Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Getting to universal health care (wonky)

Much sturm und drang has attached to Elizabeth Warren's reticence about the financing of a so-called Medicare for All program. So I'll tell you up front that the reason is the optical problem of raising taxes. She has said that total expenditures on health care for middle class people will be less, which is likely true or certainly can be. But some of what people are paying now they aren't even aware that they are paying. This takes the form of employer-provided health care, and that portion of state and federal tax revenues that goes to Medicaid and various subsidies for the health care system. The latter wouldn't really be affected, so let's talk for a moment about employment-based insurance.

This became a thing during WWII when there were wage and price controls, and at the same time for obvious reasons a labor shortage. So in order to attract employees without raising wages, employers offered health insurance, which didn't count against the wage controls. After the war this continued to be popular because the insurance wasn't subject to income tax, so it was a way of increasing compensation at the expense of the federal government. It also tended to tie employees to their jobs, which employers like. Unions also like it because they can claim credit for winning the benefit.

This is not a very smart, efficient or equitable way to provide health care. It leaves out people who work for small businesses that can't offer insurance, people who are self-employed, and people who retire before age 65, and part time workers, among others. As health care has become more expensive, employers have off-loaded more of the costs onto employees through premium sharing, deductibles and co-pays. It is administratively very inefficient. Facing numerous different payers, with different benefits and payment rates, providers have to spend a lot on billing; while insurance companies suck up a lot in marketing costs and profits, while finding sneaky ways of denying benefits. For reasons I won't go into here, it also does nothing to constrain that inexorable growth of health care costs which is ultimately unsustainable.

So a single payer system can eliminate most of the administrative waste (Medicare is far more efficient than private insurance), cover everybody equitably, and provide leverage to restrain costs. However, there will of course be winners and losers. For a green eyeshade, presumably apolitical analysis of the overall cost implications, let us turn to the Rand Corporation. (And anyone who remembers the 60s will be offended by my linking to them.) Anyway, they estimate that because everybody would have health insurance demand for health care would go up substantially. Nevertheless, because of savings in administrative costs overall national health expenditures would increase only slightly, by 1.8%. However, this assumes the government doesn't use it's newfound monopsony power to constrain prices. Here's how they see the distribution of costs changing:

As you can see, your out-of-pocket costs would plummet and your insurance premiums, whether paid by your or your employer, would vanish. However, that Medicare for All line would need to come from somewhere and that would be, yes, higher taxes. If you tell people you are going to raise their taxes, it's hard to get across the idea that they will still actually be saving money. And of course, not everybody will be saving money -- some people will undoubtedly pay more in taxes than they are paying now for health care. The question is who those people will be. There are good arguments why the amount won't be as much as Rand says, and they will be the first to tell you that their assumptions are conservative in not allowing for additional changes to the status quo. Nevertheless, somebody has to pay.

It is true that Warren's proposed tax increases on high income and wealthy people wouldn't cover the whole thing. Politico discusses some of the options in essentially qualitative terms. While their overall tone seems tendentiously negative, I would agree that the political obstacles to these reforms are formidable.

(Note that one of their arguments is fundamentally faulty. They write "Economists say the vast majority of higher payroll taxes would be passed on to workers in the form of lower wages." While this is true [somewhat], the payroll taxes would be replacing the insurance premiums they currently pay, so this would not actually reduce wages. Depending on the specifics, wages could even rise. Again, however, explaining to people that a tax increase will actually save them money is difficult, to say the least.)

We all know that as soon as Warren says she's going to raise taxes, no matter how hard she or anybody else tries to explain that most people will be better off, that will not cut through the din. Especially so since the corporate media will just channel the "biggest tax increase in history" screaming without any context or criticism. So I actually think that running on this proposal is not a good idea.

Just tactically, let's strengthen the ACA, add a public option, and take it from there.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Road trip!

Well, sky trip actually. I'm going to San Diego for the International Conference on Communication in Healthcare. I'll be busy, giving a presentation of my own, moderating three panels, and doing some meetings.  This is always exhausting, especially because my first scheduled meeting is for tonight, just after I get to the hotel, which should  be around 9:00 pm Pacific time, meaning my body will think it's midnight. I'm getting too old for this shit.

Anyway if I learn anything good I'll let you know. People are always very interested in issues pertaining to communicating with health care providers. I should write more about my specialty here but let's face it, there's a lot of distraction right now. But I'll try to get back to the knitting in coming weeks.

Sunday Sermonette: God as fashion designer

Yep, this is still tedious and absurd. Now God fancies himself an exhibitor in Paris Fashion Week, but I have to say these designs are a bit over the top. Some of the vocabulary is obscure. Nobody knows exactly what the Urim and Thummim were. In Samuel they are used for divination, so that is presumed to be the idea all along. It isn't specified here as "divination," but it does say "for making decisions."

At some point use of these priestly garments was abandoned, obviously, and as far as I know there haven't been any archaeological finds that could illuminate their nature. Of course the cloth would decay and the jewelry would have been looted.

The real point of all this frou frou obviously is not to glorify God, but to glorify the priesthood. Just as Catholic Bishops today wear elaborate robes of fine cloth and miters on their heads, and have gold candlesticks on the altar, these priests were fancypants. They made sure the people knew they were special. However, Jewish tradition has changed and rabbis nowadays wear unpretentious clothing.

