Friday, March 30, 2012

So Much for Social Security Privatization?

Paul Krugman makes a good point,
Indeed, conservatives used to like the idea of required purchases as an alternative to taxes, which is why the idea for the mandate originally came not from liberals but from the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation. (By the way, another pet conservative project — private accounts to replace Social Security — relies on, yes, mandatory contributions from individuals.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Do Not Treat? Not Gonna Work....

Floyd Norris suggests a "do not treat" list as opposed to a health insurance mandate:
At least some members of the Supreme Court seem to be persuaded by the idea that the government does not have the power to force us to buy health insurance. The whole idea seems specious and anti-free-market to me: if the government could legally enact Medicare for all, and tax all of us to pay for it, why is mandatory insurance not legal? It accomplishes the same thing, while minimizing government control of the health system....

[As an alternative, a]nyone who chose not to have health insurance, and not to indicate how they would otherwise pay, would be put on a “Do Not Treat” list. Hospitals could simply refuse to offer any treatment, respecting the person’s wish to make his or her own decisions free of an intrusive government trying to keep them alive.
The problems with that? To start with,
  1. Accident victims will still get emergency care. Why? Because when the ambulance brings them in, the priority will be on stabilizing their condition and getting them treatment, not figuring out what insurance they carry, who has guaranteed their bills, or if they (or their guarantor) can pass a credit check.

  2. Assuming we could screen out "do not treat" patients, people simply won't be comfortable with the idea of going back to the pre-EMTALA days when ambulances might have to go to several ER's trying to get a patient admitted before the patient perhaps dies in transit. I'm pretty sure that ambulance drivers and EMT's don't want to go back to that era, either.

  3. People will still game the system. Will we also disqualify somebody from treatment for a year, a number of years or indefinitely if they contract an acute or chronic illness and can't afford to pay out-of-pocket? If so, there will be a cost to society - lost productivity, disability payments and the like, plus a potential for much higher costs when they finally qualify for Medicaid or buy insurance. If not, it's pretty safe to be a free rider.

  4. It is likely to be a younger, healthier population that opts out and, although in a sense it's not fair to ask younger, healthier people to in effect subsidize the system, when lower-cost patients aren't part of the pool the cost for everybody else goes up. That could reinforce the opting out effect, which in turn would continue to cause premiums to rise... where the cycle might stop, nobody knows.

  5. There are serious potential public health consequences to having people contract communicable diseases, yet not get treatment for those diseases.

  6. Informed non-participation may be great for some adults, but what about their children?

Other than being more up-front about the possible consequences of not being insured, mitigated only by the extent to which insurance subsidies reduce the number of uninsured who might otherwise opt out due to cost, the net effect of any effective implementation of this proposal would be to take us back to a pre-EMTALA era. That's what universality seeks to avoid.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Mitt Romney, His Own Worst Enemy

Via John Casey, I learn that Romney claims to be hesitant to take positions on important issues lest he be misinterpreted.
"One of the things I found in a short campaign against Ted Kennedy was that when I said, for instance, that I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, that was used to suggest I don’t care about education,” Romney recalled. “So I think it’s important for me to point out that I anticipate that there will be departments and agencies that will either be eliminated or combined with other agencies. So for instance, I anticipate that housing vouchers will be turned over to the states rather than be administered at the federal level, and so at this point I think of the programs to be eliminated or to be returned to the states, and we’ll see what consolidation opportunities exist as a result of those program eliminations. So will there be some that get eliminated or combined? The answer is yes, but I’m not going to give you a list right now."
As one might expect of the Weekly Standard, the article continues with a presentation partisan demagoguery about the President and his record. But it's also fair to point out that Romney is repeatedly and habitually guilty of the offense that supposedly keeps him from being honest about his positions. He can't seem to mention the name "Obama" without spouting a lie or distortion about the President or his record.1 There he goes again.
Mr. Obama probably would not have been that candid if he’d known the mic was live, but really all he was doing was describing reality. There’s no way to have an intelligent discussion about American anti-missile systems in Europe in the midst of this presidential campaign.

As if to prove his point, Mitt Romney, who’s fond of claiming that the president’s weak on national security, didn’t miss the chance to pounce. During an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, he said: “It is alarming. It is troubling. … Russia is not a friendly character on the world stage, and for this president to be looking for greater flexibility, where he doesn’t have to answer to the American people in his relations with Russia is very, very troubling, very alarming. I’m very, very concerned.” He went on to call Russia “without question our number one geopolitical foe,” which should come as a surprise to anyone who hasn’t been in a coma since before the September 11th attacks.
Poor Mitt Romney - a constant victim of people who have no scruples, and as a result behave exactly like... Mitt Romney.
1. Was that an ambiguous reference? I of course reference the President's record, although it seems fair to argue that Romney is no more honest about his own record and past or present opinions.

Trayvon Martin and Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias involves looking at a situation and emphasizing the details that fit your preconceived notions, while discounting those aspects that conflict with them. In the case of Trayvon Martin, we seem to have one faction who deems it perfectly reasonable to believe that a young African American man in a hoodie, walking alone in the mid-afternoon, must be up to no good - gang activity, drug dealing, burglary, whatever. You find a Facebook page of a man named Trayvon Martin, and he's depicted striking what you believe to be a gangster pose? That can only mean that every black man named Trayvon Martin is a ganster. You see a picture of Trayvon Martin where he doesn't look dark-skinned? That can only mean that the biased media is trying to make him look less scary because, well, no logic there, just prejudice. And of course, despite your own obsession with race, it's tragic that everybody who is critical of the shooting of a 17-year-old who was doing nothing more menacing than walking is turning this into a racial issue. What sounds like a muttered racial slur by Zimmerman, perhaps a completely innocent reference to "bleah" people, right?

From what we've heard so far, it sounds like the police also drew conclusions based upon confirmation bias, failing to adequately challenge the dubious elements of Zimmerman's story and accepting Zimmerman's belief that nobody who looked like Martin belonged in that neighborhood or could be present for anything but nefarious purposes. The fact that they leaked information about Martin's background - facts irrelevant to the shooting incident - suggest that the person behind the leak believes that Martin somehow got what was coming to him, and believes that the fact that he apparently used marijuana supports that position.

On the other hand, you have a documented police officer wannabe with a history of violent confrontations, who likes to tour around his neighborhood playing captain of the neighborhood watch. (That's all documented.) It is pretty easy to go from there to seeing Zimmerman as a guy who wanted to be Dirty Harry - savior of the neighborhood - looking for a "Make my my day, punk" moment until he finally found one. That is, until he made one. The evidence is more sympathetic to this interpretation, given that there's no evidence that Trayvon Martin did anything wrong before being stalked and confronted by Zimmerman, but there is a possibility that Zimmerman has an innocent explanation for what sounds like a racial slur during his 911 call, and that he actually did stop accosting Martin and start to return to his car before a renewed altercation leading up to the shooting.

Let me emphasize, there is a material difference between inferring the worst about Zimmerman and the worst about Martin. With Zimmerman, we're talking about the guy who is still alive and is free to make his case. At any time he chooses he can make a public statement explaining what he really muttered during the 911 call, and provide a plausible explanation of why he would pursue Martin with such vigor, in total disregard of the instruction he was given by the police, then suddenly decide to let him go. He may be entitled to a presumption of innocence if he's prosecuted for a crime, but he is not owed any such presumption in the court of public opinion.

