Saturday, May 31, 2008

Environmental Lies And The Lying Liars....

George Will writes,
Regarding McCain's "central facts," the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization, which helped establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - co-winner, with Al Gore, of the Nobel Peace Prize - says global temperatures have not risen in a decade.
Their report, full version here, summary here (PDF), shows the following (click the image for a larger view):
The blue lines represent projections of climate change based on natural forces. The red lines represent models based upon natural and anthropogenic forces (forces resulting from human activities). The black lines represent actual measurements.

So what part of the IPCC's actual findings are consistent with Will's claim that there has been no global temperature increase in a decade?

Friday, May 30, 2008

Beyond Parody

Many years ago, on a Canadian News Show (the National / Journal), the latter portion of the show often included a brief moment of political parody. One I recall occurred after Brian Mulroney was elected as Prime Minister. A woman, in operatic style, sang a song effusively praising him ("Brian Mulroney is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful / He'll fix what's the matter, and walk on the water / He's wonderful") and summarizing his campaign promises:
He'll cut taxes for farmers and fishers and loggers,
And lower the interest,
And increase the dollar,
Give loans to build ships,
And more jobs for the kids,
And get bigger grain sales,
And restore VIA Rail,
And expend more on health and the fighting of crime....

And he'll lower the deficit at the same time!
Which brings us, of course, to John McCain: He'll fix what's the matter and walk on the water.

Charles Krauthammer: Scientific Ignoramus

Sometimes when you read Krauthammer's dishonest arguments, you can't help but think that he's talking down to an audience that he knows will not engage in critical thinking when lapping up his screeds. And there's probably some of that in today's entry, but for the most part it appears that Krauthammer believes what he says. Which is remarkable, as he presumably completed at least undergraduate level science classes as part of the preparation for his medical school training. Speaking of global warming, Krauthammer says,
Predictions of catastrophe depend on models. Models depend on assumptions about complex planetary systems - from ocean currents to cloud formation - that no one fully understands. Which is why the models are inherently flawed and forever changing.
But Charles, they're changing because they're constantly being improved. And only a scientific ignoramus would contend that we cannot rely upon a scientific model, complex or otherwise, until it is established with absolute certainty.
The doomsday scenarios posit a cascade of events, each with a certain probability. The multiple improbability of their simultaneous occurrence renders all such predictions entirely speculative.
Now you're changing the subject. We were talking about scientific models, not doomsday scenarios.
Yet on the basis of this speculation, environmental activists, attended by compliant scientists and opportunistic politicians, are advocating radical economic and social regulation.
What a dishonest claim that is, Charles. You lump environmentalists, scientists and politicians into some sort of nebulous category of... what? Enemies of the state? And you declare that any effort to address carbon emissions and global warming constitutes "advocating radical economic and social regulation"? Let me guess - your preference is to do nothing while we wait for the 100% scientific certainty that only a scientific ignoramus would believe is possible?
"The largest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy and prosperity," warns Czech President Vaclav Klaus, "is no longer socialism. It is, instead, the ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous ideology of environmentalism."
Vaclav Klaus said it? Well, there. You've changed my mind. When a politician from a small foreign country says something, particularly if it can be reduced to a sound bite, obviously we should cast away science and our own political system and simply defer to the foreign leader's judgments. We shouldn't even ask their basis - we should simply defer. Boy, Charles, you sure know how to make good policy.

You know what? I could declare, "The largest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy and prosperity is Charles Krauthammer." Just saying it doesn't make it true, does it? (Would it be true if Vaclav Klaus said it?)
If you doubt the arrogance, you haven't seen that Newsweek cover story that declared the global warming debate over.
Newsweek? Have you never heard of peer reviewed scientific journals? I mean, you may as well cite a Krauthammer column to tell us that the war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban was over in 100 days and all the critics have been proved wrong. It's mainstream media - and when it comes to selling extra copies, people take license - in your case, lots of it. But you know what? If you look in those peer reviewed journals, instead of relying exclusively on sound bites from politicians (as translated from the original Czech), you may find that Newsweek is a lot closer to reality than you are.
Consider: If Newton's laws of motion could, after 200 years of unfailing experimental and experiential confirmation, be overthrown, it requires religious fervor to believe that global warming - infinitely more untested, complex and speculative - is a closed issue.
Overthrown? You mean, Newtonian physics is no longer taught in high schools and colleges as a "close enough" approximation of how things work? When apples fall from trees, they now fall up? Your statement is as ignorant as arguing, "Now that we can measure things in microns, rulers and measuring tapes are useless." They're not. They get us pretty close to where we want to be, and often all the way to where we want to be. And when we need to be more precise, we can turn to more sophisticated tools (or, if you prefer, relativity).

Further, beyond you and Newsweek, nobody seems to be calling this a "closed issue". As you previously noted, the scientists you love to malign - people who, unlike you, know what they're talking about - are constantly striving to improve their models and increase the accuracy of their predictions. You may not like the fact that the science points in a particular direction, but if you have an honest bone in your body you should be able to admit that it's you who is approaching these issues in religious terms - even describing your own mindset ("agnostic") in religious terms - even though it's a scientific question.
But declaring it closed has its rewards. It not only dismisses skeptics as the running dogs of reaction, i.e., of Exxon, Cheney and now Klaus. By fiat, it also hugely re-empowers the intellectual left.
What discredited the naysayers on the issue of global warming? Oh yes... lying, and paying for pseudoscience in order to attack competent science. Sorry, Charles - your heroes have nobody to blame but themselves. And to the extent that the "left" is empowered by relying on sound science, and by the fact that your heroes of the "right" have been proved to be liars? C'mon. Those are crocodile tears you're shedding.
For a century, an ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous knowledge class - social planners, scientists, intellectuals, experts and their left-wing political allies - arrogated to themselves the right to rule either in the name of the oppressed working class (communism) or, in its more benign form, by virtue of their superior expertise in achieving the highest social progress by means of state planning (socialism).

Two decades ago, however, socialism and communism died rudely, then were buried forever by the empirical demonstration of the superiority of market capitalism everywhere from Thatcher's England to Deng's China, where just the partial abolition of socialism lifted more people out of poverty more rapidly than ever in human history.

Just as the ash heap of history beckoned, the intellectual left was handed the ultimate salvation: environmentalism. Now the experts will regulate your life not in the name of the proletariat or Fabian socialism but - even better - in the name of Earth itself.
And now we delve into ad hominem? That didn't take long. Ah yes... the studious young people who pursue advanced degrees in science, and enter the lucrative fields of physics and climatology... They're all about amassing power and wealth for themselves. You caught 'em just in time - next week they were going to take over the country and make us all wear lab coats.
Environmentalists are Gaia's priests, instructing us in her proper service and casting out those who refuse to genuflect. (See Newsweek above.)
Ad hominem; straw man. Can't you do better?
And having proclaimed the ultimate commandment - carbon chastity - they are preparing the supporting canonical legislation that will tell you how much you can travel, what kind of light you will read by, and at what temperature you may set your bedroom thermostat.
Ad hominem; straw man. Nope, I guess you can't.
Only Monday, a British parliamentary committee proposed that every citizen be required to carry a carbon card that must be presented, under penalty of law, when buying gasoline, taking an airplane or using electricity. The card contains your yearly carbon ration to be drawn down with every purchase, every trip, every swipe.

There's no greater social power than the power to ration. And, other than rationing food, there is no greater instrument of social control than rationing energy, the currency of just about everything one does and uses in an advanced society.
So a parliamentary committee in a foreign nation proposed something that's nutty and unworkable in practice? But wait - this was a foreign government? Now I'm confused, because I thought you believed that if a foreign leader did or said something nutty and non-scientific we were supposed to immediately adopt it into our nation's norms of conduct to comport with that statement. Perhaps we only do that if the foreign leader doesn't speak English? And the danger posed by this carbon card is what? Let's look at what's happening in England:
The Government has, quite understandably, backed away with some horror from a new proposal by a committee of MPs to introduce a system of 'personal carbon credits' for every individual in Britain.
Charles, you're building a house of cards.
So what does the global warming agnostic propose as an alternative? First, more research - untainted and reliable - to determine (a) whether the carbon footprint of man is or is not lost among the massive natural forces (from sunspot activity to ocean currents) that affect climate, and (b) if the human effect is indeed significant, whether the planetary climate system has the homeostatic mechanisms (like the feedback loops in the human body, for example) with which to compensate.
By "untainted and reliable" you mean what? Particularly given that you are completely ignorant of the existing research? As a scientific ignoramus you presumably mean, "I won't believe any science that doesn't comport to my existing world view" - and for you, that's consistent with your take on pretty much everything. You are preternaturally incapable of thinking beyond the narrow confines of your tiny, closed mind. You know nothing, but you pretend yourself capable of dictating to actual scientists the criteria they should use to evaluate the documented fact of global warming? And you dare to insult others as following an "ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous ideology" or "talking through their hats"?
Second, reduce our carbon footprint in the interim by doing the doable, rather than the economically ruinous and socially destructive. The most obvious step is a major move to nuclear power, which to the atmosphere is the cleanest of the clean.
So wait - your entire argument is a straw man, concluding with your concession that we need to "reduce our carbon footprint"? You just want to provide a fig leaf to hide your pro-industry, anti-environmental stance - an excuse to harm the environment while hiding behind ignorant, dishonest demands for scientific certainty?

