Thursday, January 31, 2008

Another backlog dump

Just a bunch of stories I've bookmarked over the last several days, all (I think) worth reading:

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Belated book reviews, I

Observatory Mansions, a 2001 first novel by Edward Carey, is a curious delight. I might say (as have others before me) that it carries a certain waft of Mervyn Peake's stupendous Titus Groan epic (usually miscalled "Gormenghast", though it goes on past that amazing place).

At first, the parallel is not obvious: the Titus novels are set in a hazy land that seems keenly of this world, yet somehow utterly disconnected from it: it is no place we have ever heard of, or ever imagined before Peake imagined it for us. Mansions is very solidly set in our world; the country is deliberately nameless, but is manifestly contemporary England.

But it doesn't many paragraphs before we realize that in their heart and soul, the two worlds are much akin. Each is populated with strangely broken people, who act in ways that--apparently--seem perfectly correct to them, individually and one to another, but which seem at best tenuously related to anything a normal person (including, by design, the reader) would find sane.

That, in a way, is their special magic: anyone can, with a reasonable dash of literary craft, conjure a world in which everybody is more or less insane; genius is in creating a world in which what we from our view see as insanity is an internally coherent reality whose denizens all find each others' behaviors thoroughly unexceptionable.

Peake's world has few residents the reader will find sympathetic, but it does have some: Titus himself, Dr. Prunesquallor, perhaps to a lesser extent a few others. Carey's world seems to have not a single sympathtic soul in it. We are, of course, biased by the fact that this world's first-person narrator is himself not merely seventeen miles off-center as a personality, but off-center in a number of very unpleasant ways. To call him egocentrically selfish is to cheat the concept.

The plot, such as it is, could be recounted in a paragraph or two. As a reviewer, I have never believed in "spoilers", and do not reveal plots; if I can't convey my enthusiasms without pre-telling the book, the fault is in me, not the book. But the point here is that the plot is only a minimalist excuse to pick up, turn around, and set down at various angles the handful of specimens, the occupants of the titular collection of rental flats, for auctorial purposes.

An author who shows us a study of grotesques can accomplish little or much, depending on his skill and vision. Carey here shows us much. Though this is not strictly a work of "speculative fiction", in that nothing impossible happens, it uses the same basic principle: by using the strange, that for which the rules are different, the author can turn a spotlight on this or that facet of the human condition, a spotlight more focussed than is readily possible in a conventional tale of everyday things and people.

In Mansions, Carey tells us of loss, of despair, of unconscious, unintended cruelty begetting unconscious, unintended cruelty, and ultimately of the possibility--or lack of possibility--of obtaining relief, of atonement, of redemption. In the end, the same grotesques we found contemptible we see as pathetic, and, more critical, as fellow humans, as "there but for the grace of God go I" beings.

It's an awfully good book, and I heartily recommend it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Ah, science

The miracles wrought by modern science for even the plebeian details of everyday life are not to be under-estimated. For example, consider the marvellous new fibers and blends available for making clothing from. I would wager the farm that the shirt I am wearing right now will, with just one washing, come out completely free from any of the stains it might acquire from the bleeding of my heart over His Giulianiness's misadventures in Florida. Wondrous, simply wondrous, science.

With Huckabee now at the 14:46 stage of his 15 minutes of fame, it seems to becoming down to Honest John (in the red, white, and blue trunks) and the Mauling Morman (in the hair trunks), each now sitting in his corner sucking a lemon and waiting for the bell to ring for Super-Duper Tuesday.

I daresay both Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama are licking their chops: either of those guys is fresh meat. The polls show McCain doing best of all the Republicans against any given Democrat, but that means less than nothing at this stage. Let him become the candidate, and the waters will flow mightily. McCain's centerpiece of campaigning seems to be, translated (and it doesn't take much translation), I'm the new, improved George Bush. Economic problems? Cut taxes on the rich. Foreign-relations problems? Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.

And we may even have heard the last of (for those who ever heard the first of) Michael Bloomberg's sort-of-non-candidacy.

I've had worse days.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Ah, for an evergreen

In journalism, an "evergreen" is a work product--article, column, audio, whatever one normally produces--that is unrelated to any current events, so that (in principle) it will be as good, or bad, in a year as it is today. Journalists who produce on a set periodic basis like to have an evergreen or three "in the bank" for use on those occasions when they just cannot get out their usual timely material.

Right about now, I could sure use one. I am pretty much played out after a couple of days of intensive writing in response to emails and posted comments on the steroids/baseball site I have mentioned here so often over the last few days. I am played out not so much by the length and volume of the efforts, though those are not trivial, as by the uninspiring endless repetition of the same few basics over and over again in each of the various forums (fora?) involved.

Moreover, there is nothing especially juicy in the news on which to hang a major effort of exposition. George Bush has given a State of the Union address that no one is even bothering to mock, much less attack with fire, so pathetic and irrelevant has the wretch now become.

In a way, that's bothersome. To consign him to the garbage pail of history with just an indifferent shrug is to severely undervalue to stunningly immense damage that he and his master, Dick Cheney, have inflicted on this nation. And we will never, ever recover from it. Once certain lines have been crossed, there is no retreat, not with the best of will. The powers of the "Imperial Presidency" will never contract.

I often suspect that the answer to the Fermi Paradox is that high intelligence is not, after all, an evolutionary advantage, and may well be self-limiting. Fifty years on from the depths of the Cold War, people no longer wake up sweating in the night about nuclear war, but all that means is that we have accommodated our lives and sensibilities to the fact of it--which is to say seen it as an unpleasant fact and swept it under the rug of our consciousness. That affects our minds, but it does not affect reality, and reality currently contains a huge number of nuclear weapons awaiting only the right button-push. How sure are we that there will be a humanity worth the name around in, say, 500 years?

Meanwhile, pitchers and catchers report in just over two weeks. As I get older, I am minded of Professor Tolkien's elf trying to explain to the human and hobbit mortals what time is like to the undying:

[T]he world moves, and it moves both very swift and very slow. Swift, because they themselves change little, and all else fleets by: it is a grief to them. Slow, because they do not count the running years, not for themselves. The passing seasons are but ripples ever repeated in the long long stream.
None of us ever ages, not in our inner consciousness: internally, in our conceptions of ourselves, we are forever fixed at some ageless moment, however the world may see us changing. Duration in human perception, it has been suggested, and I agree with the suggestion, is relative: we somehow measure time relative to the length of our own existence. To the five-year-old, the hour his nap will take is an eternity; to the elderly, the years flow, well, like ripples in the long long stream. Sigh.

Sunday, January 27, 2008


With the new steroids/baseball web site now decently publicized, I am seeing blog comments on it and emails about it, and am responding as best finite time allows.

What truly amazes me, though it's nothing new, is the number of people who feel well-qualified to offer extensive comments (usually flames) about what they clearly have not read. I do not have to deduce this from their manifest ignorance of what the site actually says--though one easily could--because many of them begin with remarks like "I stopped reading after the first couple of paragraphs".

