Saturday, October 14, 2006

Dying by the Numbers

The Johns Hopkins study of Iraqi deaths since the US invasion has stirred much discussion, mostly prejudiced and uninformed since it was made public a few days ago. I've been skeptical of he 600,000 plus number that seems to be the most commonly cited figure but I have no doubt that the death toll is somewhere toward the lower end of the range that fits within the margin of error, somewhere in the vicinity of 300,000. That number seems intuitively right to me.

My intution is borne out in Zeyad's latest post at Healing Iraq:

Simply put, the methods used by the study are valid, but in Iraq’s case, where the level of violence is not consistent throughout the country, I feel that the study should have been done differently. 654,965 excess civilian deaths is an absurd number. My personal guesstimate would be half that number, but the total count is not the point now.


Now I am aware that the study is being used here by both sides of the argument in the context of domestic American politics, and that pains me. As if it is different for Iraqis whether 50,000 Iraqis were killed as a result of the war or 600,000. The bottom line is that there is a steady increase in civilian deaths, that the health system is rapidly deteriorating, and that things are clearly not going in the right direction. The people who conducted the survey should be commended for attempting to find out, with the limited methods they had available. On the other hand, the people who are attacking them come across as indifferent to the suffering of Iraqis, especially when they have made no obvious effort to provide a more accurate body count. In fact, it looks like they are reluctant to do this.

Zeyad is no disinterested observer. He has lived under the occupation and seen his country slide into chaos and served as a public health official during this time. He is now in the US studying journalism at Columbia Univerrsity and has this observation about his hosts:

I am realising that some Americans have a hard time accepting facts that fly against their political persuasions.

Billmon offers another perspective:

The moral of the story, I guess, is that you don't need to be an inhuman monster to cause an inhuman amount of death, destruction and suffering. You don't even need evil -- ignorance and arrogance and incompetence can manage the job quite nicely. But, as I've said before, it does require a rare combination of those qualities to take a situation like Saddam's Iraq and make it worse.

The numbers may be (and will be) debated, but at this point they strongly suggest that Shrub and company have managed to do just that -- or will, in the fullness of time.

Anarchy in the UK

Candor is dangerous in these oh-so-carefully worded times. In Britain, army commander General Richard Dannatt sparked a controversy when he was quoted as saying that British troops should leave Iraq "sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems."

Parsing began immediately; now both the general and Prime Minister Tony Blair have "clarified and contextualized" the general's comments. All seem to agree that British withdrawal is contingent on completing the mission. A stiff upper lip version of Stay the Course, so to speak.

Public solidarity notwithstanding, the general's statements reflect a real difference between the government and its army, namely, the army's concern that an open-eneded commitment in an uncertain mission environment will harm the army. As General Dannatt says,

"I am just saying, 'Come on, we can't be here forever at this level.' . . . I have got an army to look after, which is going to be successful in current operations, but I want an army in five years' time and 10 years' time. Don't let's break it on this one. Let's keep an eye on time," Dannatt said.

"Let's face it, we have been there three and a half years," he said. "We have an interest in getting on with this."

Not unlike similar reservations now current within the US military. And for those who take the general's public reconciliation with the prime minister at face value, the rift over Britian's involvement in Iraq remains very real.

Sometimes Capitalism Works

Cell phones are changing the dynamics of capitalism for at least some of the world's poor. Free marketeers always boast that competition and reward are the spur to economic growth that benefits all. Which is a nice theory. In reality many barriers distort that wonderful model. Chief among the barriers is information. Some players have none; they are at the mercy of others who have more. The Washington Post reports today that cell phones are evening the playing field for small entrepreneurs in India.

A convenience taken for granted in wealthy nations, the cellphone is putting cash in the pockets of people for whom a dollar is a good day's wage. And it has made market-savvy entrepreneurs out of sheep herders, rickshaw drivers and even the acrobatic men who shinny up palm trees to harvest coconuts here in Kerala state.

"This has changed the entire dynamics of communications and how they organize their lives," said C.K. Prahalad, an India-born business professor at the University of Michigan, who has written extensively about how commerce -- and cellphones -- are used to combat poverty.

"One element of poverty is the lack of information," Prahalad said. "The cellphone gives poor people as much information as the middleman."


For less than a penny a minute -- the world's cheapest cellphone call rates -- farmers in remote areas can check prices for their produce. They call around to local markets to find the best deal. They also track global trends using cellphone-based Internet services that show the price of pumpkins or bananas in London or Chicago.


