Saturday, October 31, 2009

The results of "smart power"

Iranian Lawmakers Reject Uranium Plan

"So far the paybacks have been minimal."
--character Chase Hammond from the film "Drive Me Crazy"

If pressed to come up with the positive aspects of the Obama administration's foreign policy, we have little more than a Nobel prize to show thus far.

Lynyrd Skynyrd & politics

I've always had a soft spot for the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. The band was my favorite throughout high school, and for the most part their lyrics reflected the values to which I subscribed. Sure, the band abused drugs. But their songs such as "Poison Whiskey" and "Needle and the Spoon" delivered sermons that I took to heart.

The title the band chose for their latest release raised my eyebrows. "God and Guns." And an appearance on Fox News with Hannity?

I especially liked when Gary Rossington called Hannity "the Baby Jesus." Neal Boortz coined that nickname for his fellow radio host.

So it looks like Skynyrd is out as conservatives, though they do state that some of the band members are Democrats.

And now (at last) to my main point behind this post. I remember the darnedest things. For one, a popular Skynyrd tune called "Saturday Night Special." The song seemed to ask for gun control legislation, particularly handguns. The last line, according to my memory: "So why don't we dump 'em, people, to the bottom of the sea. 'Fore some ol' fool come around here, wanna shoot either you or me ... (followed by chorus)."

And one other thing. Skynyrd was part of a victory celebration for the newly elected Jimmy Carter, a Democrat from Georgia.

So what does it all mean?

I think it means that the Democratic Party has drifted a little left. Lynyrd Skynyrd has drifted a little right. And Carter was from Georgia.


As for the new album, it has some decent tunes on it and sounds a little closer to old Skynyrd to my ears. "Nuthin' Fancy" era, that is.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Red State: Crist, LeMieux implicated in bogus attack on Marco Rubio

Appalling if it's true:
Charlie Crist is becoming so desperate that his campaign has descended to farcical parodies of Nixonian tactics. The campaign has decided to attack itself and blame Marco Rubio. We know this because, when caught, their lame cover up proved they were behind everything.
(read more at Red State)
Just a reminder for Floridians, regardless of whether Red State has the goods on Crist: Vote Rubio.

Neil Cavuto talks with Marco Rubio

Hat tip to Hot Air:

What is this obsession witches have with Halloween candy?

While visiting The Huffington Post for research purposes, I happened to see an story making fun of Pat Robertson's CBN for publishing an extreme article on Halloween.

The ridicule appears to be deserved, unfortunately.

I should mention that I'm not a big fan of Robertson or of CBN--but I think Robertson is basically a very smart man and I hope for better than this from CBN.

So here is the pinnacle of inanity from the article:
During this period demons are assigned against those who participate in the rituals and festivities. These demons are automatically drawn to the fetishes that open doors for them to come into the lives of human beings. For example, most of the candy sold during this season has been dedicated and prayed over by witches.

I do not buy candy during the Halloween season. Curses are sent through the tricks and treats of the innocent whether they get it by going door to door or by purchasing it from the local grocery store. The demons cannot tell the difference.


The link goes to Charisma magazine's Web site because CBN has (wisely) taken the article down (still available via Google cache if you hurry).

I would love to know where author Kimberly Daniels (pastor of a Jacksonville, Fla. church) got her information. As Sallie Rushing put it in the "comments" section:
What nonsense! I would like to know how the writer knows that the witches pray over all the Halloween candy. Do they have the whole coven march from store to store en masse to gather around the candy aisle? If so, where do they get enough witches to deal with all the world's candy? How does she know what the Satanists do in their "meetings"? If she can give some more valid proof of research for all these things, she could be taken more seriously.
Apparently there are a whole lot more witches than we thought. Or at least they're better represented in candy factories than we ever expected.

Can we have a higher editorial standard at Charisma and CBN, please?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tampa Bay Bucs: Quarterback?

OK, so I haven't posted much about sports lately. I figure my time is better spent providing content unlikely to occur elsewhere.

That said, I have some opinions about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their situation at quarterback.

1) I've never been impressed with Byron Leftwich. Wished him well while he was in Jacksonville. The guy had a good arm but seemed limited in what he could accomplish by limited mobility plus a slow release.

2) I thought Luke McCown offered the Bucs the best chance to win, headed into the season. McCown was traded to Jacksonville prior to the season.

3) I do not yet see what the Bucs see in Josh Freeman.

4) I liked the draft of Josh Johnson last year, but figured Johnson would move on in favor of keeping McCown, Leftwich and Freeman.

The Bucs named Leftwich as the starter, to my mild surprise. I considered the possibility that race had something to do with the decision. Wrong idea, I think. McCown never showed much more than Leftwich has shown but had less game experience. Plus Leftwich can throw the deep ball, which has remained an open question for McCown.

So the Bucs entered the season with Leftwich starting.

5) Leftwich played pretty well in the first game of the season. That game showed us the good side of his game. The next two games showed off his weaknesses as his lack of mobility combined with his slow windup to hamper the Bucs offense. The Bucs switched to the highly mobile Josh Johnson.

Johnson apparently practiced little with the starting offense. It may be argued that elevating him to the starting position would cause the team to question the judgment of the coaching staff--perhaps not the case if the second-year QB out of San Diego had been considered in the running for the starting role at some point in the preseason.

6) Johnson has displayed good mobility and an accurate arm. His decision making, unfortunately, has hurt the Bucs too often.

During the latest loss to the Patriots, Josh Freeman got his first regular season playing time.

I still don't see what Bucs' coaches see.

To me, Josh Johnson offers the Bucs the best chance to win right now. And I do not see why his upside is any less than Josh Freeman's. Hopefully, the fact that the coaching staff apparently disagrees with me confirms that my assessment is wrong. Otherwise, we have a coaching staff that has trouble evaluating talent at the game's key position.


Reason to hope I'm wrong(!):

Sammy Stroughter has been a very pleasant surprise at wide receiver. He seems like the type of player Jon Gruden thought he was drafting when the Bucs picked up wideout Dexter Jackson with a second round pick last year.