As for nuclear energy, have you never heard of solar energy? Geothermal energy? Hydroelectric energy? Wind energy? I'm a proponent of nuclear energy but that doesn't mean I'm going to pretend that no other carbon-friendly sources of energy exist. Is it that you weren't aware of these other sources of energy, or are you being dishonest?
But your would-be masters have foreseen this contingency. The Church of the Environment promulgates secondary dogmas as well. One of these is a strict nuclear taboo.
Oh, come on. You're going to pretend that the only reason that G.W. Bush couldn't pass a nuclear energy program in six years of ramming pro-energy industry legislation down our throats is that he and his fellow Republicans worship at "The Church of the Environment"?
Rather convenient, is it not? Take this major coal-substituting fix off the table, and we will be rationing all the more. Guess who does the rationing.
If you have it your way, either you or an incompetent Republican administration for which you cheerlead. Either way, the rest of us lose.

A Clash Of Faiths

On one side, the inimitable Michael Gerson,
But compassionate conservatism has come under criticism for a variety of reasons. For some, it is fundamentally at odds with fiscal conservatism -- no social priority is deemed more urgent than balancing the budget. For others, it is a violation of their vision of limited government -- the state's only valid purpose is to uphold markets and protect individual liberty. But by drawing these limits so narrowly, such critics would relegate conservatism to the realm of rejected ideologies: untainted, uncomplicated and ignored. And by leaving great social needs unmet, they would grant liberalism an open field and invite genuine statism.
On the other side, (sort of) free market advocacy from Daniel Larison:
How tiresome it is to hear that “social needs” are unmet because government is not involved in meeting them, or that government must be involved if those needs are, in fact, unmet. If they’re unmet, they’re probably unmet because someone whining in the name of “compassion” forty years ago complained that the government wasn’t doing enough, so the state usurped the proper social functions of existing institutions that have since withered and died from neglect and lack of support, and now all we are left with is recourse to still more government.
A big part of the problem with "compassionate conservativism" is that it was a lie from day one, with perhaps Michael Gerson being the only living person not to have come to terms with that fact. The term represents typical G.W., attempting to depict himself as a centrist who will reinvent the social safety net to help people climb out of poverty, coupled with a promise to dole hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of federal dollars into religious organizations. He didn't mean the first part and, as far as I can see, for G.W. the second part was solely about getting votes. I've seen no evidence that G.W. cares about the efficacy of vouchers (and in fact "No Child Left Behind" and voucher programs appear calculated to prevent direct comparison of public schools to private schools, by doling out money to private schools while exempting them from NCLB's testing requirements and standards).

But what of Larison's cult of the free market? What social support network is he imagining, flourishing some forty years ago, but that has now disappeared? It's a fiction presented as fact.

That's not to say that the government has not stepped into places where charities, particularly religious charities, once dominated. Counties offer free and discounted medical care that one might have historically received through a hospital founded by a religious group. Poor people get food stamps (or should I say an EBT card) rather than queueing outside of the Salvation Army offices or some other soup kitchen. Housing subsidies and government funded shelters have largely replaced charitable shelters.

But when you look at why this happened, it was due to the failure of private and religious charities to meet the needs of an industrialized society. Giving full respect to the significant charitable efforts made by many people and organizations before the dawn of the so-called "welfare state", there was no glory day when the needs of all of the nation's poor were well-met by charity. Religions and charities did not shutter workhouses and orphanages, in favor of keeping families together. Religions and charities did not bring about universal public education. Religions and charities still do operate hospitals - but for most of us, the bill isn't any smaller than it would be at a private or public hospital, and they would be overwhelmed and bankrupted if they were to open their doors to the nation's poor with no charge and without requesting reimbursement through Medicare and Medicaid. Moreover, the government can administer programs evenly across states or the entire nation, where charities did not and cannot. In short, we're dealing with two issues: The fact that the world Larison depicts as an ideal never existed (and never will), and the fact that society has changed from the days when charities and religious organizations could partially fulfill the needs now served by government.

The question of whether it is better to serve up charity with a religious sermon or a dose of shame, or if it is better to leave charity to hands that can deny relief to people deemed "undeserving" (whether because they're not seen as making a sufficient effort, or because they're of the wrong faith or perhaps even ethnicity) is apart from the question of whether private charities and religions could take the place of public social assistance in a modern industrialized society. They cannot. You want to talk about ending dependence? I'm all ears. But it's a separate issue.

Gerson seems to recognize the failure of non-state actors, arguing that fiscal conservatives, "by leaving great social needs unmet, ... would grant liberalism an open field and invite genuine statism." Where he devolves into the comical is in the idea that the "alternative" is for state and federal governments to tax their citizens then pass the money along to third parties to administer in a "charitable" manner. There's no evidence presented, nor argument given, that this approach saves money, increases efficiency, or reduces dependency.

Larison objects to the continuation of dependency, arguing,
However the program or initiative is designed, it will always be another form of dependency and another means to concentrate power in the state by creating these bonds of dependency on government initiatives. How insulting to listen to someone who has never blinked at proposing spending other people’s money on the problems of people he has never met mock fiscal responsibility, and then claim that those interested in the profoundly moral effort to not pass on our debts to our posterity supposedly believe that balanced budgets are the top “social priority.” What is Michael Gerson’s top social priority? It seems that gratifying his undying need for atoning vicariously through good works that he isn’t doing that are paid for by wealth he isn’t creating in places he will never go is his top priority, and woe betide the moneychangers who block him on the path of righteousness!
Well, a big part of the problem probably starts with turning this into a religious debate, dictated by unseen forces emanating from our WWJD bracelets. The fact is that as long as there have been churches, there have been collection plates. Shall we discuss tithing, which at times and places in history was little different from a tax? What churches offered straw polls to let people decide where and how they spent the collected money? Save for individual efforts and those of small groups, something that cannot take the place of large-scale social programs, this has always been about paying money to third parties who decide if and how it will be expended for the benefit of the poor.

The dichotomy Larison implies - and it's a false dichotomy - is that we have a choice between balancing the budget and providing public assistance to the poor. We can also balance the budget by increasing taxes or cutting other areas of spending. So if we're going to speak of a "profoundly moral effort to not pass on our debts to our posterity", we must ask why the most "moral" solution is to put social spending on the chopping block, while preserving current levels of corporate welfare, military spending, and those provisions of the tax code that are exceedingly favorable to the rich, or instead of raising taxes to cover the difference. Larison argues,
Instead of a supposedly libertarian Christ, Gerson offers us Christ the social worker, which is an appropriation every bit as unpersuasive as the other caricatures he rejects, and the disciples of this social worker have an unerring ability to be extremely annoying.
You can make a strong libertarian case for prioritizing a balanced budget and cutting social welfare benefits first, but spare me any argument that it's dictated or even supported by Christ's teachings.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

"We'll Ship It Overseas"

John McCain's latest flip-flop? Yucca Mountain.
“I would seek to establish an international repository for spent nuclear fuel that could collect and safely store materials overseas that might otherwise be reprocessed to acquire bomb-grade materials. It is even possible that such an international center could make it unnecessary to open the proposed spent nuclear fuel storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.”

— John McCain, 5/27/08
The article points out the obvious:
And such a cockamamie solution, too.

We are going to ship nuclear waste overseas? Will Kathie Lee Gifford be seen dancing on a Carnival deck, pointing to canisters and promising cut rates to those tourists who travel onboard? John McCain’s Love Boat?