With Martin, on the other hand, there's no evidence that he did anything wrong or suspicious before being accosted by Zimmerman. Even in Zimmerman's own words, Martin's big offenses were walking through Zimmerman's neighborhood, wearing a hoodie on a rainy day, and keeping his hands in his pockets, presumably to keep them warm. Everything else is projection or, in the case of people like Michelle Malkin, opportunistic race-baiting. I don't see any measure by which Zimmerman's actions were reasonable, particularly after being told by the police that they did not need him to follow Martin, and it seems difficult to avoid seeing that his perceptions of race colored his actions, but there's room for a factual explanation that makes him something less than a poster child for a Dirty Harry wannabe who was eager to shoot a "punk".

I'm not going to argue that the public at large should give Zimmerman every benefit of the doubt, or cut him some slack. Given his documented actions, I'm not sympathetic to him. I do think this incident reflects the foolish nature of "stand your ground" laws that transform this type of incident from an "imperfect self defense" - "The fight I started wasn't intended to escalate to this level so I should only be convicted of manslaughter" - to actual self-defense. If the attention that this incident generates causes Florida to restore at least that level of sanity to its statute, that's worth something. Centuries of sound public policy lie behind the idea that you should avoid escalating a conflict to involve deadly force whenever possible, even if that means retreating, and it's a shame that legislators and lobbying groups have played up to the fears and prejudices of... well, people like Zimmerman... and have extended the concept of self-defense to the point of foolishness.

Trayvon Martin, From Pursuit to Gunshot - What Part Am I Missing Here

So far we have a 911 call in which we hear that George Zimmerman is following Trayvon Martin, despite being instructed by the police not to do so. Consistent with Zimmerman's report that, part way through his following Martin, Martin started running, we have the report of a friend of Martin's that he had noticed that he was being followed by a strange man and that she had told him to run.

Next we have the police recitation of Zimmerman's account of how he came to shoot Martin,
Police disclosed to the Orlando Sentinel that there is about a one-minute gap, after Zimmerman called police and before he fatally shot Martin, during which police say they're not sure what happened.

In Zimmerman's version of events, he had stopped following Martin and had turned around and was walking back to his SUV when Martin approached him from behind. The two exchanged words, then Martin punched him in the nose, sending him to the ground, and began beating him.
The police department is apparently attempting to overcome concerns over its competence in handling the investigation by leaking like a sieve - but only information prejudicial to Martin. But what I want to know is this: How did we go from having Zimmerman warm and dry in his car, being told by the police not to follow Martin, to having Zimmerman out of his car and engaging in fisticuffs with Martin?

Even if we assume that Martin got the upper hand at some point, and even if we're willing to take Zimmerman's story at face value, are we to believe that Martin turned around, ran toward Zimmerman, used some form of superpower to stop Zimmerman's moving car, pulled the door open, pulled Zimmerman out and then started to beat him? That doesn't seem very likely, does it?

So what I want to know is how Zimmerman came to be out of his car and in a physical confrontation with Martin, and why it would not have been perfectly reasonable for a 17-year-old who was not doing anything wrong to be very concerned about being stalked then accosted by a man who had no legitimate business accosting him, and who outweighed him by a good 100 pounds. Perv? Mugger? What would go through your mind?

It is inescapable that it was Zimmerman who created the context for Martin's fears, and that it was Zimmerman who in flagrant disregard of the instruction he received from the police chose to continue to chase Martin, and who chose to get out of his car and physically confront Martin. Are we to believe that after all of his bravado, and after starting that confrontation, Zimmerman didn't try to get physical with Martin when Martin continued to try to get away from him? Had Martin shot Zimmerman at that point, wouldn't he have the stronger case for self-defense?

And if that's the case, how the bleep does Martin's act of self-defense, after being stalked by a dim-witted, gun-toting police officer wannabe, become legal grounds for Zimmerman to kill him? Even a keystone kop should be able to see the problem with allowing a person who creates a violent scene to claim self-defense based upon his victim's acts of self-defense. What was Martin's supposed reason for breaking off his stalking of Martin and returning to his SUV, and his explanation for how Martin went from fleeing from being stalked to being a physical aggressor?

Whomever is leaking stuff out of the police department, do us a favor: rather than leaking irrelevant information about Martin, how about leaking the rest of Zimmerman's statement, as surely at least one officer involved in the investigation thought to inquire as to what happened between the time he was safely in his car and when he was being punched in the nose. And how about leaking the autopsy report, as it surely sheds some light on the distance between Zimmerman and Martin at the time of the shooting, and whether Zimmerman was on the ground with Martin on top of him or standing clear of Martin and removed from any reasonable fear of harm.

Mitt Romney's VP Choice

Not Rubio, a guy who could easily overshadow Romney - and may not even want the job.

If she's up for it, I'm thinking he should consider Condoleezza Rice. She won't overshadow him, she has strong conservative credentials, the religious right will feel safe, she will be a welcome contrast to his stiffness (but not too much of a contrast), she will be capable in a debate against Biden, she is unlikely to make any huge mistakes, her closet seems to be pretty much empty of skeletons....

Update: Oops. Condi has made statements supporting the status quo on abortion rights, which makes her pro-choice, which in today's Republican world puts her outside of contention. Never mind that abortion rights are a sideshow issue - something of trivial relevance to the work of a President or Vice President, and something the Republican Party shows little interest in actually addressing, save perhaps by accident - the charlatans, opportunists and demagogues of the Republican Party have pushed it to center stage.

Wiping That Slate Clean

In terms of Romney and his Etch-a-Sketch campaign, the comment resonates because the man has no apparent core beliefs. That is, beyond ensuring that talk about how the nation's laws favor the top 1% not occur outside of "quiet rooms". People who are already skeptical of Romney see it as confirmation of their impression.

But no matter how you look at the comment, given the extremes to which Romney's political transformations happily coincide with the latest opinion polls of likely primary voters, it seems reasonable to ask: How will he approach his next set of transformations as he attempts to move back toward the center? "Back them I was lying to get the nomination. This is completely different. Now I'm lying to win the November election!"

The more time people spend looking, the more examples they find of Romney having once staked out a position that is the opposite of his present claimed position.
Stop me if you’ve heard this attack: There’s a presidential candidate out there who wants high gas prices to force the government to finally increase regulations on cars, persuade Americans to stop driving those beastly SUVs, nudge people toward clean electric cars — all with the goal of combating climate change. And don’t even think about lowering gas taxes to help car owners out at the pump: That’s just a gimmick. Take a moment and guess which politician is behind these positions.

If you guessed Mitt Romney, you are correct. And his long history of enviro-friendly rhetoric during past surges in gas prices is proving awkward as he slams the White House for taking similar positions today.
The courtroom cliché is, "Were you lying then or are you lying now." With Romney, though, perhaps he was lying both times. How could you possibly know?

