Hendrik Hertzberg has a nice theory on the collapse of the GOP's Steal California Initiative.


Am I wrong, or is GM's new agreement with the UAW a potentially lethal blow to the cause of universal health care? The Detroit automakers, staggering under the weight of employee health insurance costs, were expected to be big players in the lobbying for a universal coverage bill in a Democratic administration. If they've paid off 80 years of health costs upfront, as GM's new contract has it doing (Ford and Chrysler are expected to enter similar arrangements), they no longer have a stake in the government picking up those costs.

Maybe there's some provision in the agreement about what happens if government-subsidized health care expands. If anyone actually knows anything about this, please educate me in the comments.

Micheline Maynard's detailed story on the contracts doesn't mention the health care policy angle. It does, however, contain this bizarrely wrongheaded paragraph:

Likewise, U.A.W. members, assured of health care benefits that were the envy of the labor movement, had little incentive to take better care of their health, since their generous coverage would pay for most any ailment.
This is what's known as the moral hazard theory. It holds that, when people are insulated from a particular risk, they become less concerned about that risk: if I can buy flood insurance, I'm more likely to build a house on a flood plain. Moral hazard concerns were in the news recently when the Federal Reserve was considering whether to bail out investors hit by the subprime mortgage collapse. Every time the central bank protects investors from losses on risky bets, it's encouraging more risky bets in the future.

Maynard is applying the moral hazard argument to well-insured union autoworkers: their coverage is so good that they have "little incentive to take better care of their health." But this is ludicrous on its face. Health insurance can absorb the financial costs of ill health, but those are far from the only costs. If you're in constant pain, it's no great consolation that someone else pays for your treatments. If you're bedridden you want to get up and go outside, even if your insurance company pays for in-home care. If you learn you're going to die young you still mind, even if you know your family will receive a generous pension. Health care is unlike other economic goods, and treating it like them is one reason this country's health care system is so fucked up. It's surprising to see the Times, in a news story, get this confused.


Politico-linguistic intervention of the day: Listening to Terry Gross's meaty interview with WaPo's Thomas Ricks last week (web, iTunes), it struck me that serious, knowledgeable people have begun using the term ethnic cleansing to refer to what's going on in Iraqi cities and neighborhoods. Besides Ricks, the author of one of the most important books on the war so far, and Gross, who's usually pretty careful with her words, it's been all over the NYT in recent weeks, appearing in news stories and opinion pieces alike. David Brooks writes,

Second, the worst of the ethnic cleansing may be over. For years, Shiites and Sunnis have been purging each other from towns and neighborhoods.
But the problem, for once, is not Brooks's limited intelligence. Paul Krugman has this:
Oh, and by the way: Baghdad is undergoing ethnic cleansing, with Shiite militias driving Sunnis out of much of the city.
An early example is this Time piece headlined "Ethnic Cleansing in a Baghdad Neighborhood?"

The term ethnic cleansing originated, during the Balkan conflict, as a euphemism for genocide, often used by the English-speaking media with deliberate irony. It's a little strange to watch it turn into a legitimate, unironic term for mass displacement, especially since the word cleansing carries an ineradicable whiff of Nazi ideology.

But if we're going to use the term, can we at least use it accurately? Sunni and Shi'a are not ethnicities, they're religious denominations. For the most part, the people involved in homogenizing their neighborhoods, both Sunni and Shiite, are Arabs (although some are Turkmen, on both sides). The process is more properly called sectarian cleansing, or if you want to get really technical denominational cleansing, or if you want to lose the Nazi stuff sectarian homogenization. The best example of ethnic cleansing during the Iraq War is probably the expulsion of Arabs from Kirkuk, which seems to have calmed down a bit.

American ignorance about Iraq has done enough damage over the past five years; we shouldn't allow sloppy word choices to further cloud our understanding.


A Connecticut high school teacher named Nate Fisher lost his job after giving a 14-year-old female student an issue of Daniel Clowes's Eightball. (It's the one that was republished as Ice Haven, if that means anything to you.) Isn't that just the kind of thing the other Nate Fisher might have done in his twenties? NYMag and Publishers Weekly have commentary on their websites. The school's local TV station weighs in with the kind of insight that characterizes local TV news everywhere.


