Monday, November 30, 2009

Was the PolitiFact Pulitzer deserved? Pt. 1

As a long time critic of the PolitiFact fact checking operation, I was annoyed that PolitiFact was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its 2008 reporting leading up to the election.

The Pulitzer committee supposedly awards prizes to examples of journalism reflecting the highest standards of journalism.  An inquiry regarding those standards ended up directing me to the definition of categories provided at the Pulitzer Web page.  Though it is not stated explicitly, it is implied that the high standards represent honesty, accuracy and fairness on top of more purely artistic and literary considerations.

It took months, but the Pulitzer site eventually identified the works for which PolitiFact received its Pulitzer Prize.  I have resolved to second-guess the Pulitzer jury by examining in turn each of the thirteen works that collectively earned the award.

The first such work from the list was a page from January 2008 featuring five "Truth-O-Meter" ratings for some of the major presidential hopefuls (three Democrats and five Republicans).

The page relies in turn on numerous sub-stories for its accuracy and fairness, and I am perfectly willing to operate under the assumption that PolitiFact writers and editors would never intentionally misinform their readers.  It is not practical to examine each contributing story in detail, and I doubt that the Pulitzer jury bothered with that in any case.

The page does represent one area of concern, however:
With the Florida primary three days away, we have collected five of our most revealing rulings for each of the major candidates.
The above statement from the comments introducing the individual rulings unavoidably constitutes an opinion.  Traditional "objective" journalism strongly discourages opinion except where it is labeled as such.  PolitiFact wantonly flirted with a journalistic taboo.

That opinion does lead to some potentially fruitful examinations of the individual claims.  Is it really highly significant that John Edwards pledged to use his presidential power to take away Congress' health care benefits when he has no such powers?  Edwards could either be mixed up about presidential powers or he could be making one of the easiest campaign pledges a presidential candidate could make.  Granted, the "Pants on Fire" grade Edwards received goes along with "ridiculous" claims under the PolitiFact system.  Edwards' claim certainly was ridiculous whether he misunderstood presidential powers or simply made a literally truthful yet empty pledge.

More seriously, the Pulitzer jury apparently overlooked a major flaw in the fairness of the reporting, one that was relatively obvious even without examining the underlying details:
The statement: "John Edwards never - has ever from the beginning of his political career has never taken PAC money or the money of Washington lobbyists. Ever."
Joe Trippi, senior campaign advisor to John Edwards, on Sept. 20, 2007, in a television interview
The ruling: Edwards accepted $14,900 from employees at lobbying firms through June 2007. Given the absolute ironclad statement, we rule it Half True.
Compare the forgiveness of Edwards' absolutism with the hard line taken on John McCain:
The statement: "I have never asked for nor received a single earmark or pork- barrel project for my state."
--John McCain, Jan. 6, 2008, in a debate in Manchester, N.H.
The ruling: We find three examples of McCain seeking pork-barrel projects for Arizona, which puts a few blemishes on an otherwise stellar record against pork.
Though it does not appear in the text of "the ruling," PolitiFact found McCain flatly "False" for having some dubious examples of pork spending on his record.

It certainly appears that PolitiFact gave Edwards an easier ride than McCain on this point of comparison.

Verdict:  Based on this story, the Pulitzer jury had reason to fault PolitiFact for its fairness.  On a scale of 0-10 with zero representing the greatest offense against journalistic standards, 10 representing the highest attainment of standards, and six representing a neutral grade with respect to Pulitzer worthiness, I give this entry a five.  It counts slightly against PolitiFact's worthiness for the 2008 prize, in other words.


Hat tip:  I may not have taken special notice of PolitiFact's treatment of Edwards' statement were it not for the comments of Jeff Dyberg at PolitiFact's FaceBook site.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Rep. Miller versus

I heard a tale on the radio a few weeks ago about a competitive archer who thought he had won his event on his final shot only to find that his arrow struck the bull's eye of the target used by an adjacent competitor.  He did not win the competition.

This PolitiFact entry on Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.) reminds me a bit of that story.

The issue: listed congressional districts that "do not exist."
Jeff Miller on Thursday, November 19th, 2009 in a newsletter

Nonexistent congressional districts were on They're gone now.

The "Mostly True" Truth-O-Meter rating occurs just below and to the left of the deck information quoted above. Readers cannot be blamed, I think, for wondering why the claim is not true based on the information so far.

The fact checkers:

Angie Drobnic Holan:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


Though a simple solution ought to have sufficed for this case, Drobnic and PolitiFact make it much harder than it ought to be.  Drobnic gets on the wrong side of the line for objective reporting in her first paragraph:
The Obama administration has promoted its Web site as a bold new step in government transparency and a convenient way for voters to see that the economic stimulus program is working. Some Republicans say the site is filled with unreliable propaganda.
"Some Republicans"?

Try numerous media outlets and some Republicans.  Drobnic partially acknowledges the former as a key finding in her story.  A pity that the omission serves to help marginalize Republican opinion in the opening paragraph.  It's easy to dismiss "some Republicans," isn't it?

Drobnic continues:
Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller ridiculed the site in a newsletter Nov. 19, writing about how he looked on and found jobs created in Florida's 34th, 53rd, 86th, and "00th" districts.
The characterization "ridiculed" slips over the line into editorial judgment.  Though it also qualifies as a very reasonable judgment.

Drobnic quotes Miller:
"The problem is, these congressional districts do not exist," Miller wrote. "Florida only has TWENTY-FIVE congressional districts.

"We know that the Administration is pulling a 'jobs created or saved' number out of thin air despite the fact that the unemployment rate remains high," Miller wrote. "The people of Florida know. We know that although Democrats represent only 10 of Florida’s 25 districts, their districts received 60% of the stimulus funds. These numbers reek of partisanship and potential corruption."

Drobnic completed the quotation without incident.  She continues:
Miller was right that did have incorrect information on it. Officials blamed it on errors entering the data and have since replaced the erroneous districts with the notation "unassigned congressional district." ABC News broke the story on Nov. 16 and the corrections were made about two days later. The error caught our attention here at PolitiFact, and we archived the Florida page that confirms Miller's observations on bad district data.
So Miller was right?  What's with the "Mostly True" rating?

After a sentence noting a separate rating of a different Miller claim, Drobnic continues:
Here, we're verifying Miller's statement that listed congressional districts that do not exist. That was indeed the case until news reports brought attention to the wrong data. Officials removed the data the evening before Miller posted his newsletter, so that now the jobs and money are attributed to "unassigned congressional district." So we rate Miller's statement Mostly True.
Rep. Miller says that had inaccurate information on it, but since the information he wrote of was removed by the time he published therefore Miller's claim is only "Mostly True"?

That makes no sense.

If I say "It is raining" as it pours down cats and dogs around me but by the next day it has stopped raining, it does not mean that I was wrong.  Not even to the point of "Mostly True" as the Truth-O-Meter might say.

In like manner, PolitiFact had no business grading "Mostly True" the statement they chose to evaluate.  It was simply true.

