Revelations about the Haditha massacre

The infamous Haditha massacre that occurred on Nov. 19, 2005, have faded from people’s memories.

That morning, a military convoy of four vehicles was heading to an outpost in Haditha when one of the vehicles was hit by a roadside bomb.

Several Marines got out to attend to the wounded, including one who eventually died, while others looked for insurgents who might have set off the bomb. Within a few hours 24 Iraqis — including a 76-year-old man and children between the ages of 3 and 15 — were killed, many inside their homes.

As the reporter says, “Haditha became a defining moment of the war, helping cement an enduring Iraqi distrust of the United States and a resentment that not one Marine has been convicted.”

When reports of this got out, it was regarded as a horrifying atrocity and, as usual, was quietly buried. But two weeks ago, purely by chance, a reporter came across in a junkyard files of interviews of the people responsible for the massacre. What the interviews reveal is just how routine was the killing of civilians on this scale.

Chief Warrant Officer K. R. Norwood, who received reports from the field on the day of the killings and briefed commanders on them, testified that 20 dead civilians was not unusual.

General Johnson, the commander of American forces in Anbar Province, said he did not feel compelled to go back and examine the events because they were part of a continuing pattern of civilian deaths.

“It happened all the time, not necessarily in MNF-West all the time, but throughout the whole country,” General Johnson testified, using a military abbreviation for allied forces in western Iraq.

One can only imagine the bitterness and hatred engendered in the relatives of those massacred in this way.

Reason’s Greetings…

… and best wishes for the New Year to all the readers of this blog.

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Since my family is visiting over the holiday week, blogging will be lighter than usual. Regular blogging will resume on Tuesday, January 4, 2012.

The oligarchy’s feelings are hurt

The oligarchy, so long accustomed to do their looting in peace, has been surprised by the sudden turn in the tide against their rapaciousness and the successful adoption of the Occupy movement’s “We are the 99%” slogan now being used against them. You would have thought that they would be smart enough to lay low and hope that the storm passes.

But no, some of them are whining about how their feelings are hurt and contemptuously dismissing their critics as being ‘imbeciles’ and that those who are so poor that they pay little or no taxes have no right to complain because they have ‘no skin in the game’.

Matt Taibbi points out that the reverse is true, that it is the oligarchy that has no skin in the game because are not rooted in any place and thus have no sense of obligation to a geographical community that ordinary people have.

Most of us 99-percenters couldn’t even let our dogs leave a dump on the sidewalk without feeling ashamed before our neighbors. It’s called having a conscience: even though there are plenty of things most of us could get away with doing, we just don’t do them, because, well, we live here. Most of us wouldn’t take a million dollars to swindle the local school system, or put our next door neighbors out on the street with a robosigned foreclosure, or steal the life’s savings of some old pensioner down the block by selling him a bunch of worthless securities.

But our Too-Big-To-Fail banks unhesitatingly take billions in bailout money and then turn right around and finance the export of jobs to new locations in China and India. They defraud the pension funds of state workers into buying billions of their crap mortgage assets. They take zero-interest loans from the state and then lend that same money back to us at interest. Or, like Chase, they bribe the politicians serving countries and states and cities and even school boards to take on crippling debt deals.

Nobody with real skin in the game, who had any kind of stake in our collective future, would do any of those things. Or, if a person did do those things, you’d at least expect him to have enough shame not to whine to a Bloomberg reporter when the rest of us complained about it.

The oligarchy’s open display of the depth of their contempt for those not in their class is quite astonishing. I actually think this is a good thing and should be encouraged. The more this Marie Antoinette attitude is put on full public display, the more likely they are to get their comeuppance. As Taibbi ends his piece, “Unbelievable. Merry Christmas, bankers. And good luck getting that message out.”

Tebow or not Tebow

Although I have stopped following football, I have been intrigued by the story of Denver quarterback Tim Tebow who frequently drops to one knee in prayer during games (this act of genuflection has even acquired the label ‘to Tebow’ or ‘Tebowing’) and even has biblical verses painted on his face. So much for Jesus’s admonition “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)

Of course, such ostentatious displays of piety cry out for parody and Saturday Night Live duly obliges.

Book review: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

The main thesis of Steven Pinker’s latest book is that violence has declined dramatically over time and that we are now living in the most peaceful time in history, and to suggest reasons for this. The decline has not been uniformly steady but has a saw-tooth pattern of periodic upticks of violence followed by steeper drops leading to an overall decline over time.

This is not a proposition that is obvious since many people despair of the state of the world now with wars between nations, civil wars, genocides, and the brutal suppression of dissent seemingly taking place all over the globe. It is in order to counter this perception that Pinker has to write such a long book (running to nearly 700 pages even without the endnotes and citations), amassing the data and evidence and arguments necessary whenever one is making a counter-intuitive case. So the book is heavy with numbers and graphs that could easily become tedious except that Pinker has a deft writing style that lifts the reader whenever the going gets tough. The book has sparked considerable interest and on his website Pinker has responded to some of the reactions and criticisms.

