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.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Short takes

I haven't much time today, but these things need note.

Lies, damned lies, and Rudy Giuliani's numbers

If numerals could file crime reports, Rudy Giuliani would be going up the river for a long stay.

After his amazing assault and battery on statistics on various numbers relating to his mayoralty, and his extended torture of statistics relating to cancer and other medical issues, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised to now find that he seems to have had, um, some little accounting issues about tens of thousands (a number now upped by news reports to hundreds of thousands) of dollars expended--willy nilly--by the people of New York City in providing him 24/7 police security protection while he visited his out-of-town mistress.

I want to put right up here at the top that the critical issue is not whether Giuliani stole or misappropriated city money: he did not, and no one claims he did. But Giuliani, unable to dodge the thoroughly documented facts, is falling back on pretending that that's the issue, shrugging it off as a "political attack" and justifying it by noting that all the charges were reimbursed by the NYPD. Again: that's not the point. The point is that these were tens of thousands (the Times refers to hundreds of thousands) of needless City expenses incurred solely to expedite Giuliani's satisfying of his lusts--and that they were deliberately hidden in weird ways so that no one would notice what his private catting around was costing the taxpayers in public money. That it is what is the story: never lose track of that basic fact.

The initial disclosure by web site derived from lawfully obtained official New York City records. Since the mainstream media are more interested in Rudy's denials than in the facts he's denying, let's feature a few of those facts (but you really, really should check the linked source pages).
  • As New York mayor, Giuliani billed obscure city agencies for tens of thousands of dollars in security expenses amassed during the time when he was beginning an extramarital relationship with future wife Judith Nathan in the Hamptons.

  • The mayor’s office refused to explain the accounting to city auditors, citing “security.”

  • The Hamptons visits resulted in hotel, gas, food, and numerous other special costs for Giuliani’s New York Police Department security detail.

  • Asked about this article after it was published on Wednesday, Giuliani said: "It's not true," an amazing claim in light of the documents. American Express bills and travel documents obtained by Politico suggest another reason City Hall may have considered the documents sensitive: They detail three summers of visits to Southampton, the Long Island town where Judith Nathan--his mistress, later to become wife number three--had an apartment. Auditors "were unable to verify that these expenses were for legitimate or necessary purposes," City Comptroller William Thompson wrote.
Now it is certainly so that the City routinely provides, as I said, 24/7 police security coverage to its mayor: that coverage is not at issue here. What is at issue are, first, that Giuliani greatly upped the costs to the citizenry of that protection by the many needless (as respects his job as Mayor) out-of-town trips made for no purpose than to visit his mistress. The police may be there all the time anyway, but they don't incur tens of thousands of dollars in travel costs if hizzoner stays in the city of which he is mayor.

Second is the bizarre way the costs were, it is clear, deliberately hidden: by being scattered hither and yon amongst a host of minor City bureaus having utterly zunt to do with the Police, security, or the Mayor's office (places like the New York City Loft Board, which oversees converting office space to living space). Months later, at the end of the year, the Police Department reimbursed those various departments for the costs charged to them. The whole shenanigan was, with painful if retrospective obviousness, put together solely to bury the existence and nature of the costs deep in obscurity.

Third, and perhaps most telling, is how Giuliani has responded to the revelations. First, he denied them. That almost immediately became an impossible position. Next he claimed that there was nothing unusual about the bizarre juggling of revenue sourcing. Then he claimed that it really wasn't his business, that the Police Department did it all, according to mystic methods of their own that he neither knew nor cared about. When that one seemed to have a leak or two in it, he took up the classic "retreat to the keep" defence: it's a smear by his enemies. Why, why--it might have even come from Democrats!

Say what? Something's not wrong--or possibly criminal--if the party who uncovers the data is not an intimate old friend? We what, we let criminals off on a catch-and-release method if they're Republicans and the cop is a Democrat (or vice-versa)? I don't think so.

Exactly how much wrongdoing there may or may not have been in a legal sense remains to be seen as and when the experts get their teeth into the evidence. But what ought to be sparkling clear is that Giuliani engaged in at the very least pretty scuzzy conduct (in the course of engaging in another scuzzy pattern of conduct, openly keeping a mistress while elected chief executive of a major city), and has gone postal over the revelation of the facts.

The scandal is a two-fer for the American people, especially the hyper-moralistic far right that all the Republican candidates are so assiduously courting: sex and money.

Here are a few more tidbits, all worth following out:
  • Instead, Giuliani and his aides focused their attention on the issue of whether the unlikely divisions of the mayor's office had been reimbursed — not why the expenses were billed to out-of-the-way agencies such as the New York City Loft Board in the first place: a follow-up by

  • New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson told ABC News that Giuliani's administration billed obscure city agencies for his security detail's travel expenses during his visits to the Hamptons: ABC News.

  • "You have an explanation. Obviously your explanation is quite different than the original report. How do you think this will affect your candidacy? Or the way people perceive you?" CBS News interview.

  • But neither Mr. Giuliani nor Mr. Lhota explained why the travel expenses for the security detail were spread across the budgets of an array of obscure mayoral offices rather than paid out of a single account in the mayor’s office: The New York Times.

  • Politico editor-in-chief John Harris defended the Web sites's reporting. "This was a fair and carefully reported story. We gave the Giuliani campaign ample opportunity to dispute the story or comment on our reporting before publishing and they did not do so," Harris said. "Since the story ran, we have not heard from the campaign disputing any substantive aspect of the story." CNN.
I had some other stuff on other topics, but it can wait a day or two. This is the Big One that every American ought to be focussed right in on. Some in the blogosphere are thinking (or hoping) that as this develops it will effectively end Giuliani's candidacy. I think they're nuts: no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people (as H. L. Mencken never really said). But it does have a fighting chance of being a serious body blow. It depends if Romney can do more than stutter over this, Thompson more than pontificate, or Huckabee more than crack a joke line.

We shall see what we shall see. (Or we will see what we will see--I can never get that clear.)

technorati tags:

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Simple pleasures

Snow has fallen here on the back 40, and the household dog is once again in poodle heaven, dashing furiously around in it on her outings, zig-zagging at her top speed. I often wonder what she thinks the stuff is, or why we don't provide it for her more often.