But there is a little more to the story.

Though Drobnic fails to mention it in the version published at PolitiFact, Miller did make a statement that could be graded "Mostly True" on the technicality of tense:
In fact, according to, over $11 million has been spent in Florida in districts that just aren’t there.
The above statement from Miller, unlike the one chosen by PolitiFact, permits the interpretation that Miller is claiming an inaccuracy as of the time he published.

I consider it quite possible that Drobnic considered the above statement but lost it during the shuffle of the editing process.  But I can't use such conjecture in assigning grades.  This story is yet another embarrassment for PolitiFact.

The grades:

Angie Drobnic Holan:  F
Bill Adair:  F

Nov. 30, 2009:  Substituted "Miller's claim" for "the information" in order to greatly enhance the clarity of one paragraph.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Critics are taking them out of context"

The St. Petersburg Times has weighed in on Climategate, albeit without using the term "Climategate."

A Friday editorial ("How not to fight climate of denial") chastises the Climate Research Unit for unnecessarily giving global warming skeptics ammunition.
Assuming the documents are genuine — the authenticity of all has not been confirmed — critics are taking them out of context and misinterpreting at least one controversial e-mail exchange. None of it seriously undercuts the scientific consensus on climate change. But a few of the documents are damaging for other reasons.
Do we get any examples of how the e-mails were taken out of context? Sadly, from the standpoint of good journalism, we do not. The Times, as of the end of the Friday editorial, has published exactly two quotations from the stolen communications. Those two quotations serve to illustrate the Times' one significant concern about the story (bold emphasis added):
According to one of the stolen e-mails, CRU director Phil Jones wrote that he would keep papers questioning the connection between warming and human activity out of the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report "even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!" In another, Jones and Pennsylvania State University's Michael E. Mann write of organizing a boycott of an academic journal until it fires a "troublesome editor."
The Times has chosen a legitimate gripe. Trying to politically suppress science that reaches undesired conclusions puts scientists in a bad light. Though it should be noted that one of the editors CRU helped oust gave them an excuse by publishing a paper that may not have been up to normal journal standards. In terms of its methodology, I should add.

Refocus on the claim made by the Times, "None of it seriously undercuts the scientific consensus on climate change."

It doesn't?

The hacked information shows the scientists bewailing the problems with their computer model's codes.

The CRU is perhaps at the very leading edge of scientific global warming advocacy. If not the leader, it is one of them.

The Times has once chance to be correct at this stage: The scientists who form the consensus are so committed to the idea of global warming that having an evidential rug potentially pulled all the way out from under them will not affect their commitment to the doctrine.

If the Times is right on that score, then science takes a second hit even worse than the one the Times will acknowledge.

It is too early to say how much the data theft and release will undermine climate change science, the Times' opinion notwithstanding.

Now get to work publishing some of the interesting information, Times editors. Put your readers "In the Know."

Grading PolitiFact: Ed Schultz and heathcare reform taxes

I wonder when PolitiFact will get serious about checking facts?

The issue:

"Ninety-eight percent of the American people will not see their taxes go up" due to the House health care bill.
Ed Schultz on Friday, November 20th, 2009 in MSNBC's the 'Ed Show'

Schultz says health care bill will only tax top 2 percent

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson: writer, researcher
Greg Joyce: editor


Though I maintain the belief that PolitiFact staffers go about their business in good faith, Louis Jacobson's effort could pass for a decent attempt at deliberate deception. The problems start in the first paragraph:
Republicans have frequently criticized the Democrats' health care bills by saying that they will make Americans pay more. On Nov. 20, 2009, MSNBC host Ed Schultz fired back, arguing that "98 percent of the American people will not see their taxes go up because of this bill."
The opening chosen by Jacobson immediately distances this project from fact checking. If Schultz was responding to the notion that Americans will pay more, then he was unforgivably deceptive by answering in terms of taxation. Fortunately for Schultz, Jacobson mostly created that impression out of whole cloth. Schultz's program had a Republican guest, Sen. John Barrasso (R, Wyo.), and the topic was the Sen. Harry Reid's version of the health care reform bill. Barrasso said the bill reduced the deficit through taxation rather than savings.

So, in context, Schultz as not "firing back" (great objective reporting, there, Jacobson!) at the claim that Americans would pay more, unless we slip the word "taxes" in there at the end.

Next paragraph from Jacobson:
On the show, Schultz didn't specify whether he was referring to the House or Senate health care reform bill. However, a spokeswoman contacted by PolitiFact said he was referring to the House bill, so we will judge him on that basis here.
How ridiculous. The entire segment was focused on the Reid version of the bill, including references to Sen. Reid, the CBO estimate of the costs and deficit reductions of the Senate bill, and to particulars included in the Senate bill such as limiting premium costs to 9.8 percent of income for up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

So, instead of figuring out from the context that the Senate bill was the topic, Jacobson asked Schultz's people and was told that Schultz referred to the House bill. If Schultz referred to the House bill then he was a perfect weasel.

Schultz's comments with some context (bold emphasis added):
SCHULTZ: They‘re going to raise taxes not on the middle class. They‘re going to raise taxes on - on the people that are making over $250,000 a year, and that‘s going to be a Medicare increase of a half a percent. A half a percent. It‘s going to take it to 1.95 percent, and you‘re squawking about that. OK.

BARRASSO: They‘re still cutting $500 billion from services for people on Medicare to start a whole new government program.

SCHULTZ: That‘s not what Senator Reid said last night. He said it strengthens Medicare. He says it strengthens Medicare and expands Medicaid, right?

BARRASSO: Well, expanding Medicaid, of course, as you know, is an unfunded mandate on the states which is why Democrat and Republican governors alike call it the mother of all unfunded mandates.

If you get people off of the federal part of it and then make the states pay for that money, it‘s a way to lower the cost to - to Washington, but I‘ll tell you, in terms of taxpayers across the states, it‘s going to still cost more and taxes are going to go up.

SCHULTZ: Premiums - premiums are going to go up between now and 2013. There‘s nothing reeling in the insurance companies there. There‘s nothing for small business between now and 2013 from what I can see. And they‘re getting 40 million new customers, which is a pretty good deal. Ninety-eight percent of the American people will not see their taxes go up because of this bill.

Jacobson conducts what I see as a worthless fact check of Schultz's claim as though it referred to the House bill. Jacobson and PolitiFact did find Schultz "Barely True" based on the House bill, but even that was probably generous. If Schultz did change the topic to the House version of the bill midstream then he deserves a "False" rating. And if he was talking about the Senate version then he's probably in deeper trouble. First, because his staffers would have falsely reported that he was talking about the House bill. Second, because the Senate bill taxes more heavily than the House bill:
  1. 40% excise tax on health coverage in excess of $8,500 (individuals) / $23,000 (families). Amounts are indexed for inflation by CPI-U + 1% – begins in 2013 – $149 B tax increase
  2. Additional 0.5% Medicare (Hospital Insurance) tax on wages in excess of $200,000 ($250,000 for joint filers) – begins in 2013 – $54 B tax increase
  3. Impose annual fee on manufacturers and importers of branded drugs – begins in 2009 – $22 B tax increase
  4. Impose annual fee on manufacturers and importers of certain medical devices – begins in 2009 – $19 B tax increase
  5. Impose annual fee on manufacturers and importers of health insurance plans – begins in 2009 – $60 B tax increase
  6. Cut in half (to $500K) the amount of an executive’s compensation that a health plan can deduct from its corporate income taxes – begins in 2013 – $600 million tax increase
  7. Impose 5% excise tax on cosmetic surgery and similar procedures – begins for surgery in 2010 – $6 B tax increase!