Monday, March 26, 2012


A bit late to this one... but perhaps Mitt Romney needs a new campaign song?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Incompetence in the Name of Balance at CNN

Romney, as usual, is lying and engaging in demagoguery about the President:
Mitt Romney escalated Republican attacks on President Barack Obama's energy policies Sunday, calling for the firing or resignations of what he labeled the "gas hike trio" of top energy and environment officials in the administration.

The Republican presidential hopeful's remarks on "Fox News Sunday" illustrated a GOP strategy to target Obama for rising gas prices as part of a campaign narrative that depicts the president as stifling U.S. production in order to boost alternative energy sources....

"There's no question" that Obama is to blame for higher gas prices, Romney said on Fox, adding that the president wanted higher energy costs to help speed the transition from oil and other fossil fuels.
Why would Romney lie? As usual, the polls told him to lie:
Polls indicate Obama may be vulnerable on the issue, with his slowly rising approval rating in recent months appearing to stagnate or drop as gas prices have spiked.
Although President Obama presented a fact-based response,
Obama contends that oil prices are set by a global market and there is little that any administration can do in the short term to prevent recurring price spikes, like what is happening now.
Whether out of the pursuit of "false balance" - presenting facts from one side, lies from the other, refusing to pass judgment or provide objective context and pretending that constitutes neutral coverage - or out of sheer incompetence, you wouldn't know that from CNN's article.

It's not that CNN doesn't know that it can present factual corrections. They corrected Romney's relatively inconsequential error in the time line of the Keystone pipeline and Solyandra kerfuffles. But when he's outright lying, they're silent.

Collecting Strays

Completely unfair to Paul, I know, but when I read the headline, "Rep. Ron Paul's campaign aims to collect stray delegates", I couldn't help but think of other people who collect strays....

When Society's Interests Clash With Religious Freedom

Via LOG, a "libertarian" argument positing that "Liberals Must Oppose the Contraception Mandate". The essay gets off to a weak start with an argument about coercion,
Defenders of the mandate insist that a woman’s reproductive liberty is significantly restricted if her employer refuses to pay for contraception. This is false. To see why, abstract. Is A’s liberty to X restricted if A’s boss refuses to pay for X? Especially when X is cheap and readily available? And when A can choose another employer? And when A’s government could provide X directly without using force against a voluntary association? No, no, no, and no.
The most obvious response to the author's position is that he is displaying tunnel vision. He sees this as an issue relating only to birth control and is concerned only with the rights of Roman Catholic employers. Given how thoroughly the religious liberty issue has been discussed, I am surprised that the author has yet to consider the bigger picture: The Christian Scientist employer who doesn't want insurance to cover eyeglasses, blood transfusions or antibiotics. The sincere fundamentalist of any number of religious faiths who doesn't want to pay for insurance that would allow health care practitioners to treat people of the opposite gender, or perhaps suffers genuine distress at the fact that hospitals aren't gender-segregated and wants to rule out any treatment of a person at a mixed-gender hospital. Why do we not respect their religious freedoms?

Once you accept that any form of comprehensive health insurance coverage is going to violate somebody's religious beliefs. If we're actually talking about sincerely held religious beliefs, the question of how many people hold the belief or how strongly other religious groups disagree with the belief should be irrelevant. Once we cross the threshold and decide that we can draw a line between where an employer's religious freedom ends and where an employee's right to comprehensive insurance coverage begins, there's absolutely no reason to privilege one set of religious beliefs over another.

We have drawn a line that favors religious organizations in relation to their actual religious operations, where they are free to engage in a broad range of actions in the name of religion that would be forbidden in the public sphere, but have found it reasonable to hold that when a religious organization extends its operations into the secular world that exemption no longer applies. That's a perfectly reasonable, defensible compromise position, balancing the rights of religious organizations with those of the secular world. If a religious organization find the accommodation of the secular world to be too onerous, it may choose to restrict its actions to the religious sphere and not be affected by the greater society's rules and norms. Or it can enter the secular world, but choose not to offer health insurance to its employees.

Further, from a logical standpoint, we're not actually talking about a boss being forced to pay for contraception. We're talking about an employer that is voluntarily offering health insurance as part of an employee's compensation (and getting a tax break as part of that bargain). A libertarian should, by all rights, object to an employer attempting to attach strings to how an employee spends her wages - what business is that of the employer's? Similarly, the fact that insurance covers birth control does not translate into every employee's obtaining and using birth control. It simply means that, along with other prescription medications, birth control is covered by the insurance plan and available to employees who want it on the same terms as other prescriptions covered by the plan.

It is rather attenuated to argue that the employer is somehow directly paying for benefits that are offered through the employee's health insurance plan. For that matter, by the very nature of insurance, it's not actually true. Let's say that we're talking about a five person store, with insurance costing $8,000 per year for the employees. One employee is diagnosed with a devastating cancer, resulting in a seven figure medical bill. Is the employer "paying" that bill by virtue of having provided health insurance as an employee benefit?

Also, unless the employer is offering health insurance with no copays or coinsurance, and is turning down all government subsidies, and ignoring the fact that any health insurance offered would remain part of the employee's compensation, why is it not at least as honest to say that any particular treatment or medication an employee receives is "paid for" by the employee, the government or by taxpayers? Why is it only the employer's contribution th. at counts?

The question of whether a medication or procedure is "cheap" or is available through other sources is a red herring. Many antibiotics are cheap. Many vaccinations are available through subsidized programs at a cost significantly below what would be billed to an insurance company. I could walk into an urgent care clinic and get a DPT shot for a relatively modest price. And if you're going to argue that the cost to the insured is so trivial that it makes no material difference to her that a particular medication or treatment is or is not covered by insurance, you need to drop the pretense that the impact of including that medication or treatment in an insurance plan is material to the cost of the plan.

Even in a good economy, the idea that an employee can simply quit and find a new job every time an insurance plan fails to cover a particular medical need is risible. As if jobs are simply "there for the taking", particularly at the bottom end of the job market where this is most likely to be an issue. As if a prospective employee has the opportunity to scrutinize the full range of benefits that may or may not be offered by any given employer's health insurance plan before being hired. As if employers and employees have anything approaching equality in their bargaining power.

Given that the criticism is offered as a libertarian argument, it's difficult to know what to make of the suggestion that instead of "using force against a voluntary association" the government should create it's own insurance program to offer medical benefits that offend any given employer's religious sensitivities. Should the government have responded to housing discrimination, some of which is defended by landlords as being predicated upon their genuine religious beliefs, by building rental housing and places of public accommodation across the nation, or at least those parts where certain minority groups found themselves excluded from the "free market"?

Really, though, if we ignore the history of the Affordable Care Act and pretend that some form of "public option" insurance or a national supplemental insurance plan are politically realistic, does the author expect that the debate would disappear? Would it not be far more realistic to anticipate that the same people who are objecting to the inclusion of birth control in employee health benefits would be complaining that their taxes are being used to provide birth control to women? Would it not be fair to infer that libertarians would decry any such insurance program as violative of libertarian principles, likely using the pretty much the same set of objections offered in objection to the inclusion of birth control in employment-based health plans?