Pinker looks at all manner of violence from all kinds of conflicts, from wars, homicides, slavery, genocides, rapes, rebellions, and others as a percentage of the population at the time they occurred. In other words, he is using as his measure of violence not the actual number of casualties but the probability that an individual living at that particular time was likely to suffer violence and death at the hands of another.

Of the many charts, graphs, and tables in the book, the centerpiece is undoubtedly the table on page 195 that ranks the twenty one worst conflicts in history in terms of the absolute number of deaths and also in terms of its population-adjusted rank. While World War II had a death toll of 55 million that is the largest ever for a single identifiable conflict, when calculated as a fraction of the global population, it barely makes it into the list of the top ten worst conflicts of all time, being just number 9. The eight that rank above it involve some events that most people likely have never heard of, at least in the west. The An Lushan revolt and civil war that took place in China in the 8th century is the worst. The deaths caused by the Middle East and Atlantic slave trades are at #3 and #8 respectively while the annihilation of Native Americans is #7. World War I with its 15 million dead comes in at #16.

The reason for this distorted perception is that people tend to magnify events that they or their immediate ancestors have personal experience with, and discount others. So for us, relatively recent conflicts such as World War II, Vietnam, Iraq, the Rwandan genocide, the Stalin purges, etc. seem to dominate history when, when looked at in terms of the number of deaths as a ratio of population, some of them don’t even register as significant sources of casualties.

People point to the two World Wars of the twentieth century with their terrible loss of life and ask how it can be that the twentieth century is not the worst century in history for violence. Pinker points out that although World Wars I and II were bad, they both occurred in the first half of the century and that the second half had no major conflicts, so the century average was lowered.

In seeking explanations for the decline in violence, Pinker, echoing Peter Singer in his classic work The Expanding Circle, invokes various revolutions that have led to an expansion in our circle of sympathy, so that we now view more categories of people to be like us instead of as the ‘other’, and now view as deplorable acts done to them that might have been acceptable in the past. The Age of Reason in the 17th century, followed by the Enlightenment towards the end of the 18th, leading to a humanitarian revolution in the 19th, followed by the various rights revolutions of the 20th century (civil, women’s, children’s, gay, animal) all led to a rise in the value attached to life and steps being taken to curb violence towards those formerly marginalized groups. While the improvement has been uneven, the overall trend is clear. These measures, combined with the increased state monopoly on the legitimate use of force, the increase in commerce between nations, greater cosmopolitanism, the rise in the status and role of women, and the increased application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs have been major factors in the reduction in the use of violence to resolve conflicts.

So why is it that so many still persist in thinking that things are really bad now and yearn for the ‘good old days’? The decline in violence can have the perverse effect of making things seem to be bad now when in fact they have objectively got better. For example, we are now rightly outraged about the harsher prison sentences that African Americans get when compared with white people who commit the same crimes. And while this injustice needs to be corrected, we should not overlook the fact that not so long ago African Americans would have experienced summary and often lethal ‘justice’ at the hands of a mob for the most trivial of offenses and few would have spoken out in protest. So we have come a long way even as we have yet some ways to go.

While Pinker’s analysis of the data showing a decline in violence and his arguments as to the reasons are persuasive, the book’s main weakness weakness lies in his political analysis. The Canadian-born writer, who is a professor of psychology at Harvard, tends to view politics through a western prism and accepts much of conventional wisdom about political developments. While he does not spare the US and colonial powers for their historical contribution to violence, when he reaches for graphic recent examples to illustrate his points, he tends to pick on Nazis and Communism and other convetional villains and overlook similar examples that are closer to home. For example, when looking at the role of ideology in making leaders pursue policies that result in the deaths of thousands of people, his examples are of Stalin and Mao. But he could well ask the same question of president Truman and his decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or Lyndon Johnson’s decision to carpet bomb Vietnam with conventional and chemical weapons that resulted in massive deaths and destruction and long—term harm to subsequent generations. As another example, when trying to understand what might make a soldier gun down a group of defenseless innocent people, his example is of a Nazi soldier massacring a group of Jews during the Holocaust. He does not mention My Lai, though that would also be apropos and is more recent.

It is easy for those who care about the state of the world and what we are bequeathing to future generations to succumb to a sense of despair and think that violence and cruelty are indelible features of our existence that have always existed and will always exist and may be getting even worse as our capacity to harm others increases with the development of more sophisticated weaponry. What this book argues is that while serious problems and conflicts still exist and we are by no means living in a utopia, such deep pessimism is unwarranted. Things are better now than they have ever been and can be yet better in the future as long as we continue to expand the circle of concern to include more and more people within its ambit.

Pinker is careful not to make predictions for the future since who knows what might happen but argues the future can be bright. This book’s main virtue is that it provides hope that is not based on wishful thinking but on data.