In total the bill would raise taxes by $370 B over ten years.

(Keith Hennessey, sourced in turn from the Joint Tax Committee)

Smile, Mr. Schultz. Jacobson and his editor gave you a gift with that "Barely True" rating.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson: F
Greg Joyce: F

If it had been within the ballpark of reason to accept the notion that Schultz was talking about the House version of the bill without changing the subject on his guest, then both PolitiFact staffers might have earned passing grades.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"In the Know": Climategate

James Delingpole has a humorous roundup of responses to Climategate, the set of embarrassing e-mails hacked from servers at East Anglia's Climate Research Unit.

None of the responses came from the St. Petersburg Times, however. Despite pages of "climategate" hits through GoogleNews, a search for the term at the Times reveals nothing:

clipped from

Your search - climategate - did not match any documents.

  • Make sure all words are spelled correctly.
  • Try different keywords.
  • Try more general keywords.
blog it

In the know, baby.

Media bias or simply cluelessness?

The answer is probably both. But I'll report and you decide.

The subject is an Associated Press story on Obama administration pushback on Republican claims that the Democratic health care reform bills do not slow the growth of health care costs.

The headline:
White House defends costs, cuts in health bill

The Associated Press, however is not the subject of my title. My subject is the St. Petersburg Times. The Times exercised its option to use the AP story. And it exercised its option to provide a different headline:
Obama administrations refutes Republican claims that it's not doing enough to fight rising health care costs
Leaving aside the extra "s" at the end of "administration," does the editor not know that "refutes" means something different from "rebuts"? It would be rare indeed for an "objective" news source to have warrant to use "refutes" in a story in this manner. It constitutes an editorial judgment, for the word indicates that the other claim has been effectively undermined. "Rebuts," in contrast, communicates the idea that the administration contested the Republican claim, but without taking a position as to whether the attempt succeeded.

The Times seems to have used the term judiciously in a headline concerning local politician Brian Blair. Blair is a Republican, for what it's worth.

On the other hand, the Times appeared to use the wrong word for a story about Dr. Alfred Bonati.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Piquing PolitiFact: Corrections and $timulu$

I pointed out some time ago that PolitiFact had reported a figure for the Obama stimulus package that was off by a factor of a billion. I subsequently pointed out the error at PolitiFact's FaceBook page.

clipped from
Bryan White
Bryan White
Rep. Young offered a fair paraphrase of Obama. The PolitiFact writer seems to be the one who provided the quotation marks. The writer also mischaracterized the topic of Obama's comments. It wasn't the economy. It was the deficit, and Obama as much as admitted responsibility for almost a third of it. And one last (minor) thing: a $787 stimulus package? This was a poor excuse for journalism.
November 12 at 4:57am · Delete · Report

blog it

Granted, I pointed out the error in what may be regarded as a subtle way.

After that, on occasion I would swing by the PolitiFact entry containing the error. Nothing changed.

Noting that Angie Drobnic Holan (who appears to wholly or mostly handle PolitiFact comments at Facebook) solicits e-mail pointing out errors, I offered an alternative suggestion. Why not dedicate a thread on the "Discussions" page to errors?

clipped from
Post #1
You wroteon November 20, 2009 at 11:22am
PolitiFact encourages readers to point out errors by sending e-mail.
But why not use public posting for the same function? How hard would it be to dedicate a thread to alleged inaccuracies?
As a bonus, an open system enhances accountability and public awareness.

Would PolitiFact seriously not bother to change the amount of the stimulus bill from $787 to $787 billion simply because nobody wants to go through the trouble of e-mailing the complaint?

blog it

I never received any reply to my message, but today I noticed that PolitiFact finally fixed the error. But apparently without any correction notice. Protect the brand! Error? We made no error.

Ever the helpful sort, I added another message to the thread:
Hey, thanks for fixing the stimulus spending number that had been off by a factor of a billion!

But now I'm curious. Did PolitiFact hold off until the error was pointed out via e-mail or act on the basis of commentary at the FaceBook page? And the page in question carries no notice that it has been updated or corrected for error. Is that common practice at the Times?

In the Know: Setting new standard for site search efficiency ...

I chided the St. Petersburg Times for editing out all of the specific details from its AP version of the Climatic Research Center e-mail hack story.

It is a good thing I embedded the URL for that version of the story in an earlier post, or else I may never have found it again.

I challenge anyone to find the story using the Times' site search feature. And if you find it, please stop back by to tell me what search terms you used.

In the know, baby.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Elaine Dances

After six straight posts on libertarian free will, it is time to strike a lighter note:

Somebody needs to develop an instructional DVD series on how to dance like Elaine Benis.

I've got to study those moves more ...

"Chance cannot directly cause our actions"

So states astronomer/philosopher Bob Doyle, the creator of the "Information Philosophy" Web site.

With context added:
Chance cannot directly cause our actions. We cannot be responsible for random actions.
Doyle appears to adhere to a type of compatibilist free will, though he may well consider his view libertarian. Doyle calls his free will model "The Cogito Model" and attempts to explain the chance aspects of indeterminism without damaging the attractive aspects of libertarian free will.
Important elements of the model have been proposed by many philosophers since Aristotle, the first indeterminist. A number of modern philosophers and scientists, starting with William James, have proposed similar two-stage models of free will. But none of them has been able to locate the randomness so as to make free will "intelligible," as libertarian Robert Kane puts it.
My take on that later. Back to Doyle:
The Cogito solution is not single random events, one per decision, but many random events in the brain as a result of ever-present noise, both quantum and thermal noise, that is inherent in any information storage and communication system.
Doyle's solution, I believe, comes very close to fulfilling its billing. But what is this "noise"? Doyle avoids the traditional antecedent problem by locating the noise within the deliberation process. However, if the noise is not under the control of the self, then his solution appears vulnerable to criticisms such as Galen Strawson might offer. Where the causes of indeterminism are outside the control of the self, the connection to deep moral responsibility appears tenuous at best.

Doyle expends considerable energy promoting a particular feature of his model, that decisions are always "adequately determined," meaning that the results are functionally deterministic even if not strictly deterministic.

The results of the model, therefore, give us something akin to divine interference with the human will, except it is impersonally deterministic--though Doyle credits the will with an ability to selectively ignore the indeterministic noise sufficiently to develop an evolutionary advantage. That mechanism awaits explanation.

