Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Sunday sundae

There's the signpost up ahead

The Washington Post's syndicated David Broder opines that "If the Republican Party really wanted to hold on to the White House in 2009, it's pretty clear what it would do. It would grit its teeth, swallow its doubts and nominate a ticket of John McCain for president and Mike Huckabee for vice president". He bases that opinion on his perception that "McCain and Huckabee have been notable for their clarity, character and, yes, simple humanity. . . . it's obvious that they are the pair who have earned the widest respect among the eight Republican candidates themselves."

That is a dangerous attitude. I think it is true that of the Republican candidates McCain and Huckabee are the most--probably the only--reasonably honest (as politicians go) and certainly well-meaning lads in the muster; and each is personable as well. But in an era where shadow trumps substance, to keep a clear head one needs to look at just what good intentions these men are being open and honest about, and to remember the famous terminus of a road paved with good intentions.

When one gets down to specifics of beliefs and policies, and can manage to avoid being seduced by smiles and clever quips, what emerges with glaring obviousness is that neither of these two men is remotely like anything a sane American would want for a president.

Not that neither is utterly without reasonable ideas: McCain is at least not one of the 2001-the-movie apes, jumping up and down waving a club and howling, with regard to immigration; and Huckabee's idea of junking all federal revenue for a revenue-neutral sales tax is actually a pretty good one in principle (one needs to examine the details, which are reportedly copious, to see if it has enough properly thought-out exemptions to avoid being that curse-word of the left, regressive). But, as the old saw rightly has it, even a stopped clock has the right time twice a day. The rest of their ideas are not, um, sound.

McCain, possibly owing to his kindly-old-uncle demeanor, has hypnotized a lot of middle-of-the-road voters into thinking he is, like them, well, middle of the road. He is not: he is far over in the right lanes. Huckabee is less deceptive: though he has his bright spots, he is still way over there (as his own web site makes clear).

The point here, I suppose, is that we do not generally select our dentist or our auto mechanic or our grocer based solely or mainly on their personal charm: we want above all someone who knows their job and can do it well. Charm is purely an extra. So it should be with our president (or any elected official). One would think this too obvious and banal to need stating, but the polls clearly show us that it is not.

Sidebar note: David Broder's pointless maunderings have, for years, been embarrassing to the Post, Mr. Broder, and the American public. They're not usually objectionable, but they are invariably empty and usually wrongheaded. If the Post would retire him, they would be doing all three of those parties a favor.

Anyway, what's a billion or two among friends?

Apparently the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) is not going to fly--not now, possibly never. At a cost of $1.5 billion or so, the AMS is one of the most expensive scientific experiments ever constructed. It is also, and correspondingly, one of the most important: its significance for physics, astronomy, and their offspring cosmology can scarcely be exaggerated. We could get a lot closer to some crucial basic understandings of what the universe is made of and how it's put together, which is both tremendously exciting and--for the "fiscally prudent" in the crowd--inevitably going to lead to major and useful new technology (as all basic research does).

"The credibility of the United States is at stake here, because NASA made a commitment to bring Columbus and AMS to the space station," said Samuel C.C. Ting, the MIT Nobel laureate who conceived the project in 1994 and drew in collaborators from 60 institutes in 16 nations to build and fund it. "After all this work, it would be a terrible blow if the instrument cannot be used."

The space station was built with an attachment site expressly designated as the mount point for the AMS. The AMS project was sponsored by the Department of Energy in 1995, and NASA made a signed commitment to deliver the instrument to the station. Ting said the nations that collaborated on the project did so only because NASA promised delivery.

NASA was to provide transport to the International Space Station on of one of its space shuttles, but after the 2003 Columbia disaster NASA decided to reduce shuttle flights and to retire the remaining shuttles by 2010, leaving no room for the AMS on the remaining flights. In 2006, NASA studied alternative ways of delivering AMS to the space station, but they proved to be too expensive.

Curiously, President Bush's 2005 "manned exploration initiative", which aims to develop a new spacecraft to travel to the moon and later to Mars, and which is quite controversial in the scientific community, many stating that it is an illogical (read stupid) mis-allocation of critically scarce resources, formally lowered the priority of doing basic science on the station. The AMS was bumped soon after. Spacemen in spacesuits are sexy; real science isn't. Issue settled.

And you wondered whether or not the American Empire is in decline?

But is there hope?

Some idealists think so. There is now not only a suggestion, but an ad hoc organization (Science Debate 2008) dedicated to setting up a presidential-candidate debate solely on the topic of science. Matthew Chapman, a member of the organization's steering committee, explains the idea in a Washington Post column (curiously in the "On Faith" section), from which I show some snippets:

We have reached a stage in our development where, to quote sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, humans are “the first species in the history of life to become a geological force.”

As the great geneticist and evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in 1973, ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.’” And yet, three Republican candidates have said they do not believe in it. Even George W. Bush believes “the jury is still out on evolution.” That someone this scientifically backward was elected to such a powerful position at such a critical time is perhaps the most astonishing anachronism in modern American political life. Such a thing must not be allowed to happen again.

There is, of course, a chance that some of the candidates would refuse to accept the invitation to this debate, but an RSVP in the negative would in and of itself tell us a great deal . . .
Lotsa luck, guys. You'll need it.