Naturally, with snow on the ground and a large further accumulation expected, tomorrow--when I'll have to drive through several inches depth of it on a gravel county road that I presume will still be unplowed--is the day I go into town to have the snow tires put on. Ha ha, what a knee-slapper. In what year, I wonder, will I remember to schedule it for before Thanksgiving?

Feeling all snug in our heavily insulated, near airtight solar home, I think I'll pass today on reciting ghastly notes from the news. Soon we'll put a few logs--well, loglets really, 16 inches long--in the masonry heater and settle in with a hot apple cider and a good book.

Owlcroft House under a rainbowHere's the house, as seen in milder weather. This was taken in late afternoon, so the sun is almost due west, leaving the windowed south side in shade--but you can still see the large triple-pane windows.

Winter outside...Here's about how things are now outside . . .

... and winter inside

. . . and inside.

Our typical winter heating "bill" is roughly one-fifth of a cord of wood, which works out, based on this year's wood prices, to $40 or less. Out in the garage we have room for a decade's worth of winter-heating wood, the supply at the moment being down to about 4 years' worth. Yes, it cost a lot of money to build the house properly--sprayed-in foam insulation and top-flight solar windows are not cheap--but it's worth it just for the satisfaction (probably in dollars, too, considering what energy costs are doing now).

The other day we watched the North American premier of the 2006 made-for-television movie version of Terry Pratchett's novel Hogfather. I wasn't expecting much; indeed, I was afraid I'd have to give up early on, knowing how screen adaptations of novels much of whose wit and charm lies in the author's descriptions of people and things too often go. Well, let me say it was a great success and a vast pleasure to view.

(If you're not familiar with Pratchett and his "Discworld" series of humorous fantasy novels, you have a great treat coming. Pratchett was for some years--those prior to J. K. Rowling's advent--the U.K.'s best-selling author, and has sold about 50 million books worldwide, so he's not exactly someone's pet obscure writer.)

While there have been previous screen adaptations of Pratchett works, this was the first live-action (that is, not animated) version, and it was brought off very well, as to the many effects required, the period settings (shot, I believe, somewhere in Romania), and the performances. It is an immensely funny tale, though--as always with Pratchett--with a dark and serious underside, and it would have been perilously easy to go way over the top with it. Not so: everyone played well within bounds, as if it were a simple comedy with nothing fantastic about it at all.

Aside from the mere nit of Corporal Nobbs looking rather too clean-cut, or just clean--"The only reason you couldn't say that Nobby was close to the animal kingdom was that the animal kingdom would get up and walk away"--was the portrayal of Death, who is a major character. The acting was satisfactory, but the effect--Death is a skeleton in a hooded robe--was rather mediocre, the skull-head being an all-too-obvious paper-mache (or some such) mask. And even the wonderfully plummy voice of Ian Richardson is, unaided, not sufficient for a character whose dialogue in the novels always appears ALL IN UPPERCASE LETTERS, which suggests that some sort of reverb or the like wanted adding.

But those are minor flaws. Otherwise, the thing was a beauty to behold. I do hope they make more Discworld movies (supposedly The Colour of Magic, the very first Discworld book, is now in production).

I think I'll make Hogfather the book with which I settle into my armchair by the fireside, to which place I am now bound. Good night and good luck.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The real priorities

Again today I will do the entries as a main discussion followed by a bunch of short news clips. I have been calling those "factoids", but that's not a descriptive name, so I will now be calling them "snippets", which is not sexy but is accurate.

We have more to fear than fear itself

As many observers in both the mainstream press and the blogosphere, including me, have noted, coverage of the hunt for the presidency has focussed far more on the horserace aspect of it--who is jockeying whom just now, and how--than on the candidates or the issues or the positions of the candidates on those issues. Both parties seem be focussing on their traditional hot-button positions, plus a few of the crises du jour. Here, I will try to sort out the contenders from the pretenders in critical issues.

#1 has to be global warming. Crisis issues throughout human history have all, no matter how huge their scope in their times, been things of a nature such that folk of the world half a millennium on need a history book to know what it was all supposed to be about. Not so this matter: if we can't put the brakes on now, hard, folk in half a millennium will not need to read a book to see what the consequences were. (If there are folk, and if they can read.)

It is simply dumbfounding that there remain persons outside institutional care who can doubt, much less deny, the reality and scope of the issue. But that, I suppose, is what comes of having a populace incapable of understanding even what science is, much less what it says and does and means: Joe Sikspak thinks that science is opinions no better than his own except for being delivered by some pansy egghead in a white lab coat. (To which point we will recur.) So when politicians who have a hidden axe to grind (such as being beholden to big businesses that pollute a lot) spout off about "snow jobs" and in general engage in less than elegant discourse on the topic, good ol' Joe believes them because they have established themselves in his whatever-it-is-that-he-has-where-other-people-have-a-mind as trustworthy sources (Rush, Fox, whomever).

More generally, we as a nation need to pay more attention to science, which is only to say to the cold, hard facts of reality. A president who could read without moving his or her lips would be a good first step, but it is scarcely sufficient; he or she needs to be able to present the nation with a vision that includes relying on people who know what they're talking about as sources of guidance for policy and action, in many areas.

I wonder how many people realize how badly science is faring in this land, what with bean counters in Washington cutting funding for the sorts of major projects, like the Superconducting Super Collider that was to be built--which was being built--in Texas. You may not know just what the thing was to do, or even what might come of it, but what you should know is that an expectation of the completed project was something that careers were being built around; with it suddenly gone, a lot of young scientists have either gone off physics or emigrated to similar projects in other parts of the world, places where they still understand that basic research is the root of all advances in technology. Our nation is in danger, severe danger, of becoming second-rate or worse in science simply because we are discouraging those who might do good science here.

And to--as promised--recur to Joe Sikspak and his ideas about science: we urgently need to massively overhaul and upgrade our so-called educational system, which is far more system than education. When we can't even teach pupils the most basic elements of using their native tongue--indeed, we don't even try any more--much less something about what science is and how it works, how can we expect them to become competent citizens?