Though I think Doyle is on the right track in many respects, I judge that he makes an error in attributing the indeterminacy of the will to a set of causes ("noise"). By positing, in effect, a functionally deterministic proximal cause of indeterminacy, he simply pushes the perceived problem back a step and ends up offending Occam's razor in the process.

If we accept indeterminacy, it is simpler to just suppose that the will produces a different deliberative process for each hypothetical situation x. Doyle may object that the problem of randomness threatens the intelligibility of this simpler model. But on the other hand, it is not clear that Doyle's model provides satisfactory solution. And, more pointedly, I believe philosophers have largely handled chance incorrectly with respect to the indeterminate will.

How have philsophers mishandled chance with respect to the will? I will invoke Doyle's statement "Chance cannot directly cause our actions" and imbue it with a slightly different meaning. I think it is exactly right that chance cannot directly cause our actions, with that being true regardless any consideration of consequences for free will. "Chance" is not an ontological entity. We identify "chance" from the results, not by careful examination of the cause. And "chance" results are exactly what we should expect when we use an indeterministic model to represent libertarian free will. Chance is not a bug. It is a feature.

Chance has traditionally been regarded as a bug largely due to the nature of the attacks on libertarian free will, which sometime suppose absurd events for the sake of illustration or, as Doyle notes, place chance causes in a problematic section of the decision making process.

Our intuitions about free will serve as a reliable guide in responding to the suggestion of absurd results. We intuitively do not regard such absurd results as examples of morally responsible decisions. We never have. Instead, we intuitively assert a type of "reasonable person" standard in assessing whether a choice qualifies as rational.

Yes, a person who tramples the petunias of a hated neighbor is acting rationally. And the same person under the same conditions also acts rationally if he does not trample the petunias because it is a moral wrong. There is no need to try to make absurd scenarios appear rational.

Dec. 2, 2009:  Tweaked grammar on a few minor points and added italics for emphasis to assist clarity.

Richard Double pans libertarian free will

Philosopher Richard Double has some unkind words for libertarian free will:
(W)hy bother to deliberate if you are just as likely to opt for either of two contradictory alternatives?
One wonders how Double determined that either of two contradictory alternatives were just as likely. But I will offer an answer anyway. So that whichever one you pick, it will be a reasonable and considered decision.
For the libertarian, free agents not only have the ability to choose in two directions, but they must be in control of either choice. This consequence could be deduced from the demands of moral responsibility. If an agent is to be truly responsible for either choice, A or not A, then both outcomes are under the agent's control. The case is likewise with rationality, although a predictable amount of strain is likely to arise. Libertarians, at the very least, need to show how indeterministic choices can be rational whichever way they turn out. Ideally, libertarians will show us how such a dual ability might be, contrary to appearances, a desirable or even necessary element of rational choices.
I frankly don't understand what is so tough about it. Any number of examples might do, but I can stick with the one I fashioned for my series on free will skeptic Saul Smilansky: Mr. Brown can either trample his neighbor's petunias out of dislike for his neighbor, or refrain from doing so out of the belief that doing so would be morally wrong.

It seems to me that objections like Double's must spring from the notion that the deliberative process is the same while the eventual decision varies. People tend not to deliberate so much where the choice is clear.

Bob Doyle, the writer at "the Information Philosopher" answered in much the same way:
The simple answer to Kane's point and Double's is that we are not "just as likely" to opt for something different from "rational self control", but as human beings we can and do choose occasionally to be irrational.

Robert Kane's reservations about libertarian free will

At a terrific site for philosophy I just stumbled across, I found a long article on libertarian free will. The piece covers the views of quite a few philosophers, and in particular I was interested in Robert Kane's apparent concerns about libertarian free will.

Kane, after all, has produced one of the more robust models of libertarian free will.
There is, first of all, the problem of explaining why such a condition (an ability to do otherwise--ed.) should be regarded as necessary for free will at all.
I don't find that issue particularly distressing. It seems obvious to me that the ability to do otherwise, or the Principle of Alternate Possibilities, provides the freedom. Entity x with the ability to access outcomes A xor ~A ("xor" means either but not both) obviously has greater freedom than entity y with the ability to access only A. And that type or freedom ties into moral responsibility via agent causation and rational thought. But maybe it's trickier than it looks!
And, second, there is the problem of explaining how a theory of free will can accommodate a condition of this kind without making free choices arbitrary, capricious, and irrational.
Personal experience forces me to agree with Kane to the extent that skeptics of libertarian free will hold tightly to the notion that it much be capricious or irrational. The term I most often encounter is "random."
Some awkward consequences do seem to follow, If the agent might either make a choice or do otherwise, given all the same past circumstances, and the past circumstances include the entire psychological history of the agent, it would seem that no explanation in terms of the agent's psychological history, including prior character motives and deliberation, could account for the actual occurrence of one outcome rather than the other.
Kane's worry here reminds me of an objection lodged at the Center for Inquiry's message board. It was suggested that the conditions prior to a decision included all deliberations. Thus, if the deliberations suggested a leaning toward A, the outcome ~A would represent a disjunction between intention and outcome--or at least an disjunction between deliberation and the resulting intention. I consider that approach ridiculous, and Kane's statement seems to show an exaggerated deference to skeptics. I see no reason at all why alternative possibilities could not include deliberations of varying length and content. The initial conditions, after all, remain the same prior to any differences in the deliberation. The problem only arises, as I see it, if we allow an assumption of causal determinism to create an expectation that the deliberations must be identical stemming from the same initial conditions.
I can understand how the outcome of my deliberation may have been different, if I had known other facts, considered other consequences, imagined other scenarios, etc. But what I cannot understand is how I could have reasonably chosen to do otherwise, how I could have reasonably chosen B, given exactly the same prior deliberation that led me to choose A, the same information deployed, the same consequences considered, the same assessments made, and so on.
Mr. Kane, why not consider other consequences or scenarios? You are not causally determined to follow any one method of deliberation. Take an extra 10 seconds to ponder, if you like. Indeterminism certainly permits that.
This way of stating the argument shows what is at stake in the charges of arbitrariness, irrationality, etc., made against the indeterminist condition. If the choice of A was the reasonable outcome of my deliberation, then the choosing otherwise (the choice of B), which may have occurred given the same past circumstances, would have been "arbitrary," "capricious," "irrational," and "inexplicable," relative to my prior deliberation.
Yes, if the choice of A was the reasonable outcome then choosing B would appear capricious and inexplicable and all that. But many (most, I would think) scenarios include more than one reasonable option depending on the valuation placed on the various factors during deliberations. Following an example I gave during a critique of Saul Smilansky, Mr. Brown might trample his neighbor's petunias out of dislike for his neighbor. Or he might refrain from stomping the flowers based on his conviction that the action would be morally wrong. Either option is rational, and either might win out in deliberations.

Kane worries a bit too much.