We're talking here about I don't know how many thousands of words over quite a few site pages, and these folks feel competent to dissect at length a vague preliminary impression.

I do not, never have, and never will understand the sort of arrogance that enables someone to act like that. I can deal with people who read at least the entire front page and then offer criticisms or ask sharp questions. Some such questions have led me to expanded research that has, I think, improved the site. But remarks right out of total ignorance of the material are dumbfounding.

It is, I suppose, some small cold comfort to notice that that class of commenter, almost without fail, writes with bad grammar and worse spelling ("Mark Mcquire"--repeated, so it's not a typo), which are, for me, clear marks of a certain intellectual capacity. But it still burns me.

And that's all my daylong answering has left me time for here.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

At last!

Alan Schwarz's piece in The New York Times about the new Steroids and Baseball web site is now out. A few blogs have already picked up on it, and I suspect more will soon. The reaction to the site seems--so far--quite positive.

Because creating the site has eaten so much of my life lately, I am far behind in answering emails to my many other sites (I am obviously spreading myself far too thin), so I did at least a little catch-up today. But that has left me about out of both time and energy for this blog tonight. Sorry.

Some other places already noting the Times article include:

Friday, January 25, 2008

Ten Rules for Sane Living

Most of these are not original, but a few are. The order in which they appear is immaterial (that is, this is not a David Letterman type of list).

1. Things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. (Albert Einstein)

2. Don't look back — something might be gaining on you. (Satchel Paige)

3. Never trust a man who wears a bow tie.

4. Keep your eye everlastingly on the ball. (Rules of Baseball, Chapter 9)

5. Trust everyone, but brand your cattle. (Traditional)

6. Never waste your breath asking any question to which a possible answer is "Because they're very, very stupid."

7. Never take any risk about which you can imagine gathered mourners saying "Well, what did he expect, doing that?"

8. Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow--by then, it may no longer be necessary.

9. The thing you least want to be doing right now is probably the thing you most ought to be doing right now. (Traditional)

10. Almost nothing is worth running after.

Good night, and good luck.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Found news

If you are morbid enough to want to see, in some detail, how President Cheney Bush marched us into war in Iraq, the new web site Iraq: The War Card (part of the site of The Center for Public Integrity) has it all. The front-page sub-head, "Orchestrated Deception on the Path to War" says it all. Even after all this time, it's still stomach-turning to see how these weasels casually threw away thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and billions of dollars of taxpayer money, for what? Who knows. Petty spite, probably. I do hope that each and every American who voted for George Bush is as sick to his or her stomach as the rest of the world is.

* * * * *

"Cut up to 10 percent of your electric bill simply by turning off 'vampire' appliances that run all night" says an article at Salon. Sounds great, but people who urge this sort of thing tend to forget that those "vampires" are doing something with that energy. Some do indeed draw too much for simple standby functions, but many are doing things that their owners would miss were they to try the turnoff strategy. A much better idea would be to get Congress to pass some laws affecting such standby power draws in appliances. If they can set emission standards for autos, why not consumption standards for appliances?

* * * * *

Glenn Greenwald has more on the FISA mess--you recall, the bill to grant telecom giants retroactive immunity from law-breaking involved in federal snooping on our private telephone calls and suchlike. Beside Senator Broken Reid, the chief other Republican in Democrat's clothing is Jay Rockefeller, and Greenwald lays out with surgical precision what a little shit Rockefeller is. If you haven't yet communicated with your Senators about this, please do so now. Just go to the Senate web site (click those words), select your Senators, and email them via the form made available there.

* * * * *

Slate reports some interesting ideas on fixing our obviously broken patent laws.

* * * * *

There's a great but little-discussed source of "green" energy that is starting to get some attention: geothermal. The Seattle Times has more.

* * * * *

In the old days of comics, the Human Torch could control flames with "a weird trilling sound". Not so crazy: singing really can extinguish flames. Now, science is trying to convert that fact into a practical fire-control system for places (think of art museums) where conventional sprays are a bad idea. Scientific American reports.

* * * * *

From the "What are they thinking of?" department: the Ninth Circuit--usually a pretty fair-minded lot--comes a bizarre decision concerning the feds' raids on baseball data.

More exactly, Major-League Baseball and the Player's Association had a contractual agreement that in 2004 players could be tested for certain banned substances and the overall results used to determine if further drug testing would be implemented in following years. The agreement was very clear that the results were to be absolutely confidential. But the feds (lashed on by that Inspector Javert madman Jeff Novitsky) raided the testing labs and carried off computer records. Now they had a warrant, true; but the warrant expressly named 11 players for whom information was being sought. The stolen (what other word is there?) records included every other major-league player.

The feds seem to consider those other names fair prizes of war, or some such thing. I'd have to see the various sides' briefs to understand more, but for now I do not see how a warrant for 11 men's data can be thought to cover 1,400 men's data. The feds argue that the 11 names they wanted were irrevocably mixed with the other names on computer hard drives. This is to make anyone over the age of seven roll on the floor laughing. The Players' Association is likely to appeal, first to an en banc session of the Ninth Circuit, then to the Supreme Court (good luck there on opposing federal power).

* * * * *

Speaking of courts, the California Supreme Court has decided that even though state law expressly allows use of marijuana for approved medical purposes, a company can fire a worker who does so, on the ground that it is "illegal". If you're wondering how something that is legal can be illegal, it's that California says it's legal, but the feds insist that it's not, even if a state says it is. Hey, good conservatives always believe in states' rights except when they don't.

* * * * *

The New York Times has an article "National Study Finds High Levels of Mercury in Tuna". This is not a surprise. But it still staggers the mind to think how severely we have managed to pollute the world around us. (About one-third of the samples actually exceeded the legal threshold for recall.)

* * * * *

Last but not least, the Washington Post tells us that "Too Few U.S. Adults Getting Needed Vaccinations". You really, really should read it.

* * * * *

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

So much blog, so little time

I'm busy today preparing some supporting info for a major metropolitan Daily interested in the Steroids and Baseball web site, so just a very brief couple of notes.

Newly disclosed documents support earlier reports that the EPA's own legal staff told its director that disapproval by the EPA of California's "waiver request" allowing it to impose auto-emissions standards more strict than the federal ones would a) surely result in a lawsuit, and b) that the EPA would surely lose that suit.

So why would the EPA take the obviously stupid course it did?

Auto companies, especially struggling U.S.-based manufacturers, fiercely opposed the attempt by California to impose new emissions regulations, which would sharply increase mileage requirements for their vehicles in that state and any others that adopted the change.
And when Big Industry talks, President Cheney Bush listens--closely.

* * * * *

If you want to know just why the Indiana photo-ID voter law is A Bad Thing, read this report. But when the Republican Party talks, the Supremes listen--closely.

technorati tags: , , .

