge that many or most of them will be destroyed. Once again, it’s an odd compromise that saves the former by preventing scientific research while allowing the latter much larger and pointless slaughter to continue unmolested.”

Completely makes up for Kinsley’s rather odd comments from the initial article, as this is a more intelligent, measured and thoughtful defense of his position and critique of Douthat’s position.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Stem-Cell “Quandry”

I was made aware of Michael Kinsley’s Daily Beast piece about Obama’s decision to end the government ban on stem-cell research, and a report about British and Canadian scientists having come up with a method for harvesting stem-cells without killing an embryo, through a post by Ross Douthat at The Atlantic. I wanted to put my two-cents worth into the discussion. (Not that they will ever be aware of this post, but never mind…)

On the whole I am in agreement with Kinsley, in that when it comes to stem-cells, “There is only the appearance of an ethical quandary, created by people who either don't understand or willfully misrepresent the facts.” I think Kinsley is also right to point out that conservative positions on the issue are somewhat hypocritical: “Your actions are too different from your words.” His argument then becomes a little… odd:

“You are doing absolutely nothing about the millions of fertilized eggs that are destroyed naturally every year (in miscarriages so early that the potential mother is not even aware of them), or the thousands that are produced and unused by fertility clinics going about their normal work (which are either discarded or pointlessly frozen in the hope of some miraculous ethical breakthrough).”

Now, while I think the second half of that argument (about the discarded fertilized eggs) is a valid point (and one that crops up in Season 6 of The West Wing, incidentally), his remarks about miscarriages is simply bizarre, and weakens his entire position; by adding a comment like this, he renders much of what follows useless by touching on the improbable idea that anyone would ever prosecute or become morally outraged at a mother for suffering a miscarriage – Douthat: “I will pass over his line about miscarriages, which seems to imply that a ‘serious’ pro-life movement would be trying to pass laws against accidental deaths.” This detracts from the fact that Kinsley’s discussing an scientific advance that shouldn’t be objectionable to rabid pro-lifers (not killing the embryo), but instead this remark receives the attention.

This was a disappointing inclusion by Kinsley, whose writing I have followed for quite some time, and who I usually agree with almost completely. The rest of the article’s very good, though. Given his suffering from Parkinson’s, it is understandable that he is an enthusiastic supporter of stem-cell research. His conclusion is good:

“The essence of today’s report is that scientists have found some incredibly complicated way to create—someday, maybe even soon—a valuable research tool that already exists by the thousands and has for years. Some people think we should have been using it for years, while others say they think using it would be immoral, but can’t give a coherent reason.”

Anyway, that’s my take on the article.