Friday, June 24, 2011

More Politi than Fact

The fact-checkers at PolitiFact usually do a pretty good job of analysis. Their ultimate verdicts, though, on their cutesy “Truth-o-Meter”—True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True, False and Pants on Fire—seem rather too whimsically applied… not to mention that they are described on the site as “rulings”, rather than opinions or decisions: these people take themselves very seriously. One could but wish they were as serious about the work.

A few days ago, they analyzed Jon Stewart’s rhetorical question of Fox News’s Chris Wallace, “Who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? … Fox viewers, consistently, every poll.” PolitiFact gave that statement a “False,” and then proceeded to describe how Fox viewers, though pretty damned ignorant, aren’t quite as uninformed (a different thing, not in fact tested by PolitiFact’s purported evidentiary polls) as some others. So Stewart’s claim regarding Fox’s peculiar brand of mendacity is not, in fact, demonstrated by “every poll”: just by the all the relevant ones.

Chris Mooney makes this point specifically and emphatically at Desmogblog.com:
My research, and my recent post, most emphatically supports this statement. Indeed, I cited five (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) separate public opinion studies in support of it—although I carefully noted that these studies do not prove causation (e.g., that watching Fox News causes one to be more misinformed). The causal arrow could very well run the other way—believing wrong things could make one more likely to watch Fox News in the first place.

But the fundamental point is, when it comes to believing political misinformation and watching Fox News, I know of no other studies than these five—though I’d be glad to see additional studies produced. Until then, these five all point in one obvious direction.

“Every poll,” to quote Stewart.
PolitiFact readers tend to be a pretty savvy lot—not universally, of course, but generally—and they pretty well let the site have it for its sloppiness. The key, as both Mooney and a plethora of commenters on PolitiFact site and Facebook page noted, is that Stewart’s claim can’t be measured by whether a respondent can name the Secretary of State, but by whether s/he thinks, contrary to all evidence, that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that climate change is a fraud, or that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks.

I cite here a small handful of the earliest comments, all of which have more to offer than whoever came up with PolitiFact’s irrelevant analysis:
• Kona Lowell: “Politifact seems to be intentionally misunderstanding. Fox viewers, according to Pew, tend to believe things that are untrue by wide margins. It doesn't mean they don't know who is president.”

• Andrew Bacon: “‎‎91 percent believe the stimulus legislation lost jobs. 72 percent believe the health reform law will increase the deficit. 72 percent believe the economy is getting worse. 60 percent believe climate change is not occurring. 49 percent believe income taxes have gone up. 63 percent believe the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts. 56 percent believe Obama initiated the GM/Chrysler bailout. 38 percent believe that most Republicans opposed TARP. 63 percent believe that Obama was not born in the U.S. (or that it is unclear).

• Jeff Ferguson: “I think you guys kind of missed the point of his comment. When he says constantly misinformed, he isn't referring to the type of historical or even current trivia that the Pew studies requested during the polls, but instead things like ‘will the new health care laws require death panels’ and so forth. He wasn’t shooting for a measure of intelligence, because just watching Fox doesn’t necessarily make you stupid, but instead, that the viewers of that show would simply be misinformed about key issues.”

• Jimmy Rumple: “Politifact screwed this one up by not knowing, or ignoring, basic definitions. Stewart said ‘misinformed,’ not ‘uninformed.’ Politifact didn't check for the right thing.”

• Manuel Somohano: “Seriously PolitiFact? Seriously? Are you trying to be ‘fair and balanced now’?......”
In fact, PolitiFact took such a pounding from its own readers that staff writer Louis Jacobson had to be trotted out to… well, I’m not sure exactly what he was doing. Acknowledging the fact that the readers really thought the evidence adduced by PF was insufficient to claim Stewart’s remarks are false, yes. Making the case for the relevance of the evidence, no. Taking responsibility for the laziness of the research and the shoddiness of the analysis (N.B., PolitiFact cites not a single one of the actually relevant polls referenced by Mooney), absolutely not. Mostly… well, mostly it was repeating what had already been written as if that made a difference.

The Stewart fiasco, however, was simply a warm-up act. The real fun came yesterday, when Obama advisor David Axelrod is quoted as saying, “If you're Governor [Mitt] Romney and you say I'm going to turn this economy around, I've got the answers. You don't offer them. Then people have a right to say, why is it that your state was 47th in the country in job creation when you were governor?” PolitiFact then checked out the claim, verified it, linked to a confirming article from that socialist rag, Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, and then… get this… declared Axelrod’s claim only “Half True,” anyway.

The pinhead (anonymous) reporter, you see, presumes to know what Axelrod intended to imply, deciding without benefit of evidence that Axelrod was claiming that Romney was responsible for the weak job growth: “some may interpret the Democrats' statistic that Romney is to blame….” Axelrod didn’t say it, and while that may have been what he was hinting at, I frankly doubt it.

What Axelrod, who after all is a senior advisor to President Obama, not a pundit or an elected official himself, is saying is in fact quite the opposite of what the PolitiFact Cretin interpolates. Axelrod knows very well that the economy is not subservient to the will of the Chief Executive, whether that’s the president of the country or the governor of a state. It was Romney, not Axelrod, who suggested otherwise, blaming Obama for the less-than-robust recovery and saying he could do better. Well, Mr. Romney, you had your chance and you blew it big time. So either the present economy isn’t necessarily Obama’s fault (in which case you’ve got nothing to run against) or you bear primary responsibility for the sluggishness in Massachusetts during your tenure as governor, so your allegedly brilliant economic scheme has been proven not to work. Pick one. Axelrod didn’t say it was Romney’s fault; he didn’t imply it. What he did imply, and was right to do so, is that Romney can’t have it both ways.

I’m not exactly sure when PolitiFact got into the implications business. They sometimes consider a statement based on its literal truth, sometimes (apparently) on what someone might think it implies. Sometimes they give a speaker the benefit of the doubt as to what s/he might have meant, e.g., Newt Gingrich’s claim that “The Reagan recovery, which I participated in passing, in seven years created for this current economy the equivalent of 25 million new jobs, raised federal revenue by $800 billion a year in terms of the current economy, and clearly it worked. It's a historic fact.” (Note: PolitiFact radically misinterprets Gingrich’s comment in their headline, suggesting the Reagan policy would have already created all those jobs: even Gingrich isn’t that absurd.) PolitiFact mentions in passing that Reagan’s policies might not have been responsible for the recovery (Cf. the Massachusetts economy not being Romney’s fault), but then proceeds to ignore its own statement.

More to the point, both halves of Gingrich’s assertion are wrong. PolitiFact goes through some arithmetic contortions to achieve a number close to the 25 million jobs figure cited by Gingrich. Of course, he didn’t say “nearly” or “approximately.” Moreover, PolitiFact cherry-picks the numbers they use to fact-check: notice that they start two full years into the Reagan presidency. At the same point in the Reagan presidency we’re currently at in the Obama presidency, June of the third year, unemployment was at 10% and 1.1 million jobs had been added since the low-water mark in employment. Today, unemployment is at 9.1% and about 2.1 million private sector jobs have been created since the “trough.” See how brilliant Reagan was? More to the point, recoveries need to build momentum. It is unreasonable to expect the beginning of an upturn (where we still are now) to generate the same number of new jobs as even the average months once a rebound has hit its stride. In other words, Gingrich’s figure here is mostly true and mostly irrelevant (as opposed to Axelrod's entirely true and partially irrelevant riposte).

PolitiFact itself exposes the silliness of the second half of Gingrich’s claim: coming up with a total of $188 billion, not $800 billion. (Apparently Gingrich is now claiming to have misspoken, intending to argue the $800 billion figure applied over the life of the recovery, not in a single year. Perhaps so—people do misspeak—or perhaps he was lying and got busted.)