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Sleep tight

Five of the western world's most senior military officers and strategists have issued a 150-page memo stating that the west must be ready to resort to a pre-emptive nuclear attack to try to halt the "imminent" spread of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The five commanders argue that the west's values and way of life are under threat, but the west is struggling to summon the will to defend them.

Innocent little me, I thought not starting wars is a part of "the west's values and way of life". Hmm: war is peace. That has a faintly familiar ring.

One of the authors stated that "Proliferation is spreading and we have not too many options to stop it. We don't know how to deal with this." Nato needs to show "there is a big stick that we might have to use if there is no other option", he said.

It brings to mind the old saying that to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Great Britain is being made aware that its new (and silly) vote-by-mail system is wide open to "childishly simple" fraud. That's the big difference between them and the U.S.: they're aware of it.

The Washington Post has more on the Bush administration's grotesque mismanagement of email record-keeping. And you thought a missing 18 minutes was important . . . .

It's sad when medical researchers on literally vital projects act like vain little children.

Glenn Greenwald has another good post on the spinelessness (and thus folly) of the Democratic leadership. As he points out,
Here we have a perfect expression of the most self-destructive Democratic disease which they seem unable to cure. More than anything, they fear looking "weak." To avoid this, they "cave" and surrender and capitulate and stand for nothing. As a result, they are, as here, endlessly described in the media as "caving" and surrendering. As a result, they look (and are) weak. It's a self-destructive cycle that has no end.

It's been a while since our last bit of Giuliania, so have a look at this post, "Rudy Giuliani is Just Evil". The man is simply beyond adequate description.

The New York Times has more on the item I noted the other day, President Cheney Bush giving the Navy a waiver of laws so it can torture whales at its convenience.

The other day I mentioned the administration's harassment of space scientists; today we can read about its harassment of Arctic scientists. The GOP boys are equal-opportunity science-haters: after all, facts keep getting in the way of making the obscenely rich even richer, so muzzle those jerks who keep finding all those naughty facts. Besides, they're probably Democrats anyway.

Fine, so after years of taking supplementary Vitamin E, we gave it up when it was reported to have effects not beneficial but actually pernicious. Now a new study tells us that if we don't have plenty of Vitamin E, we'll age much worse. I understand the general problems of science and research, but could we not get a little better focussed here?

I am getting so tired of the endless armchair pontifications about steroids and baseball. Why can't even one of these loudmouths bother to do a simple Google for some facts before setting fingers to keyboard? (I know, I know, union rules.)

Monday, January 21, 2008

More of the same

Newsweek asks "Did Vytorin's makers intentionally suppress unfavorable trial results?" The answer looks like Yes--I am shocked, shocked.

From NPR--

Iraqi ground forces say their units are under strength and that better weapons are needed. They say they need U.S. to stay for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, Iraq's minister of defense doesn't have much positive to say about Iraq's army, charging the country's security forces wouldn't be ready to control internal security for four years. And he predicted they wouldn't be able to protect against an external threat until 2018.
I am shocked, shocked.

The Washington Post (among many others) reports that--
The White House possesses no archived e-mail messages for many of its component offices, including the Executive Office of the President and the Office of the Vice President, for hundreds of days between 2003 and 2005, according to the summary of an internal White House study that was disclosed yesterday by congressional Democrat [Henry Waxman].

Waxman said he decided to release the summary after White House spokesman Tony Fratto said yesterday that there is "no evidence" that any White House e-mails from those years are missing. Fratto's assertion "seems to be an unsubstantiated statement that has no relation to the facts they have shared with us," Waxman said.
I am shocked, shocked--and wish Waxman would stick to stuff like this instead of grandstanding about steroids in baseball, about which he appears to know as much as a poodle groomer might.

The Los Angeles Times notes that the Bush administration has now taken to prying into the private lives of space scientists--apparently because some of them believe--gasp!--in global warming, and design spacecraft that report data showing it to be so.

I am shocked, shocked.

At The New York Times, Bob Herbert opines to the effect that it might be a good idea for the federal government to realize that instead of tax cuts and paltry one-time cash handouts, the best way to keep the economy stable would be to provide jobs for those willing and able to do them. Well, I'm not shocked, but I reckon President Cheney Bush would be.

The Clintons are taking some flack for suggesting that Barack Obama's paeans to Ronald Reagan are, one might say, misplaced. Paul Krugman has some sound thoughts on the matter:

And it’s also why the furor over Barack Obama’s praise for Ronald Reagan is not, as some think, overblown. The fact is that how we talk about the Reagan era still matters immensely for American politics.

Bill Clinton knew that in 1991, when he began his presidential campaign. “The Reagan-Bush years,” he declared, “have exalted private gain over public obligation, special interests over the common good, wealth and fame over work and family. The 1980s ushered in a Gilded Age of greed and selfishness, of irresponsibility and excess, and of neglect.”

Contrast that with Mr. Obama’s recent statement, in an interview with a Nevada newspaper, that Reagan offered a “sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”

Maybe Mr. Obama was, as his supporters insist, simply praising Reagan’s political skills. (I think he was trying to curry favor with a conservative editorial board, which did in fact endorse him.) But where in his remarks was the clear declaration that Reaganomics failed?

For it did fail. The Reagan economy was a one-hit wonder. Yes, there was a boom in the mid-1980s, as the economy recovered from a severe recession. But while the rich got much richer, there was little sustained economic improvement for most Americans. By the late 1980s, middle-class incomes were barely higher than they had been a decade before — and the poverty rate had actually risen.

Now that John Edwards seems to have succumbed to the media's utter refusal to grant his candidacy legitimacy, I reckon its Mrs. Clinton who makes the most sense. Mr. Obama may well have a career as a major player in the world, but he needs to get beat up a little before he's ready for it: so far, everything has come to him on a platter, apparently leaving him thinking that wishing hard on the first star you see tonight is a practical way to get things done against ruthless, experienced, heavyweight bastards.

And finally, the Washington Post offers yet another opinion on the Congressional hearings about baseball and steroids. Curiously, it actually makes some sense. I am shocked, shocked.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

There must be a better way

Some while back, I opined here that we ought to just have a national primary. I still believe that that would be superior to the death by a thousand cuts that we the electorate are obliged to undergo for months at a time, while the media conveniently tell us who is a "plausible" candidate and who is not (so that, for example, John Edwards was out of the running before the running began, for reasons best known to a few newspaper and television editors).

Still, it's worth considering just why it came to pass that the populations of a handful of inconsequential states (by population,anyway) came to have such a dominant role in national politics.

The theory is simple and, in the abstract, admirable. By starting with low-population states, the process offers candidates with small resources--low treasuries, perhaps not much reputation--a chance to compete more nearly equally, to get out their message and make themselves known in places where sheer money is not quite so dominant a factor.