In a TED talk on this topic, delivered in 2007, Pinker outlines the main theses that were later developed in the book.

Although long, this is a book that is definitely worth reading and having on your shelf because of the wealth of data that it gathers together between its covers. It is an encyclopedia of the history of violence and thus, at the very least, will be a useful reference work.

Is a single payer health system on the way?

I have in the past harshly criticized president Obama and the Democratic party for the way they excluded the single payer and public options in the health care debate as a favor to the health insurance industries and foisted on us a complicated health care reform package in the Affordable Care Act that does not address in any fundamental way some of the key problems of cost and access.

Now comes along an analysis by Rick Ungar that says that buried in that health care reform act was a time bomb that went off on December 2, 2011 that will destroy the private health insurance industry as we currently have it and set in motion a series of events that will inevitably lead to single payer. The key, he says, is

the provision of the law, called the medical loss ratio, that requires health insurance companies to spend 80% of the consumers’ premium dollars they collect—85% for large group insurers—on actual medical care rather than overhead, marketing expenses and profit. Failure on the part of insurers to meet this requirement will result in the insurers having to send their customers a rebate check representing the amount in which they underspend on actual medical care.

So, can private health insurance companies manage to make a profit when they actually have to spend premium receipts taking care of their customers’ health needs as promised?

Not a chance – and they know it. Indeed, we are already seeing the parent companies who own these insurance operations fleeing into other types of investments. They know what we should all know – we are now on an inescapable path to a single-payer system for most Americans and thank goodness for it.

Ungar has a follow up post where he tries to address some of the objections that people have raised regarding his prediction.

Interestingly, the argument most often offered up in the effort to shoot down my conclusions was the position that most health insurers are already meeting, or very close to meeting, the medical loss requirements. As a result, these naysayers argued, the new MLR rules are really no big deal and there is no reason for me to suggest that the HHS regulations would have the dramatic impact I have predicted.

Many were also quick to add that the stock prices for these health insurers remain very healthy, indicating that shareholders in these companies clearly do not share my dire predictions—and the shareholders certainly should know.

But if that is the case then why, Ungar asks, are so many states requesting a waiver from these requirements from the department of Health and Human Services (HHS)?

The answer is clear. It is because the method the health insurance companies have been using to calculate their MLR – effectively throwing everything they can into the classification of an actual medical expense – is no longer going to fly and the health insurance companies know this is going to be a big problem for them.

While shareholders may be slow to pick up what is happening, likely the result of health insurance company efforts to downplay the impact of the medical care ratio requirements, the evidence makes it clear that the days of private health insurance are numbered.

Ungar points out that the Department of Health and Human Services refused a request by the state of Florida for a waiver that would prevent the insurance companies from having to return $89 million to their subscribers under the MLR requirement. Two days ago, a similar request for a waiver by the governor of Michigan was also turned down, making it the sixth state to be so denied. Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, Iowa, Kentucky, Delaware, North Dakota, Georgia, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas have also requested waivers. Rob Collier reports that Maine, Nevada, and New Hampshire have been approved while Iowa and Kentucky were given partial waivers for a limited time. North Dakota, Indiana and Louisiana were rejected. The list of states applying for waivers and the outcomes can be seen here.

But if single payer is the ultimate outcome, was this the intention all along? Or is this some unintended but welcome consequence of the complex legislation? The reason this matters is that if it is an unintended consequence, then the insurance industry, Congress, and the Obama administration will try to rewrite the legislation to prevent it. I have a hard time believing that the health industry with its massive lobbying efforts and a Congress and White House that is subservient to them, would not be careful to preserve their interests.

I wish I could be as optimistic as Ungar. But I am not going to allow my hopes to be raised too much.

Congress forgets how to pass a law

As Congress goes through yet another of these phony crises and seems deadlocked, this time over passing the payroll tax cut extension, the Onion News Network wonders whether some other factor is at play.

Why this remake?

The new film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is being released today.

I have not read the books but saw the Swedish trilogy of films and they were pretty good. They are also recent, all being released in 2009 so I don’t understand the reasons for this remake. The new version also takes place in Sweden and seems to have the same plot with the same characters and names, and the trailer seems awfully similar to the original, so I am baffled as to why it was done.

The only benefit seems to be to not have subtitles. I know that some people don’t like them but they don’t bother me in the least. In fact, after the film is over, I often cannot recall whether the film was in English or I was reading subtitles. Subtitles can also be an advantage because you don’t miss mumbled words and the spoken words do not get drowned by ambient sounds, not an insignificant factor when you are watching at home, and your dog can get excited by seeing a squirrel and let loose a fusillade of barks.

Maybe the reason is purely commercial. The books have been huge bestsellers and by making pretty much the same film but in English with a well-known star like Daniel Craig, Hollywood hopes to cash in on the phenomenon and make a bundle.