But (as usual) I digress. We as a nation need to take major, and surely unpopular, action on pollution and the consequent global warming, and we need to do it yesterday. The IPCC is saying we have maybe a decade, and they have been shown again and again to be, if anything, too optimistic and conservative in their projections. We need to take action internally, and we need to push the major developing nations, notably China, to follow suit, with assistance, enticements, pressure, whatever; there are numerous credible schemes around for how we can get those nations to go along, but they are nullities till we get our own house in order.

#2 has to be the economy. I don't mean that in an airy-fairy handwaving way as referring to the stock market or mortgages or the quality of life. I mean it specifically in respect to the budget and the national deficit, which is so huge that the numbers are essentially meaningless to the average citizen. Even putting it in a so-many-dollars-a-household form doesn't register, because the gap between that somewhat artificial figure and what happens day to day in the world is just too large. But the consequences to this nation of not very soon stopping the bleeding, and the stupendous borrowing--much of it from places it's not nice to be hugely in debt to (yes, China)--are going to have real, immediate, and harrowing consequences.

I do not intend to here give a lecture on economics. But, as they say, the truth is out there. Read some competent economists on the subject. Once again, hard choices need to be made, and unpopular measures taken. The next president is going to have to be able to lay out the facts, the needs, and the alternatives clearly, comprehensibly, and forcefully to the American public. Simple-minded crap about "no taxes" or "pay as you go" is woefully inadequate.

#3 is the cost of getting medical care, which is closely related to but by no means the same as health-care insurance. Health-care insurance is obviously a profound problem: by now it is almost cliche to trot out the horrifying statistics comparing this nation's health to that of the rest of the industrialized world--and that's health itself, not health costs. But the costs are horrifying, too: in short, we pay far more for far less (Rudy Giuliani's laughably silly wrong numbers notwithstanding).

Underneath the health-insurance problem, however, is the core crisis: the costs of health care are going up fast, too fast. The share of our national income that gets spent on health care rises much faster than inflation, year after year. There was, for reasons still not well understood, a brief hiatus some years back in that otherwise-relentless climb, but the numbers are back on their old track again. Following the trend out (which is always meaningless except as a harbinger of big changes coming), sometime within the next century health care would eat up the entire national income. No schools, no army, hardly any food: just health care. Well, that is obviously a self-limiting process, but where and how does the breakdown happen? What gives when?

The problem is worldwide, but much less severe in almost every other nation. The crux seems to be not any of The Usual Suspects, but rather the simple fact that we pay doctors an awful lot more than anybody else does. Do we get better doctoring as a result? No one else (except maybe the U.K., where incompetence is a treasured national heritage) thinks so, nor does the evidence contradict them.

That is, with painful obviousness, not going to be a simple matter to deal with. But deal with it we must, else we either collapse into virtual bankruptcy or have almost no medical care save for the very wealthy. But while we address the root problems, we also need to get something into place so that the millions of Americans who get no medical care at all save perhaps a visit to the emergency room when things have gotten wildly out of control can be properly given reasonable medical care.

We evolve socially. What was considered a reasonable entitlement (long before that hideous buzzword actually surfaced) has grown as humans have become, as a species, richer and more powerful. The "right" to an impartial judicial system; to vote; to receive an education; each was once no "right" at all. As we became richer, we could, literally, afford to consider those things "rights" that every citizen has a valid call on.

Have we not yet reached the stage when essential medical care can justly be considered the right of every citizen? Each contributes to the wealth of all. We do not share all wealth equally and indiscriminately: communists purport to do that, and look where it got those foolish enough to believe that there are free lunches. But there is a world of difference between the communistic "everything for everybody" and a basic web of securities for the average citizen to which one is entitled simply because one is a citizen, a member of and contributor to the commonwealth. When we are as rich as we are as a nation (and as most or all of the industrialized nations of the world are), we can, as a people, afford the relatively modest costs of being decent to our neighbors (and ourselves).

Universal coverage is not some namby-pamby giveaway scheme, no "tax and spend" nonsense. It is buying insurance, exactly and literally. What the right-wing nut doctrinaires try--so far, successfully--to hide is that on the whole a decent universal-coverage plan does not have to cost much, if anything, compared with our present way of doing business. We already pay, in numerous ways, some overt and some hidden, for the poor state of health care we seem to cherish: the uninsured make use of the grossly more costly emergency facilities (far more costly than is timely care); there are working hours lost that cost the national economy sums of money that stagger the mind. One would think that conservatives, who worship the bottom line--in dollars only, thank you--would, did they understand the numbers, be ecstatically in favor of universal health care, preferably single-payer health care (which is the most dollar-efficient). The next president urgently needs to make both the moral and the economic cases to the nation.

#4 is our relations with the Muslim world. Part of our problem, a large part, is that both political parties keep trying to reduce this issue to a few 12-second sound bytes. That is not how important issues work: they are complex and nuanced. The very phrase "the Muslim world" is deceptive: there is a surprisingly diverse range of politics in the Muslim nations of the world. And we aren't going to get anywhere till we have a leadership that can itself grasp those nuances, and can also present those nuances to the American public in a comprehensible way that justifies reasonable policy decisions. (How many Americans, I wonder, realize that Iranis are not Arabs, and that the distinction is important to them?)

We need, urgently, to isolate the extremists in the Muslim world, and to pry them apart from the general support they now receive in too many places. We can only do that, in a world of realpolitik, by making ourselves politically palatable to such progressive elements as there may be in the Muslim world, by making it plain that we are not, generically and by reflex, enemies of Muslims per se, but only of those who would wreak havoc on us--or anyone--in the name of the "religion of peace".

A shift of that sort requires something a lot better than the dictator-of-the-week approach that has characterized American foreign policy for a century or two. We need to look past momentary expediency (usually based on a mindless knee-jerk reaction to presumed "socialism") to seek what constitutes effective self-interest in a larger world. If we had not propped up the degenerate Shah for so long in Iran, do you think we would have the problems there that we have today? Would there be a Castro if there had been no Batista? None of this is rocket science: competent foreign-policy experts have been saying these things for nearly as long as we have been doing the opposite. But today, with the horrific sort of guerrilla operations possible to even a handful of dedicated fanatics, we need a leadership that can break with the past and work with those who will work with us to marginalize the crazies.