The author concludes by conflating a tweet by Cher (yes, really, she is apparently his best example) to the effect that this is part of a "Right wing’s effort to Subjugate women", with the contention that "Authoritarians contend that if A refuses to buy X for B, that A uses coercion to prevent B from buying X." As should be needless to say, he's missing the forest for the trees. Cher's tweet is not about this particular issue, but is about her perception of a significant push by the religious right to subvert women's rights and equality. Also, it's a non sequitur to leap from Cher's statement to the implication that she is some sort of "authoritarian", let alone the hollow man argument that "authoritarians" as a class hold the belief described.

The author continues by taking issue with the very idea that there can be a "collective imperative" - the recognition of a collective interest of society - that outweighs the wishes of an individual. That's true to libertarianism, but is the sort of argument that helps explain libertarian's failure in the marketplace of ideas. Virtually everybody in a society recognizes that there are societal needs and imperatives that require individual compromise. Those who don't, frankly, haven't given the issue any amount of mature thought. You can find good thinkers who are heavily influenced by libertarianism in how they approach the question of where lines should be drawn, but you won't find a single good thinker who believes you can have a society that draws no lines. Note that the author presents out his rejection of "a collective imperative" as a fundamental truth, but if you reject the author's conceit - as pretty much every liberal or conservative is going to do - his argument collapses.

Again referring only to the Roman Catholic Church, the author complains,
[Harvard College administrator Erika] Christakis downplays the significance of the RCC’s religious liberty on the grounds that people have to do things they don’t like all the time. But she fails to distinguish between coercing people into doing things they dislike and forcing them to engage in serious immorality.
Again, nobody is forcing a religious organization to enter the secular marketplace. If a religion is so uncomfortable with the secular world that it chooses to restrict its operations to the purely religious, it has that right. And within that sphere it can discriminate against prospective employees of different faiths, use its bona fide religious beliefs to engage in race and gender discrimination, and refuse to offer insurance coverage for medications and treatments it finds objectionable. We were previously asked to pretend that employees have complete freedom to pick and choose employers that offer the full set of health benefits they desire, with no externalities that influence their employment opportunities or choices. Now we're to pretend that religious organizations have no choice but to enter secular markets in which their religious beliefs will be tested.

Also, the measure of what constitutes "serious immorality" varies by religion. By focusing solely upon one issue and one church, it's easy to pretend that this is a minor issue and that ceding to the beliefs of a religious organization imposes no significant cost upon either society or the women affected by the policy. But if you are sincere in the argument that this is a matter of religious freedom, and are sincere in the belief that society has no interest that can be asserted, let alone one that can overcome a religious belief, you will cause significant hardship to certain members of society, and will marginalize other individuals and groups. It's libertarianism in action, certainly, but anathematic to a healthy, inclusive society.

The author objects to the notion that an employer's religious-based choice not to offer coverage for contraception constitutes the imposition of its religious values on its employees. The author engages in weak manning here, seeking out an obscure argument that's easy to challenge in lieu of addressing the larger issues. But it is fair to observe that you can reach a threshold in a society at which point a gender or minority group can be deprived of basic rights and liberties by virtue of the majority's exercise of its religious beliefs. While it is fair to focus on the tree - that it's not per se coercive for an employer to offer an insurance plan that does not include contraception - when you take off your blinders and start considering the full range of religions and religious beliefs you can easily see how the author's argument supports the very coercion he contends does not exist in this narrow context.

The author concludes again by missing the forest for the trees, arguing that if it's acceptable for employers to discriminate based upon their religious beliefs within the context of their religious operations, it should be equally legitimate for them to discriminate within the context of their secular operations. Needless to say, the case law that supports the former position does not support the latter.

The LOG author poses the question of,
...whether it is within the bounds of acceptable discourse to say that liberals must oppose something that most actual liberals fail to oppose. I of course do think so.
Of course it is within the bounds of acceptable discourse to encourage people to reconsider their beliefs - to suggest that if they believe X, Y, and Z, it should follow that they believe W. But let's just say, there's a huge gulf between the implication that somebody has not thought through their position or is being hypocritical, and making the case that they are in fact being inconsistent or hypocritical. And it is more than fair to point out that in this context, the case was not made. Heck, the author can't even make up his mind whether he's talking about liberals or authoritarians, and it's not clear that he is attaching any greater meaning to either term than "people who disagree with me".

Nothing Says "Sexist" Like Fighting Sexism

John Casey reads Peggy Noonan so you don't have to.

Appeals to Prejudice in the Public Sphere

A number of stories that have captured a great deal of public and media attention have, upon examination, been demonstrated to be predicated on exaggeration or outright fabrication. Shocking? Not really - with the rise of the Internet it sometimes feels like exaggeration is at an all-time high, but it's nothing new.

I read fiction, as well as accounts that are "based on true stories" (a distinction from outright fiction that sometimes seems razor thin), and appreciate them for what they are. But when somebody claims that their story is factual, I think it is reasonable to expect that they are making a sincere effort to convey facts, not the "real truth behind the facts".

I believe that this is important not just out of a slavish devotion to truth, but in recognition of why certain stories resonate, whether or not they are true. When you hear a story that rings true, inspires a public reaction and perhaps even motivates change, but turns out to be false, it's possible to argue that the lie served a greater good. But let's remember, we don't all share the same prejudices. We don't all share the same conception of what serves the greater good. No matter what your perspective, if you sort through lies that gained public traction you won't only find progress. You'll find lies that appealed to the worst aspects of human nature and pulled society (or parts of society) backwards.

At Forbes, Tim Worstall presents a partial defense of Mike Daisey's fabrications about Foxconn and Apple,
Assuming that we know we’re being lied to in search of that emotional reaction to the truthiness then indeed, it is being done with integrity. The problem comes if we are assuming actual truth while the artist is presenting us only with emotional truth. When theatre is presented as journalism say.

I’d go further too: I’m not just OK with, I applaud, laud, attempts to manipulate those emotional reactions in pursuit of some larger truth. It is what the arts of rhetoric and persuasion are all about after all. I’ve not even got a problem with people telling outright lies in order to get people to pay attention to an important point about our world. As long as we then get to the next stage.... Yes, once we’ve been manipulated, once our emotions have been aroused so that we do in fact take an interest in the subject, then we have to put that emotion aside and start to think rationally. We need to turn to journalism, to facts and reality, so that we can decide what, if anything, we are to do about this subject that has now been called to our attention.
It's easier to take a step back from a creative narrative that highlights an important problem and say, "Now let's figure out what the actual facts are and find possible solutions," than it is to step back from something you already believe to be true and start looking, in essence, for facts that contradict your beliefs. (Confirmation bias.) The manner in which the story is presented is important both to how it will be perceived and how wedded people will become to the narrative.

When Daisey attacks sweatshop conditions, underage labor and industrial injury in a Foxconn assembly line, the story falls into a long line of "the horrors of sweatshops" exposés, and people are inspired by those stories to push for change. Many manufacturers have, in the past, improved working conditions in their global factories when it was revealed that they used child labor or had unsafe, unsanitary or cruel working conditions. You can argue that the investigation and introspection that resulted from Daisey's attacks is a good thing, but what was your reaction to the internal investigations that refuted him? A cover-up? And what is the likely impact of the deception upon future reports of poor work conditions? Absent hidden camera video, is it more or less likely that those reports will be taken seriously by the media or inspire significant public outrage - that is, if we endorse misinformation to draw attention to an issue we care about, aren't we risking a "boy who cried wolf" effect?

