Opinion

The Great Debate

from Stories I’d like to see:

The price of a life and George W. Bush post-White House

A spectator smokes a cigarette as she waits for the start of the Dubai World Cup at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai

1. How government accountants value life:

Last week, the New York Times reported: “Buried deep in the federal government’s voluminous new tobacco regulations is a little-known cost-benefit calculation that public health experts see as potentially poisonous: the happiness quotient. It assumes that the benefits from reducing smoking -- fewer early deaths and diseases of the lungs and heart -- have to be discounted by 70 percent to offset the loss in pleasure that smokers suffer when they give up their habit.”

I hope editors at the New Yorker or Sixty Minutes noticed.

Did you know that a federal agency -- the Office of Management and Budget, which did the cost-benefit analysis described by the Times -- actually employs people who calculate how many lives will be saved by government regulations; then calculates the dollar value of the lives saved, and then weighs that value against the “cost” of the regulation?  Apparently in this case, part of the cost to be calculated was the cost of the lost pleasure from quitting smoking.

According to this report to Congress, OMB must make a cost-benefit analysis for every rule where the projected cost of compliance is more than $100 million. The agency with the most rules falling into that category has been the Environmental Protection Agency, and OMB has consistently found that the value of the lives saved exceeds the cost of compliance.

But what’s the “value” of a life saved?

Here’s what a footnote from that OMB report says:

What is sometimes called the “value of a statistical life” (VSL) is best understood not as the “valuation of life,” but as the valuation of statistical mortality risks. For example, the average person in a population of 50,000 may value a reduction in mortality risk of 1/50,000 at $150. The value of reducing the risk of 1 statistical (as opposed to known or identified) fatality in this population would be $7.5 million, representing the aggregation of the willingness to pay values held by everyone in the population. Building on an extensive and growing literature, OMB Circular A-4 provides background and discussion of the theory and practice of calculating VSL. It concludes that a substantial majority of the studies of VSL indicate a value that varies "from roughly $1 million to $10 million per statistical life."

Huh?

Don’t you want to have Malcolm Gladwell or some other talented observer take you inside and meet the people who presume to make all these calculations?

If at first you don’t succeed in Iraq, Surge, Surge again

Major-General Hertling, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, walks during a battlefield circulation patrol on the streets in Mosul

America’s new strategy for resolving the Sunni-Shi’ite crisis in Iraq? The Surge — again.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey sounds as if he were reading off the 2007 script, echoing the divide-and-conquer strategy that was the basis for the Surge: “If you can separate those [Sunni] groups,” Dempsey said, “then the problem becomes manageable and understandable.”

So, Washington is now sending U.S. officials to meet with Sunni tribal leaders and others. The ultimate goal — after hopefully forcing out foreign fighters from within Sunni ranks in 2014, as in 2007 — is political reconciliation between Sunni and Shi’ite.

Obama’s ultimate indignity: Bush seen as more competent

bush-obama

Agreement is not enough.  Performance matters more.

That’s why the outlook for Democrats this November looks bleak.  More and more Americans now agree with Democrats on the issues.  But they are increasingly dismayed by President Barack Obama’s inability to get results.

The Gallup poll reports that, ideologically, Americans are moving to the left on both social and economic issues. Though more Americans continue to identify as conservatives than as liberals, the conservative advantage is shrinking.

In 2010, for example, which saw a huge backlash against Obama, self-described economic conservatives outnumbered economic liberals by 36 points. Every year since, the conservative lead has gotten smaller. It’s now 21 points.

Can Congress control the CIA?

The current fight between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA – each accuses the other of spying on it – is part of the deep, continuing struggle between the legislative and executive branches of government over the wide-ranging power of the intelligence agency in the post-9/11 world.

The immediate dispute is about the committee’s lengthy study of the CIA’s harsh interrogation policies, used during the Bush administration. But underlying all the charges and counter-charges is a larger question: Can Congress genuinely exercise  its authority if the intelligence agencies can classify, and so control, the committee’s oversight efforts?

The CIA has blocked the release of a powerful report from a duly constituted congressional committee, keeping it under “review” for 16 months. CIA officials claim the report contains many inaccuracies. Although President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he was “absolutely committed” to declassifying the report, he was vague on when he would do so.