Those four things are, I deeply feel, the elephants in the room for current American policy. But along with them are a couple of gas-filled balloons that will loom just as large unless someone sticks a pin in them and lets the hot air out.

First fraud: immigration reform. This is entirely a creation of fear-mongers. It is the universal standard tactic of all governments when times are tough (usually through that government's failings): blame the outsider. Lost your job in a decaying industry? It's them illegals. Getting crunched by an oversold mortgage you can no longer afford? It's them illegals. Your hemorrhoids acting up? It's them illegals.

Whenever anyone without a gross bias looks into the economics of illegals, the conclusions are virtually identical: nearly no net effect, and not even much of a specific effect in any sector. Having cheap labor available doesn't drive others out of the same jobs: it creates new businesses and new jobs based on that availability of cheap labor. That's not some idea of mine, it's what the surveys show, over and over. Illegals, who often cannot initially command much in the way of wages, have almost no effect at all on the middle- and upper-scale earners, except the small positive one of making most goods and services they buy cheaper. But even on the lowest-scale earners, they have little effect because of the counter-balancing creation of jobs.

As the wonderful Casey Stengel famously said, "you could look it up." But politicians who have no interest in illegals--because illegals can't vote against them--find them a very convenient punching bag, with which they can avoid the real problems and issues. So long as they can keep fooling Americans about the facts, for so long can they get away with scapegoating folk who are not only harmless but helpful to the nation.

We should ask ourselves whyever we would want to stop anyone from moving here from anywhere. First, we want to keep out foreign agents, whether of a government or a movement, who intend us harm. Second, we want to exclude the grossly unfit: the criminals, the seriously ill, and suchlike; that may be a hard saying, but it's realism. But beyond those, what and why? The usual answers do us no credit. One is to keep out "them furriners", with their alien ways, meaning Anybody Not Just Like Me. The Statue of Liberty is engraved with the answer to that one.

Another is the bizarre idea that an increased population is necessarily a bad thing. Granted that we need to control the population of the world, shuffling people about from here to there is irrelevant except to the particular here and there involved. Just about every county and town in the U.S.A. has a governmental or quasi-governmental body charged with seeing to "growth". You don't grow much with a flat population; you grow by providing more jobs and homes for the people who will then migrate to your county or city. Therefore, a nation cannot "grow" in that dollar sense without an expanding population. The only alternative is to increase the productivity of the existing population. The U.S. has been pretty good at doing that, but there is very obviously some limit to how much one can do.

Sure, we need immigration policies that meet those two real needs for control. And maybe we need to think about some overall limits so as not to grow too rapidly. But to say or think that immigrants, legal or not, are in some way hurting this country is to just flat-out refuse to see or to think about what is before one's eyes.

Second fraud: Social Security. Let me make this simple, folks: Social Security is just fine. Leave it alone. It is not in any "danger", there is no risk of "failure" or "bankruptcy", there is not even much risk of reducing promised benefits or raising the retirement age. What there is is the danger of believing the pompous windbags who, either through ignorance or calculation, are trying to tell you that the sky is falling.

Again, you could look it up.

And now the snippets . . . .

Gee, who'd have expected this?

From The New York Times:

The Citizenship and Immigration Services agency is telling legal immigrants that applications for citizenship and for residence visas filed after June 1 will take about 16 to 18 months to process. The agency's director had promised this summer that a whopping increase in fees that took effect July 30 — an average of about 66 percent across the board, with naturalization now costing $675 per person, up from $400 — was about to make his agency fit for the 21st century. One immediate result was entirely predictable: people rushed to get their paperwork in. The agency received nearly 2.5 million naturalization petitions and visa applications in July and August, more than double from those months last year. But an agency spokesman said “We certainly were surprised by such an immediate increase.”

Of course, 16 to 18 months after last June 1st means sometime a little after the 2008 elections. Gee, you don't suppose that any of those soon-to-be citizens now to be denied a chance to vote might have voted, um, not Republican?

Remind me what the war wasn't about?

From CBS News:

President Bush on Monday signed a deal setting the foundation for a potential long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq, with details to be negotiated over matters that have defined the war debate at home - how many U.S. forces will stay in the country, and for how long. The agreement between Mr. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki confirms that the United States and Iraq will hash out an "enduring" relationship in military, economic and political terms. The proposals are to offer the U.S. a continued military presence in Iraq, as well as favorable business interests (such as investment opportunities for American companies), in return for guarantees to Iraq's future security.

Preferential treatment for U.S. investors could provide a huge windfall if Iraq can achieve enough stability to exploit its vast oil resources.

No, really? Gosh.

Just another day defending Second Amendment rights....

From KVUE:

Headline: Mall shooting leaves two dead

Story: You've heard it a hundred times before.

Moral: Guns don't kill people, people kill people, but they'd have a helluva lot harder time doing it if they had throw rocks instead.

Maybe they really aren't evil

From CNet:

Search giant Google on Tuesday pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make renewable energy cheaper than coal.

What you don't know won't hurt--much


Headline: Doctor Performs Brain Surgery on Wrong Side of Brain

Salient extract: This is the third time this--surgery on the wrong side of a patient's brain--has happened this year at this hospital alone.

Judge, are you sure?

From CBS News:

U.S. prosecutors have withdrawn a subpoena seeking the identities of thousands of people who bought used books through online retailer Inc., newly unsealed court records show.

The withdrawal came after a judge ruled the customers have a right to keep their reading habits from the government.

The crux, of course, is that the government of the United States argued forcefully that it does have a right to know people's reading habits.

Hey, a dollar here, a dollar there, it all adds up

From the Seattle Times:

The killer Mitt Romney is slamming his own judicial appointee about was known to Washington State law enforcement, from notices from Massachusetts, as a pretty bad hat, and as wanted under a Massachusetts warrant. But they couldn't do much about him: "We couldn't arrest him because the warrant was nonextraditable," the Pierce County Sheriff's Department said.

Why was the warrant for this convicted killer nonextraditable? The killer reported to Massachusetts probation officials on July 18, but failed to appear for a court hearing on July 23, prompting the arrest warrant; but, reports the Times, the warrant did not include an extradition request from a state as far as away as Washington because of the cost. The two dead innocents will probably not show up on the Massachusetts ledgers, so it seems to have been a fiscally prudent move.

