Owning and Disowning

We inherit our ample patrimony with all its incumbrances; and are bound to pay the debts of our ancestors.

— Timothy Dwight “The Charitable Blessed” (1810)

The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte.

— Ta-Nehisi Coates “The Case for Reparations” (2014)

This week’s featured article is “Ta-Nehisi Coates Goes There: Reparations“.

This week everybody was talking about yet another mass shooting

Every mass shooting is stomach-turning, but this one has a special feature: the idea that men are entitled to female sexual partners we find attractive, and that if we don’t get them we are justified in seeking revenge on the entire gender. I feel slimed. I can’t imagine how women feel about it.

The guns-make-us-safer arguments of the NRA are almost believable if you picture home invaders who want something rational like jewelry or electronics. But when somebody wants to go out in a blaze of glory, more and bigger guns just make a bigger blaze.

and reparations for the oppression of blacks

Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic wrote the article of the year: “The Case for Reparations” and I wrote an almost-as-long article commenting, elaborating, and taking it personally. Centuries of public policy created the wealth gap between blacks and whites. Why is it unthinkable to use public policy to undo that?

and (still) the VA

This is going to go on for a while, because there’s a genuine mystery here that may not have a simple resolution. Some of the basics: The VA gives veterans world-class care once they manage to get in the door. But there have been long-standing problems both with appointment backlogs and backlogs in processing claims. In recent years the VA established metrics to measure how well they were solving those problems, and reported that they were doing remarkably well.

Unfortunately, they were cooking the books. Somebody (or maybe a lot of somebodies) saw their mission as delivering good numbers, not delivering timely medical care. This is a common problem in our data-obsessed times. (See, for example, the Atlanta public schools, which decided its mission was to improve test scores, not education. Or watch just about any season of The Wire.) Of course all those somebodies at the VA need to be found and fired, and maybe some of them should go to jail. But that just gets us back to Square One with the problem of caring for our veterans.

Partly, the problem goes back to the cardinal sin of the Iraq War: The Bush administration refused to let anyone plan for the possibility that the war might be long and costly. Even after the wounded starting coming home, National Journal reports, the Defense Department was cooking the numbers:

Early on, the department was publicly counting only about a third of the casualties stemming from the War on Terror. That was because the Department was only counting servicemen and women immediately targeted in the department’s wounded-in-action statistics. That accounting method left out those who were not targeted but were wounded nonetheless, such as troops injured when they were riding two trucks back from one that was hit by a roadside bomb, or those hurt in training or transportation.The underreporting made it more difficult for the VA to prepare for the coming influx of requests for help.

So the Obama administration knew there was a resource problem — not enough money, facilities, doctors, etc. — when they took office. And they thought they were solving it. Under Obama, the VA’s budget has gone from $97.7 billion in FY 2009 to $153.8 billion in FY 2014.

But already a year ago, Huffington Post reported:

“We’re glad to see the increase in the budget,” said Paul Reickhoff, chief executive officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. But he was highly skeptical of the VA claims that it is making progress on reducing the backlog of veterans claims for benefits. “The customers on the ground, our members, don’t see it,” he said.

So where has the money been going? A piece of the mystery is that along with the new money came new responsibilities. National Journal says:

the Obama administration has also changed the rules to give more benefits to veterans. In 2010, the administration expanded coverage related to exposure to Agent Orange, a Vietnam War-era defoliant that has created a vast list of health problems. Veterans have long tied an assortment of illnesses to Agent Orange, and now more of those illnesses are covered. Additionally, the administration made it easier for veterans to get coverage for posttraumatic-stress disorder, a disease less easily diagnosed and adjudicated than physical injuries.