The "Are you kidding me?" Department

Unlike Fox News, real journalism is objective. Or something like that.

Which brings us to the page not found message I just stumbled over at the PolitiFact section of the St. Petersburg Times' system of Web sites:

I think this is not the sort of joke one ought to indulge if the appearance of objectivity matters.

If they provide an image of Joe Biden when they find the missing page, then I suppose it evens things out.

Perhaps this should be filed under "Too clever for their own good."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rasmussen: Crist and Rubio similarly electable

If you're a Republican leaning toward Charlie Crist in the upcoming election to determine Florida's newest senator--and basing your preference on Crist's popularity making him more likely to win the seat than Marco Rubio--then it's time to recalculate.

Rasmussen Reports has Charlie Crist beating Democrat Kendrick Meek by 12 percentage points, 46-34. Rubio beats Meek by 15 percentage points, 46-31.

Vote Marco Rubio.

Grading PolitiFact: Did Bush sit on troop request?

Former vice president Dick Cheney recently leveled a withering criticism of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, rather than attempting to specifically rebut Cheney's criticisms, fired off a counterattack at Cheney. And PolitiFact took note, after a fashion.

The issue:

Gibbs' retort addresses Cheney's charge that President Obama is "dithering" over a troop request for Afghanistan with a "you, too!" accusation that Bush did the same thing only worse.

The fact checkers:

Robert Farley: writer, researcher
Greg Joyce: editor


This seems like another of those fact-checking instances where the would-be investigators thought something along the lines of "Wouldn't that just be like Bush to ignore a troop request?" followed by sufficient investigation to confirm what certainly must be true. It's hard to imagine how else Farley and Joyce could flub this one so badly.

Let us track Farley's course, then, and track his missteps.

Gibbs is referring here to a request for additional troops made by the previous top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, during President George W. Bush's final year in office.

McKiernan made his requests public in a press conference in September 2008 in Afghanistan, saying he needed at least three more combat brigades, in addition to the one Bush had promised in January. He said more soldiers and resources were needed to stabilize insurgencies in Afghanistan.

Farley's reporting here is accurate, but requires a bit of explanation.

Note that the request was pending during Bush's final year in office. Note that troops were "promised in January." Farley's language here is somewhat ambiguous, permitting the interpretation that Bush had made a promise in January of 2008 to send an additional brigade to Afghanistan at some later point. However, it actually means (regardless of how Farley took it) that Bush had promised to send a brigade to Afghanistan in January of 2009. The timing is significant, of course, because Jan. 2009 represents Bush's last month in office.

So, rather than dithering over the troop request, as Gibbs' statement implies, Bush had already acted to address the request to the extent possible given troop commitments in Iraq at the time.

Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard did some of the legwork neglected by Farley on this issue:

I couldn't reach Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, but I did talk to a senior defense official who serves with him. This person stressed that Gates has gone to great lengths to avoid being dragged into political fights between administrations. Nonetheless, he offered a strong rebuke to the present White House political team.

"There was no request on anyone's desk for eight months," said the defense official. "There was not a request that went to the White House because we didn't have forces to commit. So on the facts, they're wrong."

Even when Farley quotes essentially the same information from Obama, he can't seem to put the pieces together:

According to a story in the Baltimore Sun on Feb. 18, 2009, "The deployment is Obama's response to a long-standing request from commanders in Afghanistan for more troops. The commanders have sought four more combat brigades, aviation units and other support, representing an increase of more than 20,000 troops."

In a March speech outlining a new strategy for the war there, Obama said that "for six years, Afghanistan has been denied the resources that it demands because of the war in Iraq."

Obama then seemed to take a swipe at the Bush administration when he added that he ordered the additional troops to satisfy a request that came from Gen. McKiernan "for many months."

Shouldn't we expect a competent reporter to pick up on the notion that Afghanistan didn't get the full four brigades from Bush because of troop commitments in Iraq? At least if we give Obama the benefit of the doubt?

Whereas the misdirection by Gibbs ought to earn a "Pants on Fire!" rating for sheer chutzpah, Farley and PolitiFact rate the White House spokesperson with an unqualified "True":

The public doesn't have access to McKiernan's formal request for more troops. But we know that he was talking about it publicly in September 2008, at least 4 1/2 months before the end of Bush's term. And McKiernan told reporters his request went back nearly to the start of his taking over as the top U.S. commander four months before that. That would suggest Gibb's claim is correct that it had been sitting on desks in the White House for eight months. And so we rule his statement True.

Pathetic, as is often the case with PolitiFact.

The tag "journalists reporting badly" applies.

The grades:

Robert Farley: F
Greg Joyce: F

Friday, October 23, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Health care rationing equivocation

Fact checking ought to root out and expose incidences of equivocation. Not aid and abet them.

Fact-checking the fact checkers

The issue:

Howard Dean stated "There's no rationing in any of these bills."

PolitiFact takes issue with Dean, claiming "There's rationing in health care now, and there still would be under reform bill."

The fact checkers:

Robert Farley: writer, researcher


The key to analysis of Farley's work occurs in paragraph number 20:
John Holahan, the director of the Urban Institute Health Policy Research Center, said he has not seen anything in any of the plans that will result in explicit rationing, but "if you define rationing as 'people can't get everything they want,' it's true. But it's also true today."
"People can't get everything they want" does represent the definition of "rationing" used in Farley's piece.

It follows from Barack Obama's defence of his bill (as cited by Farley):

Even Obama acknowledged the reality of health care rationing in a town hall on health care on Aug. 16:

"When we talk about reform, you hear some opponents of reform saying that somehow we are trying to ration care, or restrict the doctors that you can see, or you name it," Obama said. "Well, that's what's going on right now. It's just that the decisions are being made by the insurance companies.