And exactly where overseas are we going to ship the waste? There’s plenty of room inside the Colosseum, right? I am sure it would be safe for, say 100, even 10,000 years, in Baghdad now that the war is almost over. Or perhaps Myanmar — I hear the weather is always lovely there.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

More Truth Than You Can Handle

In case you haven't yet had enough of pundits wishing that politicians would tell the truth as they see it, Thomas Friedman offers us some more truthiness. Friedman opens:
Imagine for a minute, just a minute, that someone running for president was able to actually tell the truth, the real truth, to the American people about what would be the best — I mean really the best — energy policy for the long-term economic health and security of our country. I realize this is a fantasy, but play along with me for a minute. What would this mythical, totally imaginary, truth-telling candidate say?
At this point you're probably already thinking, "I don't know, but I suspect it's something different than what you're about to say." Perhaps you're expecting that it will be yet another call by Friedman for an increased gas tax.
No, our mythical candidate would say the long-term answer is to go exactly the other way: guarantee people a high price of gasoline — forever.

This candidate would note that $4-a-gallon gasoline is really starting to impact driving behavior and buying behavior in way that $3-a-gallon gas did not. The first time we got such a strong price signal, after the 1973 oil shock, we responded as a country by demanding and producing more fuel-efficient cars. But as soon as oil prices started falling in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we let Detroit get us readdicted to gas guzzlers, and the price steadily crept back up to where it is today.

We must not make that mistake again. Therefore, what our mythical candidate would be proposing, argues the energy economist Philip Verleger Jr., is a “price floor” for gasoline: $4 a gallon for regular unleaded, which is still half the going rate in Europe today.
Price controls? Friedman is literally suggesting that having "had the courage to tell voters that the McCain-Clinton summer gas-giveaway plan was a fraud", Barack Obama should guarantee windfall oil company profits by preventing the free market from ever leading to a gas price below $4/gallon?
Wouldn’t it be amazing if he took the next step and put the right plan before the American people? Wouldn’t that just be amazing?
It sure would, Mr. Friedman, but (so sorry) your plan isn't the right one.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Selling A War vs. Telling The Truth

In yet another self-serving narrative, the dumbest ----ing guy on the planet complains that President Bush lost support for the war by changing his rhetoric from emphasizing the evil of Saddam Hussein and the search for elusive WMD's to democratization.
The stunning change in rhetoric appeared to confirm his critics' argument that the security rationale for the war was at best an error, and at worst a lie. That's a shame, for Mr. Bush had solid grounds for worrying about the dangers of leaving Saddam in power.
Feith has a difficult time keeping his story straight, and soon afterward admits that much of the "security rationale for the war" was in error, but (like everything else) that was somebody else's fault:
The CIA assessments of WMD were wrong, but they originated in the years before he became president and they had been accepted by Democratic and Republican members of Congress, as well as by the U.N. and other officials around the world. And, in any event, the erroneous WMD intelligence was not the entire security rationale for overthrowing Saddam.
What's left of the threat, in Feith's view?
The Saddam Hussein regime "had used WMD, supported various terrorist groups, was hostile to the U.S. and had a record of aggression and of defiance of numerous U.N. resolutions."
Okay, we can be pretty sure that Feith doesn't actually support the invasion of every antion that has a history of "defiance of numerous U.N. resolutions." And while everybody knows about Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and Gulf War I, we can only press so far into its history aggression against its neighbors without observing that the Reagan administration supported the Iraq war and turned an intentional blind eye to its use of chemical weapons in its war against Iran:
American diplomats pronounce themselves satisfied with relations between Iraq and the United States and suggest that normal diplomatic ties have been restored in all but name.
I'll grant that the calculus shifts when you transform a thuggish dictatorship from an ally of convenience to an enemy, but there's another big part of the "WMD" picture that people like Feith prefer to omit: Iraq lacked an effective delivery mechanism for its chemical weapons, and would disburse chemical weapons from low-flying helicopters. Sure, we were given fictions about how Iraq might attack the world using balsa wood gliders, and could attack the west inside of 45 minutes, and let's not forget the purported Niger uranium deal (that some dead enders still argue was real and proves Iraq might potentially become a nuclear power... in a few decades), but you can only push fiction so far.

Let's accept Feith's argument for a moment - that to this point, the Bush Administration had been acting in good faith: The primary purpose of the Iraq war was to prevent Iraq from developing WMD's and threatening other nations, and secondarily to remove a dangerous thug from power, footnoted by references to liberating Iraq. It does seem disingenuous to suddenly make the footnote the main story, while trying to diminish or erase public consciousness of the other casus belli. But to press his argument, Feith would be demanding something from the Bush Administration an admission that he himself remains unwilling to make - an admission of errors of judgment.

Arguing, "It's everybody else's fault, and lots of other people believed the same wrong information" isn't particularly compelling when you're a disgraced former Bush Administration lackey. Somehow I suspect that Condoleezza Rice and President Bush realized how pathetic a Feith-style speech would have sounded coming from the President. And Donald Rumsfeld seems at least as pathologically incapable of admitting error as Feith and Bush. Further, as Feith admits, it's a pure fiction that Bush's new rhetoric erased discussion of his mistakes:
The president had chosen to talk almost exclusively about Iraq's future. His political opponents noticed that if they talked about the past – about prewar intelligence and prewar planning for the war and the aftermath – no one in the White House communications effort would contradict them.
Is he serious here? That as of May 24, 2004, nobody in the White House made any effort to claim that the Bush Administration's security rationale for invading Iraq was true? So on June 25, 2004, for example, Paul Wolfowitz did not say this?
As I am sure you know, we went into Iraq for a number of reasons, not only to destroy the WMDs that everyone agreed Saddam Hussein had. Remember that he used chemical weapons against his own people and against his neighbors. He had produced biological weapons and come very close to nuclear weapons ten years ago. He was in violation of 17 UN Resolutions. Resolution 1441 was his last and final chance to come clean on WMDs and he failed to do so.

We have not yet determined why we didn’t find more when we got to Iraq, but there is no question that he had the capability to build new ones, and there is no question that Saddam Hussein posed a very real threat to world peace. He invaded his neighbors. His regime supported and harbored terrorist elements like Al Qaida.

And today, a key figure in the resistance in Iraq is an Al Qaida-associated fugitive and terrorist, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who has taken “credit” for personally beheading several U.S. hostages and for sponsoring numerous suicide bombings.

By giving the Iraqi people a chance to live in freedom and peace, we have opened the door to progress throughout the Middle East, which has been a source of so much terrorism. Already there are important signs of positive change in the Middle East from Muammar Qaddafi giving up his WMD to some Arab governments talking for the first time about democratic reform.
On October 27, 2004, Charles Duelfer did not talk up Iraq's pre-war security threat?
Opponents could say anything about the prewar period – misstating Saddam's record, the administration's record or their own – and their statements would go uncorrected. This was a big incentive for them to recriminate about the administration's prewar work, and congressional Democrats have pressed for one retrospective investigation after another.
Does Feith truly believe that anybody but a handful of dead enders are going to believe this revisionist history? Does he think we've wiped from our memory the entire 2004 election campaign, and how Bush and his campaign team savaged Democrats on national security issues? How the Republican-controlled Congress stymied and blocked those calls for investigation, and engineered delay after delay of any consequential reporting from the 9/11 commission until after the election? If that's the best he has to offer, it's no small wonder Georgetown didn't renew his teaching contract.

Feith caps things off with this claim,
This was a public affairs decision that has had enormous strategic consequences for American support for the war. The new formula fails to connect the Iraq war directly to U.S. interests. It causes many Americans to question why we should be investing so much blood and treasure for Iraqis. And many Americans doubt that the new aim is realistic – that stable democracy can be achieved in Iraq in the foreseeable future.
This hints at the core of the problem - the start of the war, where Feith, G.W. Bush, and John McCain were all on the same page. They went into Iraq with no exit strategy - implied promises of candy, flowers, and an occupation that would all but pay for itself. It was inevitable that we would reach a point where, absent a viable exit strategy, the American public would say "Is this worth it?" Unless Feith is even dumber than Tommy Franks suggested, he should have recognized that we could not indefinitely pretend to be hunting for WMD's or responding to the threat of Saddam Hussein.

Once we reached the point where the war was over, the WMD's were (not) found, and Saddam Hussein was in custody, how many more years of, "But we (thought we) had really good reasons for going in," does Feith expect the American people to swallow without demanding, "Yes, but how do we now get out?" And given that G.W. has latched onto democratization as the leading excuse for indefinite war - we have to stay "until we get the job done" - how does Feith imagine that emphasizing "jobs" that are already "done" would have resulted in greater popular support for the war?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Campaign "Damage Control"

I see "damage control" like the Clinton campaign's in relation to the RFK assassination comments, and all I can do is wonder how Clinton managed to pick such herd of belligerent, incompetent advisors and spokespersons. It serves to reinforce my impression that the leading reason, and perhaps the only reason, she is behind in the race is the fact that she ran a poor campaign.
Update: And along comes Lanny Davis....