Geese and ganders, sauces for

As Joan Walsh points out over on Salon, when Damien Cave wrote a piece in The New York Times about some successes of the "surge" in Iraq, right-wingers were in the seventh heaven; how, one wonders (well, not really) will they take to Cave's more recent article "Nonstop Theft and Bribery Are Staggering Iraq"? Hmm? As Walsh notes, "The headline says it all, but the details are chilling too." Calling all right-wing blogs.

Speaking of which . . . .

Another one the right was all over not long ago was a controversial series of pieces about the Iraq conflict in The New Republic by Scott Beauchamp. There seems as yet no clear resolution of whether Beauchamp's stories were or were not fabricated, but even taking the worst case, that he made them up entirely, they were essentially emotion pieces, claiming routine brutalities--something that could affect someone's views of the character of the conflict, but which cannot by any remotest stretch be considered strategic or tactical information.

Now the National Review--the conservative opposite number to TNR--has been caught with its own pants down. As Glenn Greenwald points out in his Salon column, "National Review reporter Thomas Smith has been exposed as a fabulist for plainly fictitious claims he made in two separate NR posts in September regarding Hezbollah's alleged armed threat to the Lebanese Government." That is not emotional propaganda: it is a major lie about a purported major operation. It is the difference between saying "X is unkind to dogs" and saying "Y is a serial murderer".

As Greenwald continues, "after months of milking the far less serious TNR inaccuracies and mercilessly attacking that magazine, National Review compounds their own far more serious fabrications by obfuscating, evading, concealing, and even defending these false claims." We don't need to see how either the National Review or the right-wing blogosphere will react, because they have already reacted, " National Review [choosing] late Friday afternoon to raise this matter--the favored time period of politicians to dump embarrassing stories, when as few people as possible will see it--in the form of a mealy-mouthed, self-justifying 'Editor's Note' from Kathryn Jean Lopez. Lopez apologizes to readers on the ground that 'NRO should have provided readers with more context and caveats in some posts from Lebanon this fall', but never says what those caveats should have been or what the missing context was."

As for the rest . . . all is silence.

Wow, whatta concept

The New York Times article head reads "Business Lobby Presses Agenda Before ’08 Vote", which, I should imagine, is self-explanatory.

Geography test

What do you know about Venezuela? (No cheating by going to the link first.) Here are a few data at random: baseball is the most popular sport; the national musical instrument is the cuatro; the country's name probably derives from the Spanish for "little Venice"; and it currently has a president who has passed from amusing to annoying to dangerous. He wants--and, at the moment, appears to have obtained--the right to be president for life. I can't imagine why Bush seems to dislike a fellow so much in his own style.

Oh, and the World Values Survey has consistently shown Venezuelans to be among the happiest people in the world, with 55% of those questioned saying they were "very happy"; I wonder how long that will last now?

Whom do you trust?

A New York Times editorial takes Yahoo to task for aiding Beijing’s state police uncover the Internet identities of two Chinese journalists, who were then handed 10 years in prison for disseminating pro-democracy writings. But while they refer to Yahoo's cooperation as "appalling", they go on to add that "Yahoo is not the only American company helping the Chinese government repress its people. Microsoft shut down a blogger at Beijing’s request. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft censor searches in China."

More or less beyond words

Such is the behavior of Burger King and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. The poor devils who barely eke out survival picking tomatoes in Florida--tomatoes which largely go to the big national fast-food franchises--get paid a whopping 45 cents for each 32-pound basket of tomatoes they pick. Think about that for a minute. In recent years, activist organizations, by shaming the chains through national boycotts, got the rate increased by a penny a pound (think about that, too: a penny a pound).

Puny as that amount is, it represented a very substantial boost in the incomes of those pickers. But though Taco Bell and MacDonald's--however reluctantly for each--conceded the increase, Burger King dug in its heels. This month the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, representing 90 percent of the state’s growers, announced--presumably just in time for Christmas--that it will not allow any of its members to collect the extra penny for farm workers (note, please, that Burger king is headquartered in Florida). The Exchange has, as Eric Schlosser notes in The New York Times' op-ed page, "threatened a fine of $100,000 for any grower who accepts an extra penny per pound for migrant wages. The organization claims that such a surcharge would violate 'federal and state laws related to antitrust, labor and racketeering.' It has not explained how that extra penny would break those laws; nor has it explained why other surcharges routinely imposed by the growers (for things like higher fuel costs) are perfectly legal."

I'm a vegetarian, and so cannot help because I would never eat in a fast-food place; but could you please boycott Burger King?

And while I'm at it . . . .

What's a day at the blog without another note on the really quite amazing Rudy Giuliani?

A Washington Post editorial aptly entitled "Mr. Giuliani and the Tax Fairy" (and aptly subtitled Sorry to tell you, Mr. Mayor, but she's not going to deliver) begins by quoting hizzoner: "I know that reducing taxes produces more revenues. Democrats don't know that. They don't believe it." It then notes what every 11-year-old ought to realize: "There's a good reason for that: It's not true."

The piece then explains why, which I would think the 11-year-old also knows, but one paragraph does not an editorial make, at least not at A Major Metropolitan Daily. I strongly suspect that hizzoner knows full well what the 11-year-old does, but the choices are two: hizzoner is a profound ignoramus or a profoundly cynical liar. Your pick.

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