Well, I did tell you so

From today's Washington Post:

"Why he [Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, ret.] has chosen all of a sudden to attempt to return to public attention, and why he would do it in an overtly partisan way, frankly baffles me," said [retired Army officer Andrew] Bacevich, whose son was killed in Iraq. "And why the Democratic leadership would say, 'Yes, this is the guy who is going to deliver our message' is just baffling. He is a largely discredited figure."

More from the folks just like you and me

Again from the Washington Post:

Thousands of Hamas supporters rallied in the streets of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday against the U.S.-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, and a second armed Palestinian movement vowed to intensify its attacks on Israel, saying, "The only dialogue with the enemy will be with rifles and rockets."

Constitution, shmonstitution

From the San Diego Union Tribune:

The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to take up a challenge to a San Diego County program that sends peace officers [except in Newspeak, that's the police] to inspect the homes of poor people who apply for welfare benefits. The program dispatches investigators unannounced and without a warrant. Welfare applicants have to agree to the unannounced visits in order to receive any aid. If they refuse they can be denied benefits.

The [Ninth Circuit] appeals court [the last to hear the case] relied on a 1971 Supreme Court decision which held that home visits to verify eligibility for benefits are not searches, because the purpose of the search is not criminal investigation. After the appeals court panel ruling last year the ACLU asked that a larger panel of the appeals court hear the case again [not a rare procedure]. That request failed – but eight judges on the appeals court wanted the case heard, saying the program amounted to “an attack on the poor.”

Well, dammit, Jim, of course we can enter at any time without a warrant--they're poor.

And last but far from least...

Bob Herbert opines in The New York Times that "This election, the most important in decades, cries out for strong leadership. The electorate is upset, anxious and hungry for change. But 'weak tea' is as good a term as any to describe what the Democrats are offering. . . . Bush-bashing is not enough. Unless one of the Democratic candidates finds the courage to step up and offer a vision of an American future so compelling that voters head to the polls with a sense of excitement and great expectation, the Republican Party could once again capture the White House (despite its awful performance over the past eight years) with its patented mixture of snake oil and demagoguery."

You should read the whole thing. What he says is certainly true, and has been true for too many electoral cycles now, except that it needs to be said in words a deal more forceful than anything The Times would ever publish ("All the news that fits, we print").

Out here in the countryside whence I repine, the handful of non-Republicans to be found (16, I believe, in my precinct, which is many square miles), when they chance to meet and talk politics, are forever baffled by why, year in and year out, no Democrat, from state assembly candidate to presidential candidate, ever goes out there with fire in the belly and fire on the tongue, to say the things that need saying, and that--we hicks all feel, anyway--would vitalize and energize the 62% of the population not mindlessly fixated on the Republican party line.

Hey--Hillary, Barack, John--how 'bout Wake up and smell the coffee? Hm? Please?

Monday, November 26, 2007

That's rich

The title has a double sense: it was a rich day in the news for fascinating factoids, and there was an interesting discussion of who really is "rich" and why it matters just now. First the discussion, then the factoids in a basically "quote without comment" mode.

That's funny, you don't look rich

Are you rich? Explain why or why not in 2000 words or less. Use black ink only only.

As Joel Achenbach points out in a Washington Post article, the question of who among us are "the wealthy" has recently acquired increased significance; that is so because it is a crucial datum in the ongoing claims by the presidential candidates about what is wrong with Social Security and how to fix it. One of the commonest proposals by Democrats is to up the present cap on Social Security taxes (oops, sorry, "contributions") from $97,500 to who knows what. (The commonest Republican proposal is to eliminate Social Security as fast as possible, though they don't phrase in quite those words--they sort of ease into it with reduced benefits, increased eligibility ages, and suchlike camel noses.)

One of the problems is mindset. Most of those of an age to be contemplating Social Security matters grew up when $97,500 a year sounded like an awful lot of money, and it's hard to shake the feeling that anyone earning that much is not "middle-class". Of course, there's another rub: we seem to have a sort of collective social blank space between "middle class" and "rich"; Many people will feel that $98,000 a year is above middle-class income, but by no means so many will agree that such an income makes one "rich" or even "wealthy" (which somehow seems a slightly less pejorative term than flat-out "rich"). If that might be you, try one of the many inflation calculators to be found on the web (you need one, like the linked page, that can work forwards or backwards). To give you a scale, here's what in earlier years would have bought what takes $97,500 to buy today (rounded to the nearest $5):

  • 1957: $13,280
  • 1967: $15,785
  • 1977: $28,640
  • 1987: $53,690
  • 1997: $75,855
That's one way of mentally scaling. Another, which may be even more illuminating, is to see what $97,500 in earlier years equates to in today's world--these numbers perhaps best illuminate why the changing world makes $97,500 look so big a figure:
  • 1997: $125,320
  • 1987: $177,060
  • 1977: $331,920
  • 1967: $602,225
  • 1957: $715,810
So if your mindset about values got more or less fixed--which tends to happen in late adolescence--say, 30 years ago, you'd be thinking of $97,500 as signifying what really takes about a third of a million today. Now I don't mean here that you or anyone is unaware of inflation, or of the ever-increasing costs of everything and its cousin; I do mean, though, that the symbolic significance of big numbers in money will tend to be overweighted in your mind. Remember, we're not talking about the price of this or that particular thing, from a postage stamp to a car to a house: we're talking about the quasi-symbolic weight of an abstract amount of sheer dollars, something that makes the tie to present-day prices more tenuous.

Another problem is regionality. As Achenbach points out, "Online calculators allow anyone to make an instant city-to-city cost-of-living comparison. One such Web site calculates that someone making $97,500 in Washington [D.C.] could live just as comfortably on $67,846 in Ames, Iowa." That's a nearly 3:2 ratio; it's clear implication is that people living in smaller cities and towns will tend to further exaggerate the "value" of a $97,500 salary.

A third factor, which is not mentioned in the article, hinges on that word salary. Really wealthy people do not get any large fraction of their annual incomes from salary, but it is only salary that is subject to the Social Security tax; people who would pay more tax were the cap lifted are thus less likely to be the "rich" meant in slogans like "tax the rich".