What’s remarkable here is that Gingrich’s almost true and completely uncontextualized first half and totally false second half—both of which must be true to make the statement true—still merits a “Half True” from PolitiFact. Yes, precisely the same rating as the demonstrably true, no argument, statistic cited by Axelrod.

The upshot of this is simple: PolitiFact is still a useful tool in determining whether a candidate, office-holder, or pundit is really telling the truth. But those halcyon days when it could savor its reputation as a thorough, reliable, and objective source—a place where a glance at the final “ruling” would resolve a question of fact—those days are gone, and they ain’t coming back.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Is Miss USA really a geek?

To say that I generally pay little attention to beauty pageants (or whatever the PC term is now) is to err rather more on the side of understatement than of hyperbole. Even when I was young and single, they held little appeal; as I grow older, whatever passing interest I may once have had has waned, and the entire process seems somewhere between anachronistic and depressing.

Still, that’s what I’m going to write about today. It seems that this year’s Miss USA winner, a Californian named Alyssa Campanella, is a self-described “huge science geek” and, indeed, “huge history geek.” Why that should be of particular interest to anyone, I’m not sure, but it’s generated headlines in two ways.

First, there are those who—strangely—assert that because Ms. Campanella is in fact a gorgeous young woman that she is something of a poser in her aspirations to geekdom. One tweet reads “Much as I hate to say it, when a Miss USA calls herself a geek, my first thought is “bandwagon hopper.” Another mental giant opines, “anybody that can walk in a bar and get free drinks all night shouldn't constitute as a 'geek'. 'less they're doing ppl's hmwrk.”

It strikes me that there’s more at stake here than a semantic quibble over the definition of “geek.” Rather, this scenario speaks to a distressing and rather pathetic conflation of intellect and physical unattractiveness. My first thought on reading these responses was that I’ve had more than a few geeky women in my classes and on my production teams over the years. A fair number of them have been quite attractive; a handful, stunning. Indeed, it may say something about my taste that I find a higher per capita percentage of really (physically) beautiful women among the geeks than among the pedestrian thinkers (not to say “bimbos”). Geekitude is a function of interests, aptitude, and intellect, not the inability to “get free drinks all night.”

That takes us to the second set of headlines about this year’s pageant. Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today reports that, in response to a question about whether evolution ought to be taught in schools, only Ms. Campanella and Alida D’Angona of Massachusetts “stood up for Darwin.” That observation was subsequently picked up by Tanya Somanader of Think Progress and subsequently by Philip Yam at Scientific American.

On the one hand, that’s a chilling statistic, especially since the question wasn’t whether evolution should be taught to the exclusion of other theories, but, in effect, whether it should be taught at all. And that question appears to have generated more “nays” than “ayes,” along with a boatload of equivocations. Were I of a snarky temperament, I might note that a few of these young women don’t believe in evolution because it apparently hasn’t happened to them.

Given the fact that the contestants knew what questions were going to be coming at them, the illogical ramblings of some are truly troubling. This is the stuff stereotypes are built on: “scientists have their different theories. I don’t believe it’s a good topic for school subjects. At all.” That’s Miss Kentucky, Kia Ben-et Hampton, for those of you keeping score at home. Alabama’s Madeline Mitchell at least has the honesty to say that her opposition is grounded in her own belief system: “I do not believe in evolution, I do not believe it should be taught in schools, and I would not encourage it.”

The correct response to the question, of course, is as follows: “Certainly evolution should be taught in schools. It is the most widely accepted theory among actual scientists by a huge margin, as even those who question its merits will admit… or at least the honest ones will. Understanding evolutionary theory is both an excellent case study for the way scientific method operates and foundational for any kind of sophisticated understanding of comparative zoology or botany. Now, do you have any intelligent questions?” I doubt that answer would make me Miss USA, but somehow I suspect I might not have been that strong a contender to begin with.

For all the flippancy of the above paragraph, however, I’m making a serious point here. The standard theory of the origin of tragedy is that it developed out of dithyramb—a different kind of celebration of the demigod Dionysus—and gradually evolved into the medium associated with Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. This argument was articulated by Aristotle in his Poetics and echoed by the Cambridge anthropologists of the early 20th century. I think it’s wrong. But it’s still the prevailing theory, and you can bet your bottom dollar I tell my students about it.

I think something else is important here, however. The first is that many contestants’ responses were equivocal in part because contest organizers apparently made it known that: “Polarizing questions often create a situation where you suffer ... if you agree, and if you do not. The girls need to answer in a way that brings them to a common ground.” So I’m not all that concerned with, say, West Virginia’s Whitney Veach, who said,
Yeah, I do think that evolution should be taught in schools, but I also don’t think that religion should be taken out. If you don’t believe in evolution, that’s fine, but you should at least be informed about it. If you don’t believe in religion, that’s fine, but you should at least be informed about it. So I personally feel like they should incorporate both.
This is a perfectly reasonable response, especially in the context of “common ground.” Notice that Ms. Veach says only that religion belongs in the curriculum. It does. In religion class. And there’s nothing in her response to suggest that she is anything but cognizant of the difference between science and religion. The Bible isn’t relevant to the study of biology; the laws of physics don’t apply to Moses’s ability to part the Red Sea.

Indeed, if I might be so bold, this is a far more thoughtful, well-reasoned response than that of the “science geek” everyone is getting so excited about: “Well, I was taught evolution in my high school growing up, and I do believe in it. I mean, I’m a huge science geek, so I like to believe in… the Big Bang theory and the evolution of humans… throughout time.” This answer suggests a frankly superficial understanding of evolution: “the evolution of humans over time” sounds rather too much like the kind of response I get on theatre history tests from students who didn’t study. And what, pray tell, does the Big Bang theory have to do with anything? More to the point, what is “I like to believe in…” all about? This makes scientific knowledge sound like something that has a nice beat and you can dance to. Finally, her response is as parochial in its own way as Ms. Mitchell’s: evolution shouldn’t be taught because Ms. Campanella believes in it any more than it should be excluded because Ms. Mitchell doesn’t.

In short, I’m going to have to reconsider Ms. Campanella’s geekly qualifications. She still gets a different kind of geek cred for her fangirl status vis-à-vis “Star Wars” and “Game of Thrones,” but her response to the evolution question isn’t the “cogent answer” Mr. Yam pretends it is. Indeed, it was more suited to the traditional image of the beauty queen than to any legitimate “science geek.” She’s no intellectual—or at least she didn’t prove herself to be one. It’s just that the competition is so inane she looks good by comparison. And she looks good in other ways, too…

Monday, June 20, 2011

Too Big to Succeed

Remember when we were told a couple of years ago about the banks that were “too big to fail”? Well, the Supreme Court ruled today, in effect, that the class-action sex discrimination suit filed by a million and a half women against Wal-Mart was, well, too big to succeed.

Or at least today’s ruling in Wal-Mart v. Dukes certainly seems to be based on that rather curious premise. True, there’s some legalistic mumbo-jumbo in there, and it appears that in strictly legal terms the women filed the wrong kind of claim (that was the unanimous decision of the court). But ultimately, the problem was that they couldn’t provide the “glue” (Justice Antonin Scalia’s word) that held every presumed member of the class together. In the majority opinion, then, the “[respondents’] wish to sue for millions of employment decisions at once” is at the crux of the problem. In other words, the suit was simply too big.

The key word was “commonality.” Here’s Justice Scalia for the majority:
Commonality requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that the class members “have suffered the same injury.” This does not mean merely that they have all suffered a violation of the same provision of law. Title VII, for example, can be violated in many ways—by intentional discrimination, or by hiring and promotion criteria that result in disparate impact, and by the use of these practices on the part of many different superiors in a single company. Quite obviously, the mere claim by employees of the same company that they have suffered a Title VII injury, or even a disparate-impact Title VII injury, gives no cause to believe that all their claims can productively be litigated at once. Their claims must depend upon a common contention—for example, the assertion of discriminatory bias on the part of the same supervisor. That common contention, moreover, must be of such a nature that it is capable of classwide resolution—which means that determination of its truth or falsity will resolve an issue that is central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke.

