Friday, November 30, 2007

A busy day

Divide and . . . subdivide?

Much is made these days, rightly, of the extent to which we Americans as a nation, and indeed much of the modern world, have become deeply polarized. Civil discourse is famously lacking, from the halls of Congress to the halls of shopping malls.

The eternal optimists proclaim that the ever-growing influence of the internet will eventually change all that, show us one another, bring us closer together. Such staggering Kumbaya blindness misses the reality that it is the internet that is behind the increased fractioning of opinion.

If you run a radio or television station, or a newspaper, or even a large-circulation magazine, there is a practical limit to how narrow a spectrum of potential listeners or readers you can, literally, afford to aim at. Make that spectrum too narrow and you will not be able to recover your substantial overhead costs by enough (if at all) to make a reasonable profit on your correspondingly substantial investment. Even Time can't be as overly narrow-minded as its owners and editors would prefer.

The internet changes all that. For pennies a day--the bare cost of net access--anyone, anywhere, can, just as I do here, address however many or few folk care to read his or her web pages or blog. If the material is tolerably written, eventually it will pick up some readership. How large that readership may be is usually, within very broad limits, not of concern to the site or blog maker.

(I concede that cable/satellite distribution now makes it economically possible for broadcast material to get pretty slanted, but even the orientation of a joke like Fox "news" is as nothing compared to the leanings of many sites and blogs out there.)

When the focus is tight and narrow, what is happening is what is commonly called "preaching to the choir": folk just telling one another the same few things they all already believe. With the wealth of viewpoints available on the web, from the giants like the Daily Kos or Little Green Footballs down to, well, things like this blog, what increasingly happens is that people read only those viewpoints with which they already agree.

Sure, there is "news" to be had on such sites, but it's invariably news delivered and analyzed from the known and agreed-on point of view. The process is called "positive feedback"; it necessarily ends with no one ever really getting exposed to a viewpoint other than the narrow one they hold. So of course everyone else's viewpoint ends up, even without overt effort, as demonized. And, sad to say, more or less rightly so. When people are listening only to their own echos, their ideas get goofier and goofier. Any notion, any datum, that doesn't fit into their prescribed worldview is automatically false and "enemy propaganda"; they get shriller and shriller, and more and more become caricatures. So the left finds the right to be a shrill caricature, just as the right finds the left a shrill caricature: and they're both correct.

Worse: those with the wit and fortitude to want to see differing viewpoints have difficulty--to put it mildly--finding sane expositions. Any right-winger seeking to explore left-wing thought finds innumerable references to "wingnuts", while the other way round it's "moonbats". You can find more elevated discourse than that on a playground.

That is not to say that there are no sane political web sites at all: it is to say that they are few and hard to find. And even the calmer ones, still tend very much to preach to the choir. The interested citizen has to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince. And there is simply no substitute for homework. I don't suggest that everyone has to read three blogs a day of opposite-side persuasion; but it is needful to occasionally seek out some idea of what the less zany of one's opposites are saying and thinking. Who knows? You might even find an idea you agree with.

Found in the trawl net

A peek into the Crystal Ball

Larry Sabato, whose opining is always worth paying attention to, has a most interesting essay up on the Rasmussen Reports site. Here's just a taste:

"[T]he 'liberal Democratic media' never hesitate to embrace a certain type of Republican--the unorthodox, underdog GOP candidate who is friendly and accessible to reporters. Every part of the description is important. Journalists like to see the candidate tilting at a few windmills; they want to know he's fighting against the odds; and most of all, they want to find a smiling, welcoming politician that gives them almost unlimited face time that is not filtered by campaign staffers. . . . The consequence has been a series of puff pieces [about Mike Huckabee] that can make one blush. No doubt, Huckabee would produce a fascinating fall campaign, were he the nominee, and he is probably going to get a decent start by doing reasonably well in the low-turnout Iowa caucuses. However, what the press doesn't stress to Republicans are Huckabee's drawbacks: virtually no foreign policy experience--he'll make Hillary Clinton's time as first lady look like the equivalent of serving as secretary of state; alienation of the anti-tax wing of the GOP (opposition to taxes is one of the few issues that unites Republicans these days), and his status as a Baptist minister and Southern state chief executive with strong evangelical support (reminiscent of George W. Bush in a year when even Republicans want somebody very different). Oh well, that's not really the press's role. His opponents will have to take up where the mainstream media leave off."