[Fisherman]Rajan said the dealers don't necessarily like the new balance of power, but they are paying better prices to him and thousands of other fishermen who work this lush stretch of coastline. "They are forced to give us more money because there is competition," said Rajan, who estimated that his income has at least tripled to an average of $150 a month since 2000, when cellphones began booming in India. He said he is providing for his family in ways that his fisherman father never could, including a house with electricity and a television.

"When I was a kid we never had enough money for clothes and books, so we never really went to school," said Rajan, 50. "Now everything is different.

Cellphones won't totally eliminate the disparate advantages and disadvantages of capitalism but they make useful information available to more players. That is always good.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Supporting the Troops Until It Costs the Special Interests Money

I haven't been reading PTSD Combat regularly in recent weeks. Ilona has been posting less frequently as she finishes up work on her forthcoming book, Moving a Nation to Care. When I checked in yesterday I found this post about Congress killing a requirement that drug manufacturers be required to offer prescription medications to military retirees (TRICAP) at the same discounts available to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Unlike those of us fortunate enough to obtain prescriptions through the VA, which has negotiated substantial discounts through high volume purchases, military retirees and the Defense Department which funds their medical care will pay full price. The entire story is here.

Apparently, using purchasing power and volume to obtain lower prices is a fine strategy for Wal-Mart but not for government. Congress specifically prohibited Medicare from negotiating lower prices when it passed the prescription drug benefit program. I wonder how much longer the drug companies will tolerate the VA's assault on their profits.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Fruits of War

BushCheney has long used "who can argue that the world isn't better off with Saddam Hussein removed from power" as the unassailable justification for his Iraq war. Three and a half years later that premise is looking ever more assailable.

Let's see, the war has destabilized the region, creating an opening for radical organizations such as al-Qaeda to establish operations, allowing Iran to indulge its great power ambitions by supporting a Shi'ite majority government and spawning an new generation of Islamic terrorists. Iraqis, who once looked forward to a post-Saddam future live in a primitive, violent state. Saddam Hussein's brutality and dictatorship were in fact horrible. The replacement regime is no better with no prospect for improvement in any reasonable time fram.

The latest evidence for this conclusion comes from the recent epidemiological study estimating that the Iraq war has killed more than 600,000 Iraqis since the invasion. That number is twice the number of deaths attributed to Saddam Hussein's entire tenure. In short, BushCheney's decision to invade Iraq has left the world a more dangerous place.

Administration supporters will immediately question this study, arguing its limitations and methodology. I direct anyone wondering about the study to Informed Comment where Juan Cole has a thoughtful post about the study's metholdology and plausibility.

Looking at the numbers, it's hard not to see the Iraq war as a tragedy equal to its strategic blunder.

A Republican Victory

Handwriting is becoming a lost art, according to today's Washington Post. Schools don't teach much penmanship these days amid the demands for other, seemingly more relevant skills and standardized test requirements.

Many educators shrug. Stacked up against teaching technology, foreign languages and the material on standardized tests, penmanship instruction seems a relic, teachers across the region say. But academics who specialize in writing acquisition argue that it's important cognitively, pointing to research that shows children without proficient handwriting skills produce simpler, shorter compositions, from the earliest grades.


In one...stud[y], Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham, who studies the acquisition of writing, experimented with a group of first-graders in Prince George's County who could write only 10 to 12 letters per minute. The kids were given 15 minutes of handwriting instruction three times a week. After nine weeks, they had doubled their writing speed and their expressed thoughts were more complex. He also found corresponding increases in their sentence construction skills.

So...if handwriting is related to complex thinking and more and more children are growing up without learning how to write cursively, they will be the ideal Republican voters.

No thinking required in that Brave New World.

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Way Life Should Be

That was the message on the sign at the Maine-New Hampshire state line when I crossed it on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. Three weeks walking in Maine as I completed the trail left me with impressions of an interesting, quirky and beautiful place. Definitely quirky.

NEWRY, Maine -- John Farra, a former Winter Olympian from Caribou who trained by running up a ski slope with 80 pounds of mortar mix, won the seventh annual North American Wife Carrying Championship on Saturday at Sunday River.

Farra's first-place finish earned him and his 110-pound wife Tess her weight in beer and five times her weight in cash, or $550. They also are eligible for a $1,000 reimbursement toward a trip to the world championships in Finland next July.

The Farras completed the 278-yard course, which includes a water trough and log hurdles, in 1 minute, 6 seconds in the critical heat and 1 minute, 4 seconds in the final. Daniel Brown and Janel Worcester of Brewer were second, about 10 seconds behind, in the field of 27 couples.

Farra, who competed in cross-country ski races in the 1992 Games in Albertville, France, trained for the wife carry by running up a slope near his home each morning before work with 80 pounds of mortar mix in a backpack.

Several hundred spectators turned out for the competition during the height of western Maine's fall foliage season.