As for hidden camera video.... Let's give James O'Keefe some credit for finding a few ACORN workers whose reaction to his desire to be a pimp was anything but appropriate, and some genuine management deficits within the organization. But was it in the interest of the greater good, though, that through selective editing and implication, he misled people about the prevalence of the problems and the manner in which he obtained the information? If you're among the right-wing population that bought into the demonization of ACORN, the fact that the organization was taken down by accusations that were largely false is in the greater good of society.

For that matter, what about the misinformation that occurs in politics. When a politician running for national office starts prevaricating about Cadillac-driving welfare queens, or runs a "Willie Horton"-type ad, people react. Is that for the better of society? We get manipulated, our prejudices are triggered, our emotions are aroused, and... how do we then transition to "put[ting] that emotion aside and start[ing] to think rationally"? If we're among the people who matter - the people who are the targets of that type of misinformation campaign - we don't.

The media often does a poor job of explaining the facts, but that's only part of the story. Sometimes when you create a mythology, it takes on a life of its own and is highly resistant to correction based upon the facts. Take, for example, the huge population of Republicans who are wedded to various lies and misrepresentations about President Obama - you can smack them across the nose with a stack of birth certificates and all they'll see is a "cover-up". It doesn't help that some national political leaders who know better help advance the lies or dance around the issue, but even if you look to the efforts of more honorable politicians like John McCain to push back you can see that we're way past the point that the facts matter.

Worstall suggests that a public reaction to misinformation potentially opens the door to a reasoned discussion,
[N]ow that consciousness has been raised let’s have that discussion. The tragedy of Mike Daisey’s monologue is that by allowing his fable to be broadcast as factual he’s obscured, buried even, the very points that we should be discussing.
The difficulty with endorsing lies to raise public consciousness is that you are endorsing an approach that can work against the best interests of society, or of certain groups within a society, and which contributes to public cynicism about media and government. The problem with qualifying that with, "As long as we then get to the next stage" where we have a reasoned discussion of the issues is that you cannot know in advance if such a discussion will occur, with history suggesting that in most cases it either will not occur, will come too late, or will occur at such a low relative intensity that it has no significant impact on continued belief in the misrepresentation.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

When Will Israel Attack Iran

The question keeps being asked, but I think the answer remains pretty much the same: Israel is not going to attack Iran. If it were going to do so, we would be having the same sort of after-the-fact discussion we had when Israel bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor back in 1981, or Syria's under-construction reactor in 2007. Instead we are seeing an odd form of lobbying and advocacy - to the effect of, "We're going to bomb Iran soon, perhaps within weeks or even days, but we'll refrain from bombing Iran if you (the U.S.) promise to do the job for us at a fixed point in time in the future."

Let's also recall that we've been warned that Iran is only a few years away from developing nuclear weapons for roughly twenty years - by the same guy who's presently pressing for war. Let's also remember that an attack means at best a delay of two, three, five years before we're either back to war or confronting a nuclear-armed Iran. That is, assuming everything goes perfectly, the day after we successfully obliterate Iran's entire nuclear weapons program it will remain accurate to say that Iran could have nuclear weapons in two or three years. And things won't go perfectly.

So far, President Obama appears to have outmaneuvered Netanyahu, imposing sanctions that (like most sanctions) are probably counter-productive but make it look like the west is "doing something", engineering a probable new round of negotiations with Iran with a possibility of weapons inspections, giving Israel some new bunker-busters (again) that it can use should it decide to bomb Iran (and work out the logistics of getting its jets there and back - easier said than done), and made the Republican candidates' demagoguery sound pretty childish. (Unilateral sanctions, anyone?) Perhaps, though, it's more accurate to say that Obama has outmaneuvered the voices in the Republican Party and his own that are pushing for yet another war, with Netanyahu being more of the spokesperson for that mindset than the driving force behind the "war now" crowd.

Pat Buchanan cynically imagines that an October showdown or war with Iran that "will mean the nation rallies around [President Obama] and he wins a second term". I think it's pretty obvious that's not either how the President sees things, nor is it consistent with reality. Again, if we were talking Syria in 2007 or Iraq in 1981, this would be a done deal. We're talking instead about a nation that could cause real problems for the U.S. in its continuing missions in the Middle East, and could cause problems for Israel around the globe. The last thing the President needs is for gas prices to spike and the economy to tank, right before an election, even if he could thump his chest and say "We're at war." Any showdown short of war will look pretty much like the status quo.

Two big issues that don't seem to get enough attention in the coverage of the push for war are what the war would look like, and what would be the likely result or benefit. If we assume that Iran's nuclear program could be mostly eliminated exclusively through a sustained bombing campaign, I suspect that we would be hitting enough nuclear and nuclear-related sites in civilian centers that the pictures of collateral damage coming out of Iran would be highly inflammatory and harmful to U.S. interests. A land war? Some may want it, but given recent history I don't think that there's a high probability of that type of multi-trillion dollar war of choice. I've heard a number of accounts suggesting that there is strong opposition to an attack on Iran from within the U.S. military - and I can't say I find that surprising. National security writer Thomas Ricks shares his perspective,
A nuclear Iran is not good, and not preferable, but it is not the end of the world. To bomb makes little sense and may be the policy equivalent of committing suicide out of the fear of death.
Ricks compares containment to what we face with Pakistan and North Korea, but I suspect that it would actually be easier to contain Iran, as it's my impression that Iran's goal is to be at the point that it can assemble and test a nuclear weapon at any time it chooses, but that it does not actually intend to do so (for religious and practical reasons) unless its hand is forced. Before Iran is a meaningful threat to the region it not only needs to successfully test a nuclear device, it needs to have a viable means of delivering that device into another nation's territory. Iran knows that there's a substantial chance that a successful nuclear test will trigger an immediate war with the U.S., whereas being the turn of a key away from producing a weapon would allow it to demonstrate a nuclear deterrent should a foreign nation start to mobilize for attack.

Tom Engelhardt sees the President's position as unduly hawkish,
The president had offered a new definition of “aggression” against this country and a new war doctrine to go with it. He would, he insisted, take the U.S. to war not to stop another nation from attacking us or even threatening to do so, but simply to stop it from building a nuclear weapon - and he would act even if that country were incapable of targeting the United States. That should have been news.
But it's not news, because the same thing has been implied for the past twenty years. Also, I expect that the U.S. would (continue to) justify its actions under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and would push hard for UN approval of any military action. Beyond that, rhetoric about nations that are "our enemies" has been at times over-the-top pretty much since the time we started to have Presidents.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

If You Think Google Takes Advantage Of You....

You can always block Googlebot from your site.
In a move aimed at helping newspapers generate new revenue from struggling online operations, the German government intends to require search engines and other Internet companies to pay publishers whose content they highlight....

The proposal was cheered by German publishers, who complain that Internet companies like Google have profited hugely from their content, while generating only scraps of digital revenue.