Fake MySpace Profiles

In terms of "fraud", among the fake profiles on sites like MySpace, the Lori Drew case is about as weak a case as a federal prosecutor could pick. The case was picked due to the outcome, not due to the facts or magnitude of the alleged misconduct. I've seen far worse conduct - networks of fake profiles set up to spam other users (this is no secret: you can buy software to automatically create those profiles and networks), fake profiles meant to defame specific individuals, etc.

While it appears to take action against violations that come to its attention, I see little evidence that MySpace wants to eliminate all fake and dodgy profiles on its service. I suspect that's because that would likely result in a substantial dip in both its claimed number of users and traffic statistics, and it wants to maintain its diminishing statistical lead over its competitors.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

No, We Don't Need Another Perot....

Michael O'Hanlon and a Alice Rivlin take on domestic politics and the budget.
We hear that Ralph Nader is running again, but the third-party candidate we need is Ross Perot. In 1992, with his squeaky voice and endless charts, Perot focused attention on the rising federal deficit. His warnings helped keep the major-party candidates from talking budgetary nonsense.
Well, whatever credit we can extent to Perot for bringing attention to the budget, it's not like the deficit and massive national debt are a state secret.

For now, let's play along and assume that the Perot candidacy was truly about balanced budgets, and not about dissatisfaction with the major parties. We can overlook the fact that the poorly articulated Perot platform allowed voters to project their own wishes and desires for the country onto Perot, as evidenced by the collapse of the "Reform Party" pretty much the moment it tried to form a coherent platform. And of course, we'll overlook the fact that Perot didn't win.
For all of their impressive qualities, this year's presidential candidates are woefully short on fiscal prudence. And the next president will face two daunting budget problems. The winner will inherit a large deficit resulting from a weak economy, an expensive war and the persistent political inclination to spend more and tax less. The bigger challenge? Promises made to the growing population of retirees as health-care spending continues to soar.
So they want to resurrect a 1992-era candidacy that promised health care reforms and could lead to a balanced budget? That (despite the failure of his attempt at health care reforms) was Bill Clinton, not Ross Perot. As for promising tax increases, how did Alice Rivlin, view tax increases back in 2001? She saw George H.W. Bush's tax increases as having constituted "political suicide". That's political suicide after being elected, in contrast with Walter Mondale's politically suicidal promise to raise taxes during an election. Like it or not, the odds of having a viable candidate emerge and promise tax increases to cover O'Hanlon's favorite expenditure, the military, plus the cost of trying to stabilize health care cost and (for the two of three candidates who care about the issue) broadening health insurance coverage to most or all Americans? About zero percent.

I'm not entirely clear on what O'Hanlon and Rivlin see as the solution, other than a massive tax increase. It's reasonable to assume that O'Hanlon, a leading cheerleader of the Iraq war and a long-time proponent of military spending, would oppose saving money by ending the war or limiting military spending. They don't say, "candidates should promise to slash Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and continue to decline to invest in the nation's crumbling infrastructure", another platform pretty much guaranteed to bring about a crushing defeat in November. What effect do they believe a new Perot would have on this election?

As for trying to elicit a promise not to make the deficits worse, Rivlin has previously noted that deficit spending can boost a troubled economy - I'll grant that she's been arguing that the Bush Administration has been fiscally irresponsible, but is it truly best to demand restraint now, such that yet again we see a Reagan/Bush/Bush-style massive deficit coupled with massive accumulation of wealth among the richest Americans, followed by the tired excuse the minute the Democrats take power, "We can't afford to help you."

I'll also share an annoyance about analysts like O'Hanlon, who seem to want fiscal responsibility only when their own budgetary priorities are not at stake. He's happy to tell us that we can't afford health care reform without a massive boost in tax revenues, but where's his column explaining how we similarly can't afford to toss $120+ billion per year into the fiscal black hole commonly known as the Iraq War?

Contempt For Free Speech

The Times editorializes in relation to Joseph Lieberman's attempts to coerce Google into deleting "videos produced by Islamist terrorist organizations or their supporters" from YouTube, and his apparent anger that they only removed videos that were not consistent with their terms of service,
While it is fortunate that Mr. Lieberman does not have the power to tell YouTube that it must remove videos, it is profoundly disturbing that an influential senator would even consider telling a media company to shut down constitutionally protected speech. The American Civil Liberties Union has warned that the “Homegrown Terrorism” bill and related efforts “could be a precursor to proposals to censor and regulate speech on the Internet.”

Not only do these efforts contradict fundamental American values, it is not clear if they would help fight terrorism. Even if YouTube pulled down every video Mr. Lieberman did not like, radical groups could post the same videos on their own Web sites. Trying to restrain the Internet is a game of “whack-a-mole” that cannot be won, says John Morris of the Center for Democracy and Technology. Having the videos on YouTube may even be a good thing, because it makes it easier for law enforcement officials, the media and the public to monitor the groups and their messages.
The Times seems to be missing the forest for the trees. The issue here probably isn't so much Lieberman's fear of terrorism. It's likely more a manifestation of Lieberman's ignorance of and contempt for the First Amendment.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Why Am I Skeptical....

John Hagee wants our sympathy:
What has been disappointing has been to see my life's work - the great passion of my life ? mischaracterized and attacked. I have dedicated my life to combating anti-Semitism and supporting the State of Israel. In taking a stand for Israel I have received death threats from anti-Semites and neo-Nazis, and I've had the windows of my car blown out beneath the windows of the rooms in which my children slept. To hear people who know nothing about me or my life's work claim that I somehow excuse the Holocaust is simply heartbreaking.
You would think there would be a huge paper trail relating to these threats, with intense investigations by the local police and perhaps the FBI. Yet Hagee suggest that the FBI didn't investigate his report of these various anonymous threats and acts, all of which apparently date back to 1981. And what of the way he tells the story?
Later, he related a story of a similar event in 1981 at his church where a bomb threat was called in. When he informed the attendees of the threat, the Christians in the audience left the building quickly, but the Jews in attendance stayed put "as if I had said there would be kosher hot dogs available afterward."
Such a funny man.

But that's bypassing the central question. Hagee's "support" for Israel grows out of his religious belief, that God wants all of the world's Jews to congregate in Israel where, in the "end of days", they will either perish in the "sea of fire" or convert to Christianity. In Hagee's words, "Today Israel is back in the land and they are at Ezekiel 37 and 8. They are physically alive but they're not spiritually alive." Hagee's views in a literal sense may constitute "support for Israel", but it takes a great deal of imagination to construe them as also supportive of Jews.

Friday, May 23, 2008

McCain's Health Secret - Neither Big Nor Unexpected

Granted, I can understand why McCain wanted to withhold his medical records until he was sure he wasn't experiencing a recurrence of melanoma, but this is truth I could have dealt with.
McCain has had five skin cancers, including a growth that was removed in February of this year, but there is no sign any of the cancers have recurred.

* * *

"We continue to find no evidence of metastasis or recurrence of the invasive melanoma as we approach the eighth anniversary of that operation," he said.

"This was most recently confirmed with his comprehensive examination and tests" in March, he noted, and with Dr. Suzanne M. Connolly's skin examination on May 12.
I personally would have preferred candor to stalling tactics, or stories about how it was necessary to assemble his doctors to conduct a press conference before records could be released. Especially if you don't hold such a press conference. But overall, it's good news.

Kathleen Parker And The Half-Blood Prince

"A full-blooded American."

That's how 24-year-old Josh Fry of West Virginia described his preference for John McCain over Barack Obama. His feelings aren't racist, he explained. He would just be more comfortable with "someone who is a full-blooded American as president."
It's not about "race", Parker assures us. It's about "blood equity". And apparently Obama's problem is that only one of his parents was white had "blood equity"?

You know, if you're going to take a page from Harry Potter, why not be more direct about it and simply call Obama a "mudblood". Or would that make your meaning too clear?

Fear Of Paper Tigers

What does it take to get an opportunity to run an editorial in the Times these days? The standards seem pretty low.
IN his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy expressed in two eloquent sentences, often invoked by Barack Obama, a policy that turned out to be one of his presidency’s — indeed one of the cold war’s — most consequential: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Kennedy’s special assistant, called those sentences “the distinctive note” of the inaugural.

They have also been a distinctive note in Senator Obama’s campaign, and were made even more prominent last week when President Bush, in a speech to Israel’s Parliament, disparaged a willingness to negotiate with America’s adversaries as appeasement.
Now here, one would think a responsible analysis would point out that it is not appeasement to talk to your enemies, or even to negotiate with your enemies. But Bush gets a free pass for his prevarication. Call it foreshadowing if you will, as you know the quality of analysis is going to get worse from this point forward.
Senior American statesmen like George Kennan advised Kennedy not to rush into a high-level meeting, arguing that Khrushchev had engaged in anti-American propaganda and that the issues at hand could as well be addressed by lower-level diplomats. Kennedy’s own secretary of state, Dean Rusk, had argued much the same in a Foreign Affairs article the previous year....