What matters to class certification . . . is not the raising of common ‘questions’—even in droves—but, rather the capacity of a classwide proceeding to generate common answers apt to drive the resolution of the litigation. Dissimilarities within the proposed class are what have the potential to impede the generation of common answers.”
OK, if I’m reading this correctly, what all this means is this: in order to file a class action suit, complainants must demonstrate that they suffered precisely the same injury from precisely the same source. The only way to demonstrate that would be to affirmatively prove a corporate culture whereby personnel decisions at individual stores, while presumably made locally, are in fact sufficiently influenced by a corporate culture that the decisions of a manager in California are in fact not independent of those made by a manager in New Jersey. That’s a very high hurdle, indeed, one which the majority (the usual suspects—Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito—plus the occasionally free-thinking Kennedy) did not think had been met.

If that really is the standard, I’d have to agree with them. That is, if you really have to prove that the cashier who didn’t get a raise in Topeka and the model employee who was passed over for promotion in Ashtabula are victims of precisely the same decision-making process, I’m not sure you can get there. But, of course, here’s where there is dispute among the various justices. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for a minority which perhaps not-so-coincidentally included the other two women on the court (Kagan and Sotomayor), plus Breyer, argues that the very act of ceding authority to local managers is a consistent policy: “Wal-Mart's delegation of discretion over pay and promotions is a policy uniform throughout all stores.”

She also cites the precedent of Franks v. Bowman Transp. Co., in which “We recognized that the ‘qualification[s] and performance’ of individual class members might vary. ‘Generalizations concerning such individually applicable evidence,’ we cautioned, ‘cannot serve as a justification for the denial of [injunctive] relief to the entire class.’” For Ginsburg, the question isn’t whether common questions are the “glue” that joins all the complaints together, but rather whether such concerns “predominate” over individual matters.

For the majority, however, the fact that the corporation has a non-discrimination policy and procedures for filing discrimination complaints is sufficient to absolve Wal-Mart as a corporation from responsibility for the actions of dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of its managers, even if those individual actions were in fact discriminatory. Justice Scalia even snarkily observes that the women’s case has a mere 120 affidavits (“about 1 for every 12,500 class members—relating to only some 235 out of Wal-Mart’s 3,400 stores”).

On this point, it seems to me that the good Justices could use a bracing jolt of the real world. Every corporation in the country has a non-discrimination policy; every one has an appeals procedure. These don’t exist because companies believe in equal opportunity; they exist because companies want to seem to believe in equal opportunity. They exist because their lawyers tell them—with cause, apparently—that some judge somewhere will be stupid enough to believe that a corporation’s public declarations have anything whatsoever to do with its actual day-to-day decision-making. If Mr. Scalia and his cronies got out more, they’d know that there are a million subtle and not-so-subtle ways of allowing all manner of discriminatory practices. Having a policy and enforcing it, in other words, are independent concepts.

Be it noted: the Court didn’t actually decide on the merits of the discrimination case, only on whether the women can legitimately be termed a class. The corporation’s official statement, then, that the decision “pulls the rug out from under the accusations made against Walmart over the last 10 years” is, like virtually everything else to come out of that company’s upper management, so much bullshit. There is no vindication of Wal-Mart’s actions here, only of their narrowly defined legal position.

There is, of course, plenty of evidence of discrimination: evidence in the form of anecdotal testimony, of statistics, of expert testimony about corporate culture. Indeed, Justice Ginsburg lays out the statistical case pretty well in her dissent:
Women fill 70 percent of the hourly jobs in the retailer’s stores but make up only “33 percent of management employees.” “[T]he higher one looks in the organization the lower the percentage of women.” The plaintiffs’ “largely uncontested descriptive statistics” also show that women working in the company’s stores “are paid less than men in every region” and “that the salary gap widens over time even for men and women hired into the same jobs at the same time.”
The ramifications of the decision are considerable: proponents of both sides agree that the ruling is probably the most important consideration of the notion of class action in a decade or more. Business advocacy groups, or at least those who, like the national Chamber of Commerce, represent largely major corporations, are thrilled because today’s ruling makes it more difficult for complainants to join resources, or indeed to exact significant penalties from deep-pocketed defendants.

On the other side, of course, are those who, like Joseph M. Sellers, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, believe the majority “reversed about 40 years of jurisprudence that has in the past allowed for companywide cases to be brought challenging common practices that have a disparate effect, that have adversely affected women and other workers.” Even more scathing—and no less accurate—is the critique of Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, who said “the court has told employers that they can rest easy, knowing that the bigger and more powerful they are, the less likely their employees will be able to join together to secure their rights.”

The women at the forefront of the case have vowed to fight on, and they may well succeed, either as individuals or as members of smaller, more homogeneous classes. But Wal-Mart is playing a divide-and-conquer game here, and will now be able to discount the most significant testimony against the corporation. They will, in other words, claim—just as Justice Scalia says they will—“to have been applying some sex-neutral, performance-based criteria—whose nature and effects will differ from store to store.” In other words, it just sort of worked out, corporation-wide, that men got more management opportunities, more raises, and all that stuff—and for a veritable cornucopia of different reasons. Coincidence is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

As I’ve said here before, as in the case of the Westboro Baptist Church or the Silsbee High School cheerleader, what is legal is not necessarily what is just. That may be the women’s problem: they sought justice from a multinational monstrosity and from the Supreme Court. The former is unwilling, and the latter unable, to provide it.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Zardari?

The diplomatic aftermath of the successful mission against the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan was predictable, especially when it became clear that US authorities not only didn’t inform the Pakistani government of the imminent raid, but President Obama trebled the size of the assault force so, in the face of possible resistance from Pakistani police or armed forces, they could fight their way out. There may or may not have been a deal in place, giving the American military free access to pursue a raid against bin Laden but providing for vociferous after-the-fact protests by the Pakistani government. I wrote about all this on May 12.

Now, according the AP’s Kimberly Dozier,
U.S. officials say Pakistan has apparently tipped off militants at two more bomb-building factories in its tribal areas, giving the terror suspects time to flee, after U.S. intelligence shared the locations with the Pakistani government.

U.S. officials believe Pakistan's insistence on seeking local tribal elders' permission before raiding the areas may have most directly contributed to the militants' flight. U.S. officials have pushed for Pakistan to keep the location of such targets secret prior to the operations, but the Pakistanis say their troops cannot enter the lawless regions without giving the locals notice….

The latest incidents bring to a total of four bomb-making sites that the U.S. has shared with Pakistan only to have the terrorist suspects flee before the Pakistani military arrived much later.
Apparently, the American military got suspicious and satellite-monitored suspected bomb-making sites after alerting the Pakistanis. “In each case, they watched the militants depart within 24 hours, taking any weapons or bomb-making materials with them, just as militants had done the first two times. Only then, did they watch the Pakistani military visit each site, when the terror suspects and their wares were long gone, the officials said.”

Anyone paying attention will have long since come to the conclusion that the chances of real cooperation from the Pakistani government--any Pakistani government—are roughly equal to the chances that Lucy will let Charlie Brown kick the football. But while the news can hardly be described as surprising, it is certainly disappointing in at least two ways.

First, there is the obvious lack of détente after the Abbottabad raid. If there was a deal in place to allow American forces to go after bin Laden, the Pakistanis sure aren’t acting like it. Their indignation that they would be accused of tipping off terrorists is so transparently false, it’s laughable. Or, rather, it would be if the stakes weren’t as high as they are. No, they didn’t directly phone up and say, “by the way, we’re raiding you tomorrow; just thought we’d let you know.” No, they called up the local tribal chiefs, and they passed the word along. It’s like saying you didn’t tell anyone your friend’s secret… you just posted it on the Internet.