But if that were the basis, we could do all this a bit more rationally. Party X would simply begin with the upside-won state population list (that is, least-populous first, that currently being, by a good margin, Wyoming) and go down it till it hits a state where the percentage of the popular vote that Party X got in the last presidential general election exceeds some reasonable threshold, say 40% or 45%. In that way, Party X is not holding its first primary in a state that is largely given over to its opponents.

For the Democrats in 2008, for example, Wyoming would have been out, but the next up (or down, depending on how you think of the list), Vermont, qualifies. There, wasn't that easy? And the next after that would be the next on the list to meet the criterion. In the Democratic example, that would have been Delaware. Third for the Dems would have been Rhode Island. Fourth would have been Hawaii.

The scheme would probably want four separate, and separated (in time) trials. A good idea would be to space them out by, say, a couple of weeks, so participants in a given state aren't unduly influenced by the "bounce" effect of having just won a preceding election, but close enough that the process doesn't drag seemingly forever. After four such early trials, it would perhaps be time for a larger-scale run, perhaps a block of states selected as representative of the nation (that is, not all in one geographic region or all alike in demographics).

In that way, a state would have to earn its position for a given party by turning out at least the threshold vote percentage (I like 40%), so even if state populations don't shift much in relative terms the rota is not necessarily fixed cycle to cycle.

And I must say, without it even being factored in, diversity certainly seems to raise its head: not all that much in common between Vermont, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Hawaii.

It's a far from perfect scheme, but compared to how we do business at present, I like it.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Heaven protect us from goo-goos

I was amazed to discover that the greener-than-thou crowd has taken its objections to SUVs from talk to action--very unpleasant action. That refers to firebombings of dealerships, something that I find has been going on for years now.

What does one say about such insanity? Even if there were a snowball's chance in hell that such murderous criminality would stop even one SUV from being bought--which there is not--it would be breathtakingly vile. I suppose it's what I used to call the Errol Flynn Syndrome: the idea that derring-do (which is how creeps see the creepiness of their actions) is good and sufficient a motive in itself, to blazes with the nominal purpose.

The shitheads who do such things, as well as those who merely shout from the sidelines, might want to take a moment or two, after a few deep breaths, that is, to think (I know, I know) about all this. Out where I live (with my nearest neighbor's house over a mile away), if you can't carry sheet materials (4' x 8' things like plywood or drywall) in your vehicle, you will very often have some real problems. Not to speak of a few hay bales or a dozen trash barrels for the land fill or any number of the other sort of things that regularly fill up the back of my Suburban (and that's with the back seat folded down).

For some wet-behind-the-ears puppy to tell me I need to give up my "gas guzzler" is arrogance beyond words. And that is not to mention that even without those real needs, I'd be inclined to drive one anyway as a form of "body armor" for the wreck that some drunk or gross incompetent may someday involve me in, no matter how carefully I myself drive. If I am able to pay extra for my vehicle, my insurance, and my gas to help me protect the welfare and possibly very lives of myself and my family and friends, I very certainly am going to. The argument that if no one drove SUVs there would be no such risk is simply too comic: trucks, buses, vans, these will all melt away overnight? Besides which, who says all the damage in an accident is caused by the other vehicle? It's just too silly to discuss.

In fact, I ran our household "carbon footprint" on a couple of the green web sites that can calculate it for you, and we are way, way below the national norm or even the recommended values. That's because we use 100% solar for heating, virtually never fly anywhere for anything, and--even with our SUV--just don't do many miles each year.

I don't know why I bother. The self-appointed, self-anointed Guardians Of All Mankind are not likely to be persuaded; after all, if they were, they could no longer be action stars in the movies of their mind.

Friday, January 18, 2008

State of the states

When Americans think about "government", their thoughts tend to focus on the national government, with local (municipal, that is) government usually a weak second. Pick up any daily newspaper and see how much front-page space goes to the presidency or to the Congress (or even the Supreme Court).

Often lost in all this editorially directed shuffle are state governments, though their importance in the daily lives of citizens probably exceeds that of the federal government by a good bit. States school our children, control access to our roads (via driver's licenses), and a lot more. We should pay more attention to them.

In discussions of America's federal system, the states are often referred to as "50 laboratories" in which governmental schemes can be tried out. That's rather a patronizing view, as if to say that the Big Boys only play with tested and approved toys, while the Kids get to play with those toys first as a destruction test.

The reality is that for a long time now, states have led the federal government in many ways. Though it is a curiosity of our nation that many states have remarkably sharp political divides (think of the difference between, say, San Francisco and Los Angeles, or New York City and Albany), they are still smaller and more nearly uniform than a 300-million-person nation, and there are fewer constituencies pressing for a voice. It is, in short, easier to get meaningful things done.

Mind, in Neandertal states, that means it's easier to get bad things done, which is probably the chief argument for having a federal government that deals with more than just national defence. But the good things many states do often do not get the attention they deserve.

One example, which brought these thoughts to mind, is a recent Time article titled "What Washington Can learn From Montana". As the article notes, this often right-leaning state is tackling both the effects of global warming and its causes, in a way that puts the federal government to shame. (Well, that's en reportorial error right there: nothing ever puts anyone or anything in Washington to shame--they can't spell the word.)

We see this elsewhere, as with California (and, as is too often forgotten an entire consortium of states totalling about one-third of the nation) making their own, seriously stricter automobile-emissions laws. Another example is the large and still-growing number of states rejecting Washington's abstinence-only sex education in favor of state programs that actually work. The list could easily be extended.

The mainstream media ever more control Americans' perceptions of many things, from the significance of steroids to the consequences of illegal immigration, even though the perceptions the MSM feed are wildly at variance with the facts of the matters at issue. But perhaps most notable is their distortion of our understandings of government. When one hears of this party or that taking or losing "control", it invariably refers to the presidency, the House, the Senate, or some mix. Only very occasionally, as a sort of afterthought, does one get even a count of governorships held by the parties, much less of state legislative bodies.

Right now, there are 28 Democratic and 22 Republican governors. Of those, 11 seats are up for election this year, 9 with incumbents running and 2 open.

Whether as cause and effect or simply as a barometer, the party that controls governorships at the time has historically had an advantage in presidential contests.

There's a nice article at Stateline on the prospects for the 2008 elections, considering not only governorships but control of state legislative bodies. There's also a more interesting map--one that shows not only party control but the strength of the win in the last election--at the always interesting web site.

Larry Sabato's famous Crystal Ball political-analysis web site has this map of the 2008 governorship elections:

If you want to keep up with state-related issues, keep an eye on stateline, and also on its parent organization, the Pew Trusts, whose State Policy and Performance page is informative.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Whatta woil

Nothing Succeeds Like Failure Department: Bud Selig receives a three-year extension as baseball's commissioner.

Scientists are drawing closer to an understanding of prostate cancer--it's nice to know that somewhere in the world, there are still sane people are doing meaningful things.

