Wednesday, September 24, 2008

McCain sucker-punches Obama

Remember the Clint Eastwood movie Million Dollar Baby?

The rising star, Maggie Fitzgerald, is winning a crucial match against Billie "The Blue Bear," an older boxer with a nasty reputation. The bell rings at the end of a round. Both boxers lower their guard and turn toward their corners. But from out of Maggie's sight, Billie decks her with a vicious sucker punch. Maggie falls, hits her head on the corner stool, breaks her neck, and ends up paralyzed.

Minus the broken neck, that's pretty much what happened to Barack Obama today.

With Sarah Palin's luster fading and the economy in meltdown mode, Obama surged to a nine point lead in a Washington Post-ABC poll. At 8:30 this morning, Obama called McCain to suggest that, since they agree on many of the key issues, they issue a joint statement on the financial crisis. McCain called back six hours later and said sure, good idea, and went on to suggest that they consider suspending their campaigns until Congress passes a bailout bill. Obama said he'd need to think about that, and suggested that their staffs talk it over.

Obama put down the phone, turned away, and got to watch McCain go on national TV to announce that he, for the sake of the economy and the country, was suspending his campaign and proposing to move back the presidential debate set for this Friday.

It was a nasty but brilliant move, worthy of Carl Rove at his best. To say that it caught Obama flat-footed is a major understatement.

And, just to rub it in, McCain innocently announced that he'll still be happy to work on that joint statement.

In the movie, Clint Eastwood made sure that everyone saw the sucker punch in sickening detail, and despised Billie for throwing it.

In real life, McCain comes out looking like a great statesman, the one candidate who really cares about us.

Assuming that Obama gets sponged off and climbs back in the ring, let's hope that the next time around he won't be quite so naive, nor quite so quick to lower his guard and hold out his hand.

It's a lesson he urgently needs to learn if he's going to be President, and not just in dealing with John McCain.

APA backs out of the torture business

 It took several years of grass-roots advocacy and a rare vote by the entire membership, but the American Psychological Association (APA) have finally bowed out of the dark realms where torture is carried out.

 Following a long series of revelations about how American psychologists have wittingly or unwittingly abetted the Bush administration’s programme of coercion and abuse of prisoners in the war on terror, activists within the APA forced a ballot on an unequivocal anti-torture resolution.

 The mail-in balloting closed on 15 September. Nearly 60 percent of the 15,000 APA members who voted supported the resolution, which will take effect no later than the next APA meeting in August, 2009.

 The heart of the resolution forbids APA psychologists from working in settings where “persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.”

 By taking this stance, even belatedly, the APA have not only joined other professional associations worldwide in condemning torture and prohibiting their members from abetting it, but have taken the right side in the long historical struggle to end torture.

 In 1563, the Dutch physician Johann Weyer published his great work, On the illusions of demons and on spells and poisons, in which he argued forcefully against the witch-hunting madness sweeping through Europe and condemned the use of the torture to force suspected witches to confess to satanic acts and name others.

 It’s no coincidence that Weyer, a physician who believed in the Hippocratic admonition, “First, do no harm,” was one of the few voices of humanity and reason in a fear-wracked time not entirely unlike our own.

 The APA could have taken this stance earlier, as did the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, and still need to implement the resolution.

 Still, they deserve praise for joining the ranks of true healers throughout history who have refused to be associated with the practice of torture, however strongly advocated by the authorities of the day.

Robert Adler





Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Sarah Palin--Black Swan rising

A Black Swan, according to philosopher/stock trader Nassim Taleb, is an intrinsically unpredictable, completely unexpected event with major consequences.

Based on a lifetime of studying and trying to deal with Black Swans, Taleb believes that in our highly dynamic, intimately interlinked, and intensely non-linear world, these rare but extremely potent bolts-from-the-blue actually dominate most human affairs, including economics and history.

We may be seeing a Black Swan in the making in John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican candidate for Vice President of the United States.