But Kennedy went ahead, and for two days he was pummeled by the Soviet leader. Despite his eloquence, Kennedy was no match as a sparring partner, and offered only token resistance as Khrushchev lectured him on the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, cautioned America against supporting “old, moribund, reactionary regimes” and asserted that the United States, which had valiantly risen against the British, now stood “against other peoples following its suit.” Khrushchev used the opportunity of a face-to-face meeting to warn Kennedy that his country could not be intimidated and that it was “very unwise” for the United States to surround the Soviet Union with military bases.

Kennedy’s aides convinced the press at the time that behind closed doors the president was performing well, but American diplomats in attendance, including the ambassador to the Soviet Union, later said they were shocked that Kennedy had taken so much abuse. Paul Nitze, the assistant secretary of defense, said the meeting was “just a disaster.” Khrushchev’s aide, after the first day, said the American president seemed “very inexperienced, even immature.” Khrushchev agreed, noting that the youthful Kennedy was “too intelligent and too weak.” The Soviet leader left Vienna elated — and with a very low opinion of the leader of the free world.
Okay... So we have the typical exaggerated representation of Obama's willingness to meet with "enemies" of the United States, representing the naivete of... a John McCain or Defense Secretary Gates. Should we expect a lecture about how weak Israel is for seeing to reopen peace negotiations with Syria?

But why not be more concrete? What world leader has, through Bush's tenure, been the closest analog to Kruschev? Could it be... Vladimir Putin? What happens when a President who will not at any time during his lifetime be described as "too intelligent" meets with Kruschev's modern counterpart?
Mr Bush described their meeting as straightforward and effective.

He said it was time to move beyond Cold War attitudes, away from mutually assured destruction towards mutually earned respect.

"I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue.

"I was able to get a sense of his soul.
I know we're supposed to buy into the author's right-wing talking point that the penny ante dictators Obama will supposedly make his first term priority are the equivalent of Kruschev, but... if you're not a heavy crack smoker that one's probably not very convincing. You want to talk failures of perception? Incompetence at a first meeting resulting in incredible loss of leverage with a dictatorial nuclear power? Do you think Putin walked away from that meeting awed by G.W.'s "strength and somewhat ordinary level of intelligence," or that he was quietly chuckling to himself. And let's not forget the Bush Administration's on-again, off-again love affair with Ahmed Chalabi.

And yes, I love the way the authors glom onto this notion that Kennedy was "too intelligent", as if we're better served by having Presidents of more modest intelligence - G.W. or, the apparent preference of the authors of the editorial, John McCain. I'm not sure that McCain would be flattered, but at least the authors make up for insulting his intelligence by implying that he would be "strong". But what good does that do us if his self-lauded years of experience leave him unable to distinguish Shia from Sunni, believing that Iran is backing Al Qaeda, or proudly clueless about the power hierarchy in Iran? If his childish rhetoric against diplomacy leaves him afraid to approach or be approached by leaders of "our enemies", "rogue states", whatever you want to call them, under circumstances that could aid us or our allies? Using examples cited earlier, the type of negotiations with Syria that could lead to a severe diminishment of tensions between Israel and Syria, weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon, and may even result in Syria's formal recognition of Israel? You know, the sort of negotiation Israel deems to be in its own self-interest, even if our "strong leaders of somewhat ordinary intelligence" don't see the wisdom.

Of course I'm giving the editorial far more credit than it is due. It's an amateurish argument from anecdote. You find one example of the point you want to make, depict it in the least flattering light to your target, then suggest that there could be no other outcome at any time in future history. Perhaps the Ph.D. student who contributed is so focused on this one incident (for his thesis?) that he isn't aware that history can offer counter-examples. I'm not sure what the other guy's excuse might be, other than preventing Middle East diplomacy of any sort. If you read his other work (here attacking Reagan's record), he seems to fall into the category of people who think that Arab and Muslim nations are incapable of responding to anything but fear of annihilation. Perhaps right now he's furiously scribbling out a screed against Israel's attempts to finally achieve peace with Syria, lamenting how its past leaders were duped and outsmarted in their peace negotiations with Jordan and Egypt.

I am not surprised when right-wingers of various sorts try to depict nations like Iran or Syria as the modern equivalents of Kruschev's Russia. Some don't know better, and the others who favor the argument will say whatever it takes to defeat the Democratic nominee. But is it not reasonable to be surprised when the New York Times agrees to print it? Is honoring this type of straw man argument somehow justified by the fact that it is embraced by McCain? Oh, it's so nice to see McCain threaten to stonewall the al-Qaeda supporting insurgent-supporting, Sunni Shiite nation of Iran, a nation that we are not presently prepared to occupy but could otherwise crush under the heel of our boot at any time. Or how tough he's going to be on Cuba, as if Kruschev is still alive and trying to put nuclear missiles on Cuban soil. But is it unreasonable to expect a major national newspaper to devote a few column inches to tearing down McCain's paper tigers, or burning through these straw men, rather than turning over the editorial page to people who want to advance these essentially dishonest arguments?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

And Yet Somehow It's Nobody's Fault

Michael Gerson recites,
Recently -- almost seven years after Sept. 11, five years after the Iraq war began -- Gates noted that portions of the military are still not on a "war footing."
And yet, for once, he can't find a place to point his finger. What do you think the chances are he would be similarly confounded in the "blame game" if a Democrat were in the White House?

Are Kids Smarter Than Their Parents?

The Washington Post lectures parents that yogurt, although a potentially healthy snack for kids, can be loaded up with fat and sugar. I suspect kids know this, if from nothing else then from the marketing and packaging. When my three-and-a-half year old, who had never tried the stuff before, first saw "Danimals drinkable yogurt" on the shelf at a grocery store, her reaction was, "I want the candy milk."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

(Near-Indefinite) Copyrights And Orphan Works

Congress created a problem with it's succession of bills extending copyright protection - something that it will likely continue to do such that certain works never come out of copyright. Now it proposes making it easy for the same monied interests that profit from those copyright extensions to ignore the copyrights of may of the less famous and less monied. Lawrence Lessig explains:
Congress is considering a major reform of copyright law intended to solve the problem of “orphan works” — those works whose owner cannot be found. This “reform” would be an amazingly onerous and inefficient change, which would unfairly and unnecessarily burden copyright holders with little return to the public.
* * *
The bill would excuse copyright infringers from significant damages if they can prove that they made a “diligent effort” to find the copyright owner. A “diligent effort” is defined as one that is “reasonable and appropriate,” as determined by a set of “best practices” maintained by the government.
You know, a better solution might be to return to historic practice, and shorten the duration of copyright protection. Were orphan works a serious problem before Congress decided that copyright protections should be, if the legislative trend continues, one day short of indefinite?

Lessig's alternative, which is far more politically realistic:
Congress could easily address the problem of orphan works in a manner that is efficient and not unfair to current or foreign copyright owners. Following the model of patent law, Congress should require a copyright owner to register a work after an initial and generous term of automatic and full protection.
That's perfectly reasonable, but it might necessitate the monied interests to pay for works that they might get for free under the proposed legislation. So....

And Guess Who Didn't Vote

David Brooks tries to attack Barack Obama in relation to a farm bill that passed by a vote of 81:15. But if you look at the actual vote:
  • Clinton (D-NY), Not Voting
  • McCain (R-AZ), Not Voting
  • Obama (D-IL), Not Voting
As in, all three candidates were off running for the Presidency.

So when Brooks says,
Obama’s vote may help him win Iowa....
What vote does he think he's talking about?
John McCain opposed the farm bill. In an impassioned speech on Monday, he declared: “It would be hard to find any single bill that better sums up why so many Americans in both parties are so disappointed in the conduct of their government, and at times so disgusted by it.”
And yet McCain didn't think it necessary to show up at work to vote against it, and was unable to demonstrate his supposed ability to reach across the aisle to convince Democrats to join him (and the mere eleven Republicans who voted against the bill) to defeat the bill?

Brooks devotes the rest of the column to a fantasy sequence in which McCain proposes putting the issue of "reforming America’s decrepit governing institutions at the center of his presidential race". There's a strong case to be made that this bill should have been defeated in its present form, and that the pork it includes represents a lot of what's wrong with the political system, but when push came to shove McCain skipped the vote. Was that because he just didn't think the issue important enough, or was it because he fears losing Iowa?