The second concern, of course, is the rather too frank admission that the administration of Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari doesn’t really have control over its own territory. Apparently they need the equivalent of a hall pass to enter certain areas, which oh-so-coincidentally happen to be where much of the terroristic activity is taking place. So even if Pakistan were an honest and reliable ally, it wouldn’t be much help.

Yet while it is true that no one believes the Pakistani government can be trusted, they’re no doubt better than the alternative. That means the allowing distrust to spiral downward into real belligerence is not a legitimate solution. But it’s clear that Pakistan has neither the desire nor the ability to clean up pockets of terrorism within its own borders. I presume that logistical problems such as the potential for extensive civilian casualties prevents using drone strikes against this type of target.

The US, therefore, is left with three unsavory choices. Possibility #1 is to continue to pretend the Pakistanis really are the allies we have long trumpeted them as being (not that anyone really believed it). That means we’ll catch the occasional low-level insurgent when the string of failures starts looking a little too long to be otherwise plausible, rather like the crooked roulette wheel generates a winner every now and then to keep the suckers interested. But don’t hold your breath for a real payoff.

The second scenario would involve simply giving up on pursuing anyone—bomb-maker, militiaman or mastermind alike—who manages to make it over the border into Pakistan. This seems even less tenable than the first option.

Finally, we could decide to take matters into our own hands and pursue any military target we want, Pakistani sovereignty be damned: if they’re not a friend, they’re an enemy. This, of course, has serious repercussions not only in terms of international law, but also in terms of the widespread perception—fueled, alas, by idiots like Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain—that the US is indeed at war with all of Islam. It is a strategy to be pursued only as an absolute last resort, if even then.

Needless to say, none of these choices is a happy one. Some real diplomacy is called for, then, to see how cooperative the Zardari government can truly be made to be, and how much actual steel can be packed into the velvet gloves of negotiation. The US has provided nearly $18 billion in military and economic aid in the decade since 9/11; its continuation (or not) could be a bargaining chip, but expect Congressional criticism of continuing the assistance regardless of what path the Pakistanis take: both from those who object to the notion of foreign aid in general (especially to a Muslim country) and from those who expect a little more quid pro quo bang for their buck.

Killing Osama bin Laden had great symbolic value and provided the Obama administration a short-term bump in poll numbers. But the raid has already faded from the public consciousness, the approval ratings have dwindled back down to where they were in April, and US-Pakistani relations are marked with an even more profound skepticism on both sides than in the past. Dealing with bin Laden may have been a walk in the park compared with negotiating this minefield.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

John Boehner Gets One Right

Pay attention, because this doesn’t happen very often. John Boehner got one right.

Earlier this week, the Obama administration issued a 38-page report to Congress arguing that the ongoing NATO operation in Libya did not require Congressional approval under the War Powers Act because “U.S. operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve U.S. ground troops.” True, the operation has cost $716 million already, but that’s not really at issue—except, of course, that the money in question has to be authorized by Congress whether the mission does or not. At issue, apart from political posturing and no little hypocrisy from both sides, is the definition of “hostilities” as described in the War Powers legislation, a semantic delineation which has never been made by either Congress or the courts.

It is perhaps ironic how quickly roles have been reversed here: among the chief critics of the Obama administration is the former head of the Bush Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which may have been the smarmiest collection of sycophants ever assembled in a single federal office. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is distorting language fully as much as the Bush minions did in defending water-boarding.

As Charlie Savage and Mark Landner write in the New York Times,
The escalating confrontation with Congress reflects the radically altered political landscape in Washington: a Democratic president asserting sweeping executive powers to deploy American forces overseas, while Republicans call for stricter oversight and voice fears about executive-branch power getting the United States bogged down in a foreign war.
I’m going to leave aside the merits of the Libyan exercise itself: it is a complex issue, with legitimate arguments about moral imperatives on one side and equally persuasive arguments about lack of compelling national interest on the other. Rather, I want to concentrate on the question of whether the ongoing operations in Libya require Congressional approval. Yes, they do.

The administration’s case, one which ignored the objections of Jeh C. Johnson, the Pentagon general counsel, and of Caroline D. Krass, the acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, is founded on three independent premises, none of which stand up to much scrutiny. The first is that an offensive mission involving drone attacks, sustained bombing, and occasional casualties doesn’t really constitute “hostilities.” The second is that, despite the fact that participation in a NATO-run, UN-sanctioned, mission to protect civilians has morphed into an aggressive attack on Colonel Qaddafi’s compound, the military and geo-political missions have not merged. The third is the apparent assertion that since the mission has taken longer than expected (and that’s never happened before, right?), we should really only be looking at how long the campaign was supposed to last. Add to that the extreme rarity of any White House over-riding the opinion of the Office of Legal Counsel, and the Obama administration has a mess on its hands… or perhaps on its shoes, because they’ve really stepped in something.

There’s even a lawsuit by ten members of Congress, led by leftie Dennis Kucinich, which seeks:
injunctive and declaratory relief to protect the plaintiffs and the country from the (1) policy that a president may unilaterally go to war in Libya and other countries without a declaration of war from Congress, as required by Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the United States Constitution; (2) the policy that a president may commit the United States to a war under the authority of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in violation of the express conditions of the North Atlantic Treaty ratified by Congress; (3) the policy that a president may commit the United States to a war under the authority of the United Nations without authorization from Congress; (4) from the use of previously appropriated funds by Congress for an unconstitutional and unauthorized war in Libya or other countries; and (5) from the violation of the War Powers Resolution as a result of the Obama Administration’s established policy that the President does not require congressional authorization for the use of military force in wars like the one in Libya.
Most observers believe the lawsuit will go nowhere, and that it represents more of an opportunity to get the complainants’ names in the paper than anything else, but it’s still an intriguing collection of Congresscritters, including Kucinich and John Conyers from the hard left, Walter Jones (remember “freedom fries”?) and Dan Burton from the equally hard right, and Ron Paul (who fancies himself a strict Constitutionalist and sometimes actually is).

But of course, it’s Speaker Boehner whose opposition matters most. It is no doubt true that Mr. Boehner would not be so critical of a Commander-in-Chief of his own party. It is also true that, this time, he’s right: sneeringly describing through a spokesperson Obama’s case as “creative,” then arguing (in his own words) “It just doesn’t pass the straight-face test, in my view, that we’re not in the midst of hostilities,” and subsequently asserting “The White House’s suggestion that there are no ‘hostilities’ taking place in Libya defies rational thought.”

What boggles the mind here is not the fact that Boehner would be critical of Obama, or that there would be debate about whether the administration’s strategy with respect to Libya is the correct one. Rather, one must wonder at the political ineptness of the President and his team—if you can’t convince this Congress that continuing the Bush administration’s policy of “exporting democracy” is a good idea, if you can’t make a case for fulfilling obligations authorized by the UN and NATO, if you can’t justify the mission in general terms, then scale back the offensive maneuvers, at the very least. More importantly, this silly rhetoric in defense of non-existent executive authority has lent legitimacy to the GOP's hitherto largely fallacious talking points about lack of consultation. And for what? The opportunity to spend a few more hundreds of billions of dollars to drop bombs on Libyan civilians? That really does sound a little too much like the Bush administration.

It takes more than a little ineptness to make John Boehner look good by comparison. The Obama administration has succeeded in doing just that.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Paul Ryan Isn't as Smart or as Honest as We Thought: And That's Saying Rather a Lot

Paul Ryan is in the news again: twice, in fact. Neither of the stories casts him in a good light, although one seems to want to do so. Let’s go there first.

On Thursday, Congressman Ryan signaled his willingness to make optional his controversial (to say the least) proposal to shift Medicare from a fee-for-services system to a voucher system. Indeed, Ryan aides pointed to an April interview in the Weekly Standard in which he seems to have been saying that even then. Except, of course, that he wasn’t.