What crime?

At Newsweek, Christopher Dickey points out another fascinating aspect to the BS about illegals by pointing out that what the safest big cities in the United States have in common is . . . immigrants. It's not just that cities with large immigrant pools are safe: it's that safety seems to track, at least roughly, with the percentage size of that pool. Dickey quotes Robert J. Sampson, chairman of the sociology department at Harvard University: "I would say, if you want to be safe, move to an immigrant city."

Granted, "immigrants" does not equate directly to illegals. But it is a reasonable proposition that the percentage of illegals in a given city, while obviously uncountable, will be in fair proportion to the overall fraction of immigrants.

A recent study showed that 75 percent of Americans think "more immigrants cause higher crime rates." That is scarcely surprising: right-wing sources are constantly blasting out wildly misleading numbers about the issue, and the mainstream media--who seem all to have been born to mothers who were frightened by a number when pregnant--have let this garbage slide. A fairly recent study entitled "The Myth of Immigrant Criminality and the Paradox of Assimilation: Incarceration Rates among Native and Foreign-Born Men", by Rubén G. Rumbaut, Ph.D. and Walter A. Ewing, Ph.D., gives the facts--or what I suppose we are now obliged to call the "true facts". Here are a few:
  • Even as the undocumented population has doubled to 12 million since 1994, the violent crime rate in the United States has declined 34.2 percent and the property crime rate has fallen 26.4 percent.

  • Among men age 18-39 (who constitute the vast majority of the prison population), the 3.5 percent incarceration rate of the native-born in 2000 was 5 times higher than the 0.7 percent incarceration rate of the foreign-born.

  • The foreign-born incarceration rate in 2000 was nearly two-and-a-half times less than the 1.7 percent rate for native-born non-Hispanic white men and almost 17 times less than the 11.6 percent rate for native-born black men.

  • Foreign-born Mexicans had an incarceration rate of only 0.7 percent in 2000--more than 8 times lower than the 5.9 percent rate of native-born males of Mexican descent. Foreign-born Salvadoran and Guatemalan men had an incarceration rate of 0.5 percent, compared to 3.0 percent of native-born males of Salvadoran and Guatemalan descent.

  • The risk of incarceration is higher for the children of immigrants, as well as for immigrants themselves the longer they have resided in the United States. But even so, immigrants who had resided in the United States for 16+ years were far less likely to be incarcerated than their native-born counterparts.
While phrases like "X times less" set my teeth on edge, the significance of these data (which are scarcely unique--do your homework) cannot be missed. In fact, I did my own homework. Here are data lifted direct from an official bulletin, Bureau of Justice Statistics: Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2006:

Prisoners under the jurisdiction of State or Federal correctional authorities
U.S. total 1,556,518
Federal 191,080
State 1,365,438

Number of noncitizens held in State or Federal prisons
U.S. total 91,426 = 5.9% of total above
Federal 33,701 = 17.6% "
State 57,725 = 4.2% "
I have no idea how many of those non-citizens might be in custody solely owing to their status as non-citizens, but even assuming the ridiculous figure of zero, the percentage of prisoners in our jails is under 6% foreign-born. If "foreign-born" persons in the U.S. total 17.7 million, that's an even rate with citizens--but illegals alone are estimated at anything from 12 to 20 million.

The bottom line is simple: illegals are, saving the very fact of their being in the U.S., no more likely, and probably less likely, to be criminals than are citizens. But I have the feeling that very few of those trumpeting the lies are capable of doing simple long division. In short, the "crime" here is that liars like, well, like all the current Republican candidates for president are allowed to get away with vicious slanders that are so wildly and obviously counter to simple, well-documented facts.

Well, he's right in at least one instance

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas thinks judges should be seen and not heard. Some should not even be seen.

Sometimes your best friends will tell you

Even Time knows better: " The Bush Administration would like us to believe we picked up a new ally in the war on terrorism [in tribal leaders] . . . . Before Bush puts on a burnoose and starts thinking he's Lawrence of Arabia, he needs to understand that Anbar's tribes came over to our side because they figured out that the only thing that stands between them and getting crushed by the Shi'a is our troops. They don't really care about our war on terrorism."