"Now, in fairness, we probably could not construct a system in which you could see any doctor anywhere in the world any time, regardless of expense. That would be a hard system to set up. So if you live in Maine, you know, we're going to fly you into California, put you up. I mean, you can see — and I'm not trying to make light of it — you can just see the difficulty.

"So any system we design, there are going to have to be some choices that have to be made in terms of where you go to see your doctor, what's going on, et cetera. That's being done currently in the private marketplace. All we're trying to do is to make sure that those decisions that are being made in the private marketplace aren't discriminating against people because they're already sick; that they are making sure that people get a good deal from the health care dollars that they are spending."

In other words, rationing is just a fact of life in a world with limited resources.

The same definition of "rationing" occurs in a New York Times story cited by Farley, "Health care rationing rhetoric overlooks reality," by David Leonhardt.

As a result, Farley's story only serves to muddy the water, albeit in a way that helps President Obama while giving Howard Dean a slap on the wrist.

The working definition Farley uses entirely misleads the reader.
Rationing is the controlled distribution of resources and scarce goods or services: it restricts how much people are allowed to buy or consume. Rationing, for whatever reason, controls the size of the ration, one's allotted portion of the resources being distributed on a particular day or at a particular time.

In economics, it is often common to use the word "rationing" to refer to one of the roles that prices play in markets, while rationing (as the word is usually used) is called "non-price rationing." Using prices to ration means that those with the most money (or other assets) and who want a product the most get the largest amount, whereas non-price rationing follows other principles of distribution. Below, we discuss only the latter, dropping the "non-price" qualifier, to refer only to marketing done by an authority of some sort (often the government).


Farley erases the distinction that ought to be made between price rationing and other forms of rationing. As a result, his story manifests the fallacy of equivocation. In other words, "rationing" in usual parlance does not refer to price rationing. Farley followed the conventions of others in ignoring the customary usage in favor of one that included price rationing.

And what are the implications for Mr. Dean's claim?

It's hard to say. Dean may be correct that rationing is not explicitly spelled out in any of the relevant bills.

Farley treats only the effectiveness research provision and the separate Independent Medicare Advisory Council proposed by President Obama.

Effectiveness research by itself does not result in rationing of services. It does, however, pave the way toward such rationing as illustrated by the British parallel, NICE (PolitiFact has denied the parallel, for no apparent reason).

As for IMAC, Michael F. Cannon, Farley's source from the CATO Institute, detects in it the power to ration services.

Under this analysis, Dean might be given a "half true" rating--recognizing that he is technically correct that rationing is not specified in health care reform bills, but misleading in that rationing may very well result because of implicit provisions in the bills.

In contrast to this, Farley's effort simply takes the rationalizations of the Obama White House--like the one in the video below--and utilizes them to punish the irrelevant Dean while burnishing the Obama glow. But Obama's argument, based as it is on shameless equivocation, shouldn't rate any better than "half true" either.

Insurance companies do not ordinarily engage in the ordinary understanding of "rationing." They contract with the insured to pay for certain types of services (and up to certain dollar amounts) and charge according to the assumed risk. In contrast, the Canadian single-payer system caps expenditures at a given amount for the fiscal year and cuts off services after that amount is reached. That is real rationing in the normally understood sense, and whether the "public option" will ultimately follow a similar course remains unclear.

Yes, some type of rationing is inevitable no matter what system is used. But the type of rationing we normally mean may be implicit in the health care reform bills under consideration. The Obama administration and its congressional supporters mislead the public by shifting to a different meaning of "rationing." And PolitiFact aids that effort.

The grades:

Robert Farley: F
Bill Adair: F


Additional note:

Farley made unfortunate use of a quotation from John Holahan, the director of the Urban Institute Health Policy Research Center:
(Holahan) said that Medicare is much less likely to deny a health service than a private insurer.

"That's the argument you hear people making (that the reform bills would lead to government rationing)," Holahan said. "But I think they have it backwards."

According to this report published by the AMA, it seems that Holahan may be the one who has it backwards. Over about a year's time, Medicare denied 6.85 percent of "claim lines." The worst of the private insurers surveyed was slightly better than that, at 6.8 percent. Most of the rest surveyed were in the 2-3 percent range.

Did Farley bother double-checking Holahan's statement before quoting it as though it was true?

White House tries to boot Fox from press pool interview: Other networks object

Just ... wow.

Shame on the Obama administration.

Props to ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

New name for Protected Vehicles, Inc.

New owner Patriarch Partners has renamed "Protected Vehicles, Inc." as "Mobile Armored Vehicles, LLC."

MAV has established one of those eternally "coming soon" Web sites. Currently it's under the old domain name.

Obama: Republicans "do what they're told"

President Obama keeps developing that new post-partisan tone in Washington.

Check out the video at Politico that shows him praising Democrats for independent thinking and backhanding Republicans for "doing what they're told."

This belief provides the president with a wonderful opportunity. If he can just get enough independent-thinking Democrats to go along with his plans, then he can just tell the Republicans what to do ("Vote for my bill!"), and exercise virtually total control over the government.

What? You say that Republicans only do what certain voices tell them to do? Well, how do they decide which voices to listen to without thinking for themselves?

Barack Obama is brilliant.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Crist versus Rubio

I heard a radio ad from the Charlie Crist campaign the other day. Crist, of course, is pursuing the senate seat left vacant by Mel Martinez.

Crist's ad paints him as the advocate of smaller government. He presents himself as a needed antidote for the spending policies of President Obama.

But it was Crist who appeared alongside Mr. Obama while the latter was extolling the virtues of the Porkulus bill. Crist welcomed those federal dollars with open arms. So it seems his conversion to fiscally responsible federalism is recent if we suppose it real.

Listen to Crist's radio ads here.

Here's a portion of Crist's appearance with President Obama:

I'm supporting Marco Rubio over Charlie Crist, and I'm pleased to see the news that Rubio is closing in the polls.