28 “Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites, along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so they may serve me as priests. Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron to give him dignity and honor. Tell all the skilled workers to whom I have given wisdom in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as priest. These are the garments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a woven tunic, a turban and a sash. They are to make these sacred garments for your brother Aaron and his sons, so they may serve me as priests. Have them use gold, and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and fine linen.

“Make the ephod of gold, and of blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen—the work of skilled hands. It is to have two shoulder pieces attached to two of its corners, so it can be fastened. Its skillfully woven waistband is to be like it—of one piece with the ephod and made with gold, and with blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and with finely twisted linen.
“Take two onyx stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel 10 in the order of their birth—six names on one stone and the remaining six on the other. 11 Engrave the names of the sons of Israel on the two stones the way a gem cutter engraves a seal. Then mount the stones in gold filigree settings 12 and fasten them on the shoulder pieces of the ephod as memorial stones for the sons of Israel. Aaron is to bear the names on his shoulders as a memorial before the Lord. 13 Make gold filigree settings 14 and two braided chains of pure gold, like a rope, and attach the chains to the settings.

15 “Fashion a breastpiece for making decisions—the work of skilled hands. Make it like the ephod: of gold, and of blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen. 16 It is to be square—a span[a] long and a span wide—and folded double. 17 Then mount four rows of precious stones on it. The first row shall be carnelian, chrysolite and beryl; 18 the second row shall be turquoise, lapis lazuli and emerald; 19 the third row shall be jacinth, agate and amethyst; 20 the fourth row shall be topaz, onyx and jasper.[b] Mount them in gold filigree settings. 21 There are to be twelve stones, one for each of the names of the sons of Israel, each engraved like a seal with the name of one of the twelve tribes.
22 “For the breastpiece make braided chains of pure gold, like a rope. 23 Make two gold rings for it and fasten them to two corners of the breastpiece. 24 Fasten the two gold chains to the rings at the corners of the breastpiece, 25 and the other ends of the chains to the two settings, attaching them to the shoulder pieces of the ephod at the front. 26 Make two gold rings and attach them to the other two corners of the breastpiece on the inside edge next to the ephod. 27 Make two more gold rings and attach them to the bottom of the shoulder pieces on the front of the ephod, close to the seam just above the waistband of the ephod. 28 The rings of the breastpiece are to be tied to the rings of the ephod with blue cord, connecting it to the waistband, so that the breastpiece will not swing out from the ephod.
29 “Whenever Aaron enters the Holy Place, he will bear the names of the sons of Israel over his heart on the breastpiece of decision as a continuing memorial before the Lord. 30 Also put the Urim and the Thummim in the breastpiece, so they may be over Aaron’s heart whenever he enters the presence of the Lord. Thus Aaron will always bear the means of making decisions for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord.

31 “Make the robe of the ephod entirely of blue cloth, 32 with an opening for the head in its center. There shall be a woven edge like a collar[c] around this opening, so that it will not tear. 33 Make pomegranates of blue, purple and scarlet yarn around the hem of the robe, with gold bells between them. 34 The gold bells and the pomegranates are to alternate around the hem of the robe. 35 Aaron must wear it when he ministers. The sound of the bells will be heard when he enters the Holy Place before the Lord and when he comes out, so that he will not die.
36 “Make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it as on a seal: holy to the Lord. 37 Fasten a blue cord to it to attach it to the turban; it is to be on the front of the turban. 38 It will be on Aaron’s forehead, and he will bear the guilt involved in the sacred gifts the Israelites consecrate, whatever their gifts may be. It will be on Aaron’s forehead continually so that they will be acceptable to the Lord.
39 “Weave the tunic of fine linen and make the turban of fine linen. The sash is to be the work of an embroiderer. 40 Make tunics, sashes and caps for Aaron’s sons to give them dignity and honor. 41 After you put these clothes on your brother Aaron and his sons, anoint and ordain them. Consecrate them so they may serve me as priests.
42 “Make linen undergarments as a covering for the body, reaching from the waist to the thigh. 43 Aaron and his sons must wear them whenever they enter the tent of meeting or approach the altar to minister in the Holy Place, so that they will not incur guilt and die.
“This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants.


  1. Exodus 28:16 That is, about 9 inches or about 23 centimeters
  2. Exodus 28:20 The precise identification of some of these precious stones is uncertain.
  3. Exodus 28:32 The meaning of the Hebrew for this word is uncertain.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Commended to your attention

Benjamin Wittes is basically a buttoned down establishmentarian -- he is famous for saying that Bill Barr is a straight shooter and deserved a chance to demonstrate his incorruptibility as Attorney General. Also centrist. But as such, and principled, his present commitment is to find some way to get Orange Julius out of office. His assessment of the current situation is deeply informed by the law and constitutional history.

He quotes Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 65:

The prosecution of [impeachments], for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influences, and interests on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of the parties than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.
Since there is no conceivable doubt of guilt in this instance, says Wittes:

Despite this era of shredded norms and broken taboos, it is still verboten to state what is so obviously true: “I refuse to support Trump’s impeachment because, however merited it may be, I am a Republican and he is a Republican and the advantage of my party would be ill-served by his removal—which might also threaten my own prospects of reelection, which depend on voters who like the president more than they like me.”