But that doesn’t sound like the whole story, and nothing else I’ve heard so far does either. Nobody has a partisan motive to short-change our veterans. And so far there are no reports of sweetheart deals that sent billions to some favored contractor for nothing, or enormous bridge-to-nowhere facilities that sit empty. This situation calls for a real investigation that is neither a whitewash nor a witch hunt. It will interesting to see if our political system is capable of making that happen.

and another NBA owner talking about race

This time it’s Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks. I find I’m willing to cut Cuban slack, though, because I think he’s clumsily saying something more-or-less right. (In my terminology prejudice is an unavoidable aspect of being human, while bigotry is something we should be trying to eradicate. I hear Cuban confessing that he has prejudices that he is trying to keep from becoming bigotry.) I agree with ESPN’s Michael Wilbon:

If we’re going to have honest conversations about race and bigotry and prejudice, then we’re going have to have some uncomfortable moments. What’s most important to me here is that clearly and without qualification, Mark Cuban condemns bigotry. … This in no way, in my mind, comes into the area code of Donald Sterling’s comments.

Whites have been denying our racial prejudices for a long, long time. (Wilbon again: “I hear people say, ‘I don’t see color.’ And I say, ‘Stop. Everybody sees color.'”) So it’s totally to be expected that when we finally begin to talk seriously about race, we’re not going to phrase everything in the most sensitive way. By all means blacks (and whites with more experience discussing race) should point out to Cuban the ways that he’s still invoking offensive stereotypes — those “uncomfortable moments” Wilbon is talking about — but also give him credit for what he’s doing right.

That’s more-or-less the approach that NYT columnist Charles Blow takes.

Cuban says in the interview, “I know that I’m not perfect.” None of us are, Mr. Cuban, and I applaud your candor even as I correct your assertions. That is how the race discussion must be conducted.

and you also might be interested in …

Chris Hayes is doing a great series on the conservative heartland. This week the show focused on Kansas, which has become a laboratory for far-right policies. How’s that working?

Update on last week’s article “Climate Denial is a Sunday Truth” in which I argued that the business community — especially the insurance industry — is well aware that climate change is real. From ThinkProgress:

Last month, Farmers Insurance Co. filed nine class-action lawsuits arguing that local governments in the Chicago area are aware that climate change is leading to heavier rainfall but are failing to prepare accordingly. The suits allege that the localities did not do enough to prepare sewers and stormwater drains in the area during a two-day downpour last April.

And the NYT:

Most insurers, including the reinsurance companies that bear much of the ultimate risk in the industry, have little time for the arguments heard in some right-wing circles that climate change isn’t happening, and are quite comfortable with the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels is the main culprit of global warming.

“Insurance is heavily dependent on scientific thought,” Frank Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, told me last week. “It is not as amenable to politicized scientific thought.”

Great article about diet: What if fat isn’t just an issue of excess calories? What if the body is actively looking for foods it can easily turn into fat? When you eat them, you’re still hungry, because they went straight to fat and didn’t give your body any calories to run on.

When Sainsburys dressed a mannequin in a 12-Years-a-Slave outfit, they weren’t really trying to sell their customers the runaway-slave look. Turns out, that was just a tasteless part of their buy-the-DVD display. But for a minute, it seemed like the “Derelicte” scene from Zoolander had burst into reality.

Authors need to slow down: Important books are piling up faster than I can read them. (Yes, Elizabeth Warren, I’m looking at you; or at least at your picture on the cover. Get in line behind Thomas Piketty.) So I haven’t even picked up Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide about his role in the Snowden leaks.

But sometimes you don’t have read a book to know that a criticism of it is off-base. In his review for the NYT, Michael Kinsley writes this about leaking government secrets:

The question is who decides. It seems clear, at least to me, that the private companies that own newspapers, and their employees, should not have the final say over the release of government secrets, and a free pass to make them public with no legal consequences. In a democracy (which, pace Greenwald, we still are), that decision must ultimately be made by the government.

If government officials have the final say on what information the voters are allowed to know before they pass judgment on those same government officials, then democracy is pretty much a sham: You get to judge me, but only based on the information I choose to tell you.

This situation calls for one of those marvelous Madisonian check-and-balance processes, but unfortunately there’s no prospect of us getting one. So in a broken system, anyone who finds him/herself in a position to take action — Snowden, Greenwald, Julian Assange, whoever — has to use his/her own judgment. Nobody thinks this is ideal, but it’s not Glenn Greenwald’s fault. Glenn should not defer to the government until the improbable moment when the government unveils its ideal information-releasing process.