Perhaps Brooks should take a harder look at McCain, as if he weren't a partisan hack he could easily have written this column about McCain and entitled it, All Words And No Action.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Interventionist Foreign Policy As Imagined By Jackson Diehl

Jackson Diehl thinks that McCain's notion of a "League of Democracies" is a fantastic idea, because the UN is a poor tool to legitimize military intervention pretty much anywhere, any time.
Whether Obama or McCain, the next president will take office knowing that he inherits the messes in Darfur, Burma and Iran and also that new crises will erupt during his term. If he is unable to respond - if he, like Bush, ends up watching as tens or hundreds of thousands of people die in a weak or failed state while China and Russia block U.N. action - he will be harshly judged. That's why McCain has smartly begun to talk about his League of Democracies and promised early action to create it.
Because the militaries of the world's democracies are the equivalent of the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, and we can magically zoom in and out of hot spots around the world, defeating the bad guys and establishing freedom within the space of a half-hour (kid's TV show) episode.

What is Diehl actually proposing? A new organization through which the U.S. can legitimize what would otherwise be unilateral military action? A means to coerce other democracies into participating in future "coalitions of the willing", so we can carry out large-scale interventions and invasions in the future without regard to cost or manpower issues - because that worked so well in Iraq? Diehl apparently has a "wish list" for U.S. military interventions over the next few years - and it apparently includes but is not limited to "Darfur, Burma and Iran". Perhaps he would do us the favor of sharing the full list, so we can get a good idea of just how magical his thinking is.
[The] Community of Democracies, founded in 2000, still exists but has been hamstrung by its initial decision to include numerous countries that are not, in fact, democracies -- such as Egypt, Jordan and Azerbaijan.
You mean, instead of relying upon democratic states like, say, Venezuela? This criticism brings to mind a legitimate question: What's so magical about democracy? Would Diehl truly prefer that Egypt hold free elections tomorrow, likely resulting in victory by a conservative Islamic party? Only then would he want Egypt to participate in this "League of Democracies"? He objects to Russia as blocking U.S. military action, so is he stating that Russia is not democratic enough to participate in this new group? What measure of "democracy" does he propose?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Continuing Relevance Of College

In trying to find out if there's more meat on the bones of Charles Murray's arguments about education than is apparent from this, I found this Wall Street Journal piece:
Even if forgoing college becomes economically attractive, the social cachet of a college degree remains. That will erode only when large numbers of high-status, high-income people do not have a college degree and don't care. The information technology industry is in the process of creating that class, with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as exemplars. It will expand for the most natural of reasons: A college education need be no more important for many high-tech occupations than it is for NBA basketball players or cabinetmakers. Walk into Microsoft or Google with evidence that you are a brilliant hacker, and the job interviewer is not going to fret if you lack a college transcript.
Oh, right... The fact that a company is founded by somebody who didn't complete a college degree means they're open to hiring anybody, even people without college degrees. Microsoft aside, could Murray be less informed about Google's hiring practices?
A reality about the job market must eventually begin to affect the valuation of a college education: The spread of wealth at the top of American society has created an explosive increase in the demand for craftsmen. Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, glazier, mason - the list goes on and on - is difficult, and it is a seller's market. Journeymen craftsmen routinely make incomes in the top half of the income distribution while master craftsmen can make six figures. They have work even in a soft economy. Their jobs cannot be outsourced to India. And the craftsman's job provides wonderful intrinsic rewards that come from mastery of a challenging skill that produces tangible results. How many white-collar jobs provide nearly as much satisfaction?
Here, Murray reinforces my prior opinion that he has very low regard for the manual trades, and knows next to nothing about... well, we're reaching the point where I could say "pretty much anything he writes about". Murray seems to believe that intellectual skills are something you must be born with, but any other skill can be learned equally well by anyone. As difficult as it may be to find a master craftsman, it is not difficult to find a run-of-the-mill craftsman. (And if you're truly talking the high end, it's no more difficult to find a master craftsman than it is to find a good lawyer, assuming you can afford their services. It's not like they're in hiding.) As for outsourcing, I can contact artisans in Asia with specifics for custom woodwork, stonework or metalwork, and have it shipped to my house. The local contractor only has to have enough skills to assemble or install the parts. That's not outsourcing?

Incidentally, I agree with Murray's argument that the college degree is an artificial qualification for many jobs, and that the act of making college accessible to everyone means lowering standards for obtaining a college degree (as compared to what they could be if you restricted enrollment to the very bright, but let's not pretend that our nation's elite schools have historically focused on enrolling only the brightest students). Unlike Murray, I don't think that's going to change. If you have 40 applications for a job, and 12 have college diplomas, it's an easy criterion to use to narrow the pile. And no, even if the job arguably could be done by somebody without a degree, it's not entirely arbitrary. A college education can provide people with knowledge, thinking skills, and perspectives on the world that they would not otherwise have attained.

Educational Romanticism

Charles Murray recently wrote an essay describing "the age of educational romanticism":
Educational romanticism consists of the belief that just about all children who are not doing well in school have the potential to do much better. Correlatively, educational romantics believe that the academic achievement of children is determined mainly by the opportunities they receive; that innate intellectual limits (if they exist at all) play a minor role; and that the current K-12 schools have huge room for improvement.
It's a simplistic definition, particularly in relation to the last point - what does it mean to have "huge room for improvement"? But fair enough, there are people who adhere to this type of thinking. Of course its far easier to find people who do not. For generations, allusions to gender roles aside, people have been nodding their heads to Atticus Finch's argument,
We know that all men are not created equal in the sense that some people would have us believe - some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they are born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies bake better cakes than others - some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.
So I'm not going to give Charles Murray any great credit for coming to a similar conclusion almost fifty years later.

Murray then explains how and why, in his view, "Educational romanticism characterizes reformers of both Left and Right", commenting first,
Educational romantics of the Left focus on race, class, and gender. It is children of color, children of poor parents, and girls whose performance is artificially depressed, and their academic achievement will blossom as soon as they are liberated from the racism, classism, and sexism embedded in American education.
I'll present my usual challenge: Name one. Oh, he might be able to do so after some thinking, but it's sheer fiction to present this as representative of education reformers on the political left. But I've met a lot of teachers in my life, and I can't think of one who held this view. Instead, I typically hear about the impact of a child's home environment and parental attitudes toward education and classroom discipline.
Those of the Right see public education as an ineffectual monopoly, and think that educational achievement will blossom when school choice liberates children from politically correct curricula and obdurate teachers’ unions.
Is this fair, either? I mean, truly? The advocates of vouchers and privatization claim to be concerned about school quality and choice, but they have no interest in extending onto private schools the supposedly "objective measures" they impose on public schools (such as "No Child Left Behind") even when allowing those schools to accept public money. When they talk about education the conversation usually seems to focus on cost, not quality. Breaking the unions seems to be much more a priority than quality. And here I include many of the proponents of "No Child Left Behind", despite Murray's seeing it as the "apotheosis of educational romanticism".

We probably could find a small number of "purists" on both sides of the ideological divide, who truly fit Murray's definition, but it seems Murray defines his terms more to suit his argument than to reflect reality. I will grant Murray this much: If we take G.W. Bush's words at face value, he fits the definition.

Murray speaks of the "common experience of parents", in seeing their children display various cognitive strengths and weaknesses even in their early years, as part of his "case that educational romanticism is in fact out of touch with reality". Are we to assume, then, that proponents of educational romanticism aren't parents? That their experience is uncommon? Or is this yet another false construct - "Look how obvious this is, and why don't the group of people who I am ridiculing not see how obvious it is?" The question is not so much, "Isn't it obvious that children achieve at different levels, and have differing levels of aptitude", as it is, "Who really believes otherwise". Murray has a remarkable ability to introduce and defeat straw men. And moving along to his next one:
That brings us to an indispensable tenet of educational romanticism: The public schools are so bad that large gains in student performance are possible even within the constraints of intellectual ability. A large and unrefuted body of evidence says that this indispensable tenet is incorrect.
Again, who says this? What you might actually hear is that improved schools can improve school performance, and in specific cases an individual child may show significant gains in educational performance. A good argument can be made that improved schools could be of particular benefit to gifted students. But, save for the worst of the worst schools, I can't recall ever hearing it suggested that improving schools may result in large improvements in performance for most or all students.