Crist's claim about his fiscal responsibility rating from CATO is legit. But CATO seems to have looked at the overall flat budget in combination with Crist's lowering of Florida property taxes. The analysis fails to take into account Crist's nonsensical handling of homeowner's insurance and his welcoming of federal pork.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Lies to make you unhappy

Misery loves company, so it is said.

Which brings us to Robyn Blumner's weekly editorial column. Blumner again makes herself an echo-chamber for unhappy atheist Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich wrote a book attacking Americans for the affinity they show for positive thinking. Blumner likes the book.
Ehrenreich's bout with breast cancer and the cloying "pink ribbon culture" that surrounds this dreaded disease (she is urged to see her cancer as a "gift") made her explore our cultural obsession with being happy.
The cultural obsession appears to follow a biological drive, from what I can tell. At least in part. But let's allow Blumner to get on a roll before letting the air out of her tires.
The book's point is that realism is being elbowed out of the way by all the life coaches, self-help books and prosperity gospel preachers like Joel Osteen who tell us that a positive outlook will lead to success, riches and the fulfillment of all of life's desires.
It seems to me there's a big difference between simply wanting to be happy and supposing that a positive mental attitude will itself result in prosperity.
These heaping helpings of sunny optimism are subtly diverting us from grappling with serious social and economic issues in ways that can truly bring about change.
I doubt it. Prosperity messages like that preached by Osteen and others have a long history in the United States. Starting back in the 19th century. Most folks ignore them, and most likely many of those attracted to that message are not particularly happy. After all, if you're already happy then why long for more happiness?
The Secret became a runaway bestseller by telling readers that they could have anything they want just by imagining it. The book was obviously unadulterated bunk, but it sold madly as people grasped at any chance to better their lives. One has to wonder if such magical thinking would have been so popular if people felt they had temporal power to change the conditions of their work and prospects.
"The Secret" became a bestseller because Oprah Winfrey endorsed it.
The reason that so many Americans work at jobs that don't pay enough is not that they don't channel enough positive energy into getting a better salary, but that wages have been stagnant for 30 years. And the reason that wages have barely budged is that America's wealthiest households have kept slicing themselves a larger piece of the income pie.
Blumner remains consistently ignorant about economics. First, she provides the reader a false dilemma. Let's say a lack of "positive energy" is not to blame for wage stagnation. But shouldn't we allow for a worker's lack of initiative to play some role in the failure to increase personal wages? And should we ignore major changes to society like the major influx of females into the workforce? Second, she treats income like a finite commodity. It isn't. Wages represent useful work, albeit the system can be fooled for a time. An increase in useful work allows increased wages and increased buying power. More work at the upper end of the spectrum steals nothing from the lower end of the spectrum. Suggesting otherwise is a lie, albeit most often a lie born out of ignorance.
Between 1979 and 2007, the top 1 percent of American households saw their share of all pretax income nearly double while the bottom 80 percent had their share fall by 7 percent. Ehrenreich quotes the New York Times saying, "It's as if every household in the bottom 80 percent is writing a check for $7,000 every year and sending it to the top 1 percent."
Ehrenreich shares Blumner's ignorance of economics. Her conclusion follows if we accept the premise that workers in the lowest 80 percent of incomes have a right to a given share of pretax income. I'd like to see Blumner explain that to a worker in the Times' mail room. Put simply, it makes decent sense if you're a communist. Otherwise, it's just stupid.
Every working stiff in the bottom 80 percent should be outraged and politically motivated to force change. But if everyone is convinced of the convenient nostrum that our own attitude controls how much we are paid, then workers won't band together to demand a larger share of our national prosperity.
Every working stiff, I suppose, should be just as ignorant of economics as is Blumner.

Thankfully, a great number of working Americans recognize that high-income folks have some particular skill or skills that allow them to earn large amounts of money. Where those skills are legal, it isn't particularly appropriate to respond with anger and an attempt to use government to reach into the other guy's wallet. Ms. Blumner's attitude notwithstanding.
This positive thinking message is a kind of opiate that has been particularly effective on the white-collar corporate work force. Ehrenreich documents how corporations hire motivational speakers to convince laid-off workers that their job loss is "an opportunity for self-transformation." Somehow, she says, white-collar workers have accepted positive thinking as a "belief system" that says a person can be "infinitely powerful, if only they could master their own minds."
As with happiness, shouldn't we separate mere positive mental attitude from a prosperity gospel? I think it grand that a company would think enough of its fired employees to hire a motivational counselor on their behalf. Looking for ways to maximize one's value as a worker sure beats plotting ways to pry cash out of the wealthy via the power of government. Unless maybe you're a communist.
On the surface, prosperity gospels and positive thinking companies appear harmless with their treacly "Successories products" of posters and coffee mugs, but they have subversively helped make each of us an island.
Do tell, Ms. Blumner.
They have convinced Americans that each individual has control and power over the conditions of his or her life, when that is largely not the case. Access to decent health care at a reasonable price is not a matter of individual effort.
Again, Blumner offers us a false dichotomy. Americans do have substantial control of the conditions of their lives, and much of this was brought about by the capitalist system that Blumner apparently loathes. Nobody has absolute control of their life. Doe a patient have more control of his life waiting months for a hip replacement in Canada or figuring out how to pay for one now in the United States?

Blumner is correct that access to decent health care at a reasonable price is not a matter of individual effort. Nor should it be. Given that it is not a matter of individual effort, how have the purveyors of positive mental attitude made us islands? Blumner doesn't say. But if she did, she'd be forced to advocate something along the lines of our right to force doctors to work for the wages we set for them. Thus we would negate the individual effort of the doctor via our efforts to force wage controls on him. Anybody else think Blumner's work for the Times is worth about fifty cents a week?
Neither are securing decent wages, pensions, safe working conditions or job security.
Again, those things are substantially under the control of Americans. Workers with fewer skills naturally have less control over them. If the bag boy at Publix can command a six-figure salary and comfortable pension for bagging groceries then you can bet that the price of groceries will be rising sharply. Blumner doesn't get it.
Workers demanded those rights through collective action in the 20th century and we are losing them now by taking an "every man for himself" approach to work.
I cheerfully grant that the labor movement accomplished some good things, including breaking corporations of some self-stifling labor practices. Unfortunately, the labor movement has by now accomplished more bad than good. Blumner doesn't get it.