The article has Richard Double weighing in to amplify Kane's concerns, so I will have an excuse for another sequel.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Saul Smilansky: Libertarian free will is impossible, Pt. 3

In previous installments, we noted that Saul Smilansky's arguments against the coherence of libertarian free will amount to question begging. In part two, I even quoted Smilansky anticipating that objection from those who disagree with him. At the end of pt. 2 I ended with the commitment to look into Smilanksy's attempts to answer objections based on indeterminacy.

1) David Wiggins

Wiggins' objection is hardly worth treating, riddled as he is with doubts as to whether it even works. Smilansky presents Wiggins as belonging to the camp that attributes free will to a type of occurrence along the lines of quantum particle formation. I would call that position entirely wrong-headed if it places a "random" occurrence as the cause, in turn, of a responsible decision. That understanding of Wiggins leaves the "self" in a determined state.

2) Richard Sorabji

Sorabji's position appears far more interesting than Wiggins', and may end up being close to the one I favor. As Smilansky puts it:
While this model succeeds in limiting the range of possible actions to those produced by the agent's will, the agent cannot determine which action out of a few alternatives he will in fact take, and the result will be thus morally unsatisfactory.

I think I've shown that Smilansky's conclusion does not follow. If a given action may turn out A or ~A on a 50/50 basis, we cannot fix the outcome on the probability, as with "A occurred because A had a 50 percent chance of happening." That explains nothing. And if we rule out a prior causal chain, we are left only with the action of choosing (along with the corresponding outcome). And without a prior cause the only cause we can reasonably posit is the acting agent (the "self") its own self.

So, contrary to Smilansky, the outcome is under the control of the acting entity in a morally satisfactory way. And as I have illustrated earlier, the character of the acting entity likewise may be modeled as under the substantial control of that entity.

3) Robert Kane

Smilansky allows that Kane's model manifests considerable complexity, but offers a simplified version to facilitate discussion. Smilansky paraphrases Kane thus:
In the paradigmatic case a person is inclined in two irreconcilable directions, say, to do her duty and to advance her career. She is tempted by self-interest but makes an effort to do her duty, and 'chaotically amplified indeterminacies' in her brain, surrounding her 'self-network', play a role in bringing about the outcome. Since it is her will that is divided, any outcome will be her own, but because of the indeterminism it will not be causally determined.
Smilansky responds by asserting that Kane's model does not give us what we need in terms of the PSA. And his explanation amplifies the indications that his PSA serves as an assumption of determinism: "When reviewed objectively, this amounts to a suggestion that effort is the source of (e.g. moral) value, but any non-compatibilist 'freedom' expressed by it derives from a source beyond the agent's control, i.e. indeterminism."

But isn't that patently obvious to the point of tautology? Of course if we rule out indeterminism we are left only with compatibilist options.

To understand Kane, I think, Smilanksy needs to refrain from positing indeterminism as itself the cause of indeterminstic outcomes. It is indeterminism that allows differing outcomes to fall under the agent's control in the first place, which is the very thing that compatibilism can never offer. Recall that under determinism, identical conditions x always lead to one outcome regardless of the number of trials. Indeterminism is the result of the actions of the libertarian agent. Not the cause of the agent's actions. Though of course we never reach the varied results unless we refrain from assuming the truth of determinism.

I hope I've treated Smilansky fairly. It always represents a challenge to accurately capture the other person's meaning when coming from an opposite paradigm of understanding, and the language we use in the free will debate lends itself to fallacies of ambiguity.

That said, it appears as though Smilansky has overstated his case and failed to account for ways in which the libertarian model can answer every challenge he offers except the challenge to explain indeterminism in terms of determinism. That last challenge is illegitimate.

Saul Smilansky: Libertarian free will is impossible, Pt. 1
Saul Smilansky: Libertarian free will is impossible, Pt. 2

Saul Smilansky: Libertarian free will is impossible, Pt. 2

Shortly after posting my first critique of Smilansky's disproof of Libertarian Free Will, I ran across the book version of his argument. Google Books is awfully handy sometimes.

The argument in the book, as one might expect, provides more detail than the one he presents in the paper I critiqued. I should note that Smilansky emphasizes that his treatment of the issue in the book is also deliberately brief.

In this more developed account, Smilansky relies on the Principle of Sole Attribution, and he offers the following expression of the PSA:
Any feature F due to which a person deserves something S in the libertarian free will-dependent sense must, in the normatively relevant respects, be solely attributable to the person or to the pertinent aspect A of the person.
At first blush, the PSA seems like a human responsibility equivalent to the Principle of Sufficient Reason. The latter, I think, qualifies as corollary of causal determinism. As for the PSA, Smilansky states that "solely attributable" constitutes the key.
For now, it suffices to define it negatively, in that no one or nothing beyond the person's authorship and control can be allowed, in the normatively relevant way, to have brought forth F, if the latter is to be a source for desert in the libertarian sense.
As there may be hidden assumptions in the above, I would decline to agree pending additional information. If I naturally like the taste of salt and cannot help liking salt, I do not see why that would take away my responsibility for eating salty foodstuffs so long as other conditions for libertarian free will were met.

It turns out, at least apparently, that Smilansky obtains his view from libertarian advocates such as C. A. Campbell:
Campbell manifestly attempts to meet something like the criteria laid down by the PSA. He takes a limited aspect of a person, focused on a narrow concept of desire, and calls it 'character.' He then invokes the 'self' as a latent power, which in certain situations can cause us to act contrary to our 'character' (i.e. contrary to our strongest desire).
I call it a mistake to suppose that the self does not cause outcomes corresponding to the strongest desire. The point should be that the self acts as the cause significantly regardless of the strongest desire, as illustrated by modeling LFW for a single act such as consuming potato chips.

Suppose "Homer" is repeatedly put through a trial under conditions x where he may eat potato chips or not eat potato chips. It isn't that Homer eats the potato chips unless the self intervenes. It is that either option is caused by the self without in turn being absolutely caused by something other than the self. So if Homer eats the potato chips 99 times out of 100 it still does not follow that the outcome was caused by the desire to eat potato chips as opposed to the self.

My illustration points up the difficulty of separating the character from the particular leaning of the will (the self) in making the actual decision. I think Smilansky tends to view the character in terms of causal determinism, hence the conclusion that the self would have overruled the character in order to avoid eating potato chips. That is, eating potato chips would have been causally determined. Doing other than eating potato chips would be the indeterministic self. I think Smilansky fails to keep to indeterminism in forming his critique. If an event happens only 99 times out of 100 under identical conditions then all 100 trials are indeterministic, not just one of them. Determinism by definition requires all 100 trials to reach the same outcome. Claiming any number short of that as deterministic creates a contradiction.

The problem comes out clearly in Smilansky's book when he turns to E. Walter for explanation:
"Even if it were plausible to introduce a 'self' to explain behaviour, we would say (a) that the self's decisions are determined by the self's attributes and (b) the character of the substance 'self' is (at least partially) determined at the moment of its inception in accord with whatever laws relate to the nativity of such recondite beings ... We would have no reasonable explanation for how the self gets to be the way it is unless it derives its character potential at birth."
(ellipsis reflects my edit)
Beyond the fact that Walter looks inclined to impose determinism as the explanation for indeterminism, he apparently waves off probabilistic explanations, such as the one I offered above, with no consideration at all.