The most difficult question, to me, is why voters in Republican leaning places like the Resident more than they like their Senator. After all their Senator votes for Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade. Their Senator  has an A rating from the NRA and thumps the Bible. But their Senator generally speaks politely and in measured tones, doesn't threaten violence and hurl crude insults at enemies, doesn't claim to be entitled to sexually assault women, and doesn't overtly spew racism. Just a thought.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Wasting my time with trolls

There seems to be some continuing question as to whether Michael Mann was ordered to pay Tim Ball's legal fees. The answer is still no, at least not in substantial part. He was ordered to pay what the BC courts call "court costs," which is essentially automatic. The basic idea is explained here. Allowable costs are based on what's called a "tariff," which is a set amount of money for various activities associated with litigation. This is assumed to include legal fees but the amount is much less than the actual legal fees Ball incurred. The schedule is here, in case you are interested.

This seems a distinction of no importance in the overall scheme of this matter. The case was dismissed not because the court found any validity whatsoever in Ball's claims about Mann, but because a) Ball was sick and dying and b) as Ball's own lawyers argued, Ball's claims were given no credibility by the general public and so did not damage Mann's reputation.That's the point.

And here's the real point. 

Mann's scientific work is in fact, impeccable. He is right. Actually, he wasn't quite right because it's turning out to be worse than he predicted.  As Oreskes et al tell us:

Recently, the U.K. Met Office announced a revision to the Hadley Center historical analysis of sea surface temperatures (SST), suggesting that the oceans have warmed about 0.1 degree Celsius more than previously thought.  . . .[T]o develop a consistent picture of long-term trends, techniques had to be developed to compensate for the errors in the older measurements and reconcile them with the newer ones. The Hadley Centre has led this effort, and the new data set—dubbed HadSST4—is a welcome advance in our understanding of global climate change.
But that’s where the good news ends. Because the oceans cover three fifths of the globe, this correction implies that previous estimates of overall global warming have been too low. Moreover it was reported recently that in the one place where it was carefully measured, the underwater melting that is driving disintegration of ice sheets and glaciers is occurring far faster than predicted by theory—as much as two orders of magnitude faster—throwing current model projections of sea level rise further in doubt.
Carbon emissions from melting permafrost are apparently greater than previously estimated and the effect is exacerbated by increasing wildfires.

There's a lot more and it's a lot worse. So we aren't going to engage with deniers. They are evil idiots who aren't worth our time and deserve no respect. We're going to engage with the truth, and what we need to do about it.

Climate change deniers are banned from commenting on this site.

Monday, October 21, 2019


Bizarrely, the continual torrent of outrages from the Resident drowns each individual atrocity in the flood. The corporate media barely have time to report one before they go chasing after the next, and nothing ever lingers in the collective consciousness long enough to seem important.

The editors of the Los Angeles Times are trying to correct this by issuing a long-form catalog. As they put the problem:

In the corrosive and dangerous Trump presidency, the outrages fly so fast and the chaos mounts so thoroughly that it’s easy to pass off the entire unsettling phenomenon as one more made-for-TV-and-Twitter unreality show. New outrages drive the previous ones from our minds.
It's worth reading to gain a sense of the depth and breadth of the calamity that has befallen the nation and the planet. It's reminiscent of the bill of particulars against King George III in the Declaration of Independence, and it seems likely that they were thinking of that consciously.  We can't secede from the current ruler, but impeachment and removal from office would be the equivalent action. As the editorial board concludes:

More than any president in living memory, Trump has cheapened his office, instilled distrust in essential institutions of justice and democracy and replaced knowledge and professionalism with ignorance and amateurism. This partial list represents a mere slice of what makes Donald Trump unacceptable as president of the United States and what makes it of utmost importance that Americans of all political parties and positions reject and replace him.
Unfortunately, there is as yet no sign that Americans of all political parties will do that. So there is oe further imperative: the Republican party must be destroyed. They have sacrificed any legitimate role in the national project.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: More interior design

I've done a little bit of reading to see if people have thoughts about why a book that presents some of its key events in a few verses goes on ad nauseum about the precise details of the tabernacle. (And soon to come the priestly vestments and various ritual requirements.) Well, for one thing, the text existed; it was available. Somebody saw this thing at some point and described it. Obviously it wasn't in the historical context described here, which fictitious, but the details get projected back to this time of lawgiving.

And it was important in a way that the story of Cain and Abel and other events that get much shorter shrift were not. Maintaining the tabernacle and the priestly rituals were the most essential religious duty. It is a generalization that the outer trappings of faith are probably more important than moral instructions or even belief itself. We tell the religious communities apart by the design of their temples, the vestments of their priests, and the specific rituals they perform. You're a Lutheran or a Catholic or Armenian Rite Orthodox because of the building you enter on Sunday and the specific mumbo jumbo that goes on in it. Most of the faithful know little, if anything, about the theological differences among them.

So the Hebrews demonstrated to the world, and to each other, that they worshiped this particular God, and were chosen of him, by following these instructions. However, it's incredibly tedious and I don't expect you to actually read it.