That is, of course, a consequence of the fact that Social Security payouts are determined by the amount of wages, not total income, a person earned during their contributing years. But that, in turn, derives from the childish pretense that Social Security is some sort of insurance policy, with the "contributions" as premiums; the reality, as is now fairly well known, is that it's simply a welfare payout. With that firmly grasped, there seems no valid reason to limit Social Security taxation to earned wages, but that would in turn require a massive overhaul with the present Social Security system scrapped and replaced by higher overall taxes and a more generalized payout scheme. The chief reason that will never happen is that very few of the folk receiving, or due to receive, Social Security would ever accept it as what it is: welfare. The stigma is overwhelmingly repugnant, whatever the truth be. So scrub that extreme.

Clinton says that upping the cap would put the burden of the fix "on the backs of middle-class families and seniors." Obama says "Understand that only 6 percent of Americans make more than $97,000 a year. So 6 percent is not the middle class. It is the upper class." (A much nicer term than "rich" or "wealthy".) All that persiflage and badinage is irrelevant to the core issue: can people making over $97,500 reasonably stand to pay some further Social Security tax without it being, as Clinton put it, "burdensome"? I reckon that's hard to say.

In any event, Obama proposes a "doughnut-hole" cap scheme (I must suppose that that noxious term is now anchored in political discourse, owing to the delightful prescription-drug scheme the present administration wired into Medicare benefits), in which there would be no additional payroll till at least $250,000 or $300,000. I wonder if anyone has done calculations on how much such an added taxation--all that's added coming from wages, mind, not total income, just wages over $250,000 or $300,000--would really come to?

Incidentally--or not so incidentally--both Obama and Clinton at some point suddenly and drastically, but almost invisibly, shifted their ground, when each moved to speaking of "households with income above 250,000." Get this clear: household income is not individual wages. How many individuals in this country have Social-Security-taxable wages over $250,000 a year? And how much over? Without hard data, any discussion of fix schemes is so much hot air.

So what to do? As Mark Weisbrot pointed out at AlterNet, perhaps the best answer for right now is "Nothing". The "urgency" to "fix" Social Security is largely hype and ignorance: "all the 'baby boomers' will have retired before Social Security runs into a projected shortfall in 2041. That is according to the Social Security's (mostly Republican-appointed) Trustees. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, Social Security can pay all promised benefits even longer, until 2046. By either date, most baby boomers will be dead, and almost all of the rest retired, before there is a problem."

I agree with Weisbrot that "it would be best to take the issue off the table entirely until we have at least a few years of public education." The Social Security system is, for now and a while to come, a non-problem, and debate about it is wasting the precious time that should be spent on real and important issues, of which there is no lack.

And now the news . . . .

Is safety partisan?

From The New York Times:

The private laboratories that test foods from companies on the government's "import alert list" cannot automatically report tainted food to the Food and Drug Administration. Instead, they must give their reports to the importer who is paying for the test. If a shipment fails one laboratory's test, some importers have switched to a less-reputable laboratory to get the tainted foodstuff through.

Gander sauce

Again from The New York Times:

In the 2000 campaign, Gov. George W. Bush rebutted charges that he was a big spender, noting that on his watch, Texas state spending had been modest "when adjusted for inflation and population." That answer is utterly reasonable. Spending that is more or less constant in terms of the cost of living and the number of beneficiaries is hardly runaway.

Yet President Bush recently vetoed Congress's main social spending bill, for the Departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services. He said it - along with Congress's other planned spending bills - would recklessly overshoot his spending target by a total of $205 billion over five years. By Mr. Bush's own earlier reasoning, that figure is bogus. Adjusted for inflation and population, Congress's proposed increases amount to zero.

Me got a gud score!

The Times hit the jackpot today--here's yet another from them:

A recent study by Policy Analysis for California Education, a research center run by Stanford University and the University of California, analyzed the testing practices of a dozen states between 1992 and 2006:

In nearly all of the states studied, students did noticeably worse on federal tests than on state tests. In Oklahoma, the gap in scores was a shocking 60 percentage points in math and 51 percentage points in reading. In Texas, that gap was 52 percentage points in math and 56 points in reading.

Saddle up, kids

From Science Daily:

[Re] The largest study ever conducted of ATV injuries in children:

"Our experience shows that children's use of ATVs is dangerous and should be restricted," said Chetan C. Shah, M.D., radiology fellow at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of 16 be prohibited from operating ATVs, but no laws are in place in most states.

"Other patients included a two-year-old who was driving a 'child-size' ATV and had traumatic amputation of four toes, and another two-year-old driver who was found unconscious beside a flipped ATV. She had a severe brain hemorrhage that left her with permanent disability," he said.

[Those are not typos: two years old.]

I am not a plausible candidate, and I don't even play one on TV

From the Washington Post:

Fox host Chris Wallace ended the interview with [Fred] Thompson by asking him to respond to short videotaped comments about his chances by columnists Fred Barnes and Charles Krauthammer, two regular Fox News commentators.

When the camera returned to Thompson, he was visibly angry. "This has been a constant mantra of Fox, to tell you the truth," he said.

"From Day One, they said I got in too late, I couldn't do it," Thompson interrupted a dithering Chris Wallace.

He later blasted Fox for running criticism from "your own guys, who have been predicting for four months, really, that I couldn't do it. [It] kind of skews things a little bit."

Pity the poor sod buster

Again from the Washington Post:

Under current law, the sky is pretty much the limit when it comes to who can receive crop subsidies and how much they can get. On paper, no one is allowed more than $360,000 in federal farm benefits per year, but the provision is riddled with loopholes. . . . Two-thirds of all crop subsidies go to just 10 percent of farms.

The House version of the [proposed new] farm bill would allow full-time farming households earning as much as $2 million per year to collect payments.

In the Senate, there is [a proposed] amendment that would cut off payments for farm households with incomes above $750,000, [and another] to cap payments at $250,000 a year per farm. Note that even if both of these amendments pass, a farm family making $749,999 a year could still receive a $249,999 handout from the taxpayers.