Bottom line, corporations do not owe jobs to workers. Unless you're a communist.
The ultimate irony is even with the booming positive thinking industry, Americans are not among the happiest people. International surveys put us behind places like Denmark and Switzerland where the social safety net is stronger. It seems that happy thoughts don't alter the reality of American life with all its attendant risks to middle class living standards. Behind the smiley face facade, we are privately worried, and we have reason to be.
1) Number 16, contra Blumner, puts us among the happiest people, all the more based on our high population. The U.S. population is more than twice that of the happiest 15 nations combined. One of them is Puerto Rico (part of the U.S.), and Ireland is two of them (N. Ireland is counted separately).

2) Studies do apparently suggest robust entitlements can help make a people happier. Blumner will shut her eyes, I expect, to the notion of applying the reality principle in such cases. But it's fine with me if the reader wishes to call her a hypocrite.

3) Not long ago, Blumner was urging us to copy the economic model of Spain. Spain's unemployment rate recently topped 17 percent. And despite their univeral health care system, Spanish folk rate below the United States in happiness.

Go figure.

Or if you're Robyn Blumner, just ignore it and prepare another way to mislead people in next week's column.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Pulitzer's high standards (Updated)

I've been skeptical of the Pulitzer award given to The St. Petersburg Times for its fact-check operation, PolitiFact. I've found so many errors of fact and lapses of the objective standard in PolitiFact entries that I have trouble linking PolitiFact to the notion of high journalistic standards.

Happily, the Pulitzer site now lists the stories for which the award was given. And I intend to review the work to see if I detect the same high standards that the Pulitzer committee apparently detected.

As a first step in that process, I tried to find some statement of standards at the Pulitzer Web site. My search met with no initial success, so I used the provided contact link to inquire about the standards applied by the Pulitzer committee.

I suspect that if the standards were anything clear-cut, then they would be clearly listed and widely available on the Web. And I think we have a right to wonder whether standards that cannot be clearly expressed deserve the designation "high standards."

I'll be delighted if the Pulitzer folks defer to the Society of Professional Journalists and its journalistic code of ethics. Those standards are specific and detailed.


I received a very prompt response to my e-mail inquiry. The respondent forwarded the response of Pulitzer Prize administrator Sig Gissler: "Thanks for the inquiry. In large measure, the standards are expressed in the kind of work we honor. However, if you examine the definition of categories and the Q&A that we offer on preparing an entry, there is further indication of standards."

The first portion is perhaps a bit unfortunate, hinting as it does at a logical circularity. Gissler's intent, however, was certainly to say that definite standards were applied and naturally expressed in the outcomes if we allow for competent judging. Regardless, that portion of the answer was not of much use to one like me interested in the relationship of the standard to award-winning work.

The latter portion of Gissler's response was useful. I was directed to the "How to enter" page, where I would find additional descriptions of standards. From there, I zeroed in on a .pdf file under the hotlink "Journalism Guidelines."
Entries for journalism awards must be based on material coming from a text-based United States newspaper or news organization that publishes—in print or online—at least weekly during the calendar year; that is primarily dedicated to original news reporting and coverage of ongoing stories; and that adheres to the highest journalistic principles.
That's included for the sake of completeness. Obviously it is still lacking in specifics at this stage.
Any significant challenge to the honesty, accuracy or fairness of an entry, such as published letters, corrections, retractions, as well as responses by the newspaper, should be included in the submission.
The above strongly implies that dishonesty, inaccuracy or unfairness might disqualify an entry. But I find it interesting that only published letters are mentioned. It seems to give newspapers the option of covering up problems. Just don't print the letter of protest. Problem solved.

And there really isn't too much more than that. Some categories place a premium on creativity. Others emphasize clarity.

But this is far better than nothing. I have no less than three categories on which to reasonably judge the PolitiFact material.

St. Petersburg Times: Social Security bonus a "bribe"

Though the frequent inaccuracies and bias drive me up the wall a bit, I love to bash The St. Petersburg Times.

But every so often they actually take an editorial position I endorse. The editorial on President Obama's proposal to offer a sop to seniors who won't be getting cost of living raises to their Social Security income next year serves as an outstanding example:
Maybe President Barack Obama should just call it a bribe. That is the best way to describe his plan to send recipients of Social Security $250 next year.
(Read it all)
Good work. It's nice to be able to say that for a change.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Scientists, politics, and global warming, Pt. 2

Robyn Blumner, editorial columnist for The St. Petersburg Times, coughed up an editorial a few weeks ago on the political leanings of scientists. Or that's what the column seemed to deal with based on the title. In part 1 of my response, we saw Blumner start with preposterous assertions and follow with a digression into the supposed gullibility of Republicans in thinking that government involvement in health care will lead to government-controlled decisions on the life and death of patients.

By the end of part 1, we had detected no answer to the question of why scientists are seldom Republicans, unless it was the implied answer that scientists aren't stupid enough to be Republicans. Though that would hardly be the rigorous and evidence-based way to address the question.

But let's do our part. On with the examination of Blumner's column:
Since the Sonia Sotomayor nomination we've been hearing about the GOP's Hispanic deficit. Only 26 percent of Latino registered voters now say they identify with or lean toward the Republican Party. But that's a full house compared with scientists. Only 12 percent of scientists in a poll issued last month by the Pew Research Center say they are Republican or lean toward the GOP, while fully 81 percent of scientists say they are Democrats or lean Democratic.
Finally, Blumner produces at least some data we can look at, enabling us to assess some evidence. As for Latino voters, that seems to be nothing but digression. Latinos are largely Roman Catholic (traditionally Democratic based on social justice issues), and many in addition are from a Mexico with a government to the left of our own. It fails to count as a relevant comparison, in other words.