27 “Build an altar of acacia [KJV "shittim"] wood, three cubits[a] high; it is to be square, five cubits long and five cubits wide.[b] Make a horn at each of the four corners, so that the horns and the altar are of one piece, and overlay the altar with bronze. Make all its utensils of bronze—its pots to remove the ashes, and its shovels, sprinkling bowls, meat forks and firepans. Make a grating for it, a bronze network, and make a bronze ring at each of the four corners of the network. Put it under the ledge of the altar so that it is halfway up the altar. Make poles of acacia wood for the altar and overlay them with bronze. The poles are to be inserted into the rings so they will be on two sides of the altar when it is carried. Make the altar hollow, out of boards. It is to be made just as you were shown on the mountain.
“Make a courtyard for the tabernacle. The south side shall be a hundred cubits[c] long and is to have curtains of finely twisted linen, 10 with twenty posts and twenty bronze bases and with silver hooks and bands on the posts. 11 The north side shall also be a hundred cubits long and is to have curtains, with twenty posts and twenty bronze bases and with silver hooks and bands on the posts.
12 “The west end of the courtyard shall be fifty cubits[d] wide and have curtains, with ten posts and ten bases. 13 On the east end, toward the sunrise, the courtyard shall also be fifty cubits wide. 14 Curtains fifteen cubits[e] long are to be on one side of the entrance, with three posts and three bases, 15 and curtains fifteen cubits long are to be on the other side, with three posts and three bases.
16 “For the entrance to the courtyard, provide a curtain twenty cubits[f] long, of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen—the work of an embroiderer—with four posts and four bases. 17 All the posts around the courtyard are to have silver bands and hooks, and bronze bases. 18 The courtyard shall be a hundred cubits long and fifty cubits wide,[g] with curtains of finely twisted linen five cubits[h] high, and with bronze bases. 19 All the other articles used in the service of the tabernacle, whatever their function, including all the tent pegs for it and those for the courtyard, are to be of bronze.
20 “Command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of pressed olives for the light so that the lamps may be kept burning. 21 In the tent of meeting, outside the curtain that shields the ark of the covenant law, Aaron and his sons are to keep the lamps burning before the Lord from evening till morning. This is to be a lasting ordinance among the Israelites for the generations to come.


  1. Exodus 27:1 That is, about 4 1/2 feet or about 1.4 meters
  2. Exodus 27:1 That is, about 7 1/2 feet or about 2.3 meters long and wide
  3. Exodus 27:9 That is, about 150 feet or about 45 meters; also in verse 11
  4. Exodus 27:12 That is, about 75 feet or about 23 meters; also in verse 13
  5. Exodus 27:14 That is, about 23 feet or about 6.8 meters; also in verse 15
  6. Exodus 27:16 That is, about 30 feet or about 9 meters
  7. Exodus 27:18 That is, about 150 feet long and 75 feet wide or about 45 meters long and 23 meters wide
  8. Exodus 27:18 That is, about 7 1/2 feet or about 2.3 meters

Friday, October 18, 2019

On Civil Disobedience

I'm not going to link to a video sent in by a reader mostly because the comments are so stupid, but point taken. Blocking public transit as a protest against government inaction on climate change seems symbolically and tactically illogical. So when and why is civil disobedience morally justifiable? The question is inextricable from the practical utility of civil disobedience actions. Moral justification doesn't work for ineffective actions.

As a youth I worked for an organization that emphasized what we called direct action tactics, which were often though not necessarily technically illegal. So there are some important definitional distinctions. "Direct action" means political action that bypasses the official mechanisms of political participation, such as voting, giving money to candidates, lobbying, testifying before legislative committees, submitting public comments, writing letters to the editor, yadda yadda . . .

These methods generally favor people who are already disproportionately powerful. They require getting past the gatekeepers of the corporate media, having money, having the right connections, having "respectable" opinions. Direct action tactics, in contrast, are available to people who are disadvantaged in the system as it is.

Legal direct action tactics include demonstrations, boycotts, and strikes. I'll leave those aside for now. Civil disobedience requires violating the law. Some people will say immediately "That is always wrong." If you don't like the law, you can try to change it by legal means, but if people don't respect the law the consequences will be intolerable.

It's very easy to reduce that to the absurd. George Washington was a traitor who led an armed insurrection. That was for sure illegal and if the colonists had been defeated he would have been hung. Nevertheless you probably think the U.S. war of independence (it was not a revolution) was justifiable -- as was the Boston Tea Party which consisted of the destruction of someone's property. You might mention that to the next libertarian you see.

Harriet Tubman made a career of violating the law, and every slave who escaped with her help violated the law, as did everyone in the South or the North who helped them. Later, civil disobedience was a core tactic of the Freedom Movement. Rosa Parks violated the law. The students who sat in at the Woolworth's lunch counter violated the law. The Freedom Riders violated the law. The laws they violated in these cases were specifically ones they considered illegitimate, but later mass protests in which people blocked traffic or defied orders to disperse and were subjected to mass arrest were of a different character. They were intended to disrupt the business of cities, overfill the jails, and provoke a violent response from the authorities which made for bad optics both locally and internationally.

Why do people believe these violations of the law were morally justified? In some instances, the specific laws that were violated are considered so egregious that people have no moral obligation to obey them, or even a moral obligation to disobey. In other cases, the laws that were violated are not necessarily objectionable in themselves, but the moral imperative of changing other laws or conditions is great enough to outweigh the moral cost of disobeying them.