“In the digital age, such a right is essential to protect the joint efforts of journalists and publishers,” the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers said, adding that it was “an essential measure for the maintenance of an independent, privately financed news media.”
The proposed policy is directed at all search engines and aggregator sites, not just Google, but it's really the bottom line of the big players that has some publisher openly salivating.

It's a fair response that a copyright holder shouldn't have to insert code into its content saying, "Please don't index this," but only to a point. If the companies at issue weren't already profiting from the traffic generated by Google, whether in money or prestige, they are all sophisticated enough to exclude their content from Google's sites and simply do without the web traffic.

Ross Douthat's Fantasy Primary

Ross Douthat defends the fact that Santorum is still afloat in the Republican primaries,
Even the elevation of Rick Santorum as the last not-Romney standing testifies to the Republican electorate’s relative sobriety. For all his follies and failings, Santorum is a more plausible presidential candidate than most of this season’s alternatives — more experienced than Cain and Bachmann, more substantive and eloquent than Perry, more principled than Gingrich.
Douthat's damning of Santorum with faint praise reminds me of the old joke, "In heaven, the food is French, the police are British, the engineers are German, the lovers are Italian...." Douthat would be making pretty much the same claim no matter who else was left in the race (except Gingrich). Douthat also reveals his dream candidates, purporting that other than Jeb Bush, whose disastrously incompetent brother "tarnished [his] (last) name", the only reason they're not running is that "the current presidential campaign arrived too soon for them to be entirely seasoned."
If the current race pitted Jeb Bush against, say, Mike Huckabee and Mitch Daniels, nobody would be talking about how the party has gone off the rails.
Why not? To borrow from Douthat's style book, Huckabee has all of the economic sense of Herman Cain, and all of the aptitude for foreign policy of Michelle Bachmann. Mitch Daniels seems to inspire all of the enthusiasm of Jon Huntsman - Douthat lectures, "Republican voters probably should have given Jon Huntsman more consideration", but fails to explore why they did not. Jeb Bush has what... two terms as governor in Florida in which he didn't mess anything up too badly and the family name? What's not to love.
If it were being held two years hence, and featured Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, the excitement on the Republican side would rival what the Democrats enjoyed in 2008. But those four, and others like them, decided they weren’t ready yet.
Although I understand why Douthat wants to fetishize those four as wonderful up-and-coming leaders, fantasy often collides with reality in a most unpleasant fashion. Rick Perry was a great presidential candidate, the guy who was going to clear the field of the weaklings, until he actually started a campaign:
As The New York Times's Ross Douthat said when Perry first entered the race, quoting a Texas competitor, "Running against Rick Perry is like running against God."
I suspect Douthat in part wants to build a Frankenstein candidate - Christie's bombast, Jindal's wonkishness, Paul Ryan's ability to spout absolute nonsense and be taken seriously, and Marc Rubio's assumed charisma. But had they run, I would not be half surprised if Douthat were writing the very same editorial, but damning Santorum with somewhat modified faint praise, something along the lines of, "For all his follies and failings, Santorum is a more plausible presidential candidate than most of this season’s alternatives — more experienced than Christie and Rubio, more substantive and eloquent than Jindal, more principled than Ryan."

All You Need to be Rich....

Is to be poor. A bit simplistic, perhaps?
Economists have long known about “Dutch disease,” which happens when a country becomes so dependent on exporting natural resources that its currency soars in value and, as a result, its domestic manufacturing gets crushed as cheap imports flood in and exports become too expensive. What the PISA team is revealing is a related disease: societies that get addicted to their natural resources seem to develop parents and young people who lose some of the instincts, habits and incentives for doing homework and honing skills....

Or as my Indian-American friend K. R. Sridhar, the founder of the Silicon Valley fuel-cell company Bloom Energy, likes to say, “When you don’t have resources, you become resourceful.”

That’s why the foreign countries with the most companies listed on the Nasdaq are Israel, China/Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, South Korea and Singapore — none of which can live off natural resources.
Wouldn't it be interesting if poor nations, instead of being poor, were... rich? And yet for some reason they're not.

It's pretty amazing to me that Friedman can hear somebody explain that countries like "Canada, Australia and Norway, also countries with high levels of natural resources, still score well on PISA, in large part... because all three countries have established deliberate policies of saving and investing these resource rents, and not just consuming them", and have that be his takeaway. If you look at nations hit by the resource curse, how often do you find a nation where everybody has a pretty good standard of living? How often do you find, on the other hand, a country with weak institutions of government, kleptocratic leadership, and a population that for the most part lives in conditions somewhere between dismal and squalid?

As is his wont, Friedman also disregards the inequality of opportunity in nations like India and China, the extent to which large numbers of people in those countries have been treated, in effect, as natural resources - cheap labor for international companies. He seems to have retreated into his fantasy world in which any population, no matter how poorly governed, impoverished, downtrodden and oppressed, could transform itself into another Singapore within the space of a few years.
What the PISA team is revealing is a related disease: societies that get addicted to their natural resources seem to develop parents and young people who lose some of the instincts, habits and incentives for doing homework and honing skills.
Say what? Let's turn to the list of nations Friedman singles out as being resource-rich but faring badly on PISA: Qatar, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran and Syria. Exactly when was it that those nations had the emphasis on education - the "instincts, habits and incentives for doing homework and honing skills" - that Friedman would have us believe that they "lost" when they discovered their natural resources? Perhaps this reflects the fantasy thinking that led Friedman to believe that Iraq could be turned into a progressive democracy within a few years of a military invasion - the extent to which a nation's culture, history, governance, and the population's present education level factor into its chances of flourishing and producing a population of highly educated, innovative citizens.

Invest in the Future... But Not with Money?

Is Thomas Friedman advocating higher taxes?
In these difficult economic times, it is tempting to buttress our own standards of living today by incurring even greater financial liabilities for the future. To be sure, there is a role for stimulus in a prolonged recession, but “the only sustainable way is to grow our way out by giving more people the knowledge and skills to compete, collaborate and connect in a way that drives our countries forward,” argues Schleicher.

In sum, says Schleicher, “knowledge and skills have become the global currency of 21st-century economies, but there is no central bank that prints this currency. Everyone has to decide on their own how much they will print.” Sure, it’s great to have oil, gas and diamonds; they can buy jobs. But they’ll weaken your society in the long run unless they’re used to build schools and a culture of lifelong learning.
If he's advocating a tax increase on those who can afford it (i.e., people like Thomas Friedman) so that we can build and support better and more affordable schools and colleges, great. Perhaps he can devote his next column to explaining why he should pay more taxes and how much his tax increase should be.