Let’s face it: the argument in favor of the Ryan plan is that it saves the government money. How? By shifting some of the burden of seniors’ health care away from the taxpayers in general and onto the individual recipients. This is a defensible position in pragmatic if not political terms. But, just as the benefits of “Obamacare” rely on the participation of everyone—including those less likely to require high-cost services—so does Ryan’s plan only reach its goal of reducing costs if a significant number of people subscribe.

But no sane individual retiree would choose Ryan’s plan over the status quo for the precise reason that the scheme is appealing to deficit-cutters: the government would pay less towards the health care needs of the elderly. Given the choice, then, between Ryan’s voucher plan and the current structure of Medicare, not even Ryan’s own mother would choose Ryancare. Be it noted: this doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea (I think it’s an abomination, but that’s not the point). It means that for Ryan’s proposition to work, it cannot be voluntary.

Rep. Ryan himself, of course, wants to have it both ways. He seems quite reasonable if allows an option, but of course he has to understand that doing so completely destroys whatever efficacy his plan may have going for it. So, back in April, to a fawning John McCormack at the Weekly Standard, Ryan argued that an optional system could still achieve the budgetary goals of the program:
because it wouldn’t be an open-ended fee for service system, like the current one for the under-55 plan. They would get a set amount of money to go toward the traditional fee for service and then, like current Medicare they’d probably buy coverage to supplement it. I would think a person would prefer a comprehensive plan like Medicare Advantage is today, but you can do this in a way that doesn’t have a budgetary effect, that it doesn’t bankrupt the program.
In other words, people would be free to choose the current system, except that it wouldn’t be the current system.

Thus, Ryan is being disingenuous in two different ways, completely apart from the Panglossian predictions on which his whole schema is founded. What Ryan is proposing as an option, then, is neither what he pretends it is (i.e., the current system) nor a source for any appreciable deficit reduction. And, of course, any movement towards making Medicare less universal ultimately increases per capita costs by reducing Medicare’s ability to use its incredible purchasing power to negotiate better rates on behalf of all of us—Medicare recipients and taxpayers alike.

I understand the impulse of Democrats to accuse Ryan of walking away from his own proposal, and to try to concentrate attention on it, given its capacity to be a bigger albatross for the Republicans than Watergate, which could at least be blamed on a handful of rogues. No, the entire GOP political class has quaffed deep of this particular Kool-Aid, and no one—not even the Tea Party—thinks they’re on the right track. Still, the Dems are making the wrong argument: the problem isn’t a lack of conviction on Ryan’s part. It’s the fundamental fact that his underlying logic is even less logical, less consistent, and less honest than we’d previously believed.

Speaking of less honest, the other Ryan headline comes in the form of an article by Daniel Stone of The Daily Beast. Stone alleges, and provides no little evidence, that those tax cuts to energy companies proposed in the Ryan budget aren’t simply crass, counter-productive and inane: they’re also self-serving.

Importantly, I don’t mean self-serving in the “helping out my campaign contributors” sense that, alas, is pervasive on both sides of the aisle. In the absence of a smoking gun in the quid pro quo department, it’s always difficult to determine whether Corporation X or Union Y supports a candidate because they like the way he votes, or whether he votes that way because that’s how his biggest financial backers (not to be confused with his constituents) want him to. No, this is much more obvious: Ryan gets well into six-figures a year in income from two kinds of companies: those that lease land to energy companies and the energy companies themselves.

Or course, it’s mere coincidence that the companies like these are precisely those which, for reasons never made entirely clear, get ginormous tax breaks under the Ryan plan. After all, one of his minions said it was all on the up-and-up:
Ryan’s office says the congressman wasn’t thinking about himself or the oil companies that lease his land when he drafted the budget blueprint that extended the energy tax breaks. “These are properties that Congressman Ryan married into,” spokesman Kevin Seifert said. “It’s not something he has a lot of control over.”
Seriously, where do they find these people? Is Representative Ryan so stupid that he doesn’t know what these investments are in? Or so arrogant that he thinks he’s above getting called out on what is at the very least the appearance of a conflict of interest? He lacks the intellectual or financial wherewithal to put his assets in a blind trust? Or what?

Here’s Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington director Melanie Sloan: “Sure, senior citizens should have to pay more for health care, but landholders like [Ryan] who lease property to big oil companies, well, their government subsidies must be protected at all costs. It smacks of hypocrisy.” (Be it noted that I don’t implicitly trust edicts from CREW… it’s just that this time, they’re right.)

Not long ago, Ryan was being touted by the right as some sort of budgetary genius. Of course, that was before the people at large actually heard his ideas, which have been roundly rejected by voters of every stripe. Democrats unquestionably have Ryan to thank for their victory in the supposedly safe GOP stronghold of the New York 26th in last month’s special election: even if you buy into the Republican mantra that the presence of a third-party candidate swung that election for Kathy Hochul, it’s difficult to see how to spin the disintegration of Republican Jane Corwin’s double-digit lead at precisely the time Hochul started hammering Corwin on the latter’s support of Ryan. Even Tea Party enthusiasts think Ryan’s gutting of social programs is extreme. I think we can take as given that the Democrats will find a way to screw this up, but making Paul Ryan the face of Republican over-reach is both good policy and good politics.

Ryan, of course, claims to be misunderstood, poor lamb. He’s not really the heartless asshat we perceive him to be. No, apparently, he’s stupider than that. And more corrupt.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Updates and Expansions

Time to re-visit and update some older posts:

LeBron James.
Last July 10, one of three stories I talked about was the fact that LeBron James was “tak[ing] his talents to South Beach,” abandoning the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in search of riches and a championship (in that order, although of course he’d never say so).

My assessment at the time: “while he is unquestionably an outstanding athlete, he just flat gets outplayed (or matched by those of considerably lesser talent) when it matters most.” The finals aren’t over yet, and the Heat, trailing 3-2 as I write this, could still emerge victorious, but it won’t matter in terms of James’s legacy: he still choked when it counted. His Larry Bird numbers for the series have averaged a little under 359. (I wrote last spring, “A good score, one you’d expect consistently from a star player, is 500. A really good game, the kind you’d expect not infrequently from a superstar, is 750. A put-the-team-on-his-back-and-carry-them number is 1000.”)

James’s best game was a 600 in game 1, the only time he’s broken 500. He didn’t crack 200 in either of the losses in Dallas. His direct opposite number, i.e. the starting small forward for the Mavs, Shawn Marion has averaged a 382, including two games over 500. The plus/minus numbers for the series: James -12, Marion +10. Shawn Marion is a good basketball player, but he’s nobody’s superstar, and he has flat outplayed LeBron James. The Mavs’ best player, Dirk Novitzki, has averaged over 593, with his only sub-500 game a 359 when he was running a high fever; his plus/minus is +44. Even more compelling evidence comes from Mark Stein of ESPN:
In what NBA statisticians recognize as "clutch time," which equates to the final five minutes of regulation or overtime with the score within five points either way, Nowitzki has 26 points on 8-for-13 shooting from the field and 9-for-9 accuracy at the line.

LeBron? After leading the league in this category through the first three rounds of the playoffs and finally chipping away at the skepticism about his ability to close, James has zero points on 0-for-7 shooting and is still waiting for his first "clutch time" trip to the line.
So let’s cut the nonsense about LeBron James being a superstar. If the Heat win, it will be because of Dwyane Wade, who has averaged a 740 (in a stat that privileges post players), and whose worst game, a 605 in game 1, was better than James’s best.

Tony Kushner.
As predicted here on May 7, Tony Kushner did indeed receive an honorary degree from CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice last weekend. I can find no evidence, however, to support my prediction that “on June 3, John Jay’s graduation day, Mr. [Benno] Schmidt [chair of the CUNY Board of Trustees] and Mr. Kushner will be joining hands and singing ‘Kumbaya.’”