Moving back to the importance of the home, Murray writes about the findings of sociologist James Coleman following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Before Coleman’s team set to work, everybody expected that the study would document a relationship between the quality of schools and the academic achievement of the students in those schools. To everyone’s shock, the Coleman Report instead found that the quality of schools explains almost nothing about differences in academic achievement. Family background was by far the most important factor in determining student achievement.
I'm not going to try to dig up the history of the report, or of reaction to the report, but I suspect Murray's claim of what "everybody expected" is just so much hot air. And now Murray gets to the definition of what constitutes a "bad school".
In thinking about the explanation for this counter-intuitive result, it is important not to confuse your idea of a bad public school with the worst-of-the-worst inner-city schools that are the subject of horror stories. When schools are as bad as they are in the inner-city neighborhoods of Detroit, Washington, and a few other large cities, they certainly have a depressing effect on student achievement. Getting students out of those schools should be a top policy priority. But only a few percent of the nation’s students attend such schools. In what might be called a “normally bad” public school, a lot of the slack has been taken out of the room for improvement. The normally bad school maintains a reasonably orderly learning environment and offers a standard range of courses taught with standard textbooks. Most of the teachers aren’t terrible; they’re just mediocre.
We're apparently grading on a harsh curve: by this standard, a mediocre school is a "bad school". Murray agrees that student performance can be improved in the worst schools by fixing their shortcomings. And I tend to agree with him that when we're talking about schools at various levels of mediocrity, ratcheting a school up a notch or two on the quality scale won't have a profound affect on student performance.
To sum up, a massive body of evidence says that reading and mathematics achievement have strong ties to underlying intellectual ability, that we do not know how to change intellectual ability after children reach school, and that the quality of schooling within the normal range of schools does not have much effect on student achievement.
I suspect we weren't supposed to notice the sloppy construction of this conclusion, and how Murray has elided the problem of truly bad schools. He retreats to his recurring theory, that IQ is all-important and is predictive of intellectual ability "for large groups", that we don't know how to raise IQ's, so what's the point in improving schools?

Although the subjects merit some comment, I'm going to skip over Murray's discussion of educational fads and Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. I'll just say this much: Murray provides an interesting look at the origins of the "self-esteem" movement in school. He does not appear to be aware of the fact that high self-esteem in the sense he scorns ("having a favorable opinion of oneself, independently of objective justification for that favorable opinion") appears to be negatively correlated with academic performance, and lots of low-performing kids think very well of themselves.

Following that discussion, Murray gets back into the sort of analysis that created so much controversy (and probably a huge number of sales) for The Bell Curve.
The effects of the triumphant Civil Rights Movement gave a special reason for white elites in the 1960s to start ignoring the implications of intellectual limitations.
Whose limitations?
The Civil Rights Movement prior to 1964 created a change in the consciousness of white elites that was felt viscerally, and it included an embarrassing awareness of just how unremittingly whites had violated every American ideal when it came to blacks.
Murray's still tiptoeing around the issue, but can you really doubt that he's reiterating his belief that African Americans are intellectually inferior?
Elite white guilt explains much about all kinds of social policy from the last half of the 1960s onward, but especially about education. Until the 1960s, white educators and politicians could look at a class of white children in which a number of students were doing poorly and shrug. The schools try to teach everyone, but some kids can’t handle the material. That’s just the way the things are; it is not a problem that can be fixed. But when the class consisted of black students who were doing poorly, that reaction was not acceptable. These were children growing up in a society where all the odds had been stacked against them, and their failings couldn’t be passed off as “just the way things are.” Elite white guilt made it impossible to say that a lot of black children were going to continue to fail in school and there’s nothing anybody could do about it. Once it could not be said of black children, neither could it be said of white children. In that context, educational romanticism did not just become fashionable during the 1960s. It became emotionally mandatory.
Wait a minute. After the Civil Rights Act was passed, looking at the big picture, the African American story is a success story. By what measure is that the product of "white guilt" as opposed to the fruit of extending better social and educational opportunities to African Americans? And by what measure are African Americans disproportionately enrolled in the worst schools in the nation, something Murray admits impedes student performance?

But that's "little stuff". Murray betrays something here - the fact that he knows essentially nothing about education, and has paid virtually no attention to changes in society between the 1950's and 2008. In the 1950's it was much less of a concern if a student "only" got a high school diploma. The student could reasonably expect to get a job and support a middle class lifestyle on the basis of that diploma. That is no longer true. The reason people are much more concerned about academic performance across the board is that the threshold for entering into the workforce at a middle class wage is enormously higher. This isn't "white guilt" - it's self-interest. People want their kids to do well in school, because they know that education has become the best path to the middle class.

Murray presents a cutesy comparison of "No Child Left Behind" to Soviet economic policy, but actually what he's proposing is a lot closer to Soviet or communist-style educational policy than the worst of G.W.'s reforms: test kids, sort kids by the test results, channel them into vocations or college based upon test results, and pick their future careers for them.

Toward the end of the piece, Murray makes an interesting concession - that "hardly anybody really believes in educational romanticism even now". The "then", when people believed in Murray's construct would have been... when, again?
No one but the most starry-eyed denies in private the reality of differences in intellectual ability that we are powerless to change with K-12 education. People are unwilling to talk about those differences in public, but it is a classic emperor’s-clothes scenario waiting for someone to point out the obvious. Starting that process can be as simple as more articles like this one.
Does blogging count as "in public"? I don't have to look very far to find arguments about the need for, and neglect of, education for gifted students. I openly argue that public schools cater to the lowest common denominator, and that we owe smart kids a lot better than that.

Murray concludes,
For the good of our children, educational romanticism needs to collapse, and quickly. Its effects play out in the lives of young people in devastating ways. The fourth-grader who has trouble sounding out simple words and his classmate who is reading A Tale of Two Cities for fun sit in the same classroom day after miserable day, the one so frustrated by tasks he cannot do and the other so bored that both are near tears. The eighth-grader who cannot make sense of algebra but has an almost mystical knack with machines is told to stick with the college prep track, because to be a success in life he must go to college and get a B.A. The senior with terrific SAT scores gets away with turning in rubbish on his term papers because to make special demands on the gifted would be elitist. They are all products of an educational system that cannot make itself talk openly about the implications of diverse educational limits.
For that fourth grade class, the kid who can't read is probably getting substantial academic support, testing for learning disabilities, and perhaps even one-on-one assistance. The gifted kid? Gets to be bored. I don't know what that has to do with "educational romanticism" - I doubt that there's a person in the world who would see those two kids as having equal aptitude for reading. It has more to do with social promotion, and concern that the weak reader might become totally discouraged if he's kept in first or second grade until his reading skills reach grade level. Murray, of course, offers no solution. Take the poor reader out of the class and the gifted kid is still bored.

The eighth grader? Does Murray not recognize that a kid who has a "mystical knack with machines" might in fact benefit enormously from having a college degree? That in fact it might be a requirement for many jobs he would find enormously rewarding? Murray seems to again be taking us back to the 1950's, where the kid could take "auto shop" classes in high school, graduate, and get a middle class job as an auto mechanic or on an assembly line. Realistically, what job would the kid get now based upon a (presumed) high school diploma? A factory job at $10 - 15/hour? Where, to put it mildly, his abilities are neither challenged nor appreciated?

Here, Murray seems to be displaying the same sort of contemptuousness for manual labor that he projects onto others in relation to intellectual capacity. He seems to believe that the manual trades are something that "anybody can do" and "anybody can succeed in". He also seems to believe that math and computers aren't invading the manual trades, just as they are with every other workspace, such that more advanced skills are needed even for many entry level workers. He seems to believe that a manual trade is a good trade, for now and forever, and is apparently completely blind to the layoffs and downsizings that are leaving many people once able to support a middle class lifestyle struggling to find work at even half of their former wage.

The last example is just plain silly. It's also contrary to his entire thesis, that academic performance is tied to innate ability and cannot be significantly improved. If in fact schools are full of slouching seniors, it really shouldn't take much cracking of the whip to attain significant improvements in pretty much any school.

Demonstrating Bipartisanship The Wrong Way

David Ignatius has a silly idea for Barack Obama:
By reaching outside the Democratic Party for his vice presidential nominee -- tapping Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, say, or independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg from New York -- Obama would in an instant demonstrate that he truly means to change the divisive, lose-lose politics of Washington. It would offer a unity government for a country that seems to want one.

There are all sorts of practical arguments against such an unconventional choice -- not least that it would upset many of Obama's liberal Democratic supporters. But it would make a powerful statement that Obama really does want to govern in a different way. It would make "change we can believe in" more than a slogan.
No, the "not the least of which" argument is that when you vote for a President from a particular political party, you don't expect that in the event of his incapacity that the Presidency will shift to the rival party. If Ignatius brushes up on his history, he should learn that the purpose of joint tickets is to make sure that the President and Vice President are from the same party.