But if he's simply serving up a standard dish of platitudes - we need to invest in the future, but right now we need to balance our budgets and tighten our belts - he reduces his entire column to a waste of time.
“The thing that will keep you moving forward,” says Schleicher, is always “what you bring to the table yourself.”
There you go, Mr. Friedman - bring it on.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Media Misogyny and Rush Limbaugh

Kirsten Powers, Democratic news analyst for Fox News and former Clinton Administration staffer, complains, Rush Limbaugh Isn’t the Only Media Misogynist. She is, in effect, accusing the political left of hypocrisy for attacking Rush Limbaugh's decades of undisguised misogyny, because she can identify a handful of ostensibly liberal commentators and comedians who hold or have expressed misogynistic views.
Yes, it’s true. Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Bill Maher, Matt Taibbi, and Ed Schultz have been waging it for years with their misogynist outbursts. There have been boycotts by people on the left who are outraged that these guys still have jobs. Oh, wait. Sorry, that never happened.
I think Powers' heart is in the right place. That is, I think it's appropriate to bring attention to sexist comments and beliefs by powerful media figures, and to hold them to account for their statements. But she picks an odd set of examples, both in terms of substance and degree, and rather than focusing on the underlying issue - the continued acceptance of a certain level of misogyny by the nation's media and population at large - she implies that the worse problem is hypocrisy by those who are outraged by Limbaugh but either didn't know about or didn't express similar outrage in relation to the ostensibly left-wing figures she lists.

My position on Limbaugh is pretty simple: If people wanted to be outraged by his sexism, race-baiting and inflammatory banter, they have decades of examples to choose from. The difference between then and now is not that Limbaugh has suddenly made a statement that's materially different from his more outrageous statements of past years. The difference is that he built himself a juggernaut, and advertisers have to include the potential for his outrage - wild accusations that they're trying to silence him and are tools of the evil political left - in their calculus of whether or not they should pay the high cost of advertising on his show. One or two advertisers quit over this type of statement, they're open to attack. But there's safety in numbers - so once a certain tipping point was reached other advertisers felt comfortable joining in the "boycott".

Limbaugh's future as a radio figure is similarly based upon economics. If he can sustain a sufficient base of listeners and advertisers, his show will go on. If not, he'll probably be off somewhere playing cards with Glenn Beck, reminiscing about the good old days when demagoguery, race-baiting and misogyny were considered to be wholesome American values.

Some of Powers' examples of sexist statements by (ostensibly) liberal commentators are unquestionably sexist. Some are simply offensive, with no sexual component. Some should really have been omitted from her essay, or miss the actual issue.1 But even with her most outrageous example of a left-leaning media figure who holds misogynistic views, Bill Maher, she misses the point. She lists off some of the outrageous things he has said about women, then complains,
Liberals—you know, the people who say they “fight for women”—comprise Maher’s audience, and a parade of high-profile liberals make up his guest list. Yet have any of them confronted him? Nope. That was left to Ann Coulter, who actually called Maher a misogynist to his face, an opportunity that feminist icon Gloria Steinem failed to take when she appeared on his show in 2011.
Okay... let's give credit where credit is due to the right-wing demagogue and misogynistic Ann "If we took away women's right to vote, we'd never have to worry about another Democrat president" Coulter for calling her friend a misogynist during the course of her zillionth appearance on one of the shows he hosts. Who backed her up? The Nation's Christopher Hayes. The audience seemed to enjoy the exchange, and did nothing to suggest displeasure at the criticism of Maher.

If you want excuses not to watch Maher's show, he gives you plenty. He is contemptuous of religion, he frequently makes anti-Muslim statements, he advocates the use of illegal drugs, he holds positions on medicine that would be downright dangerous if followed by society at large, he often plays softball with guests who make absurd statements and panders to those who share his more eccentric views, and of course he's at times disparaging to women. I'm sure I missed a few dozen other reasons not to watch Maher's show. (If you are intellectually dishonest for paying attention to a political commentator who holds a view you find offensive, you may as well throw out your TV and radio.)

Most people in Maher's audience don't watch his show because they agree with him on those issues, they watch Maher in spite of his positions. If he were to make those positions the centerpiece of his show, he would soon be off the air. Limbaugh, on the other hand, is giving his audience exactly what it wants. Why is Limbaugh already back to making misogynistic comments on his show? Because if tones things down, even to the level of Maher, he's over.

It should also be recalled that many of the comments that Powers suggests were excused by the poltical left, in fact, triggered significant outrage and at times significant consequence for the speaker.

Maher stands as a great example of my earlier point. After years of making outrageous statements on a show called "Politically Incorrect", and providing a platform to misogynistic guests like Ann Coulter,2 Maher made a comment about suicide bombers that caught the nation's eye, and created the type of snowball effect - lost sponsors, lost network affiliates - that presently threatens Limbaugh. So his network fired him. Boycotts? There's no indication that any of Limbaugh's advertisers felt any economic pressure, save perhaps from the high cost of advertising on his show, or that the network affiliates who dropped the show were worried about their revenues as opposed to filling the same airtime with cheaper content.

So yes, recognize misogyny where you find it. Criticize it without double standards - or false parallels. But don't forget that at the end of the day, as far as media companies and their advertisers are concerned, it's all about the money. Right now, unfortunately, that means that change almost always needs to come from the top, down.
1. By way of a small example, Powers finds it inherently sexist that Matt Taibbi called Michelle Bachmann "batshit crazy". But Taibbi has used the same epithet against Rand Paul.

2. Guess which guest on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrectsaid,
I think [women] should be armed but should not [be allowed to] vote. No, they all have to give up their vote, not just, you know, the lady clapping and me. The problem with women voting -- and your Communists will back me up on this -- is that, you know, women have no capacity to understand how money is earned. They have a lot of ideas on how to spend it. And when they take these polls, it's always more money on education, more money on child care, more money on day care.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The State of the Modern Media

From a CNN column on potentially attacking Iran,
Author George Santayana famously said, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Somehow I doubt we will hear that line of reasoning brought up by Romney, Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum when they talk about what the United States should do about Israel and Iran.

We also won't hear how Iran is not in violation of international law or that U.S. presidents don't control gas prices.

All we'll hear is that this president is weak and that we need to bomb the hell out of Iran.

And maybe that's true, I don't know.
Then, dare I ask, why is he writing about the issue?
I do know it is hard for voters to separate the wheat from the chaff, because before Obama even voices his position on an issue, his opponents are prepared with a rebuttal.
Not a rebuttal - demagoguery, often predicated upon misrepresentation or outright falsehood, is not a rebuttal. But alas, the author would have to be somewhat familiar with the issues to know that - and he admits that he knows nothing about the issues.

A lot of people attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff by tuning in to news sources, such as CNN. It seems fair to say that news sources such as CNN should do better than shrug and, in effect, tell people that they need to find the answers somewhere else.
That's no way to hold a healthy national discussion on something that's inconsequential, let alone foreign policy.
Agreed, but this column reflects why it is possible to hold a national discussion in this manner. Given the opportunity to separate the wheat from the chaff, the author chose not to do any investigation, and thus the column is nothing but a criticism of form without any helpful information of substance. If "in our sound-bite driven culture, it is an effective way to win an election" it's in no small part because lazy media figures don't require that candidates substantiate their sound bites.

In fairness the author does note that Mitt Romney "essentially lied" when he said "(Obama) failed to communicate that military options are on the table and in fact in our hand, and that it's unacceptable to America for Iran to have a nuclear weapon," but that's pretty tepid given the nature of the rhetoric and pervasiveness of the mendacity (or in some cases, appalling ignorance, or both) of leading candidates such as Romney, Gingrich and Santorum. Besides, there's no "essentially" about it.