Blumner may have exaggerated the "fully 81 percent" (55 percent identifying as Democrat plus 25 identified as "leaning Democrat" comes to only 80 on my calculator, and even 80.9 is not "fully" 81 percent). But that's a bit of a quibble. What is the reason why the 80 percent or so identify on the liberal side of the ledger? Are they just so much smarter than the other 20 percent?
We shouldn't be surprised that people who are open to evidence-based thinking have abandoned the Republican Party. The GOP has proudly adopted the mantle of the "Terri Schiavo, global warming shwarming" party with the Bush administration helping cement the image by persistently subverting science to serve a religious agenda or corporate greed.
Oh. So maybe many of these scientists were Republicans but switched based on the combination of ethical issues and the global warming dogma? I don't see that in the data, but it seems very fair of Blumner to allow that scientists may have only recently begun to favor the Democrats. Is this supposed to be her rationale for the trend among scientists?
But what worries me is not the shrunken relevancy of the GOP, a party in which 56 percent of its members oppose funding of embryonic stem cell research, 39 percent believe humans have always existed on Earth in their present form, and in which only 30 percent say human activity is warming the planet.
I would think that Blumner would go all a-quiver at shrinking GOP relevancy. But where is she getting those statistics from? Her arse? I can't speak for all Republicans, but the objection is fairly stated in terms of opposing federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Blumner ought to be able to appreciate the conscience concerns involved after working with the ACLU in her former career as a lawyer.

As for humans as a cause of global warming, I think conservatives are smart to remain suspicious of the global warming dogma. And one wonders how scientists will feel when next year's Pew Research survey asks them if they are aware of Obama administration efforts to suppress scientific findings that run contrary to that dogma.

Again, the underlying argument seems to be that Republicans are simply stupid. But rather than using real evidence, Blumner appears to rely on the appeal to ridicule. That is the weapon of the sleazy lawyer, not the persuasive tool of the person guided by evidence and reason.

Back to what really worries Blumner:
It is that this nation's future depends upon people who don't think that way and the Republican Party is closing the door to them.
That is Blumner's expression of hyper-partisanship. Serious measures aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions will cripple the U.S. economy. Let Blumner explain how we end up with a strong United States in the future with a ruined economy. Her fear is not for the United States as we know it, most likely. Blumner probably favors rule by the elites forced on the foolish masses. Your desire for cars and jobs is not conducive to human survival. So the government will run the economy instead of you. For the sake of your survival. Your freedom means little if the human race is otherwise doomed. Something along those lines, though Blumner herself may not even realize where her thinking leads.

It is through historical science that we know that the earth has been through warming and cooling periods in the past. The evidence that a warming period represents an existential threat to the United States is thin at best.

And so far from Blumner, we still only have the implied explanation that few scientists are Republicans because Republicans are stupid.

Look for part 3, coming soon.

The St. Petersburg Times on Obama's Nobel Prize (Updated)

Scanning editorials at The St. Petersburg Times is a bit like Christmas. What's inside this one?

The liberal slant of the editors makes it fairly easy to predict, of course.

"Prize is an honor and a duty"
The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Barack Obama on Friday reaffirms that the world still looks to America for leadership and has high hopes for its young president.
Much of the world doesn't want American leadership. Rather, they want the United States to do the heavy lifting on policies they happen to favor, and for the United States to butt out on everything else. But the editorial pegs it with the "high hopes" part. President Obama looks like a pushover, and that suits all those who can get in on the pushing.
As the Nobel committee noted, in less than a year Obama has established a new tone in international politics that emphasizes engagement over isolation and consensus over ultimatums.
Unfair slaps at Bush aside (Bush did, in fact, emphasize engagement over isolation), Obama has at least partially fulfilled his campaign promise to meet diplomatically with Iran minus preconditions. Not that we've gained anything politically from it aside from a Nobel Prize. On the other hand, Honduras may feel a tad isolated by Obama administration policies. But such a tiny country can hardly count against The One's record, can it?
In the long term, Obama will be judged by his accomplishments rather than his aspirations. But this unexpected recognition reflects the power of a compelling vision and America's singular role in defending peace, human rights and democracy.
Compelling vision, eh?

Iran sends out its military and paramilitary thugs to quell peaceful protests of a sham election. The Obama adminstration will not interfere in that. It wouldn't be appropriate.

In Honduras, President Zelaya disregards that country's constitutional restrictions on advancing a referendum to stay in office beyond his term limits and is removed by the coursts in accordance with its own constitution. And the Obama administration labels this a "coup" and proceeds to interfere via sanctions and threatened sanctions. I suppose that's "compelling," in a sense.

We can also ask the Poles and Ukrainians if they feel that Obama is defending their democratic governments.
Obama was as surprised as the world to be awakened with the news Friday, and he reacted with characteristic grace and humility.
The characteristic humility that led him to address throngs in Europe well prior to his election as president, I suppose. I don't buy the "characteristic humility" part. But Obama's Nobel acceptance speech, at least, was appropriately humble.
After barely nine months in office, he has hardly amassed a long record of achievement on the international stage. While the war in Iraq is winding down, the fighting in Afghanistan is heating up.
Actually, the war in Iraq is heating up a bit, also. Obama is simply ignoring that in favor of following through on his promise to end American participation in the war. The fighting in Afghanistan has heated up based on Obama's promise to focus on our true enemies in that region. And he has promised U.S. strikes in Pakistan at high-value targets regardless of Pakistani approval. Part of the new tone, I suppose.