But it does make me wonder... what would the punditocracy say about an Obama/Powell ticket?
By choosing a veteran politician outside his own party, Obama would solve three problems at once: He would undercut the bipartisan appeal of his maverick GOP rival, Sen. John McCain; he would ease voters' fears about his own youth and inexperience...

This would work by sending the message, "I'm like G.W. Bush, and there aren't any Democrats who have sufficient national security credentials to even be as impressive as the mendacious, scheming, non-veteran Dick Cheney"? Great idea. You know what? The innuendo that Obama is "too young" or "too inexperienced" flows not from his actual age or experience, but from members of the punditocracy like Ignatius. So perhaps Obama is better served by scoffing at the suggestion, and challenging Ignatius types to back up their rhetoric with substance.
... and he would find a compelling alternative to Hillary Clinton, who for all her virtues as a vice president would come with heavy baggage - not least the role of her husband, who is even harder to imagine as Second Laddie than as First.
Okay, now that's just silly. If Hillary Clinton wants the VP spot, in all likelihood she'll get it. Nobody wants the fight, or party divisions likely to again erupt, if she lobbies for the job and is rejected. If she does not want the job, she won't be asked. Innuendo Bill Clinton? That's more suited to a Maureen Dowd column, David. Leave that stuff to others.
Moreover, Obama needs to counter the charge that he talks a better game about bipartisanship and change than he has actually delivered. His voting record in Illinois and Washington mostly has been that of a conventional liberal, and there are precious few examples of him taking political risks to work across party lines.
And we're back to, "If the pundits say it, it must be so."
McCain, by contrast, has actually fought the kind of bipartisan battles that Obama talks about - from campaign finance to climate change to rules against torture - and he has the political scars to prove it.
So Ignatius raises three issues to demonstrate McCain's "bipartisanship". First, campaign finance reform. McCain became the "maverick" behind campaign finance reform not by working toward bipartisanship, but by taking a stance against his own party. Look at the actual vote - 60 to 40, with 38 of the "nays" coming from Republicans. That was much less an example of bipartisanship than it was an example of McCain crossing the aisle. Does Ignatius understand the meaning of the word "maverick"? It's not a synonym for "consensus-builder".

The second example, "climate change". If bipartisanship means offering watered down proposals to try to bridge the gap between effective reforms and ineffective reforms, he gets some credit. But if we're actually looking for a President who will advocate the most effective solutions, that brand of bipartisanship falls short. What is Ignatius overlooking? The importance of leadership. That's what Obama is offering on this issue, as the Republican Party is full of climate change laggards. To use a word that G.W. likes to throw around, the type of compromise McCain is offering constitutes appeasement.

The third example, "rules against torture".... Ignatius has forgotten McCain's flip-flop? Or is he speaking of McCain's failed anti-torture amendment, supported in the Senate by a 90:9 vote, that failed due to threatened veto? Are we now defining a proposal that pretty much everybody already supports as representative of "bipartisanship"? If Obama floats a "Sense of the Senate" bill lauding the beauty of the American flag and gets a 100:0 vote of support, is proof that he can "work toward bipartisanship"?

The best thing I can say about this column is that virtually no one will take its suggestions seriously.

Friday, May 16, 2008


The Wall Street Journal has published an editorial on immigration by Jason L. Riley, arguing for immigration and against multiculturalism. Despite his ostensibly taking the opposite view, part of his piece reminded me of Robert Samuelson's "I wish candidates would tell everybody else what I want to hear" editorial. My parodic expansion of Samuelson's thoughts,
"Now you're of course asking me, 'How are you going to keep those 'south of the border types' out'? I'm not. Oh, I might promise stepped up border patrols, fencing the entire U.S.-Mexican border, or other expensive forms of window-dressing, but at the end of the day I'm simply not the type of politician who is going to ask the agriculture industry to pay the type of wages that will draw citizens to pick our nation's fruits and vegetables, the hospitality or retail industry to pay that type of wage for maids and janitors, or the construction industry to pay that type of wage for workers.
Riley's explicit thoughts:
The problem isn't the immigrants. The problem is the militant multiculturalists who want to turn America into some loose federation of ethnic and racial groups. The political right should continue to push back against bilingual education advocates, anti-American Chicano Studies professors, Spanish-language ballots, ethnically gerrymandered voting districts, La Raza's big-government agenda and all the rest. But these problems weren't created by the women burping our babies and changing linen at our hotels, or by the men picking lettuce in Yuma and building homes in Iowa City.
I guess some pro-immigration, pro-assimiliation right-wingers are willing to be explicit - they see immigration exclusively as an "us against them" with Mexico, but are content with the idea of allowing "them" to work as maids and nannies, or pick vegetables, as long as they don't (dare I say) cling to their cultural heritage.

Which brings us to the glory of assimilation. Riley confabulates a powerful special interest group that opposes assimilation:
If American culture is under assault today, it's not from immigrants who aren't assimilating but from liberal elites who reject the concept of assimilation. For multiculturalists, and particularly those in the academy, assimilation is a dirty word. A values-neutral belief system is embraced by some to avoid having to judge one culture as superior or inferior to another. Others reject the assimilationist paradigm outright on the grounds that the U.S. hasn't always lived up to its ideals. America slaughtered Indians and enslaved blacks, goes the argument, and this wicked history means we have no right to impose a value system on others.
The fact that you would be hard pressed to name even one such person? I guess that only shows how insidious they are. But you know as well as I do, when people go to the polls and are looking for opinion leaders on these issues, the first place they turn is to "multiculturalists, and particularly those in the academy". Whether its anti-immigrant sentiments, anti-gay marriage laws and ballot initiatives, "English language only" laws, whatever, those darn fictional ivory tower elitists get in the way of right wing populism at every turn.
The political right should continue to push back against bilingual education advocates, anti-American Chicano Studies professors, Spanish-language ballots, ethnically gerrymandered voting districts, La Raza's big-government agenda and all the rest.
Ah, so there we go... the evil leftists unmasked.
  • Bilingual education advocates - these, presumably, are the people who respect studies demonstrating that bilingual education is effective at keeping immigrant children at grade level as they learn English. These programs can even take the form of rapid immersion, with bilingual elements phased out over a relatively short period of time. The horror.
  • Anti-American Chicano Studies professors - these must be the "multiculturalists ... particularly those in the academy" previously mentioned. How many "Chicano Studies professors" exist, and what subset of them is anti-American? That's beside the point.
  • Spanish-language ballots - Letting citizen immigrants read ballots in their native language, so they can fully appreciate what they're voting for? Can't you see, the sky is falling!
  • Ethnically gerrymandered voting districts - Darn those liberal, multiculturalist Republican gerrymanderers. Darn them to heck! Wait... other motives may be involved? Well, go figure.
  • La Raza's big-government agenda - Who? These guys? I guess I'm in the wrong part of the country, because I'm not seeing them wield any influence in these parts. Anyway, as we previously covered, when we say "you guys should assimilate" we mean by "burping our babies and changing linen at our hotels, or ... picking lettuce ... and building homes", not by petitioning the government for redress of grievances. Stop your anti-American antics!
It's also interesting to note that people like Riley have a very narrow view of what it means to assimilate. You won't hear them crying in their milk over our nation's having "too many churches", and how we really need to assimilate into a single [Christian] religion. You won't hear them whining about Scottish heritage festivals, and how the nation would be significantly improved if only we banned the caber toss. You won't hear them lament that we're still referencing the Scots-Irish heritage of residents of West Virginia. You won't hear them calling for the shuttering of ethnic restaurants. You may hear them whine about the "decline" of American culture, and in particular about the evils of popular culture. When you do hear that complaint, it will typically be uttered with the same degree of contemptuousness - because the problem is not the origin of the culture, it's that the culture is alien to them and they don't like it. (A response we might get? "It's different this time, and I'll tell you why shortly, but right now I'm taking the family to Taco Bell as soon as I get my kid to turn off Dora The Explorer.")

You see, there's "good multiculturalism" and then there's "bad multiculturalism". "Bad multiculturalism" necessitates railing against the latest major immigrant group and declaring that they're somehow going to ruin America. "Good multiculturalism" involves celebrating the heritage of the group you once despised, while completely overlooking the fact that multiculturalism and assimilation can and do coexist, and contribute to what we now see as "American" culture. There are many examples in our society of groups that are regarded as 100% American, but who hold on to elements of their historic culture.

I don't want to unfairly brand Riley as myopic, so I'm fully prepared for somebody to send me his editorial, which certainly must exist, lamenting our nation's St. Patrick's Day Parades, or decrying the continued presence of "Chinatown" or "Little Italy" districts in many of our nation's major cities.