There isn't any formula or magic 8-ball that can tell you if this calculus applies in a specific situation. I would definitely say, however, that the looming global catastrophe of climate change, resource depletion and mass extinction is a moral imperative that outweighs obedience to a whole lot of laws. However, the disobedience has to be effective -- it has to advance the cause of government, corporate and collective action to address the emergency. That requires tactical smartness and a credible theory of why a specific action is going to benefit the cause. So I hope the good people of Extinction Rebellion will stay smart, and that they won't make a habit of blocking mass transit.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Long Emergency: George Monbiot on Civil Disobedience

Guardian columnist on why massive civil disobedience is an urgent necessity. He isn't new to the case -- he' been crying the alarm for decades. But now he realizes that writing, and agitating, and voting aren't working. People are taking to the streets, and in Britain they're trying to pack the jail cells.

Nowhere on Earth does government action match the scale of the catastrophes we face. Part of the reason is the remarkably low level of public discussion and information on this crisis. Another is that the political risks of action are higher than the perceived rewards – a balance the protesters want to redress. But perhaps the most important factor is the brute power of the pollutocrats driving this disaster. As the Guardian’s The polluters series shows, the big fossil fuel companies have used political funding, intense lobbying and gross deceptions of the public to overwhelm environmental protections and keep harvesting their massive profits.
Those who confront them have no such power. We cannot buy television channels and newspapers, pour billions into political lobbying or seed dark ads on social media. We have only one strength: our vulnerability. By putting our bodies on the line and risking our liberty, we make this great neglected issue impossible to ignore.
The Guardian has been running a lengthy series on the climate emergency, and you can sample their recent stories here.  The obvious question is why corporate media in the U.S. aren't doing the same. Of course there isn't room in the New York Times, their space is all taken up interviewing unrepentant Trump voters in Midwestern diners.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Columbus Schmumbus

If there is one holiday that definitely needs to be repurposed, it's today's annual celebration of a murderous idiot. (Visit link for a five minute Adam Ruins Everything.)

The idea of the celebration was initially promoted by Italian Americans who craved recognition in a country that had been dominated by people from northwest Europe. Italians didn't originally have full "white" status. The idea seems to have been that drawing attention to the idea that an Italian had opened the way for European settlement of the Americas would validate their presence here, or something like that.

Of course this required that he be glamorized. Children were told the tale that he alone had the profound insight that the earth is spherical and that it would be possible to sale west from Europe to Asia and bring back highly desirable trade goods, mostly spices. How this idea is consistent with his heroic "discovery" of America is unclear but then again, if you've been reading the Bible with me that shouldn't bother you.

Of course everybody already knew that the earth is spherical. The ancient Greeks knew that and even made a very accurate calculation of its circumference. And based on that knowledge, navigators in the 1400s knew that if they tried to sale west to Asia, it would be something like 12,000 miles away and they would starve to death before they got there. However, Columbus misread a text and he thought the earth was only 2/3 its actual size.

So, when he got to the Caribbean islands he thought he was in India (his geography was bad as well, since obviously he would have been in Japan or China), and the first thing he did was come back with an army and start slaughtering and enslaving the people he called Indians. He never found any gold or spices and he never set foot in North America. He did, however, establish the template for how European invaders would treat the native people and lands.

Also, he wasn't Italian. Italy did not exist at the time, and he did not speak Italian, he spoke Ligurian.

So let's stop honoring one of histories greatest villains. If you want an Italian heritage day, this ain't it.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: The Mind Doth Boggle

As I warned y'all last week, we are now in the most boring part of the Bible. We've seen God do all kinds of weird and psychopathic shit up till now -- making false promises, arbitrarily picking favorites, committing mass murder, that sort of thing -- but now he's become an obsessive architect and interior designer. It's one thing I suppose for the faithful to decide to erect an expensive, super-luxe monument to the being they worship, but for said being to drag a guy up to a mountaintop and make him write down these meticulous instructions just so he can be properly worshipped seems pretty wack. Anyway, there really isn't much more I can say about it. Obviously this is a one-off. As far as I know this is a one-off. Nobody has made an attempt to follow these instructions in known history.