From there, Smilansky invokes the whole of a Galen Strawson argument that I have tried and found wanting.

Smilansky subsequently summarizes the argument in two parts and surprises me with his follow up:
At this stage it might be said that my argument for the incoherence of a worthwhile sense of self is begging the question; I introduce the requirement of determinism and then am "surprised" to find that libertarian free will cannot meet it.
Bingo! But Smilansky tries to argue that the requirement of determinism is in turn required by the argument of the LFW advocate: "(W)e have not required from the libertarian more than she must require from herself: an account must be given, as to which non-arbitrary factor brought about the decision or action, and why."

Not surprisingly, that argument is circular in its turn.

Smilansky seems to overlook the fact that the LFW paradigm explicitly and intentionally fixes the self as the type of arbiter that he apparently finds unsuitable. The decisions of an arbiter are, in fact, unavoidably arbitrary in an essential sense. Arbiters arbitrate.

Consider an example. Parson Brown realizes that it would be wrong to trample his neighbor's petunias. Yet he feels as though he would enjoy trampling the petunias just the same. Given that Brown knows it is wrong to trample the Petunias, how can he be morally responsible if he tramples them? That is the question Smilanksy seems to offer. Yes, it seems arbitrary for Brown to trample the Petunias when he knows better. But it is precisely his knowledge that stepping on the flowers is wrong that gives him his moral responsibility for his behavior should he trample them in fact.

Doubtless it may be argued that the desire to trample the petunias was too great to resist--but once we take that route we're right back begging the question of libertarian action. Where indeterminism applies in this specific instance, a temptation too great to resist is an impossibility.

Smilansky is correct that the self must have some sort of nature or character. However, he appears to err in the assumption that said nature is necessarily deterministic (at least to achieve personal responsibility), and in the assumption that the self could not control decisions that alter said nature.


Smilansky takes up objections based on indeterminism in the next section of his book, so I will have reason to post a third part to this series.

Saul Smilansky: Libertarian free will is impossible, Pt 1

Saul Smilansky: Libertarian free will is impossible, Pt. 3

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Saul Smilansky: Libertarian free will is impossible

On a lark, I went hunting for a claim that libertarian free will is impossible. And not just any claim. I am after the best arguments I can find. I found the claim readily enough from Saul Smilansky. Unfortunately, his argument owes a huge debt to that of Galen Stawson, which I have already addressed.

Still, there is no great harm in repeating the exercise. It always remains possible that some element in the explanation will either add to the earlier argument or add to my perception of that earlier argument.

So without further ado, Smilansky's brief presentation of the Strawsonesque argument:
The reason why libertarian free will is impossible, in a nutshell, is that the conditions required by an ethically satisfying sense of libertarian free will, which would give us anything beyond sophisticated formulations of compatibilism, are self-contradictory, hence cannot be met.
That sets forth Smilanksy's position, so he continues with the rationale:
This is so irrespective of determinism or causality. Attributing moral worth to a person for her action requires that it follow from what she is, morally. The action cannot be produced by a random occurrence and count morally. We might think that two different things can follow equally from a person, but which one does, say, a decision to steal or not to steal, again cannot be random but needs to follow from what she is, morally. But what a person is, morally, cannot be under her control. We might think that such control is possible if she creates herself, but then it is the early self that creates a later self, leading to vicious infinite regress.
The first key point:

"Attributing moral worth to a person for her action requires that it follow from what she is, morally."

I believe the LFW advocate should agree with this proposition, with the caveat that what a person "is" need not be the result of causal determinism. Smilanksy suggests that the argument hold regardless of "determinism or causality"--an odd thing to mention since the LFW position is an incompatibilist one. After all, if determinism is true, then we have reason to expect that LFW is impossible.

The second key point:

"The action cannot be produced by a random occurrence and count morally."

As with Strawson's argument, I detect a concept that requires some explanation. What is a "random" occurrence? A LFW model would (ironically) predict unpredictable outcomes except perhaps in terms of probabilities.

For example, suppose we were to model the decision to steal or not to steal according to LFW. LFW would suggest that an infinite number of trials under identical conditions would produce at least one trial unlike the others. If we have 999,999 trials where the subject steals and a single trial where the subject refrains from stealing, we can claim some element of "chance" in the outcome. But is the outcome random any more than the other 999,999?

On this point, I attempt to clarify the issue by distinguishing between random/chance cause and random/chance outcome. If Smilansky does not detect randomness by mapping outcomes then he appears to have it tucked into his assumptions--or else I should expect an explanation as to how he determined its presence.

Developed further, this idea turns into the notion that who the subject is may well amount to "an individual who steals under conditions x 999,999 times out of a million." This appears to satisfy the qualification that the cause of the outcomes was not random as well as the stipulation that the individual acted according to "what she is."

On to the third key point:

"But what a person is, morally, cannot be under her control."

We might well ask how that follows, and Smilansky obliges, albeit in brief:
We might think that such control is possible if she creates herself, but then it is the early self that creates a later self, leading to vicious infinite regress.
I think that both Strawson and Smilansky overlook the fairly elegant libertarian solution to the problem. Libertarians do not regard individuals as responsible for their own ultimate existence. However, libertarian models appear to allow an individual to create what a person is, morally, subsequent to being created.

For example, suppose we have "Alex," a newly created entity with a non-deterministic will. Alex has a 50/50 chance of stealing/not stealing under conditions x by default. That is how Alex was created, and we do not hold Alex responsible for that state. In addition, Alex has a 50/50 chance of choosing a morally superior lifestyle. If Alex chooses moral improvement, it increases the not stealing probability by one percentage point. The result? Alex is in at least partial control of having a 49/51 chance of stealing/not stealing, and in full control of having the 49/51 figure instead of 50/50. If this decision does not reflect personal responsibility, then at least the subsequent decision not to steal under conditions x does reflect personal responsibility.

If I'm correct, then Smilansky's third statement is simply false, and his argument fails.

I imagine that figures like Smilansky and Strawson do not view things this way because they have a tendency to model things in terms of determinism. There is a determined outcome and anything else has to be random and therefore beyond individual responsibility.

Saul Smilansky: Libertarian free will is impossible Pt. 2
Saul Smilansky: Libertarian free will is impossible Pt. 3

"In the Know": The East Anglia e-mail hack

Part of the "In the Know" series of posts.

The political right of the blogosphere quickly developed an awareness of a story concerning hacked e-mails from a major global warming research center.

The Climatic Research Center at the University of East Anglia (apparently misidentified in quite a few reports as the "Hadley" center) had its computer system hacked. Quite a few e-mails were snatched and posted on the Web. Some of the e-mail messages sound suspicious and appear to suggest that scientists at the center allowed politics to influence their presentation of science.

The Associated Press produced a story that sums up the gist of what happened and then goes on to add details.