A group of about a hundred Texas landowners are standing firm against the U.S. governments demands that they cede land for the stupendously absurd Giant Border fence. Realize that the story here is not the comic incompetence of those who think this fence would make a substantial difference to anything: the story is the way this administration, and modern Republicans in general, will endlessly spout off on Private-property rights, states' rights, "big gummint", and so on--till it's something they want to do, after which get out of the way of the killdozer or be a spot on the roadway.

Joint communique from the When Will They Learn and the What Does It Take Departments: a Minnesota man died after state troopers stunned him with a Taser when they said he became "uncooperative" after being involved in a wreck. The man seems to have had no history of problems. These things are not toys, they are potentially lethal weapons to be used only in extreme cases as a last alternative to gunfire. OK?

From the What Else? Department: President Cheney Bush has exempted the Navy from two major environmental laws in an effort to free the service from a federal court's decision limiting the Navy's use of sonar in training exercises. Sonar, of course, causes gross damage to whales, but by all reports few whales vote Republican. Is there one thing, any one thing, however trivial, that this administration has done in its seven years that is not grossly disgusting and morally reprehensible? One?

Just a reminder: things in Iraq are not getting better and the "surge" didn't do a thing for them--no matter what the pundidiots are muttering.

And just another reminder: the "voter ID" laws that the Fearsome Five on the Supreme Court are likely to approve any day now really do involve fraud--not by voters, but by a few Republican state administrations and their dear, dear friends on the Court.

It now looks like there will be at least some coverage of the new Steroids and Baseball web site in a Major Metropolitan Daily before the end of the month. Stay tuned for details.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Tell the truth and shame the Devil

I have been working for long hours day after day on the Steroids and Baseball web site, assembling ever more facts and probative sources. It thus angers and disgusts me almost beyond expression to see the grotesque farce that our beloved Congress is putting on in the so-called baseball hearings.

There is a nicely put summary of this dog-and-pony act in Derek Jacques' Baseball Prospectus article today, "Stupid Lawyer Tricks". I heartily recommend the article, but one bit I want to snip for especial emphasis is this:

But there was one line of questioning which, almost by accident, pointed out the report's flaws.

Representative John Yarmuth . . . asked a relatively simple question. Citing a recent New York Times op-ed that cast some doubt on whether the players named in the Mitchell report actually enjoyed enhanced performance during the time they were allegedly using PEDs, he asked if Mitchell had found evidence that PEDs are really effective. Mitchell's reply was the one time all day that he had to dance around a bit, emphasizing that, "the subject is more complicated than a simple phrase [performance enhancement] represents" before citing unspecified evidence that PEDs worked for some unnamed individuals.

That is what I have labored literally for years now to emphasize: there is no boost showing in the records: none. George Mitchell can't point to it because it doesn't exist. And I am scarcely the Lone Ranger here. Visit the site I named and linked above and you will find links to numerous other studies reaching the same conclusion, each by a different path.

If you wonder how that can be, just visit the site and read; but take my word for it, there's nothing mysterious about the lack of performance boost.

And that's all I have time for today, because unlike Congressmen and Senators, I invest time and work finding facts before I express opinions.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Romney wins Michigan, and thus sets McCain back: good. McCain is the most dangerous Republican.

George Mitchell tells the Congress that they need to leave the past behind and not start a who-did-what-when witch hunt. They respond by announcing that they will be investigating Miguel Tejada for perjury. Yup, that's our Congress, OK.

Diana's own mom called her a whore. Worse yet, there may be people somewhere who care.

I am trying to get back to reading. Paul Auster is a gem; I just finished In the Country of Last Things. Read anything you can find by Auster.

Story headline: Global Advances Challenge US Dominance in Science. Gee, no kidding. I wonder why?

Good night and good luck.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Rights and privileges

What are a citizen's "rights"? Some, what many would think the most basic human rights, are set forth in our Constitution. But those rights are primarily legal, and primarily defensive--what cannot be done to citizens by governments.

Beyond those, there is a collection of further privileges that each have a varying status as an arguable "right". In essence, political history is the story of the evolution of privileges into rights. Education is an example: it was not at all so long ago that receiving an education of any sort was sheer privilege, available only to those who could pay for it. Today, free universal education at least through adolescence is a bedrock of policy in all first-world nations, and most of the rest as well.

Broadly speaking, it is rarely a question of whether a given privilege "should" be a right:
few would have issues with an Edenic paradise in which all things are freely available to all persons (with the usual caveat that nothing done by one materially harms an unwilling other). Rather, a privilege evolves into a right as a society becomes wealthy enough to be able to support its availability as universal.

America is certainly a wealthy nation, but its wealth is distributed far more unevenly than is the case with most or all comparably wealthy societies. If we undertook some radical communistic redistribution of wealth, there are doubtless many current privileges that might become "rights", down to a new car every year. But that is not how things work, nor should it be.

Rather, every society makes a collective determination of how much wealth it is reasonable and fair to take from the most wealthy to fund universal availability of certain things. That is not simply "robbing the rich"; it is reasonable to hold that the reason they are rich is that the society in which they live has made it possible for them to become so, and that in consequence they have a certain responsibility to assist that society in some proportion to the benefit they have received from it. If you want to think of it another way, it is a sort of debt repayment: society was funded by one's ancestors for one's benefit, so--having taken advantage of that funding--one owes a debt to future generations for the benefits one has received.

A surprising fraction of the very wealthy, even in this perhaps greediest nation among all in the first world, are willing to pay more in taxes than they do now, and they have said so (consider Warren Buffett or Ted Turner). This is not an argument about how we should tax--I've been there and will be again, but not now--it is a discussion of how societies think about creating and funding "rights". The obstacle to making a few more things that are currently privileges into rights is a hard core--one which will exist in any society but is unusually large and unusually vehement in its selfishness in this nation--of the highly wealthy that objects to giving one thin dime for the betterment of its fellow beings.

It is hard to credit that in a nation with the collective wealth of the United States, getting necessary medical care is still a privilege, not a right. The recent report documenting the 100,000-plus annual deaths in this country that would not have occurred had their victims lived in some other first-world nation--probably any other such nation--seems to have been swallowed without even a burp. It's "just the way things are". Is there no longer any such thing as shame?

I mean we're not talking here about a college education, which might or might not be needful as a basic right (it would be less so did our pre-college schooling system do something approximating its nominal job). We're talking about the right to stay alive, and in reasonably good health. Not every last medical procedure can be available to every last person: we haven't yet managed to control costs sufficiently. But the commonplaces of decent care ought to be, in a nation this rich, possibly the highest priority available.