26 “Make the tabernacle with ten curtains of finely twisted linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, with cherubim woven into them by a skilled worker. All the curtains are to be the same size—twenty-eight cubits long and four cubits wide.[a] Join five of the curtains together, and do the same with the other five. Make loops of blue material along the edge of the end curtain in one set, and do the same with the end curtain in the other set. Make fifty loops on one curtain and fifty loops on the end curtain of the other set, with the loops opposite each other. Then make fifty gold clasps and use them to fasten the curtains together so that the tabernacle is a unit.
“Make curtains of goat hair for the tent over the tabernacle—eleven altogether. All eleven curtains are to be the same size—thirty cubits long and four cubits wide.[b] Join five of the curtains together into one set and the other six into another set. Fold the sixth curtain double at the front of the tent. 10 Make fifty loops along the edge of the end curtain in one set and also along the edge of the end curtain in the other set. 11 Then make fifty bronze clasps and put them in the loops to fasten the tent together as a unit. 12 As for the additional length of the tent curtains, the half curtain that is left over is to hang down at the rear of the tabernacle. 13 The tent curtains will be a cubit[c] longer on both sides; what is left will hang over the sides of the tabernacle so as to cover it. 14 Make for the tent a covering of ram skins dyed red, and over that a covering of the other durable leather.[d]
15 “Make upright frames of acacia wood for the tabernacle. 16 
KJV calls this "shittim" woods. I did a little research and it turns out acacia is a guess as to what shittim wood means. I kind of like shittim wood.
Each frame is to be ten cubits long and a cubit and a half wide,[e] 17 with two projections set parallel to each other. Make all the frames of the tabernacle in this way. 18 Make twenty frames for the south side of the tabernacle 19 and make forty silver bases to go under them—two bases for each frame, one under each projection. 20 For the other side, the north side of the tabernacle, make twenty frames 21 and forty silver bases—two under each frame. 22 Make six frames for the far end, that is, the west end of the tabernacle, 23 and make two frames for the corners at the far end. 24 At these two corners they must be double from the bottom all the way to the top and fitted into a single ring; both shall be like that. 25 So there will be eight frames and sixteen silver bases—two under each frame.
26 “Also make crossbars of acacia wood: five for the frames on one side of the tabernacle, 27 five for those on the other side, and five for the frames on the west, at the far end of the tabernacle. 28 The center crossbar is to extend from end to end at the middle of the frames. 29 Overlay the frames with gold and make gold rings to hold the crossbars. Also overlay the crossbars with gold.
30 “Set up the tabernacle according to the plan shown you on the mountain.
31 “Make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim woven into it by a skilled worker. 32 Hang it with gold hooks on four posts of acacia wood overlaid with gold and standing on four silver bases. 33 Hang the curtain from the clasps and place the ark of the covenant law behind the curtain. The curtain will separate the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. 34 Put the atonement cover on the ark of the covenant law in the Most Holy Place. 35 Place the table outside the curtain on the north side of the tabernacle and put the lampstand opposite it on the south side.
36 “For the entrance to the tent make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen—the work of an embroiderer. 37 Make gold hooks for this curtain and five posts of acacia wood overlaid with gold. And cast five bronze bases for them.


  1. Exodus 26:2 That is, about 42 feet long and 6 feet wide or about 13 meters long and 1.8 meters wide
  2. Exodus 26:8 That is, about 45 feet long and 6 feet wide or about 13.5 meters long and 1.8 meters wide
  3. Exodus 26:13 That is, about 18 inches or about 45 centimeters
  4. Exodus 26:14 Possibly the hides of large aquatic mammals (see 25:5)
  5. Exodus 26:16 That is, about 15 feet long and 2 1/4 feet wide or about 4.5 meters long and 68 centimeters wide

Friday, October 11, 2019

History Lesson

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been closely following events in Iraq since shortly after the U.S. invasion, as I first contributed to, then took ownership of the blog Today in Iraq. We have a reader who thought that changing the subject from the Residents recent abandonment of the Syrian Kurds to the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011 would place the blame for the rise of Islamic State on Barack Obama.

In fact the so-called Status of Force Agreement that required U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011 was signed by President George W. Bush in 2008. The Obama administration attempted to negotiate a new agreement that would allow a small contingent of military advisers to remain, but the Iraqi parliament would not agree to it. U.S. forces therefore departed Iraq before the end of December 2011, although a contingent of some 5,000 U.S. mercenaries remained, along with marines guarding the U.S. embassy and consulates.

The absence of U.S. forces in Iraq, however, had nothing to do with the formation and rise of the Islamic State. That occurred in Syria, where individuals radicalized by the U.S. invasion of Iraq took advantage of the power vacuum caused by the Syrian civil war to seize territory. When IS forces subsequently crossed the border and attacked Iraqi territory in Anbar and Salah U'din provinces, the corrupt and inept Iraqi army fled. Iraq thereupon invited limited U.S. forces in to assist in the campaign to recover the lost territory.

The Obama administration recognized that the Iraqi people did not want U.S. forces engaging in large scale fighting or seizing territory in their country. Therefore the U.S. provided weapons and other assistance to the Peshmerga -- the army of Iraqi Kurdistan -- and assisted the new, professional leadership of the Iraqi military in rebuilding an effective army. They also tacitly coordinated with Shiite militias supported by Iraq. The U.S. provided aerial surveillance and artillery support to the various local forces in the campaigns to retake Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul and the Yezidi lands. The campaign against IS in Iraq essentially concluded in July 2017 with the recapture of Mosul, shortly after the end of the Obama presidency. Fallujah and Ramadi had been recaptured while he was in office.

The campaign against IS in Syria, which was also conducted by indigenous forces with U.S. assistance, began at about the same time but did not become effective until U.S. commanders came to understand that they could not depend on Arab militias and that the YPG -- the Kurdish militia in Rojava -- was their only reliable partner. The joint U.S.-Kurdish campaign against IS was well underway before Obama left office. Indeed, Raqqa, the capital of the self-declared Caliphate, also fell in 2017. However, smaller IS enclaves were not eliminated until later. Just so we are clear.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Kurds Away

As my 2 1/2 long time readers know, for many years I maintained a blog called Today in Iraq and Afghanistan (originally Today in Iraq). During the height of U.S. involvement in Iraq we had thousands of visitors every day, and we were listed in the blogroll at Eschaton and other prominent sites. But Americans lost interest in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and even the fight against the Islamic State didn't garner much attention. I finally stopped blogging there a few months ago when the situation in both countries had turned into stagnation and the daily routine of generally low-level violence just didn't seem worth documenting.