The St. Petersburg Times ran the AP story, but edited out all of the specific details. The 16 paragraph story was cut down to the first four, though the Times version looks like five since one paragraph was made into two.

"In the Know," baby.

"In the Know" in the Times

The St. Petersburg Times continues to use "In the Know" as part of its ad campaigns. They even use it as part of a little jingle:
In the Know
In the Times
Woe, indeed.

I have used "In the Know" as a tag for posts concerning Times coverage that is either AWOL or misleading.

Obama promises to improve non-profits?

Pun not intended, I suppose.

"DVIDS" publishes story on Afghanistan debut of Oshkosh MATV

Click the link at the top of the clipped photo to read the story.
clipped from
New MRAP tackles the toughest terrain for MEB-Afghanistan

Hummer left, M-ATV right.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Prediction time

I was thinking on Friday (I know, I know! I'm trying to quit!). PolitiFact is taking a pounding to their reputation on their FaceBook page. And, no, I'm not patting myself on the back. There are a pretty fair number of "fans" who write strong criticisms of the PolitiFact entries.

If this trend continues, I foresee PolitiFact either curbing their hosting of criticism or terminating the FaceBook page altogether. It is, in the end, all about protecting and burnishing the brand. If the criticisms are not somehow marginalized, the brand suffers. I just can't see the St. Petersburg Times putting up with that over the course of time.

But we'll see.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Orrin Hatch: Tolstoy v. health care bill

"There you go again." --Ronald Reagan

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson: writer, researcher
Bill Adair: editor


PolitiFact has developed a chronic problem with literary interpretation. Orrin Hatch is merely the latest to receive bludgeoning via the tin ear.

We note the issue from the title. Hatch supposedly says that the Senate version of the health care bill is longer than Tolstoy's "War and Peace"--a famously long novel. We have the deck blurbs, but let's add Jacobson's version also:
Republicans have been comparing (War and Peace with the Senate bill) to make the point that the Democratic plan is big and will lead to a bloated bureaucracy. In a Nov. 19, 2009, news release, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said that the 2,074-page bill was "longer than Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace."
Note two things from this.

1. Jacobson has identified what PolitiFact sometimes calls "the underlying argument": The bill is big.
2. Jacobson uses a Hatch press release as his source, and that press release in turn refers to an appearance by Hatch on Fox News. Jacobson actually quoted a paraphrase of Hatch. Here is the press release version:
Hatch noted the 2,074-page legislation, which he said was longer than Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” would also allow federal dollars to go to insurance plans that cover abortions.
Hatch's statement as uttered on Fox:
Keep in mind this is a 1,074--2,074 page bill. That's larger than, uh, the novel "War and Peace."

The paraphrase in the press release is fair, but it introduces an ambiguity. There is a difference between saying 2,074 pages is larger than "War and Peace" and saying that the bill itself is larger than "War and Peace." Hatch's original statement closely matches the former. The press release version could pass for the latter if one was not familiar with Hatch's phrasing.

And Jacobson opts for the less accurate reading:
The Oxford World's Classics paperback edition of War and Peace weighs in at 1,392 pages, according to By that measure, the 2,074-page Senate bill would indeed be longer.

But using pages as the benchmark is misleading. The page layout of a Senate bill is much different from a novel. The bill uses much larger type, on 8.5-by-11-inch paper. The margins are larger and there are wider spaces between the lines. On balance, then, fewer words fit on a page of the Senate bill than fit on the page of the paperback novel.
We see from "using pages as the benchmark is misleading" that Jacobson views the issue as the respective sizes of the literary works and not merely a comparison of their length in terms of pages. And even more to the point, in what way is it misleading with respect to Hatch's underlying argument? Communicating the fact that the Senate bill is big requires no complicated measurements of either "War and Peace" or the Senate bill. Jacobson identifies the point and then proceeds to ignore it.

Jacobson then regales the reader with a superfluous analysis of the "best" way to compare the length of two respective works. Without getting into that argument, I would suggest a third method that Jacobson apparently does not consider: The amount of reading it would take to understand the work. Bills coming out of Congress tend to have numerous sections that refer in turn to passages in other bills. Thus it would arguably take much longer to read and comprehend the Senate health care reform bill than to read and understand "War and Peace."

But really the point is just that the Senate bill is long.

Once Jacobson has forgotten the underlying argument, the eventual result is inevitable:

So while Hatch is right if you simply count pages, when you use a more accurate comparison -- the number of words -- War and Peace is actually longer. In other words, he is right by one measurement, but not by the best measurement. So it turns out that Democrats aren't as wordy as a Russian novelist. Who knew?

We find his claim Barely True.

Remember PolitiFact treating President Obama's claim that a Model T got better gas mileage than the average SUV sold in 2008?
We agree that the two cars are totally different. But Obama was careful in the way he phrased his statement: "The 1908 Model T earned better gas mileage than a typical SUV sold in 2008." As long as you don't consider any factors other than mileage, he's right. We rate his statement Mostly True.
Good thing for Obama that PolitiFact could not be bothered to pick out the best way to compare fuel economy. Orrin Hatch might have hoped that PolitiFact would consider no factors other than the number of pages.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson: F
Bill Adair: FF

Editor Bill Adair rates the never-before-used double F because he bears responsibility for the overall inconsistency displayed in the ratings.

Orrin Hatch's staff bears a share of the blame for introducing an ambiguity into the press release. But Jacobson should know to go the primary source of the quotation. This is basic in reporting.

Nov. 22, 2009: Apologies to Louis Jacobson for consistently misspelling his name as "Jacobsen." Corrections have been rendered.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Nora O'Donnell train wreck on Palin book tour (Updated)

First, watch the Video:

It's pretty obvious that the piece was set up with the idea of making Palin's supporters look clueless. O'Donnell had two supporters set aside, and had notes written down with which to confront the unsuspecting lass wearing the anti-Bailout shirt.

Both of the Palin supporters acquitted themselves pretty well, though for some (including the party who posted the YouTube video) the resistance to the "fact" that Palin supported the bailout would indicate something akin to blind faith.

But was it?

During the campaign, John McCain brought everyone to Washington, praised the bailout, and Sarah Palin, during the debate, the vice-presidential debate, praised John McCain for bringing folks together to pass the bill and said "It is a time of crisis in government. That's the time to step in."
It sounded like something McCain might have said, so it seemed reasonable on its face that Palin would say something similar as McCain's running mate. Just one problem. When I looked up either phrase with "Palin" on Google, I came up empty.

I checked the transcript of the vice-presidential debate. Palin has one line about McCain pushing to make the bailout bill "even better," but I found nothing resembling the statements O'Donnell cited.

It's bad enough setting up Jackie Seal with a surprise question geared toward a predetermined narrative. But it's ten times worse to use a bogus and/or improperly sourced quotation to spring the trap. Not to mention the palpable condescension.

This gets the tag "journalists reporting badly."


Dave Weigel, writing for The Washington Independent, offers the following from the vice-presidential debate as evidence that Palin supported the "bailout" plan:

John McCain thankfully has been one representing reform. Two years ago, remember, it was John McCain who pushed so hard with the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac reform measures. He sounded that warning bell.