David Atkins reads the tea-leaves of the European Parliament elections: In hard economic times with a lot of immigrants still coming in, the most likely political beneficiaries are the fascists. Centrists preaching austerity have no defense against the far right.

The only possible way that a party of social tolerance survives for long in this sort of economic environment is if it goes hard after the plutocrats truly responsible for the economic malaise. The social liberal/economic conservative mold of Bloomberg is a recipe for political disaster.

Curing cervical cancer is one kind of problem. Curing cervical cancer in Haiti, using tech that a Haitian clinic might be able to afford, is a different problem entirely. The NYT Sunday Magazine recounts the fascinating story of “The MacGyver Cure for Cancer“.

An illustration of what the book Cornered was about: Even when monopolistic power isn’t being used to raise consumer prices, it’s still not benign. Amazon is trying to squeeze book publishers, and those who don’t go along are finding that their books are hard to buy and take forever to ship. Sure, you can distribute your books without Amazon. Good luck with that.

Today our anti-trust laws are only enforced against companies that use their market power directly against consumers. But it can be just as damaging to the economy for a near-monopoly to use its market power against producers, by re-organizing the market around its artificially constructed bottleneck. This is the main reason to oppose the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger, even if it’s true that the two cable giants don’t compete for the same customers.

and let’s close with an amazing catch (sort of)

by the ball girl, not the outfielder.

Snopes says it never really happened, but why let reality stand in the way of a good video? And ball girls and ball boys really have made some outstanding catches. (I also tip my hat to several of the announcers, who were able to come up with their names without missing a beat.)

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  • SamChevre  On May 27, 2014 at 5:34 pm

    On the VA; one possibility that seems to me likely (but for which I have no evidence) is simply build times.

    In the large-corporation world (which I doubt is slower than the VA), it takes at least a month once a position is approved to post the job and select candidates to interview, another month to do interviews, another month before someone can be hired and start work; it’s quite common for it to take 3 months after hire before someone is really working at close to normal levels–you have to learn the systems and the processes, which takes time.

    So money allocated doesn’t translate into increased capacity immediately; there’s a lag. That lag is greater for higher-skilled positions.

  • weeklysift  On May 28, 2014 at 9:13 am

    Hanna Papanek sent me this comment by email. I re-post it here with her permission:

    I think your reaction misses the main point that a crazy man can legally buy three guns and get away with impressing a naive cop that everything is normal.

    (1) Since you wondered “what women think”, here is my particular take: I believe that one of the many roots of violence against women, world-wide, is rooted in the widespread assumption that men can expect compliance, acceptance, admiration, etc. from women because they are superior to women.

    This particular crazy guy made this the focus of his paranoia and built it into a large mental structure (his Manifesto). He didn’t have to look far to find support for the belief in male superiority in his environment. It takes strong and positive action on the part of parents, teachers, peers, media, schools, etc etc to counteract this belief. It is not universal, of course, but is a deeply entrenched social construct common to many cultures.

    I guess that you feel “slimed” because you are a decent human being who rejects the assumption of male superiority. Many men (and women) don’t. But as I said, I think that is not the main point for analyzing this particular crime.

    (2) I also do not believe that mental illness is the best explanation for the many mass murders in the US, all by discontented/depressed/angry men, some indeed with mental illness: the easy availability of firearms is the best explanation. Supporters of the “right” to own guns like to blame mental illness on gun violence to prevent measures to control gun ownership.

    (3) The link between the assumption of male superiority and the “right” to female compliance, on the one hand, and the “right” to own guns is the deeply entrenched acceptance of violence in many parts of American society. This linkage is worth deep exploration — even if there are many women on the side of the NRA. I certainly cannot argue that violence is more acceptable in the US than elsewhere — there are too many examples elsewhere of larger and bloodier mass murders and random violence. What is unique in the US is the legality of gun ownership and the apparent impossibility of limiting it. What is also important in the US is that all of these recent mass murders were the work of single armed individuals, not of armed gangs or the state. So the problem is further linked to the profound importance of individualism/individual rights in US society.


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