Anyway, the result is that I know quite a lot about the situation that, rather astonishingly, has finally gotten some congressional Republicans to speak against their Dear Leader. It's more complicated than I can fully explain in this space, but I'll give the basics. The Kurds are an ethnic group that got largely screwed when the European powers carved up the Ottoman Empire after World War I. They wound up divided among Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. The history of the Kurds in Iraq is very complicated but the upshot is that over the years they achieved a degree of self-rule but during the Iran-Iraq war Saddam Hussein adopted highly repressive policies toward Iraqi Kurdistan and perpetrated the notorious Anfal genocide. Following the fall of Saddam, the Kurds gained an autonomous regional government (the KRG) in federation with Iraq.

An militant faction called the PKK (which stands for Kurdistan workers party but that's irrelevant) seeking secession of Kurdish lands in Turkey took refuge in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Eventually, the KRG came to a tacit agreement with Turkey that it would not protect the PKK in exchange for Turkish acceptance of the KRG and trade relations. Meanwhile, in Syria, the Kurds call their territory Rojava, and they were able to attain effective autonomy in the Syrian civil war. Turkish leader Erdogan sees the Rojavan party, called the YPG or people's protection forces, as allied with the PKK and calls them terrorists. I don't know that there is any truth to this, they seem mostly interested in autonomy within Syria, but in any case Erdogan doesn't like the idea of a continuous strip of Kurdish self-rule along his southern border. (I know this is getting tiresome.)

Anyway, the Islamic state arose, first in the context of the Iraqi civil war. This was a disaster for which the U.S. is largely culpable, but  that's for another day. As Baghdad regained control of the lands to its north and west, the IS metastasized to Syria where it gained substantial territory, and then invaded the Mosul region of northwest Iraq, on the border of Iraqi Kurdistan. Rather than repeating the mistake of trying to seize territory in the region with its own forces, the U.S. chose to combat IS by providing support to Kurdish fighters, and tacitly cooperating with Iranian-backed militias in both Iraq and Syria. The YPG is the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which defeated IS in Syria with the help of U.S. arms and air support. They are also responsible for prison camps where thousands of captured IS fighters and family members are now held.

Okay then. Erdogan has been threatening for a while to invade northern Syria, on the pretext that he wants to create a "safe zone" into which he can repatriate Syrian refugees who are currently in Turkey. He probably does want to do that, although there is no infrastructure there to receive them and he'd just be dumping them into the desert. But his more important motive is to push the YPG away from the Turkish border. There are a thousand or so U.S. troops there essentially as a tripwire, to discourage Erdogan from invading. In a phone call two days ago, the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW agreed to remove those troops and allow Erdogan to invade. Here is an explanation of the situation from a Kurdish channel which also discusses the reaction of the leader of the KRG. The bottom line is that this will push the YPG into the arms of Bashar al-Assad and Russia, since they will have no other protector.

The Resident has since claimed that he won't tolerate a Turkish invasion after all, after getting an earful from Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham -- apparently that took him by surprise. But with the U.S. troops gone, there won't be much he can do about it. Meanwhile, of course, the YPG will have to abandon the IS prison camps and who knows what will happen then.

As you know I am generally highly resistant to U.S. military involvement abroad, but I fully recognized the necessity of destroying IS and I also fully appreciate the debt we owe to the Kurds of Rojava. Not saying I want U.S. troops there forever but we are obliged to work out a deal. Just turning tail and leaving is a bad look from all perspectives.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Not so tasteful design

In Exodus 25, God starts to get, well, extremely anal. He lays out precise instructions for building himself a home in extremely garish taste -- kind of Trumpian, actually. I must warn you that this goes on for a long time -- several more chapters. It's unbelievably tedious and there isn't really much to say about it except that this guy is a self-indulgent megalomaniac. As the Skeptic's Annotated Bible puts it, "God wastes most of the last 16 chapters of Exodus on instructions for making tables, curtains, candlesticks, snuffers, girdles, bonnets, perfumes, etc. This stuff is so important that it much of it is repeated. As a result, the last 40% of Exodus is one of the most boring sections in the Bible." True. But we are committed to reading the whole damn thing so off we go.

25 The Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give. These are the offerings you are to receive from them: gold, silver and bronze; blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair; ram skins dyed red and another type of durable leather[a]; acacia wood; olive oil for the light; spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense; and onyx stones and other gems to be mounted on the ephod and breastpiece.
“Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.

10 “Have them make an ark[b] of acacia wood—two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.[c] 11 Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold molding around it. 12 Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. 13 Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. 14 Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry it. 15 The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed. 16 Then put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law, which I will give you.
17 “Make an atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. 18 And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. 19 Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. 20 The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. 21 
Uhm, wasn't there something about not making graven images? Just sayin' . . .
Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. 22 There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.

23 “Make a table of acacia wood—two cubits long, a cubit wide and a cubit and a half high.[d] 24 Overlay it with pure gold and make a gold molding around it. 25 Also make around it a rim a handbreadth[e] wide and put a gold molding on the rim. 26 Make four gold rings for the table and fasten them to the four corners, where the four legs are. 27 The rings are to be close to the rim to hold the poles used in carrying the table. 28 Make the poles of acacia wood, overlay them with gold and carry the table with them. 29 And make its plates and dishes of pure gold, as well as its pitchers and bowls for the pouring out of offerings. 30 Put the bread of the Presence on this table to be before me at all times.