People in the Senate with him, his colleagues, didn’t want to listen to him and wouldn’t go towards that reform that was needed then. I think that the alarm has been heard, though, and there will be that greater oversight, again thanks to John McCain’s bipartisan efforts that he was so instrumental in bringing folks together over this past week, even suspending his own campaign to make sure he was putting excessive politics aside and putting the country first.

I don't see anything about the bill, per se. But the part about bringing people together is there, at least. The latter part of the O'Donnell quotation/paraphrase remains a mystery.

It it also worth noting that TARP went through a considerable series of changes subsequent to the VP debate.

NHS: No, we will not approve use of an effective liver cancer drug

More on the compassion of the single-payer system of health insurance:
A drug that can prolong the lives of patients with advanced liver cancer has been rejected for use in the NHS in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Quality care for all. Wait a minute! You there! Not you.

The market does it better, in concert with personal human caring.

Thou shalt have abortion rights

Robyn Blumner calls herself an atheist. But I think she's religious.

Her religion is reproductive self-determination. But not that heretic branch that claims that women have the right to have as many babies as they wish. She's of the sect that holds the right to an abortion as sacrosanct.

Which brings us to her editorial column in last week's St. Petersburg Times:
In the vote on health care reform offered by the House Democratic leadership, women were given the status of potted plants. It didn't seem to matter that women generally vote Democratic at substantially higher rates than men, their reproductive health care was sacrificed on the altar (and it was an altar) of getting the thing passed.
No wonder she's mad. The altar of a competing religion was getting in the way. Better no health care bill than to see her religion slighted?

On with the sermon:
Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan and a purported member of the secretive fundamentalist Christian group known as The Family, threatened House Speaker Nancy Pelosi like a spoiled child possessing the playground's only basketball. He promised to let health reform fail, with about 40 members in tow, unless the bill included his amendment that barred abortion coverage from any public option or private health insurance plan purchased with federal subsidies.
I'm sure there are times when Blumner recognizes rights of conscience. But not where her religion is concerned. If the courts recognize the constitutional right of a mother to kill a fetus, then taxpayers need to pay for it whether or not they find it highly objectionable.

From what I can tell, the bit about "The Family" is an unsubstantiated rumor. Stupak lists his religion as Roman Catholic and maintains a membership at a Roman Catholic church in his home state. Classy of Blumner to mention the rumor.

Pelosi didn't have a choice. Even with Stupak's amendment, health care reform squeaked by on a vote of 220 to 215.

The stubborn position of Stupak and his lobbying partner, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, is made even more extreme by the fact that a compromise had been reached to protect the status quo's strict limits on federal funding of abortion. The House bill contained a provision directing health insurers in the new exchanges to segregate federal subsidies from private premiums and use only the private funds to pay for abortion coverage. No public money would be used for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

What a laughable compromise. Private religious schools should try that one sometime. Let them receive federal money, but keep it segregated from the religious activities of the school.

I'd give Blumner ... 2.5 seconds to blow her top if that arrangement became reality.

Funny how Blumner noticed Stupak's alliance with the USCCB but without letting on that he is a Roman Catholic.

But Stupak and his fellow conservative Democrats wanted more. They wanted to use health reform as an antiabortion tool. Stupak's amendment means insurers in the exchanges are unlikely to offer plans including abortion coverage since most customers will be federally subsidized.

It makes you wonder whom Stupak's team is playing for?

I suppose it is too much to assume that Stupak's well-known Catholicism and the associated probability that he would adopt a pro-life stance was known to Michigan voters. Let's go with the rumor that he is part of the secretive cult known as "The Family."
Passing health reform is the Democrats' top domestic policy priority. In addition to helping save nearly 45,000 people who die every year from a lack of health insurance, Democratic hopes in midterm elections may ride on its successful passage.
Funny stuff! Why is health care reform the Democrats' top domestic policy priority when unemployment is over 10 percent? And why push it when the price tag is so high while the federal deficit is blowing up like a passenger-side airbag after a high-speed collision? Especially when the American people are not behind it? Whether Blumner likes it or not, a majority of Americans oppose providing abortion services under the health care reform bill:
At least on the level of rhetoric, all the politicians and outside groups that have weighed in on health reform seem to agree: taxpayers shouldn't pay to fund abortion. "No federal dollars will be used to fund abortions," said Barack Obama in his speech to Congress on Sept. 8. His Democratic colleagues say they agree with the same principle, as do GOP leaders. That stance mirrors public opinion as well. A 2008 Zogby poll found that 69% of Americans oppose "taxpayer funding of abortion."
It makes no sense except as a long-term strategy to make Americans more dependent on government and thus more likely to vote for the Democrats who dependably vote for more spending on entitlements. Not counting Medicare under the health care reform bill, of course.

Short term, the Democrats will not do well politically to pass health care reform legislation--except with the hard left base. Blumner must be smoking something to think otherwise.

So what else is she thinking these days?
But Stupak and his crew were prepared to trade their own party's electoral prospects and all those lives for a rule that tells low- and middle-income women that they are on their own to pay for a needed abortion. Even in cases where the fetus is deformed and won't survive outside the womb.
As pointed out above, the federal health care reform legislation is unpopular as it is, and it would be even more unpopular if abortion coverage was included. With a reality base like that, Blumner should get Lucy in the Sky to give her enough diamonds to retire from the editing biz.

I'm kind of wondering about this "needed abortion" thing. The reform legislation includes an exception where the life of the mother is at risk. What are the other times an abortion is "needed"? It seems to me that a "needed, elective abortion" is oxymoron territory.
The Catholic bishops also made that calculation. To them, standing in the way of health coverage for an additional 36 million people — which they did aggressively — was worth it. Because now, maybe, some working woman who can't possibly afford another child since she can't even pay for an abortion, will be forced to have an unwanted baby. That was their compassionate, charitable reckoning.
The compassionate thing, evidently, would be to kill the fetus. Beezlenut! Beezlenut! Rah! Rah! Rah! It's not like people adopt babies or anything. And it's not like we'll need workers to pay for the health care of retiring baby boomers.
Whatever the numbers, the reason Stupak and the bishops were so keen to get their regressive amendment through was to make it harder for women to exercise their right to choose.
Probably not. The amendment probably would not make it any harder for a woman to have an abortion than it is at present. If Blumner meant to say that Catholics wanted to keep abortion from becoming an easier choice, that may be accurate. But the rights of conscience should not be discounted without mention.

Blumner ends with a howler:
Every lawmaker with a shred of decency knows that health reform is essential for our nation's future. But reform can't take abortion access with it. Women have to count for something.
The implicit argument: Unless women receive federal funding for elective abortion, women count for nothing.

Is that stupid or what?

As a bonus, we get the implication that a health care reform bill that will either increase the deficit (while being advertised as a deficit cure) or result in much higher taxation--during a recession, no less--is essential to the nation's future.