They're just plain folks like you and me, except different

From Time:

It probably seemed like the most innocent of ideas to the newly arrived teacher from England, still settling into life in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. . . . Her young class was due to study the behavior and habitat of bears, so she suggested that pupils bring in a teddy bear to serve as a case study. A seven-year-old girl brought in her favorite cuddly toy and the rest of the class was invited to name him. After considering the names Hassan and Abdullah, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of Muhammad - the first name of the most popular boy in the class.

Police raided the school, where Gibbons also lives, on Sunday.

"We tried to reason with them but we felt they were coming under strong pressure from Islamic courts," said [the school's director]. "There were men with big beards asking where she was and saying they wanted to kill her."

A similar angry crowd had gathered by the time she arrived at the Khartoum police station where she is being held.

Now Gillian Gibbons, 54, is spending her second night in a Sudanese prison, accused of insulting Islam's Prophet. She faces a public lashing or up to six months in prison if found guilty on charges of blasphemy. And Unity High School - one of a number of exclusive British-run schools in the Sudanese capital - has been closed as staff fear reprisals from Islamic extremists.

Lott's o'cash

From ABC News:

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., is calling it quits only one year into his six-year term.

A source close to Lott said the next phase of Lott's life "involves a whole lot of money."

Lott's resignation before the end of the year will allow the senator to leave Congress before new ethics rules, enacted into law this fall, would force him to sit out [from lobbying] for two years.

And from a related post on the Daily Kos:

Lott wants out by the end of this year so new ethics guidelines that prohibit former members of Congress from lobbying for two years, rather than one [won't affect him]. . . . So Lott needs to be out by Dec. 31.

Mississippi governor Haley Barbour then announced that:

"Pursuant to Mississippi law, specifically § 23-15-855 (1), of the Mississippi Code, once the resignation takes effect, I will call a Special Election for United States Senator to be held on November 4, 2008, being the regular general election day for the 2008 congressional elections.

Further, within ten days of Senator Lott’s resignation’s taking effect, I will appoint a Senator to serve until the winner of the Special Election for United States Senator is elected and commissioned, as provided in § 23-15-855 (2) of the Mississippi Code."

Umm, no, Haley, it doesn't work quite that way, though I reckon that you, as mere governor of the state, could hardly be expected to know state law.
(1) If a vacancy shall occur in the office of United States Senator from Mississippi by death, resignation or otherwise, the Governor shall, within ten (10) days after receiving official notice of such vacancy, issue his proclamation for an election to be held... within ninety (90) days from the time the proclamation is issued and the returns of such election shall be certified to the Governor in the manner set out above for regular elections, unless the vacancy shall occur in a year that there shall be held a general state or congressional election, in which event the Governor's proclamation shall designate the general election day as the time for electing a Senator, and the vacancy shall be filled by appointment as hereinafter provided.
Wayne Dowdy, chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party, issued the following statement after Lott announced his plans:

"According to multiple news reports, Senator Lott intends to resign his seat by the end of the year. Section 23-15-855 (1) of the Mississippi Code makes clear that if Senator Lott does indeed resign during this calendar year, as stated, then Governor Barbour must call a special election for within 90 days of making a proclamation - which he must issue within 10 days of the resignation - and not on Nov. 4, 2008, as he has announced he intends to do."

It is untrue that Mr. Barbour is a partner in the law firm of Dewey, Cheatum & Howe.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


I did tell you . . .

The United Nations Committee Against Torture said this past Friday that use of taser weapons can be a form of torture, in violation of the U.N. Convention Against Torture. Well, duh.

Who'd a thunk it?

Confronting an enormous fund-raising gap with Democrats, Republican Party officials are aggressively recruiting wealthy candidates who can spend large sums of their own money to finance their Congressional races. My, my.

Ignore those facts behind the curtain.

Mitt Romney appoints a judge. Some years later, the judge releases on "own recognizance" a prisoner who has served his full sentence but is now accused of assaulting two prison guards. The man crosses the country and commits a double murder. Romney now descends on his appointee like an eagle on a rabbit, demanding that she resign and deciding--manifestly either in ignorance of or despite the facts--that her acts "showed an inexplicable lack of good judgment in a hearing that decided to put someone on the street who had not only in the past been convicted of manslaughter, but had threatened the lives of other individuals and was a flight risk." Romney's campaign was quick to point out that the subject, Daniel Tavares, had, while imprisoned in Massachusetts, threatened to kill Romney and other state officials in a letter (to whom?) intercepted by prison officials.

Ahem. Mitt, my man: the hearing transcript shows that prosecutors did not mention Tavares's alleged threats against Romney and others, and did not ask for a hearing on whether he would be dangerous if released. Instead, they cited his history of violence and asked that, if released (meaning they contemplated the likelihood of release), he be monitored with a GPS device. The judge declined to impose a monitoring system, saying she was presented with no evidence that he was a flight risk, and ordered Tavares freed on condition that he call probation officers regularly.

In other words, the prosecutors screwed up (and royally), not the judge. But who does the tough-on-crime crowd dislike? Judges or prosecutors? That's why they call them cheap shots. Case closed. Sorry, Mitt: come back when you develop either some wits or some conscience.

Friends no one needs

Retired Lieutenant General Ricardo S. Sanchez spoke on the Democrats weekly radio show, gathering headlines by generally opposing the Bush administration's positions on Iraq. The headlines come not only because of his sheer rank, but because he was the commander of coalition forces in Iraq for a year, from June 2003 to June 2004.

Perhaps the headlines are enough, but I'd reckon it a chancy game. Sanchez's credibility is, ah, open to question, in that it was chiefly his butt that got kicked over the Abu Ghraib abuses, which might make the disinterested think of an axe wanting grinding; a fellow who calls the ACLU "a bunch of sensationalist liars" is not, to my mind, prime material for Democrats to trot out. Worse, perhaps far worse, is that throughout his term he was at daggers drawn with Paul Bremer, the civilian leader of the Coalition Provisional Authority, a situation considered by many one of the major failures of the first year of the Iraq War. Bremer was no crown jewel himself, but the fact is another flaw in Sanchez's credentials.

Mind, I am not saying Sanchez is wrong or insincere, or even that he was himself at fault for any of the bad things that happened during his term (nor am I saying he is not or was not). I am simply saying that I very much wonder if pushing him so hard isn't creating vulnerabilities for the Democrats down the line.

Is there any other way to fly?