There was a good deal of misrepresentation of the Board’s initial action to deny the degree: as I suggested on May 17, charges that academic freedom had been violated were tossed about with more fervor than accuracy. But there did seem to be some conception that a playwright’s political views ought not to determine the legitimacy of his candidacy for an honor, and that the legitimate function of Trustees is not to advance political agendas or to interfere in the day to day operations of a university. This is not to say that Trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld didn’t have his supporters: the New York Times reports that there was “a small group of protesters” at the John Jay graduation ceremony, and I suspect that the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page wasn’t the only one to get its share of conflicting commentary.

H.S.
I am pleased to report that the news is spreading about the cheerleader kicked off the squad for refusing to cheer for her rapist by name, discussed here on May 13. I’ve engaged in a handful of Facebook debates with friends of friends. I doubt that I’ve convinced anyone, but perhaps I successfully encouraged someone to make a contribution or sign the petition. Somebody is doing something right, as the legal fund now tops $15,000 and there are nearly 68,000 signatures on the petition. There’s no justice to be achieved here, but there is support and communion, which are far better than the alternative. Sign. Give.

Kathy Hochul.
Democrat Kathy Hochul not only won the special election in the New York 26th, she did so with relative ease. As I predicted on the morning of the race, May 24, apologists for the loser bellowed full-throatedly about how their candidate really did marvelously well: since the loser in question was the Republican, Jane Corwin, the ululation was from the right. Here’s my prediction: “And his [Jack Davis’s] presence will be blamed for a Republican defeat, should there be one.” Right on cue, Karl Rove sniffed after the election that “Absent Mr. Davis as a spoiler—he got 9% of the vote—Democrats would never have made a serious bid for this district, nor won if they did.” Rove points out that Davis spent $3 million of his own money, and that Hochul “won a plurality (47%) of the votes, not a majority, getting only one percentage point more than Barack Obama as he was losing the district in 2008. Not exactly a compelling performance.”

Karl Rove is not stupid, but he is certainly disingenuous: he leaves out the part about Jane Corwin’s self-funding to the tune of $2.76 million, or the $1.36 million contributed to Corwin’s campaign by the likes of Rove’s own American Crossroads (nearly $700,000). Mr. Rove would like to have it both ways: if the Democrats wouldn’t have “made a serious bid” in the absence of a candidate who didn’t break double-digits, then it should be a safe seat for Republicans. Despite substantially outspending Hochul, Corwin couldn’t win a district in which the GOP has a 7 point enrollment advantage and which subsequently-disgraced Congressman Chris Lee won by 51 points less than seven months earlier. Oh, and by the way, Karl, the Dems did OK in that 2008 election: doing “only” one point better (as a percentage of the total) in a three-way race than Barack Obama did in a de facto two-way race is a result the Democrats will take 10 times out of 10.

Let me also repeat the point I made the day of the election:
Davis is indeed the largely liberal “fraud” the national Tea Party claims him to be. But let’s look at the ramifications of that statement. In an informed electorate, that would mean that his third-party candidacy would draw votes from Hochul, not Corwin. That the GOP is screaming foul can be taken as proof that the Republicans (rightly) regard a significant percentage of Tea Partiers as completely uninformed and/or stupid. Only someone who didn’t know the candidates would vote for Davis over Corwin thinking he was the more conservative choice.
Finally, there’s there Republican push-back about “Mediscare” tactics, accusing the Democrats in general and Hochul in particular of trying to terrify people with horror stories about what would happen if Paul Ryan’s budget were actually to be enacted. The only reasonable conclusion is not that Hochul misrepresented GOP ideology (she didn’t, at least not substantively, as far as I can tell—not that the truth matters much to anyone on the right or to many on the left). Rather, given the re-election tactics of Bush-Cheney, and subsequently the totally fabricated “death panel” and “Obama is a socialist” arguments, it would seem that the Republican hierarchy is staking their claim that purely emotional, fact-free scare tactics, especially about healthcare, are their exclusive purview: Hochul’s crime wasn’t perjury, but copyright violation.

Anthony Weiner.
Of course, there wouldn’t have been a special election if Chris Lee hadn’t been the Craigslist Creeper… which brings us to the unfortunately named Anthony Weiner, whose escapades on Twitter are tawdry and pathetic at best. Political leaders and pundits are calling on the Congressman to resign: every Republican you can think of (curiously enough, many of these people were strangely silent about David Vitter when he actually committed—and admitted to—a sex-related crime), but also a growing list of Democrats: former DNC chair Tim Kaine, Pennsylvania Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, former PA governor Ed Rendell, and a steady trickle of others until the big announcement today that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz are joining the chorus.

Everyone, in other words, thinks Weiner should resign. Everyone, that is, except Mr. Weiner himself and the Congressman’s constituents, who are in pragmatic terms the only ones who matter until there is a House Ethics Committee hearing and/or criminal charges. (At present, at least, the former is likely to lead to some form of censure but not expulsion; the latter seems to be a non-starter.) And polls show that whereas the city of New York as a whole is roughly evenly divided, with a plurality thinking Rep. Weiner should step down (N.B., another poll taken the same day had very different results), voters in the New York 9th want him to stay by a pretty convincing 56-33%. That bodes well for the Congressman’s ability to stick it out (if you’ll pardon the expression) for a while at least. And, really, the way politics works these days, if he survives one election after the scandal, the sexting issue disappears unless he chooses to run for a different office (a majority of NYC Democrats don’t want him to run for mayor, for example). Or until he does it again. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Jack Scott.
And that… sort of… brings us to the ongoing saga of Cordova, AL, mayor Jack Scott’s refusal to allow FEMA single-wide trailers into his tornado-devastated town, discussed here on June 2. Well, no single-wide trailers except the ones like the one his office is in. The connection to Weiner? A great line from “reality5000” cited by Julie Clark on the al.com website this Thursday: “In other words, the Mayor’s mantra is ‘Don't do as I do, do as I say’ as he stands in front of the trailers he brought in. That is about like Anthony Weiner telling you to keep your clothes on and behave.”

There would appear to be a number of easy solutions, none of which the politicians can wrap their heads around. How difficult is it, after all, to say: “Look, we know you need short-term help, but we’re concerned that these trailers will be here forever. So we’re going to grant a waiver for 24 months. That should be enough time to get you back on your feet. After that, you’ll be in violation of town ordinances, and you’ll be subject to fines, forfeiture, and even possibly arrest. That Scott won’t sign off on such a plan suggests that he’s suspicious of the town’s willingness to back him up down the road—maybe he fears (accurately, one hopes) that someone else will be mayor by then. Either that, or he’s a fool, a charlatan, or the most hard-hearted bastard you’ll ever meet.

Curiously enough, there are those who support the mayor—I think we can take as given that they’re the lucky folks whose homes weren’t destroyed: it’s a little easier for them to get all hoity-toity about long-term property values. Anybody wanna bet these people all show up at the Baptist Church on Sunday mornings and don’t recognize themselves as the Pharisees the preacher is railing against?

The Haitian Minimum Wage.
Finally, we now have a link to the full story in The Nation by Dan Coughlin and Kim Ives on the attempt to raise the minimum wage in Haiti to 62¢ an hour and the conniption thrown by not only the US textile industry, whom we expect to make Uriah Heep look cuddly by comparison, but also by the US Embassy, whom we do not.

I mean, seriously, the new Haitian minimum wage would still be 8%, yes, 8% of the American minimum wage. And we’re supposed to believe scumbags like chargé d’affaires Thomas C. Tighe that “an HTG 200 Haitian gourde minimum wage would make the sector economically unviable and consequently force factories to shut down”? This guy deserves to be choked to death on the Hanes underwear he really represents—it surer than hell isn’t in American interests to have a neighbor so destitute, not to mention justifiably angry. Not to mention the fundamental question: where are they going to go? You got somebody someplace who’ll work for less, assholes?