It is an interesting point that not a few economists and other researchers have reckoned that most successful and wealthy people became so not through some great or special skill, but by sheer good fortune (something I have maintained for many years). After the fact, when they have achieved their successes, it is easy for them and us to look back down their paths and see all the correct decisions they made, and attribute their achievements to the wisdom or courage they exhibited in making those choices. But in almost all cases, if we examine those decisions critically in light of what was known at the time, they will be more like dice rolls than reasonable choices.
We need a national dialogue about what we as a wealthy society believe people are entitled to merely by fact of being human, of being our fellow citizens. The greed line about sapping will and incentive and all the rest of the familiar bullshit has to be seen for the smoke screen it is. There are limits on what we can do, and on what we should do. But those limits are plainly higher than what we have now. We need to decide, as a nation, what a "right" is.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Brief--very brief--notes

I am still spending just about all my time on the new web site, Steroids and Baseball, and so have little left over right now for this blog; so these are just a few quick, almost random thoughts.

The "pundits" are still in a tizzy about how the polls could have been so wrong for the Democrats in New Hampshire. On the theory that mainstream-media pollsters can Never Be Wrong, they anguishing over what it was that made so many voters change their minds at the very last moment. But cooler heads realize that it is very much more likely that they got the polls wrong to begin with.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has ruled that, a) detainees captured in Afghanistan aren't "persons"; and b) "It was foreseeable that conduct that would ordinarily be indisputably 'seriously criminal' would be implemented by military officials responsible for detaining and interrogating suspected enemy combatants." Land of the free, home of the brave.

The FBI investigation of the Blackwater rogue shootout in Iraq has hit a little, uh, stumbling block:

Blackwater Worldwide repaired and repainted its trucks immediately after a deadly September shooting in Baghdad, making it difficult to determine whether enemy gunfire provoked the attack.
Hey, gotta keep 'em neat an' clean, no?

So sue me

I missed a day. Sorry.

Friday, January 11, 2008


At some point, those Americans who can read without moving their lips are going to have to stop treating Fox news as merely a sort of running fart joke and wake up to the seriousness of the problem phenomenon it represents.

That "Fox News" is an oxymoron is, like what they present, not news. But one needs to be aware of who watches Fox and what that watching represents. As the esteemed Pew Research Center reports:

However, those who cite the Fox News Channel as their primary source of news stand out among the TV news audience for their negative evaluations of news organizations' practices. Fully 63% of Americans who count Fox as their main news source say news stories are often inaccurate – a view held by fewer than half of those who cite CNN (46%) or network news (41%) as their main source.

Similarly, Fox viewers are far more likely to say the press is too critical of America (52% vs. 36% of CNN viewers and 29% of network news viewers). And the Fox News Channel audience gives starkly lower ratings to network news programs and national newspapers such as The New York Times and the Washington Post.
In other words, these people are living in an ever-more-isolated ghetto, well apart from the real world. They listen to only what they want and expect to hear--which Fox gleefully serves up--and anything that disagrees with that is the enemy.

Such folk have always been around--they're what Hitler and the Nazis rode to power on--and deliberately catering to their sicknesses is poisonous . . . but profitable. These folk are those who are incapable of accomplishing anything, and are doomed by their intellectual and emotional deficiencies to the bottom of the social and economic barrel. It is a well-known fact (proved, even, by psych-lab experiments) that stupid people are literally too stupid to know that they're stupid. They do not, cannot, comprehend that there are people who are simply a lot more competent than they are in every way. A natural consequence is that they believe deeply that the reason, and the only reason, that they are forever at the bottom of the barrel is an evil conspiracy by their inferiors (such delicious irony) to keep them wrongfully down. It was no mere chance that when the Nazis took over the universities, the jack-booted officers bossing around the professorial faculties were almost inevitably the former janitors at those same universities.

And in this age of abyssal divides between the political parties, it is inevitable that--
Fox ranks as the most trusted news source among Republicans but is among the least trusted by Democrats.
That illustrates starkly the degree to which the parties have each become ideologically "pure", with little internal division (at least relatively little). Though there are still some fairly conservative Democrats, there is scarcely any such thing any longer as a "moderate Republican".

And that is very, very bad news for the Republic.

(Anyone who wants an example of Fox's audacious handling of facts could do little if any better than this.)

* * * * *

Curiosities Department: Chewing Gum Sweetener Can Cause Dangerous Weight Loss. It's not funny: it seems to be semi-addictive, and its effects can be pretty serious. The villain is something called sorbitol, which can cause extreme diarrhea. Definitely not funny.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, back in the real world, where--despite the endless clown parades--wonderful and significant things still do happen, the NASA Messenger mission is ready to yield its first fruits, close-up examinations of the smallest planet, and one of the least-known. (The image here is from the 1974 Mariner mercury fly-by; the new mission should deliver even more-interesting images.)

* * * * *

Speaking of science, if this were a rational world, what would be the leading headline today would be "New work by a team of US astronomers has shown that wherever there is room for a planet to form around a young star, it does." That finding has immense significance for the question of whether life, including though not limited to intelligent life, exists elsewhere in the universe. We have found that planets are not rarities, which once many thought they might be; now we seem to have found that they are just about everywhere. Yet another term in the famous Drake equation turns out to have a pretty high value.

(So where is the international funding for SETI projects?)

* * * * *

As I noted the other day, the Strait of Hormuz naval "incident" smells worse than a 10-days'-beached whale. As the story headline says, Official Version of Naval Incident Starts to Unravel.
I am shocked, shocked. President Cheney and his sock puppet really, really want another mid-East war (the last two having been such raging successes). Don't we all? I guess we do if we're Republicans ("Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran").

* * * * *

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Slogging right along . . .

I have said before and will no doubt say again that our next president's knowledge of and attitudes toward science are going to be crucial for this nation. If a candidate's views and positions on science matter to you, you can check them out--to some extent, anyway--at Science magazine's page "Science and the Next U.S. President", which has click-on links to information for each candidate.

Slate has an article on the Supreme Court's review of the Indiana "voter-ID" law. It seems some of the justices think that for a poor or elderly person to make a 17-mile bus trip to present credential at a county seat is no burden at all. Why don't they try it themselves a few times?

At The Nation, Barbara Ehrenreich points out (rightly) that economists are in cloud-cuckooland when they natter on about "growth" rather than concentrate on how people in a "growing" or otherwise economy are actually doing. It is perfectly possible for "the economy" to be doing just fine while most people comprised in it are doing lousy.

Well, well, what do you know: someone besides me is taking the Huckabee-backed "fair tax" plan seriously. Steven E. Landsburg at Slate observes (in "Huckabee's Tax Plan Is Brilliant - So why is it getting trashed?") that a sales-tax-only tax system is very much like an income-tax system with unlimited IRA availability. That is, if you could put aside all you make but don't spend tax-free in an investment whose earnings are also tax-free till spent, it's mostly a push. Are IRAs a "nutty idea"?

Congressman Robert Wexler repeats what not enough people are understanding, that the "success" of the surge is a Big Lie. The phony "success" is a process that started before the surge, that goes on where troops are not surging, and that has plain causes quite unrelated to U.S. troop strengths in Iraq.