The hissy fits begin

The first Republican-campaign negative ad hits the airwaves. "Negative ads are certainly possible in the Democratic contest as well. But strategists say they are not surprised to see them first in the Republican race, where front-runners Romney and Giuliani have left a long evidentiary trail of their changed positions on key issues.

"'It's a target-rich environment for negative ads', said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire." I like that phrase: a target-rich environment.

Real reporting

Seattle Times reporter Nicole Brodeur shatters some fond bleeding-heart ideas by taking the wildly unjournalistic step of actually going to look at something with her own two eyes--in this case, several homeless encampments scattered around Seattle:
I went into this with an eye to the plight of the homeless. I've come out knowing that many of them are out there because they choose to be.

Franklin-Williams, 39, told me her mother lives in Auburn, and that she owns a home in Rainier Beach. But she's also a crack addict who wants to use in peace. Shelters don't allow drugs. "My husband died a couple years ago and I went off the deep end," she explained. "I should really call my mom. But it's a pride thing, you know?" I didn't know. A pride thing, to live beside the freeway?

Here's Kenneth Leach, who lives in a tent above Elliott Avenue: "I don't function well in a controlled environment." Leach, 46, showed me his Bank of America debit card while beside him in his tent, a friend read a book. Two men with the ability to read, speak, manage money — the currency of a functional life. But no. Leach has been out here for 15 years.

I accept that some people choose this life, but I don't think our tax money should go to cleaning up after them.

It's not hopeless . . .

A New York Times report on Nigeria shows that an Islamic nation living under Shariah (Islamic law) does not have to be the sort of loony bin Sudan is.

Grow your greens

The Science Daily headline says it all: "European Union Forests Expanding, Absorbing Carbon At Surprisingly High Rate"; the details are worth reading, but here's the highlight: between 1990 and 2005, expansion of above-ground tree vegetation in the 27 EU countries annually absorbed an additional 126 teragrams (126 million tonnes) of carbon -- equal to 11% of the region's emissions.

But . . .

While The New York Times reports a study showing "The United States could shave as much as 28 percent off the amount of greenhouse gases it emits at fairly modest cost and with only small technology innovations," the study's authors further note that "that is unlikely to happen under present circumstances [because] there is a lot of inertia, and a lot of barriers.” Jolly good.

No, Barack Obama does not walk on water

Paul Krugman points out, um, pointedly that Obama's health plan (my word here, not his) sucks, and also that by ranting about a Social Security "crisis" Obama is, this time in Krugman's very words, "echoing right-wing talking points." Closing your eyes and wishing very, very hard on the first star does not a viable candidate nor a good president make.

Last but far from least

The Giuliani quasi-scandal about hiding the costs of security for his tomcatting trips is starting to get a little momentum (and has acquired the nickname Shtupgate). But it may not be Rudy boy's worst nightmare; that may be his firm's business with the state of Qatar, commonly characterized as a haven for al-Qaida. Joe Conason at Salon has kicked off that one, and others are noting it.

Meanwhile, back at Shtupgate, the bizarrely billed Giuliani security numbers are now being quoted in the range of $400,000, over ten times the first guess. And the tale continues to unfold curiously. Besides hiding the true costs of Rudy's popping out of town to visit his mistress, it now develops that there are, shall we say, extras:
[I]t looks like some of the travel-security charges billed to strange agencies in those years were for his wife Donna Hanover's trips to California, while Giuliani's affair with Nathan was progressing. And on Thursday ABC News revealed that Judi Nathan got security protection and police department drivers while she was the mayor's girlfriend, when such services were also being provided to Hanover and their two children, now estranged from the ex-mayor. "She used the P.D. as her personal taxi service," a former city official who worked for Giuliani told ABC News.
And back at Rudy's claim that scattering his security costs around numerous obscure agencies was nothing special, "security charges for other Giuliani city business seem to have been accounted for the right way. City comptroller William C. Thompson told the New York Times his predecessor asked questions about the billing practices and never got answers. 'It's definitely not the preferred way that one would like to see business conducted,' Thompson said. Michael Bloomberg's administration has abided by routine accounting practices for mayoral security, according to the Times."

It will be interesting and then some to see if these stories develop legs. If not, we have a brand-new Mr. Teflon.

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