Our fierce fight over torture

The new Congress versus the CIA battle over “hacking” Senate computers and “spying” isn’t about surveillance. It’s about torture.

We have never had a full reckoning for our government’s use of torture on terror suspects after September 11. There were no prosecutions of military officers or senior officials. (One soldier was imprisoned for abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison, former Corporal Charles Graner, while four officers received administrative demerits, not prosecution.) Remarkably, there has not even been a full release of classified government investigations into U.S. torture. It’s hard to get accountability in the dark.

That repressed history is the real context for the remarkable fight that spilled into public view when Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) spoke on the Senate floor on Tuesday.

Christie: Crossing the line

Back in the 1970s, a Jewish organization commissioned a poll to investigate anti-Semitism in the United States. The poll included several open-ended questions. One asked, “Is there anything in particular you like about Jewish people?” The answers were recorded verbatim.

One respondent — a worker from Pittsburgh — answered, “What I like about them is that they are hardworking, aggressive and know how to get ahead.” The next question asked, “Is there anything in particular you don’t like about Jewish people?” His answer: “They’re too pushy and aggressive.”

The puzzled interviewer asked, “Isn’t that what you just said you like about them?” The respondent answered, “Yes. What I like about them is also what I don’t like about them.”

Weiner: As American as political redemption

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

“All the past we leave behind.” So insisted America’s poet, Walt Whitman, a man who would not be encompassed by any one identity — who refused to be constrained by birth, by place, by experience.

Americans, following Whitman, have long celebrated their nation as a redemptive land, a place where the past leaves few traces, where people possess almost infinite capacity to rewrite their own stories and restart their lives.

The nation’s politicians have long enjoyed the license to reinvent themselves that Whitman celebrated. From President William Henry Harrison, the Virginia aristocrat who recast himself as the “poor farmer of North Bend” summoned from his log cabin, to President George W. Bush, the Yale and Andover-trained preppie turned Texas oilman, they have fabricated entirely new identities. Even more remarkable, politicians ousted from office for a wide range of lies, scandals and even crimes have won re-election, sometimes from the very same voters that previously dismissed them.

Conservatives versus the GOP

President Ronald Reagan (L), President George W. Bush (R, Top) and George H.W. Bush (R, Bottom) Reuters/Files

The hoopla over the new George W. Bush Library in Dallas, as well as some gauzy looks back penned by former aides, shows we are in the middle of “The Great Bush Revisionism.” The former president is being lauded and congratulated. But for what?

A new examination of Bushism may be helpful because the current scandals in Washington are the symptoms of too much power and too much arrogance.

Right-wing talk shows turned White House blue

Talk isn’t cheap, as Republicans have learned. The conservative talk show culture is proving expensive for GOP presidential hopefuls.

Since Rush Limbaugh’s 1992 bestseller “The Way Things Ought to Be,” his conservative talk show politics have dominated GOP presidential discourse – and the Republicans’ White House fortunes have plummeted. But when the mainstream media reigned supreme, between 1952 and 1988, Republicans won seven out of the 10 presidential elections.

Conservative talk show hosts and Fox News blame the “lamestream” national media’s “liberal bias” for the GOP’s poor showing since 1992. Yet the rise of the conservative-dominated media defines the era when the fortunes of GOP presidential hopefuls dropped to the worst levels since the party’s founding in 1856.

The real fiscal cliff winner? Bush

“Tax relief is an achievement for families struggling to enter the middle class,” the president trumpeted, shortly after Congress, by sweeping bipartisan margins and after a bruising battle, had lowered taxes for almost all Americans.  “For hard-working lower income families, we have cut the bottom rate of federal income tax from 15 percent to 10 percent. We doubled the per-child tax credit to $1,000 and made it refundable. Tax relief is compassionate, and it is now on the way.”

Despite a furious counterattack from the opposition, the president had scored a major victory by securing lower tax rates for everyone in the middle class on down.

President Barack Obama last week after narrowly averting the fiscal cliff?  Nope, President George W. Bush in June 2001, signing the first set of his much-sought-after tax cuts. Perhaps the “compassionate” was a giveaway.

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