The key point here remains, however, that this is the US government behaving in this despicable manner. The greed and amorality of Levi Strauss, Hanes, and Fruit of the Loom are, of course, manifest. That they would be supported in their arrogance, their acquisitiveness, and their extortion by the American government, especially by representatives of a Democratic President, is beyond unconscionable.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Cue the Weiner Jokes

Yesterday’s revelation that New York Congressman Anthony Weiner really did tweet a link to a photograph of his occupied and bulging underwear to a 21-year-old woman he’d never met answers many but not all of the relevant questions.

Politically, Weiner was, is, one of the few reliably progressive voices in Washington, alongside Barney Frank and former Representative Alan Grayson. I’ve never seen him back down from a fight; indeed he had that quirk of personality that made him all the more dangerous when cornered: if he was attacked, he knew he was on to something. His obvious intelligence and political skills, coupled with the good fortune of representing a district and indeed a state that shared his views made him a politician with a bright future. He was mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate in New York, or perhaps as a successor to his political mentor, Senator Chuck Schumer.

Not now. Weiner hasn’t resigned, and, given where he’s from, he might just get re-elected (he won by 22 points in 2010). Still, I think we can take as given that the Republicans will actually nominate someone to run against him (unlike in 2006 and 2008). Moreover, I suspect that his future outside his district is probably not very bright.

Speaking of not bright, just how stupid is it to send a crotch-shot to a stranger young enough to be your daughter, then lie about, then equivocate, then admit it? The answer to this question, of course, is pretty freaking moronic, or, perhaps more accurately, arrogant in the extreme. Like another talented New York Democrat, Eliott Spitzer, Weiner began to believe that rules apply only to other people: whether it’s racking up four figures’ worth of parking tickets (a particularly ironic offense, given his hectoring of foreign governments who don’t pay their New York City parking offenses) or tweeting his… erm… member of Congress to a co-ed.

It is the latter incident for which, in this culture, he is likely to become known. Of course, in real terms this transgression is minor compared to those in the same arena of many who subsequently went on to extended (pardon the pun) political careers: Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton, John McCain, Newt Gingrich, David Vitter. (On the other hand, it is apparently at least as substantive as the shirtless Craig’s List photo of Representative Chris Lee, which led to his resignation and, ultimately, to his seat flipping to the Democrats in last month’s special election despite Lee’s landslide victory only seven months earlier.) As far as I can see, there was no crime committed, and no one was directly hurt in the way a wife would be in the case of an actual affair.

Weiner’s initial act—the tweet—was puerile, stupid, and incomprehensible. The ensuing actions—the part that has everyone and his great-aunt Tillie intoning Watergate clichés about “it’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up”—consists of precisely this: he lied. He got caught having done something absurd, arrogant, and potentially politically suicidal, and he lied to the press. Of course, you can take it as a matter of faith that a dozen different members of Congress, three senators, two governors, and at least one representative of the federal executive will lie to the press in the time it takes you, Gentle Reader, to finish will this blog post.

But this is lying the press cares about. They don’t care if they get lied to about trivial stuff like warrantless wiretaps, the projected cost of extending the Afghan War, or whether Medicare is actually going broke. No, because, you see, investigating those claims would require actual work, and the people proven to be liars could and would cling to their fabrications, leaving no opportunity for triumphalism. But Congressman Weiner admitted it, thereby allowing the righteous indignation to flow unabated.

Representative Weiner complained that this whole business was a “distraction.” Of course, it was. But it was a distraction entirely of his own making. True, the baying hounds of the alleged journalistic world may have been a little (OK, a lot) louder than the situation warranted. But the man’s been in politics for years—he didn’t know that? Well, actually, he did, but he realized it too late. Hence, presumably, the “I’ve been hacked” tweets and the non-denial denial (“I can’t say with certitude”) that led to the most concise encapsulation of the whole affair, by Bill Maher, for whom the opportunity to talk dirty overrode his natural reluctance to criticize those on the left: “If somebody asks if you tweeted your penis, and your answer is anything but ‘no,’ you tweeted your penis.”

So, what’s to make of all this? There are still unanswered questions, including many of those posed by Stef at Daily Kos: how did conservative blogger patriotusa76 seem to know about the tweet two weeks before it happened? why was the “evidence” evidently doctored? what was Andrew Breitbart’s role in all this?

Indeed, the greatest crime committed by Rep. Weiner may have been to give a modicum credibility to Breitbart, whose previous record was spotless: not a single one of his hatchet jobs provided anything but an intentionally vicious and wholly mendacious version of what actually happened—not ACORN, not Shirley Sherrod, not the two University of Missouri professors, not NPR (although there were needles of truth in the haystack of digital manipulation in that case). But, as Mark Fuhrman demonstrated at the OJ Simpson trial, it is indeed possible to frame the guilty… which doesn’t make it any less of a frame.

More importantly, the questions that have been answered are certainly enough to legitimately raise the question of whether Weiner should resign. And the answer is… probably. There is no evidence of an actual affair, Weiner never ran as a crusader against the very behavior he indulged in (Cf. Gingrich, Spitzer, Larry Craig, et al.) and there appears to be no actual criminality (Cf. Clinton, Kennedy, Mark Foley, David Vitter, John Ensign… and on and on).

On the other hand, the Congressman’s actions have been by turns reckless, immature, and dishonest. As I wrote on the CC Facebook page, “No one over the age of 12 who thinks this is cute or funny or (God forbid) alluring behavior deserves other than contempt.” His ability to represent his constituents has been severely compromised, whether they think so or not. Progressives are better off without him as a spokesperson in the short term, and probably longer. It would be better for his party, for the causes he purports to believe in, and for the country if Weiner stepped aside. He is now the distraction he has railed against. The fact that he might be able to ride the storm out doesn’t mean he should.

I’m not holding my breath.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

A $5 a Day Minimum Wage is Asking a Little Much, Don't You Think?

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I am a regular reader of Jack Marshall’s Ethics Alarms blog. An ongoing topic of conversation there is whether unethical behavior is worse if it’s (also) hypocritical: if, for example, a politician caught in a gay sex scandal is more culpable if he’s a virulently anti-gay rights advocate than if his public persona is more gay-friendly.

There are legitimate arguments on both sides, of course. Unethical and/or illegal behavior is precisely that, and at one level it matters not a bit who the perpetrator is. On the other hand, to the extent that the people involved in such cases are newsworthy precisely because they are perceived as role models or at least as leaders—politicians, influential corporate executives, religious luminaries, etc.—it does matter. It isn’t worthy of national attention if you or I get caught driving drunk; it is if the president of MADD does.

It is also probably true that we tend to hear more about hypocrisy from the right than from the left. There are a host of possible explanations for this phenomenon: that conservatives misbehave more in hypocritical ways, that the so-called liberal media skew the process, that transgressions from the right are more entertaining (often literally “sexier”)—not worse, necessarily—than the relatively speaking quotidian sins of hypocritical progressives. Moreover, even when there are legitimate concerns about the left—as, for example, with ACORN—the headline-grabbing allegations are often quickly and convincingly proved to have been utterly mendacious, damaging the credibility of the more substantive critiques.

But here’s an example, based on what we know so far, at least, of a story of outrageous conduct that is made all the more troublesome because it was perpetrated by the Obama administration. Many on the left were disturbed by the increased military presence in Afghanistan, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise: candidate Obama said he thought the Iraq War was “stupid” (I agreed then, and agree now), but certainly didn’t discount the possibility of an escalation in Afghanistan. Progressives were also angry that Obama never really put a single-payer health care system on the table, didn’t fight for a public option, and allowed the Bush tax cuts on the rich to continue with little more than a whimper. But those were crises of strategy and of will, not (or at least not inherently) of intentionality.

This one is different. Democrats in general and the Obama administration in particular purport to be about a global community and (therefore) a non-interventionist foreign policy. They aren’t, Murdoch media screeching to the contrary notwithstanding, intentionally anti-business, but they do claim to support legitimate checks on corporate hegemony with respect to those companies’ relationships to the government, to the economy in general, and to their own employees.