31 “Make a lampstand of pure gold. Hammer out its base and shaft, and make its flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms of one piece with them. 32 Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lampstand—three on one side and three on the other. 33 Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on one branch, three on the next branch, and the same for all six branches extending from the lampstand. 34 And on the lampstand there are to be four cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms. 35 One bud shall be under the first pair of branches extending from the lampstand, a second bud under the second pair, and a third bud under the third pair—six branches in all. 36 The buds and branches shall all be of one piece with the lampstand, hammered out of pure gold.
37 “Then make its seven lamps and set them up on it so that they light the space in front of it. 38 Its wick trimmers and trays are to be of pure gold. 39 A talent[f] of pure gold is to be used for the lampstand and all these accessories. 40 See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.


  1. Exodus 25:5 Possibly the hides of large aquatic mammals
  2. Exodus 25:10 That is, a chest
  3. Exodus 25:10 That is, about 3 3/4 feet long and 2 1/4 feet wide and high or about 1.1 meters long and 68 centimeters wide and high; similarly in verse 17
  4. Exodus 25:23 That is, about 3 feet long, 1 1/2 feet wide and 2 1/4 feet high or about 90 centimeters long, 45 centimeters wide and 68 centimeters high
  5. Exodus 25:25 That is, about 3 inches or about 7.5 centimeters
  6. Exodus 25:39 That is, about 75 pounds or about 34 kilograms

Friday, October 04, 2019

Post Truth

There have always been widespread beliefs that do not accord with reality. As readers know I put all of religion in that category. But post-Enlightenment we've generally adopted a compromise that places religion in a separate epistemological category. Hence for example, the Catholic Church can accept the truth of the claims of physicists and biologists about the antiquity of the earth and origin of species while simultaneously embracing mystical doctrines such as Original Sin which are inconsistent with science.

In the realm of non-mystical, non-religious reality, the mainstream view is, or at least has been, that can be definitively distinguished by evidence, according to agreed-upon evaluative rules. It is purportedly the job of journalists to apply these rules, and damaging to politicians to be caught in lies.

That is not to say there have not been numerous hoaxes perpetrated on the public post-Descartes, from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to Joseph McCarthy, through the Tonkin Gulf Incident and the Weapons of Mass Destruction. But most people accept the truth about these matters once evidence comes to light. Of course politicians of all stripes sometimes overreach and exaggerate, shade or spin the truth, or hold on to convenient beliefs that aren't really correct. But we've been in new territory ever since George Bush II, as famously encapsulated by Paul Krugman's satirical headline: Shape of the Earth, Views Differ.

Still, we eventually found that no, Saddam did not have Weapon of Mass Destruction ™ and that he was not the mastermind behind 9/11, and even Republicans generally agree with this. But now we're in a new era which is definitely qualitatively different, in which one of the major political parties lives in an alternate universe, and the corporate media's addiction to Bothersiderism prevents them from coming down clearly on the side of reality.

Digby discusses the wacko hoaxes that sent America's Clown Mayor and the Secretary of Sycophancy State gallivanting about the planet at taxpayer expense to try to cajole foreign governments into fabricating evidence. She might also have mentioned John Solomon's fantasy writing for The Hill, which may be Rudy's most important source of inspiration.

But of course it is not just on matters of historical fact that the Republican party has abandoned objective reality. The party also rejects science as a whole. As a group for the Brennan Center reports (one that includes old fashioned Reality Based Republicans such as Christine Todd Whitman and Chuck Hagel):

Objective data and research are essential to effective governance and democratic oversight. But over the last few decades, the safeguards meant to keep government research objective and publicly accessible have been steadily weakening. Recent administrations have manipulated the findings of government scientists and researchers, retaliated against career researchers for political reasons, invited outside special interests to shape research priorities, undermined and sidelined advisory committees staffed by scientists, and suppressed research and analysis from public view — often material that had previously been made available. In many cases, they have appeared to pay little political price for these missteps. This trend has culminated in the efforts of the current administration not only to politicize scientific and technical research on a range of topics, but also, at times, to undermine the value of objective facts themselves.
Now, we are at a crisis point, with almost weekly violations of previously respected safeguards.
  • The acting White House chief of staff reportedly instructed the secretary of commerce to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — a part of the Department of Commerce — issue a misleading statement in support of the president’s false assertion about the trajectory of a hurricane, contradicting an earlier statement released by the National Weather Service. The secretary of commerce reportedly threatened to fire top NOAA officials in pressuring them to act.
  • The Department of Agriculture relocated economists across the country after they published findings showing the financial harms to farmers of the administration’s trade policies.
  • The Interior Department reassigned its top climate scientist to an accounting role after he highlighted dangers posed by climate change.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopted rules that prevent leading experts from serving on science advisory boards and encourage participation by industry-affiliated researchers.
  • The White House suppressed a report showing a toxic substance that is present in several states’ water supplies endangers human health at levels far lower than previously reported by the EPA.
 Do read the whole thing.

Anyway John Quiggin sums up our plight:

Apparently, one side, based on eyeballing, thinks the earth is flat, while the other, relying on the views of so-called scientists, or the experience of international air travel, regards it as spherical, or nearly so.
In the past, before the rise of partisanship, we would have agreed on a sensible compromise, such as flat on Sundays, spherical on weekdays, and undetermined on Saturdays. Moreover, there was a mix of views, with plenty of Democratic flat-earthers, and Republican sphericalists. .  .