Slate joins the struggle to impose order on NYMag's Approval Matrix.

Kinsley, bless him, talks sense about the infamous MoveOn ad.


From The Economist:

Once upon a time, the only ideologically acceptable explanations of mental differences between men and women were cultural. Any biologist who dared to suggest in public that perhaps evolution might work differently on the sexes, and that this might perhaps result in some underlying neurological inequalities, was likely to get tarred and feathered.

Today, by contrast, biology tends to be an explanation of first resort in matters sexual. So it is salutary to come across an experiment which shows that a newly discovered difference which fits easily, at first sight, into the biological-determinism camp, actually does not belong there at all.


Weird: Joni Mitchell has a poem in the New Yorker. It's, um, not her best work:

We have poisoned everything
And oblivious to it all
The cell-phone zombies babble
Through the shopping malls

MoveOn's ad referring to General David Petraeus as "General Betray Us" is stupid for two reasons: (a) because hanging your argument on phonetic coincidence is puerile and reeks of powerlessness, and (b) because it gave the Weekly Standard an opportunity to run a story with the headline "MoveOn.org Calls Petraeus a Traitor; Do Democrats in Congress agree?"

HuffPo's Jeffrey Feldman argues that "the word 'betray' used by MoveOn in the ad implies many meanings, but does not directly imply 'traitor' -- unless that definition is introduced."

Unfortunately, it's a bit more complicated that. Merriam Webster gives two definitions for traitor:

1 : one who betrays another's trust or is false to an obligation or duty
2 : one who commits treason
What's happened here, obviously, is that the Standard is deliberately confusing the two meanings. It's fair to say that MoveOn was accusing Petraeus of being a traitor in sense one. But TWS would like for everyone to believe they accused him of being a traitor in the much more inflammatory sense two.


Who to trust? The NYT's Matt Zoller Seitz: "The new Halloween has sympathy for the Devil, but not enough." LA Weekly's Nathan Lee: "If anything, [Halloween director Rob] Zombie indulges too much sympathy for the devil."


Dumb quotes

This is an apostrophe:

It is used to represent letters (and occasionally digits) that have been omitted from contractions such as don’t and Li’l Abner and rock ’n’ roll and the ’80s.

This is a pair of single quotation marks:
‘ ’
They are used to indictate speech-within-speech, as in “I'm a reasonable man,” said David Brooks, “but when someone calls me ‘that fucking moron’ I get a bit upset.”

No one found this confusing until Microsoft Word introduced the “smart quotes” feature. When used with double quotation marks, smart quotes is a useful tool: you type the double-quote character and the software determines whether you want an open-quote mark or a close-quote mark, depending on whether the character comes at the beginning of a word or at the end.

The mistake was to implement smart quotes for single quotation marks as well. Say I want to write cookies and cream, but I want to write it in a cooler, jazzier way, by replacing the first and last letters of the word and with apostrophes. I type

C O O K I E S <space> <apostrophe> N <apostrophe> <space> C R E A M.
Microsoft Word sees the first apostrophe, observes that it comes after a space and before a letter, and decides that it's an opening single quotation mark. The program displays
cookies ‘n’ cream
as though I wanted to cast doubt on the letter n. Calling such a feature “smart” is a bit of a misnomer, I think.

The problem is compounded by the human tendency to trust computers too much. People see the quotation marks in cookies ‘n’ cream and think, Well, the computer put them that way, that must be right.

Taken to an extreme, people will even allow Microsoft Word's stupidity to fuck up the logo for a major Hollywood motion picture.


Another James Wood piece, this one from the Boston Globe. Wood's rep seems to have congealed around the fact that he sometimes criticizes books by famous and admired writers. As a corrective to this unfortunately reductive idea, see his reviews of McEwan's Saturday and Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty.


We're back! And stealing things straight from Gawker! Check the photo on this NYT story, and then look at the caption, and then scroll down to the very bottom and read the correction.