It's hard not to be a bit intrigued by the awarding of a peace prize to a guy who ramped up violence in Afghanistan. One would think President Bush eligible on that point.
The Palestinians and Israelis are as far apart as ever on a framework for peace.
True, but President Obama has preferred the Palestinian side of the argument--at least publicly--to a far greater extent than did his predecessors in office. And the world likes that, even if it doesn't have much to do with peace.
Iran is still pursuing its nuclear ambitions, and the administration has not yet brought Russia or China around as constructive global partners. America has not broken significant new ground on immigration, energy or global warming.
One wonders what represents the peaceful policy on each of those last three issues. As for Russia and China, if Obama had tried hard bargaining with either nation then it would be harder for him to look like he favored engagement over ultimatum. It's more peaceful, apparently, to weakly engage and accomplish nothing else.
But in announcing the award, the Nobel committee singled out Obama for his "extraordinary efforts" to strengthen diplomacy. The jab at his predecessor, George W. Bush, was unmistakable. By replacing confrontation with dialogue as the norm of foreign policy, Obama had "captured the world's attention" and made the United States "a more constructive" player in meeting global challenges, the committee said.
"Extraordinary efforts" like what? Giving speeches? The statement from the committee appears to entirely lack specifics.
Whether awarding Obama the Nobel so early in his presidency is foolishly premature or remarkably prescient will not be clear for years.
Now that is funny. We can wait for years for any real evidence that Obama deserves the award before we can think it clearly premature. Let's say that Obama does something ... ten years from now that unquestionably deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. The Times would apparently ask us to think the prize committee prescient rather than premature. Why not both, eh?

The reaction from the Times is hardly a surprise. They think the same way politically as the prize committee, so a similar conclusion was inevitable.



Steven Crowder's take on Obama's Nobel Prize seems like the perfect counterpoint to the Times editorial.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Scientists, politics, and global warming, Pt. 1

While picking through old Robyn Blumner columns to bash, I ran across a real doozy: "Why scientists are seldom Republicans."

I had my doubts at the outset as to whether the column would seriously address the question. Taking the premise that scientists are seldom Republicans as true, I would attribute it to the socially liberal views of scientists along with their dependence on government for their livelihood.

But maybe it's just because the scientists who aren't Republicans are especially smart?

But let's get to Blumner's take on the issue:
Have you ever wondered what the world would be like without scientists? Ask the Republican Party. It lives in such a world.
Uh, what? How will we develop advanced weapons systems with which to dominate the lower classes without scientists? Hopefully Blumner can do better than baseless and absurd assertions.
Republicans have been so successful in driving out of their party anyone who endeavors in scientific inquiry that pretty soon there won't be anyone left who can distinguish a periodic table from a kitchen table.
I guess we have to clear the "clever writing" stage before we get beyond the fluff.
It is no wonder the Republican throngs showing up to disrupt town hall meetings on health care reform are so gullible, willing to believe absurd claims like the coming of "death panels." Their party is nearly devoid of neuroscientists, astrophysicists, marine biologists or any other scientific professional who would insist on intellectual rigor, objective evidence and sound reasoning as the basis for public policy development. The people left don't have that kind of discipline and don't expect it from their leaders. They are willing to believe anything some right-wing demagogue with a cable show or pulpit tells them, no matter how outlandish.
This is just too rich. Absurd claims of "death panels"?

Blumner had this to say about Robert Reich not so long ago (2007):
Robert Reich, former labor secretary under Bill Clinton, is a very smart man with a very good heart - my favorite combination. He's one of those people to whom I pay special attention, on a par with thinkers like Jared Bernstein at the Economic Policy Institute, David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown, and psychology professor Steven Pinker at Harvard.
And Robert Reich has this to say, also not so long ago (2007):

Reich: Let me tell you a few things on health care. Look, we have the only health care system in the world that is designed to avoid sick people. And that's true, and what I'm going to do, is, I am going to try to reorganize it to make it more amenable to treating sick people, but that means you, particularly you young people--particularly you young healthy people--you're going to have to pay more.

(very light applause)

Thank you. And by the way, we're going to have to, if you're very old, we're not going to give you all that technology and all those drugs for the last couple of years of your life to keep you maybe going for another couple of months. It's too expensive. So we're going to let you die.

(light applause)

Uh, also, uh, I'm going to use the bargaining leverage of the federal government in terms of Medicare, Medicaid--we already have a lot of bargaining leverage--to force drug companies and insurance companies and medical suppliers to reduce their costs, but that means less innovation, and that means less new products and less new drugs on the market and that means that you are not going to live that much longer than your parents.

(light applause)

Thank you.
(Transcript mine)
Reich was taking on the role of a presidential candidate telling the truth about what he would and should do, which accounts for his declarations that he would be doing these things personally. Now, obviously Reich was not talking specifically about the health care reform proposals that were developed since Barack Obama assumed the office of president. But his sense of the economics of health care is on target. And Sarah Palin's use of hyperbole to highlight the increased role of the government toward the type of arrangement that Reich envisions is both fair and on target.

Given Reich's presentation, how can it be absurd to think that a large government role in health care will place the government in charge of determining when a person will die? Perhaps Blumner never heard Reich say anything of the kind. Her "special attention" may have waned a bit. Maybe she's not a bold-faced liar.

But let's not overlook the rest of Blumner's mindless paragraph. She actually wrote "(t)heir party is nearly devoid of neuroscientists, astrophysicists, marine biologists or any other scientific professional who would insist on intellectual rigor, objective evidence and sound reasoning as the basis for public policy development." By that type of math, the United States is nearly devoid of lesbians. The Pew Research data do not support her statement except maybe as hyperbole on a par with Palin's.

And let us not be misled into thinking that scientists have any sort of monopoly on intellectual rigor. Blumner's underlying argument is a slap at intellectuals who do not enter the field of science, and also a fallacious appeal to authority. After all, what basis have we to think that a biologist would insist on intellectual rigor, etc. as a basis for public policy development? In the pursuit of the scientific discipline, sure. But public policy ought to require morality--a thing that eludes rigorous scientific study. Too bad Pew Research didn't ask the scientists whether they subscribe to moral realism.

No serious attempt to answer the question through Blumner's first two paragraphs. But we'll keep hunting in part 2.

Blumner cross at Scalia

Ah, Robyn Blumner. Missed you while I was vacationing from the blog, my Blumñata.