Given that the current race appears extremely close, and that McCain is 72 years old and has a history of a potentially life-threatening form of skin cancer, Palin is arguably a few key votes--or voting machines--plus a few rogue skin cells away from becoming the 45th President.

Palin, a 44-year-old self-described "hockey mom," attended a string of community colleges before earning a bachelor's degree in communications, with a minor in political science, from the University of Idaho. She was a very competitive basketball player in high school, the runner-up, and winner of the Miss Congeniality Award, in the Miss Alaska pageant of 1984, and worked as a sports reporter and in her husband's business before entering politics.

Her rise in the political world can only be seen as meteoric. She served on the Wasilla, Alaska city council for two terms, as mayor of Wasilla for two terms, and became the governor of Alaska on December 4, 2006.

Wasilla is a town of 7,025 inhabitants. As mayor, Palin oversaw a budget of $6 million and a staff of 53. Alaska is the largest state in the U.S. in terms of area, but the 47th in population, with fewer than 700,000 inhabitants.

Not surprisingly, not a lot is known about Palin's character or politics. She appears to be a deeply committed Christian conservative who appeals strongly to the Religious Right, a crucial voting block that McCain has had difficulty inspiring. She clearly is a powerful speaker who effortlessly conveys the common touch that so strikingly eluded Al Gore and has bedeviled Democratic presidential candidates from Adlai Stevenson to Barack Obama. At least some Alaskans see her as determined, even ruthless, in getting her way.

It's also clear that despite Palin's lack of national or international experience and, until now, visibility, she has dramatically energized the Republican base and sapped any momentum that the Democrats gained from their convention. Since Palin's nomination, McCain has surged ahead of Obama in national polls.

This commentary is not meant to criticize Palin or bemoan her candidacy. Rather, it is to alert readers to a Black Swan taking wing as we watch.

According to Taleb, totally unpredictable high-impact events--Black Swans--increasingly dominate economics, politics, and other aspects of human affairs. He argues that pretty much all of us, including key decision makers, blind ourselves to the existence and impact of these rare, but world-changing surprises. We blissfully go on making plans and predictions as if Black Swans didn't exist, leaving ourselves vulnerable to enormous unforeseen risks.

Even when a catastrophe like 9/11 shocks the world, Taleb notes, leaders may learn enough lessons to ward off an exact repetition, for example by increasing airport security, while learning nothing at all about the inevitability of future, equally unforeseen Black Swans, such as the mortgage meltdown that started here and is now rippling through the global economy.

So here we are, in September of 2008, with a planet full of problems from shaky economies to edgy international relatiions, with climate change and shortanges of energy, food, and water looming ahead. On January 20th, 2009, we may see John McCain take the oath of office, and, quite possibly within the next few years, Sarah Palin.

For Palin to take the reins of the most powerful nation on Earth would indeed be a striking Black Swan.

She might, of course, be a great president. The relatively inexperienced Harry Truman took office following the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April, 1945, with World War II still raging. Truman had the grace to admit that he felt "like the moon, the stars, and all the planets" had fallen on him. Yet many historians now consider him one of America's best presidents.

Or, the McCain-Palin ticket may lose, and the U.S. will have a different, yet also relatively young and inexperienced President.

The point is not to try to predict who will be President, nor how good or bad he or she may be. It's to join Taleb in recognizing, really facing the fact that despite the best efforts of pundits, politicos and professors, the unfolding of history is truly unpredictable.

If Palin does become President, I'll certainly feel some satisfaction that I recognized a Black Swan before it was fully fledged, and may have helped alert others to it and to Taleb's fascinating--and frightening--view of the unpredictability of human affairs.

Still, as Taleb writes about how he felt when the stock market crash of October 19, 1987 shocked even the savviest of his fellow traders--"I felt vindicated intellectually, but I was afraid of being too right and seeing the system crumble under my feet. I didn't want to be that right."

Me neither!