While this post is being composed on my desktop OS/2-based system (well, really eComStation), I do love my new laptop and especially the Ubuntu Linux I am running it with.

While not everyone necessarily has the same experiences--something that depends on your exact hardware configuration--on a new T61 Thinkpad (according to my research, the best general-use laptop currently available) it was flawless, fast, and simple. It would have been even faster and simpler had I not chosen to set up my own custom disk partitioning; one can go with just the defaults and do pretty well, but I'm a persnickety fussbudget about customization and optimization. (Partitioning no longer seems to get the attention it deserves in "easy" desktop systems.)

I get daily notifications, via a little screen widget, whenever any software whatever that I have installed has updates available; and installing (or removing) anything, update or new package, is child's play and almost completely automated (about all one does is select the new package wanted). There are apps available to do just about anything, from the routine stuff to desktop publishing or three-D modelling.

And not only does it all really Just Work, but it's all open-source, meaning thousands or millions of knowledgeable nit-pickers are forever improving everything right out in the open, where the code can be seen by all. Oh, and it's all 100% free. Rather different from a certain other Operating $ystem.

OK, right, nothing's perfect, there are always small issues, and anyone who says any OS is without flaws or shortcomings is an idiot or a liar; but the nits are few and don't bite much, and the system is overall stable as a rock. I've always thought, and still think, that OS/2 was and in most ways still is the best desktop OS ever, but even with eCs's best efforts, it is just falling too far behind in terms of hardware-related things like device drivers, and in updates of proprietary software like Flash. Flash may be, as many think, An Invention of the Devil, but so many sites not only rely on it, but provide no alternative pages for those who eschew Flash, that de facto one has to have it.

I use my desktop now only because: a) even though the Thinkpad keyboard is about the best laptop sort there is, it still isn't a "real" keyboard; and b) I have an awful lot of legacy self-written scripts in Rexx, a wonderful scripting language. Rexx is available in other OS's, including Linux flavors, but they lack the many powerful third-party add-ons that OS/2 Rexx has available. But the future is clear.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Way We Live Now

Today's title is that of an 1875 novel by Anthony Trollope.

Whom do you hate?

The other day I said that the 2008 presidential election would in essence be a referendum on Hillary Clinton: do you love her or do you hate her? I may have spoken too soon--not that the principle is incorrect, but rather that it is one case of a more general proposition, that the election will be decided by which candidate is hated the least.

Evidence? Just as the Hillary phenomenon came to light when Ron Paul test-polled as well against her as any of the leading Republican possibles, so now we find that Joe Biden polls as well against either Giuliani or Romney as any of the big-three leading Democrats.

As Rasmussen Reports notes, "To the extent he is allowed to talk and is noticed by political reporters, Biden gets credit for workmanlike performance in the Democratic debates. But he is barely better known now among the electorate than he was a year ago." So the numbers--40% versus 42% against Giuliani, 39% to 39% against Romney--don't reflect some bizarre groundswell of affection for Joe Biden (which is too bad, as he and Richardson are probably the best-qualified candidates on either side); rather, they reflect the resistance of a large fraction of the electorate to Messrs. Giuliani and Romney. Indeed, almost all of the major players on each side have remarkable percentages of voters who assert they would "never" vote for them: 44% of voters say they will definitely vote against Clinton if she is on the ballot in 2008, while 40% say the same about Giuliani and Thompson.

So what we seem to have arrived at is selection of the most important elective official in the known universe by the principle of marginally lower detestation rates. Wonderful.

By the way, if you want polling data, the Rasmussen reports site is a good one-stop shopping center, being, in my estimation, about as good as they come. (If you're looking at any polling about Iowa, one litmus test is whether the polling organization clearly differentiates results for voters in general and for voters highly likely to participate in a caucus.) There's an intelligent FAQ about polling at the excellent site (at which there is presently only a little to see, but as the election draws nearer, watch it often.)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Black Friday

Who ya gonna believe, me or your own two eyes?

Possibly the most magical words in English are "because" and "despite": by deft use of them, you can be guaranteed to be 100% correct about any assertion whatever that you care to make. If some data bear it out, that's because; if some other data fail to bear it out, that's despite.

A small but clear and amusing example of this is the long-running flood of predictions that this year's Christmas shopping season--a season that is the difference between wealth and bankruptcy for a good many businesses--would be mediocre to awful. Instead, the headlines run "Shoppers Start Holiday Marathon". So will the pundits say "oops, we were wrong" of anything like it? Hah. "However, some industry analysts caution that the early buying frenzy could soon peter out - and endanger crucial weekend sales - as millions of pre-dawn shoppers succumb to shopping fatigue." Right: "despite the fact that this will be a terrible shopping season, it has started off as a great shopping season--but we just know that will stop soon because this will be a terrible shopping season." Those people are missing a great career in politics.

I didn't need this--or did I?

A trio of depressing articles happened to all catch my eye today. Setting the tone was a review at Salon of Amy Chua's book Day of Empire, whose chief thrust is that "when imperial societies have turned inward, closed themselves off from the outside world and retreated into ethnic or cultural chauvinism, the end was generally in sight. Indeed, she finds in history near-inevitable progress from monster A to monster B: Nations rise to global hegemony by being extraordinarily pluralistic and tolerant, but such imperial expansion eventually reaches a tipping point, triggering internal conflict and xenophobia, which leads to imperial decline." And, as reviewer Andrew O'Hehir further notes, "the potential applicability of its case histories to America's current quandary, at least, is clear enough."

That was depressing, but depression turns to concern with Newsweek's Michael Hirsh opining about our being "In the Realm of the Dying Dollar", in which he takes, with good reason, the precipitous decline of the dollar as symptomatic of a corresponding decline in America's fate: "One has to wonder now whether the American superpower is also experiencing a terminal illness, with its decline marked by the dollar's downward drift." His arguments are frighteningly persuasive.

Then depression turns to outright fear--possibly paranoia, but, as someone famously remarked, even paranoics have real enemies--with a review, by Don Hazen of AfterNet, of Naomi Wolf's book The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. In the book, Wolf lays out the 10 steps that dictators (or aspiring dictators) take in order to shut down an open society and observes that "Each of those ten steps is now under way in the United States today." Look them over and shudder.