Murray Chass at The New York Times seems to have built a major career as a sportswriter by being a fool at the top of his lungs again and again and again. His latest bizarre demonstration is his article positing that as Andy Pettitte goes, so goes Roger Clemens, as if what one of them says has some occult controlling effect on the validity of what the other says. And while he's at it, he throws in his apparently mandatory snide cheapshot at Barry Bonds.

As it happens, my new web site, Steroids and Baseball, which deals with demonstrable fact instead of Chass-like wet dreams of scandal, is getting some nice comments from the "beta testers" I have asked to look it over, and they are people with a right to an opinion on these matters.

Lats for today, but far from least, Glenn Greenwald once again has intelligent and pertinent comments, this time on the increasingly bizarre tale of the Navy's weird recounting of the events in the infamous "motorboat buzzing" by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. It seems the descriptions and even the videos released by the Navy to the press are either doctored or interfered with in the strangest ways. For one, the radio voice supposedly coming from the Iranian boats apparently could not possibly have originated from them, and may not even be from Iran or any Iranis. Read all abaht it, as they used to cry out.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

You would think . . .

That people who live where it snows a good bit every winter would have some idea how to drive in snow. Alas, by and large 'tis not so.

I am but shortly back from a two-hour round trip to The Big Town (pop. c. 250,000) by way of a major Interstate. On both the local roads and the interstate, there was some snow, but scarcely piled drifts, yet on each leg of the trip we saw perhaps half a dozen cars that had spun off the road and were now mired.

I find in conversation that I am not alone in this sentiment: many we speak with ask "Why can't anyone here drive in snow?" This is, after all, Washington State. No one knows. But so it is.

Perhaps--no, what am I saying?--surely the worst snow-weather driving I ever saw was, mayhap excusably, in Texas. We were travelling cross-country by Interstate and somewhere in mid-Texas we ran into a freak heavy snowstorm. In no time at all, we were down to about 5 miles an hour, and I am not making this up in dim, after-the-fact memory because we were in a Volkswagen van and staying in first gear, which tops out at about 8 mph.

We just crawled, like almost everyone caught with us. It took perhaps 45 minutes to reach the next exit that came along, where we at once got off and went to the first motel that presented itself, in some small town whose name I have forgotten. We got the last available room in town, so many were fleeing the Interstate.

It was bad enough, in the late afternoon snowstorm, trying to even see where the road was, but even so, there were cars shooting past at, oh, maybe 45 mph. We wondered who could be so crazy; the next day, we found out.

By then, it was fairly sunny, but the road was still pretty snowy; drivable, but only slowly and with great care. On the radio before leaving the motel, we heard of an incident where the state police (or the Rangers?) had barricaded the on-ramps to the Interstate, so dangerous was it. So what do these Texans do? Stop their cars, get out, move the barricades and try to drive on. "Try" because all this is right in front of the police. When they tried to stop one jackass, he tried to run them down. Lawr'n'ordah, yah, you bet.

On the Interstate, it was as if Brueghel the Younger had painted snow scenes in hell. About every mile or so was another car off the road, most of them rolled over (the gap between the two road directions was a depression perhaps six to eight feet down with a fairly sharp slope, and most had rolled down that slope). One memory that sticks yet was a truck drawing a horse trailer, rolled onto its side, trailer and all, horse quite dead, feet sticking straight up.

All that was, of course, needless. Anyone with the least experience of bad-weather driving was proceeding, slowly but methodically and effectively, at modest speed. Every couple of minutes, though, there came and went some turkey who couldn't understand how or why some white powder should keep him from his accustomed 75 or 80 mph. We often met up with them a few more miles down the road from where they had passed us.

When I was in college, in a town in upstate new york where it really got cold and snowy in the winter (at -10 °F. we didn't bother to zip our coats for less than a block's walk), when the first significant snow of the season hit, the wise heads of those privileged to have a car would take the vehicle out in the evening onto the empty, snow-covered parking lot of the nearby high school and spend an hour or two re-accustoming themselves to the habits and instincts of steering on a slick surface, such that the wanted reactions became again automatic.

I don't to this day know why more people in snowy climes don't do the same thing--indeed, why there aren't municipally sponsored or operated zones where cars can be spun and skidded in safety as practice. But there's always some place around, empty and large enough so that one cannot run into anything if one stays toward the center, that can afford the needed practice.

It's kind of fun, though that's not the main idea. And it could save your life.

technorati tags: , , , .

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

This is a test; this is only a test

When the 32-hour day arrives, I'll have fewer of these "I didn't have time" entries.

OK, so new Hampshire didn't go as the pundits expected. So? That makes them wrong, by my reckoning, um, let's see, carry the seven, divide by ... uh, say. . . 2 out of 2? But they still have jobs, and people still listen to or read them. My, my.

And what are we to make of what we've seen so far, the 2.45% or so of America represented? (That's an exaggeration, as not all of Iowa was heard from.) Well, first, I think, that Mitt-boy is in deep do-do. Second is that John Edwards, a fine man and maybe the best candidate out there (at least with Dodd and Richardson gone), is probably effectively dead, no matter his willpower. Third is that Barack Obama is learning that it is unwise to count on college kids, whose attention span embarrasses mayflies.

At this point, I'd say the Democratic nomination is between Obama and Clinton, and wide open. Neither brilliant nor original, but there it is anyway. The Republicans are now going to have a tough time stopping McCain. A lot of the folk on the ground always liked him, and none of the others is palatable to any but a small claque. With none of those others crashing the sound barrier anywhere, who else is there to go to? Huckabee is a 9-days wonder at best, Giuliani has stayed low for so long that he'll be unable to stand up straight again (though nothing that man ever did is straight), Thompson has missed too many naps, and Mitt's bought the biscuit two states in a row, including one he was supposed to walk away with.

All for all, that's too bad, because McCain is, I reckon, the most dangerous candidate for the Democrats to run against. He's just so aw-shucks sincere that no one ever looks closely enough at what it is that he's sincere about. ("Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran . . . .")

Well, you have been warned.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Everything you thought you knew about steroids is wrong

And the truth, amply analyzed and documented with countless citations of the scientific literature, is right here. I'll say no more on it in this post: read all about it (but be warned that there's a lot to read).

It will be very, very interesting to see how l'affaire Clemens plays out. If, whether through lawsuit, Congressional testimony, or public appearances he manages to prove his innocence, or--more plausible--simply generate a generally sustained serious doubt about his guilt, the pffft, there goes the whole Mitchell Report, dead as a doornail.

Why? Because, with only a few exceptions (the handful actually documented with some hard, physical evidence, like definite documents, and the handful who have fessed up), everything in the thing is the same as the Clemens accusation: one uncorroborated, unsubstantiated tell-all with jail time hanging over his head if he doesn't "co-operate" with the Feds in producing juicy stories. If the public gets a clear sense, definite proof or no, that the single far-and-away most newsworthy claim in the document was hooey, how will they feel about the rest of it?