Blumner this past week weighed in on the state/church divide case involving the Mojave Desert war memorial cross.

clipped from
Covered Mojave Cross

blog it
(photo credit: Frank Keeney)

Blumner's opening argument:
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is so insensitive to the religious beliefs of others that during an oral argument on Wednesday he had the nerve to denounce the idea that Jewish veterans may not feel honored by a Latin cross war memorial that sits atop a rocky slope at California's Mojave National Preserve.
1) This opening, as it stands, is an irrelevant ad hominem (personal attack on Scalia). Any degree of insensitivity on Scalia's part is irrelevant to the application of the law, minus additional considerations.

2) Additionally, the argument appears to set up a straw man. Scalia does not appear to denounce the idea that a Jewish veteran may not feel honored by a Latin cross war memorial. Rather, he points out a non sequitur in the argument of the plaintiff's lawyer.

Blumner's account adequately illustrates point #2:

"What would you have them erect?" Scalia, a devout Catholic, scoffed. "Some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Muslim half moon and star?"

"I have been in Jewish cemeteries," responded ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg, who represented Frank Buono, a former National Park Service official who objected to the cross. "There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew."

To that Scalia retorted with irritation: "I don't think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that's an outrageous conclusion."

Eliasberg's answer to Scalia's question wasn't exactly direct, was it?

Scalia's point was that the cross as a grave marker carries a meaning far broader than "this dead person was a Christian." In cultural terms, it is seen as just a grave marker. That some might not see it as just a grave marker does not erase the point. That is the point Scalia stressed. Eliasberg and Blumner applied evasive maneuvers. Standard in the sleazy lawyer playbook.

With a bad first step, how will Blumner proceed with the second?
Outrageous? Really? And if the only monument at an officially designated American war memorial was a large Muslim crescent and star, would Scalia feel included?
Highly doubtful, since there is no parallel between using the cross as a grave marker and using the Muslim crescent and star as such. Blumner knows better, doesn't she?
The cross is so ubiquitous in graveyards that it has become a symbol for death, as shown in the advertising campaign to reduce driving speed.
So Blumner's question is just another attempt to distract from the point.


After recounting how the cross has been replaced at the memorial a number of times, Blumner veers to a different tack:
It is telling that Congress has weighed in three times to try to keep the cross where it is. Such ridiculous lengths suggest what we all know: Without a constitutional brake, government will use its power to promote the majority's religious beliefs.
The majority's belief that the cross has become a general symbol of death in addition to being an explicitly Christian symbol? Or some other majority belief? No doubt Blumner sees the cross only as an attempt to ram Christian belief down her avowedly secularist esophagus. Scalia argues for folks like Blumner to open their eyes to the broader meaning of the cross. But Blumner will have none of it.
Scalia, (wi)ll take any opportunity to water down church-state separation, even if he has to delude himself into thinking that a Christian cross honors people of other faiths.
In other words, Blumner apparently denies that the Christian cross can separately have meaning as a symbol of death. Eyes, ears and any other relevant sense closed to Scalia's point.


Note: Of course the clipped photo does not show a cross, per se. It shows the current state of the Mojave memorial, with the arms of the cross obscured under court order.

Russia accepts missile shield concession, sticks to its own guns

MOSCOW — If Hillary Rodham Clinton was hoping to win Russian support for efforts to use a threat of sanctions to pressure Iran to come clean about its nuclear ambitions, her first trip to Moscow as secretary of state got off to a rocky start Tuesday.
(St. Petersburg Times)
Maybe we need another "reset" button. Unless it really was an "overcharge" button all along, and the Russians are overcharging us despite Secretary of State Clinton's assurance that would not happen.
Lavrov's announcement (pulling the rug out from under a serious sanctions regime--ed.) came despite President Barack Obama's recent decision to scrap plans for a ballistic missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, a system the Kremlin had strenuously opposed. While both sides denied that the decision about the missile defense sites was linked to a deal with Russia about Iran, observers had suspected otherwise.
So what did we get in return for ticking off our allies in Eastern Europe? Anything at all?

Force Protection Ocelot (Updated with new video)

Slick video. Force Protection seems to be stepping up its game in terms of marketing:

 New video:

I'm not sure who buys these things. But it naturally reminds me a bit of the GEFAS.

Though the Ocelot looks more like a traditional MRAP and the GEFAS looks a bit like an early Hot Wheels car.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Of Richard Dawkins and metaphysics

I had a chance to hear a portion a conversation between Richard Dawkins and Michael Medved on the latter's radio program the other day.

As usual, something in the conversation fairly leaped out at me.

Dawkins, after classifying Charles Darwin as a racist (along with the rest of Darwin's generation), went on to say that the proper understanding of science provides no basis for racism.

And why not? Because, Dawkins explained, racism requires that one race be considered somehow better than another. Evolution fails to deliver on that criterion. It is value-neutral. In fact, Dawkins said, all humans are equal.

And that is where he stepped in it.

In scientific and naturalistic terms--or even logical terms, for that matter--no two humans are equal unless they are identical. That's identical in every respect.

Dawkins cannot reasonably be thought to be saying that humans are physically equal in every respect. He was, it seems obvious, talking about some other type of equality. But that type of equality carries with it exactly the type of value judgment that Dawkins denied we could have based on evolutionary science.

So where could human equality have possibly come from?

I don't know that Dawkins ever addressed the issue. I suspect he never got around to it.

Science, it would seem, must undercut the notion that humans are not different from one another to the extent that they vary from one another physically/genetically. Dawkins implicitly denied that greater success in leaving viable offspring is better than lesser success in leaving viable offspring. But if science would bar us from judging that reproductive success is a good thing, then what kind of value judgments are we allowed?

That is the sort of question I would like to see Dawkins try to address. His answer, I think, would betray the glibness of his claim that modern evolution provides no fuel for racist notions.

Neo-atheists such as Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens often provide the thinnest sort of answers in support of their own metaphysical positions.