Why qualify the assertion with "essentially" - Romney either lied or he didn't. I expect Romney's response would be that... he didn't believe Obama so that frees him to argue that, whatever the President's words, they failed to convey the necessary conviction that he would act." And I expect that even if the media attempted to challenge Romney on his statement, which they probably won't, they'll allow his mealy-mouthed rationalization of his mendacity to stand.

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Early 1960's as a Victorian Era

David Brooks offers a mostly interesting book review on habits and being a "good person", but I question the manner in which he romanticizes 19th Century values. I've touched on this before in relation to his praise of the early 1960's as a pinnacle of American values, somehow divorced both from what came before and what came after.
In the 19th century, there was a hydraulic model of how to be a good person. There are all these torrents of passion flowing through you. Your job, as captain of your soul, is to erect dams to keep these passions in check. Your job is to just say no to sloth, lust, greed, drug use and the other sins.

Sermons could really help. They could help you identify sin. Preachers could exhort you to exercise the willpower you need to ward off temptation.

These days that model is out of fashion.
Having spent much of my childhood in a town that was once a temperance community, I heard jokes that dated back to that era:
The temperance minister, preaching to his flock, thundered, "There are more than a hundred taverns and bars in this community and I haven't been to one of them!"

A voice from the back of the crowd asked, "Which one is that?"
The notion that the Victorian era was one of great manners and controlled behavior is nice, but if Brooks remains concerned that the wealthy and the working masses don't share the same values and interests, let's just say that modern society has nothing on the Victorians. Brooks also confuses a strong sense of public appearance among the wealthier Victorians with some of the behavior that went on behind closed doors. Brooks is simply correct when he suggests that Victorians had more willpower, although he would be correct to say instead that the boundaries of propriety have shifted such that behaviors that the Victorians kept secret are part of our open culture. It's also fair to say that certain behaviors that were tolerated or accepted in the Victorian era would not be acceptable today, particularly in relation to domestic violence and sexual impropriety, and that those changes have benefited our society and most notably the women in our society. As they say, the good old days weren't always good.

As the Victorians understood (and the folks at Alcoholics Anonymous understand), if you want to change your life, don’t just look for a clever trigger. Commit to some larger global belief.
I think Brooks also misunderstands 12-step programs. While those programs are about changing habits over the long-term, they provide a very important structure over the short-term. And in that regard, they are more like the mundane examples of habit-changing that Brooks previously mentioned,
You can change your own personal habits. If you leave running shorts on the floor at night, that’ll be a cue to go run in the morning. Don’t try to ignore your afternoon snack craving. Every time you feel the cue for a snack, insert another routine. Take a walk.
If you crave your substance of choice, call your sponsor. If you crave your substance of choice, find a meeting. If you crave your substance of choice, reach out to other members of the program.... Unless by "larger global belief" Brooks means "sobriety", I don't see that AA is (or that the Victorians are) as special and unique as Brooks implies. (Yes, a certain percentage of 12-step members become the de facto leaders of the group or the larger 12-step community, but most 12-step members do not demonstrate that type of commitment. The third step belief in a higher power, "God as you understand him," is quite a departure from the religiosity Brooks associations with the eras he is most inclined to romanticize.)

Saving Detroit by Siphoning Money From the Suburbs

That appears to be the best idea David Firestone could produce:
The solution may be in the suburbs that have siphoned off Detroit’s money and jobs and talent for decades. A true emergency manager, as many people here have suggested, would have the power to begin merging the tax base of the city with that of suburban counties in hopes of saving the region. Bailouts can come in many different forms.
Not going to happen. The suggestion betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of both the political power structure of the state and how the suggestion that Wayne County's more successful cities, let alone cities in neighboring counties, would respond to the idea that they should either cut local services so as to send money to Detroit without a tax increase, or increase their taxes to send money to Detroit without cutting local services. The author is apparently also unfamiliar with the Headlee amendment. Also, if you drive through some of the suburbs that he's talking about, you'll see the effects of Michigan's extraordinarily long recession. They may be doing better than Detroit, but they're certainly not rolling in money as the author implies.

Nor is it fair or particularly accurate to say that the suburbs "have siphoned off Detroit’s money and jobs and talent". Detroit is not the only former factory town that is suffering, nor the only one that has lost most or all of its auto plants. There used to be, for example, both a city called Pontiac and a car brand called Pontiac. The city is under emergency fiscal management and the car brand is gone. And need I mention Flint? The factories didn't migrate to Bloomfield Hills or Grosse Point. They went to "right to work" states, then to Mexico, and now to the world.

This type of editorial also raises a significant question: Why should we invest ourselves in the idea that a once great city must remain a great city, and not be permitted to shrink or even die? If you go to Detroit, it doesn't take long to recognize the sheer scale of the task of transforming it into a modern, vibrant city - and real life isn't "Field of Dreams". Even if you somehow get the vast investment necessary to clear out the old and bring in the new, what does Detroit have to offer that will entice businesses to locate in Detroit, or even the suburbs, as opposed to one of the nation's more successful cities? There are plenty of crumbling small towns that were once wealthy, but the industries that supported them died or changed, or the need for their services in that location became unnecessary due to changes in industry and infrastructure.

The author's explanation for why we cannot count on business to rebuilt Detroit is that "it will take too long".
There are glimmers of hope on the city’s southwest side, where newcomers from Mexico and other countries have revived several avenues with restaurants, groceries and other stores. “More diversity, more immigrants — that’s the key for the future,” said Jordi Carbonell, born in Barcelona, who runs Café con Leche, a coffeehouse crowded with young patrons and laptops.

But rebuilding the city with coffee cups will take too long, and Detroit is running out of time.
More accurately, it won't work. A city needs patrons for its restaurants and coffee shops and, without that, building more merely means that the same number of consumer dollars will be divided among a greater number of businesses. Why are we pretending that a surtax on neighboring cities will have a significant impact either on Detroit's chronic condition, or that it will have any significant effect on where businesses choose to open new offices or factories? It won't - but it could make the suburbs less attractive to businesses considering a Michigan location and thereby compound the problem.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

A Well-Timed Interruption

Prompted by a quoted statement by my wife's recently departed grandfather,
I've only made two mistakes in my life, and both of them were voting for George Bush,
Another relative sighed and started to lecture me (not because I presented the quote, but because I was the closest target),
You know, it's amazing how far our nation has gone from following the Constitution.
Fortunately she was pulled away by something on the other side of the room, because you know where that type of statement is heading....

I have a huge disadvantage in trying to discuss that type of statement with its typical proponent because, unlike them, I have actually read the Constitution. Yes, you can find a lot to criticize in any given session of Congress or presidency about how the individual or institution approaches the Constitution but, you know, facts?

I had an uncle complain a while back as part of an anti-union missive that public school teachers are paid too well, using as his chief example a school teacher in his neighborhood who had a new car and explained that he just became a principal and got a big increase in his income. I pointed out that principals are administrators, and thus aren't in the union. "I knew that." (So the relevance of your anecdote to your point was... what?)

It's not necessarily easier to change somebody's mind if they know the facts, if that's what you hope to do, but at least you can have a conversation.

Special Education and Teacher Ratings

From Schools Matter, Confessions of a 'Bad' Teacher.