I very much hope Clemens does turn public opinion. For myself, I think Clemens is something of a jerk, for several reasons, but his personality is not what's on trial here: his reputation and his word are.

More generally, we aren't going to get anywhere meaningful with this whole "drugs" business (remember when "drugs" was good word--"wonder drugs" curing disease? Back before the God Squad got hold of it and started Reefer-Madness'ing it to death?) till we stop with the false moralizing over it (in what way does it differ from, say, Lasik surgery?), take PEDs ("performance-enhancing drugs") off the illegal "controlled substances" list and off the professional sports organizations' banned lists, and let doctors offer sane, valid advice to any athlete who wants to use a PED, just as an optometrist offers advice on the benefits and risks of eye surgery.

* * * * *

More interesting stuff on the mechanics of voting accurately and honestly: an opinion piece in The New York Times by William Poundstone in which he sets forth a clever way to use the inherently reliable paper ballot without the usual drawbacks of a risk of either accidental or deliberate tampering. Be sure to read it all the way down, to the part where he points out how easy it is to do the verification.

* * * * *
Science Daily has an article pointing out yet again what many people (including me) have been saying for quite some time now: that "biofuels" are mostly a very bad, wrongheaded idea. There are exceptions, chiefly those made from waste by-products, such as used cooking oils; but the mainstream stuff, notably corn, that the Kumbaya crowd has been pushing so hard actually harm the environment more than fossil fuels--all the while that they make food scarcer and more expensive for the poor everywhere. Nice going, dorks.

* * * * *

As I observed yesterday, the mainstream media are now falling all over themselves trying to be the most emphatic is "refuting" and marginalizing the "fair tax" Huckabee is pushing. Now CNN and Money magazine have joined the act. Their criticism are so alike, and also like those seen already in other media, that one would think they all get it from some central script-writing center.

Look, I think the tax as Huckabee and the institute behind him on it have it is fairly screwed up. But the screwup is nothing fundamental, nothing that vitiates the general concept: it lies mainly in the way in which they try to make it not be regressive and thus punitive for lower-income households. There are very much better ways to go about that, but their drawback is that they aren't well-suited for 17-second sound bites, requiring some delicate and non-obvious consideration, and also--in fairness--leaving a fair bit of room for maneuvering by special-interest groups.
(I'm talking here about providing exemptions, not "prebates", for taxation on the essentials: food--including beer and wine--untaxed; housing untaxed up to the regional median cost for a household of a given size; non-elective medical care, untaxed; education costs--from text books to tuition--untaxed, with perhaps some upscale limit, or perhaps not; charitable contributions, untaxed; and so on. You can easily see where there's room for substantial argument on at least some of those as to exact particulars. But a "prebate" is silly: what's to stop the recipient from using it on hard liquor, or gambling it away? How does that assure that essentials are untaxed?)
Incidentally, the goofy reckoning some of the critical articles are using to make it seem that the rick don't get taxed much is almost insulting in its naivete. "Money" is nothing--an abstract, numbers on paper or a computer screen--till it's spent on something. To grouse about the "effective"tax on Scrooge McDuck's annual income when he banks a million of it as beyond his current needs is just to show an intellectual inability to get away from the idea that income is of necessity the thing that must be taxed: it is, in fact, a perfect example of what "begging the question" really means.

"Wealth" is a meaningless term unless it is applied to expenditures. How "rich" are those occasional nutcases living in shabby hotels and eating dog food when--as we discover on their death--they had a zillion bucks in cash in shoeboxes in the closet? This should be tattooed to the inside of every economist's eyeballs (both professional and amateur economists):

Rich is as rich spends. The end.

The articles also generally chastise supporters of the idea, who tend to be rather rabid, as "just" wanting to get rid of the IRS. Excuse me, that would be a bad thing??

* * * * *

The mainstream media are loving Obama's surge, because now they can pick on Clinton--whom, you may remember, they anointed as the unstoppable force.

I keep thinking of the old saying "Every nation gets just exactly so good a government as it deserves", and whenever I do, I shudder.

* * * * *

Sunday, January 6, 2008

A short blog from a long day

Remember the book Aerobics by Ken Cooper, the one that really started the fitness movement on the high road, running, jogging, and all that? Well, Dr. Cooper has a fascinating new endeavor, but I'll let you read all about it.

Moving right along . . . .

Now that Mike Huckabee is more nearly a serious candidate, the mainstream media can no longer be casually contemptuous of his radical tax plan; now they have to be contemptuous at length.

The New York Times has a full column dedicated to telling us why it's crazy, and--as usual--insult our intelligence along the way.

By some estimates it could add 40 percent, if not more, to the cost of living.
No, it couldn't: it is designed to be revenue-neutral, meaning the government takes no more in sum than it does now. It could add up to 40% to the cost of many goods and services, but that's a very different animal if you have no taxes whatever coming out of your paycheck (or any other income).
[I]ts burden would fall disproportionately on middle-income people.
Pfui. Its burden would fall on those who spend the most. Last time I looked, what characterized the rich was that they spent more than the middle class. Has that changed while I wasn't looking?
Whatever the rate, critics say, a steep federal retail tax, piled on top of existing state sales taxes, would encourage widespread illegal tax evasion, black market transactions and other forms of cheating, creating a cycle that would require even higher tax rates.
How brain-dead can you get? The extent of cheating under the present godawful system chokes the imagination. This is the very same New York Times that not so long ago wrote that--
the Internal Revenue Service looked at both unreported income and improper deductions and concluded that Americans shortchanged the government by $345 billion in 2001 — an amount almost equal to the projected federal budget deficit for 2007.
And it's been getting worse. And that probably doesn't include corporate cheating, much less the quasi-legal artifices of "tax avoidance".

Meanwhile, how much are states losing from cheating on their various sales taxes? If it's a problem of consequence, they sure seem to be keeping it a secret. It's a very, very great deal harder to hide cheating on purchases of things than on income--and easier to expose and prove, too. Let's not be silly (oh, sorry, forgot, this is the once-respectable Times).
Like any tax on consumption, the biggest burden, comparatively, would fall on the poor. To help compensate for this, the plan would provide a monthly check from the government to every American household, rich and poor alike.
It is not "like and tax on consumption". Whether a tax on consumption unreasonably burdens lower-income households depends very sharply on what is taxed and how--in other words, on the details of a particular plan. It is a shibboleth oft repeated that sales taxes are regressive, but that's because the devil's in the details, not because they have to be.

I haven't looked at the details of Huckabee's plan, but from superficial skimming, I think it's in serious need of major fixing to avoid being unduly regressive or, on the other hand, needlessly and fatally complex.

But my point is that the general idea is being rejected out of hand, contemptuously, by people who are either idiots or liars, which does not intrinsically endear me to their line of argument.

technorati tags: , , , .