According to a story briefly posted on The Nation’s website and then pulled down to be re-posted this week to coordinate with a simultaneous release by Haiti Liberté, it appears the Obama administration violated all these principles and behaved with Machiavellian amorality at the same time. As noted, the full article is no longer available (until Wednesday), but Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review has posted a précis. (I’ll make sure there’s a link to the full article as soon as it’s available again.)

A little context: The Nation is certainly not without its political perspective, but it is different from a host of other publications from both sides of the political divide in two fundamental ways: first, it is remarkably up-front about its orientation—no “fair and balanced” bullshit from them—and second, whereas their reporting is clearly filtered through a progressive lens, they don’t simply make stuff up the way, say, Andrew Breitbart does. So, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I’m going to believe that Chittum correctly interpreted the article, which in turn correctly interpreted the facts.

It seems that the Haitian government passed a law two years ago, raising their minimum wage to 61 cents an hour: less than $5 a day for an 8-hour work day. This does represent a huge increase from the previous 24 cents an hour, but remains obscenely low, a symbol of the oppression that country’s citizens have endured for generations.

But—and the mind boggles at the hubris—American corporations like Hanes and Levi Strauss were righteously indignant that their outsourced labor would cost them nearly 8.5% of what these All-American companies would have to pay US workers. That’s reprehensible of them, of course, but hardly surprising. Levi Strauss in particular loves to wrap itself in the flag and tout American values, so long as those values don’t include hiring Americans at a living wage rather than exploiting the misery and poverty of foreigners.

What’s really disturbing is what happened next: after the corporations decided they could see their way clear to, well, maybe 35 cents an hour, the US government (read: Obama and his minions) leaned on the Haitian authorities, and hey-presto, the Port-au-Prince government capitulated, apparently carving out a $3 a day (logically, 37.5 cents an hour, but possibly in fact the 35 cent figure the companies agreed to) exception for textile companies. But this meddling wasn’t enough for the US Embassy. Quoting Chittum here:
The Nation:
… A deputy chief of mission, David E. Lindwall, said the $5 per day minimum “did not take economic reality into account” but was a populist measure aimed at appealing to “the unemployed and underpaid masses.”

Well, hey. Imagine Haitians doing things for their “unemployed and underpaid masses” rather than rich Yankee corporations. The outrage! No wonder we have 9.1 percent unemployment and 16 percent underemployment here while the folks who sent the economy in the tank are back making millions.

Let’s do a little math. Haiti has about 25,000 garment workers. If you paid each of them $2 a day more, it would cost their employers $50,000 per working day, or about $12.5 million a year.

Zooming in on specific companies helps clarify this even more. As of last year Hanes had 3,200 Haitians making t-shirts for it. Paying each of them two bucks a day more would cost it about $1.6 million a year. Hanesbrands Incorporated made $211 million on $4.3 billion in sales last year, and presumably it would pass on at least some of its higher labor costs to consumers.
In case you were wondering, Levi Strauss, a privately owned corporation, scraped by with a mere $156.5 million profit on $4.4 billion in sales. I need hardly mention that the difference between paying every one of their Haitian workers an extra $2 a day could be offset by paying top executives more than they’re worth instead of an obscene amount more than they’re worth. Chittum points out that Hanes CEO Richard Noll “could pay for the raises for those 3,200 t-shirt makers with just one-sixth of the $10 million in salary and bonus he raked in last year.”

Of course, cynic that I am, I expect hubris, greed and amorality from corporate executives. To say that one of these clowns has no conscience is like saying it can get brisk in northern Minnesota in February. No, to me this story is about pompous morons like Lindwall and whatever equally ethically- and/or intellectually-challenged jackasses put him up to saying something positively Bachmannesque in its inanity.

One suspects this is a story without “legs.” Democrats don’t want to admit that their party’s leader is a tool of big corporations, same as the other guys. Republicans might see a short-term advantage to highlighting the Obama administration’s intervention in another country’s affairs, but they don’t want to risk losing their phony Obama-is-anti-business mantra.

Perhaps there’s more here than initially meets the eye, and I’d be happy to be proved wrong. But, at least until Wednesday, when the full Nation article is (re-)posted, I’m going to have to believe that the Obama administration has once again betrayed its presumed values. That’s not earth-shattering news, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. And it’s downright depressing that a President perceived as pro-worker even at the expense of business and non-interventionist even when American interests are at stake, chooses not to behave that way in private. Not even when the obvious right thing to do is also the easiest: in other words, nothing.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

You know you're in trouble when the competent public officials are from FEMA

It is one of those truisms that isn’t necessarily true that disasters bring out the good side of people. The idea is that something in that moment reaches past our differences and touches us as humans. Sometimes it’s an exercise in shared responsibility with a shared benefit: the entire town turning out to sandbag the river, for example. But often it’s an after-the-fact offer of assistance: some clothes to wear, food to eat, a place to stay. Frequently the helping hand comes from an organization dedicated to that purpose: the Red Cross , Doctors without Borders, Partners in Health, or a host of other charities from the local to the international level. Much of the time the aid comes from individual people, near or far, who just want to help.

And sometimes… sometimes the assistance comes from the government. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hasn’t had a very good reputation since Hurricane Katrina: their response to that disaster was slow, haphazard, and generally incompetent. Whether they’re as blazingly inept as they were in the Bush years under the hopelessly unqualified Michael D. Brown (a.k.a. “Heckuva Job Brownie”) hasn’t really been determined: there hasn’t been another crisis on the scale of Katrina since then; even the BP oil spill wasn’t, on land, comparable. My read on this latter incident is that the government’s response was slow, inadequate, and compromised by lack of coordination and a readiness to abrogate their responsibilities in order to keep things friendly with a multinational corporation. And their recent decision to attempt to reclaim as much as $600 million given to Katrina victims might be both fiscally and ethically responsible, but it is also a public relations nightmare and a reminder of the poor decision-making that apparently exacerbated an existing problem by over-compensating and awarding all that money to begin with.

Still, we’re better off with them than without them. A glance at their website shows that they’ve rendered assistance in over 2/3 of the states of the union recently (a quick glance suggests that “recently” means in the last 18 months or so). And I think we could rest assured that if there were any significant problems, the good folks at Fox News would be happy to tell us how incompetent the Obama administration is. So, even if there are, shall we say, more effectively run agencies, any small-town mayor is going to be thrilled to see FEMA coming if his municipality has been devastated by back-to-back tornadoes, right? Make that virtually any small-town mayor.

Meet Jack Scott, mayor of Cordova, Alabama, population (as of July 2009) 2,263, located about 35 miles northwest of Birmingham. Cordova is a poor community, with an estimated household income of only $24,774, or about 61% of the average for Alabama, itself not the most affluent of states. Even more strikingly, the “estimated median house or condo value” is less than 37% of the mean for Alabama, let alone for the nation. I can’t say I’ve ever been to Cordova, but I’ve certainly been to or through dozens of places a whole lot like it in the American South. No one, at least no one from the outside, is going to confuse the town with paradise, but I’m willing to bet that there a lot of good, hard-working people there.

In late April, two different tornadoes hit the town on the same day, leaving four people dead and two separate swaths of destruction. There are some folks who have been living in tents for the several weeks since the double-header natural disaster. Not surprisingly, FEMA showed up on the scene, with emergency housing in the form of trailers for those displaced by the effects of a 170 mph twister. And Mayor Scott, sworn (one presumes) to work for the betterment of all Cordovans, chased them away. Apparently Cordova has a three-year-old law on the books prohibiting single-wide trailers, which is what FEMA had to offer. (Note: other sources, for example Val Walton of the Birmingham News, say the law has been around for over a half century, but unenforced.)

True, existing trailers were grandfathered in when the ordinance was passed, and true, the AP reports that “the Cordova Police Department, a pharmacy, a bank and City Hall all have moved into similar trailers since the storm.” Ah, but you see “the city can use small trailers because it's for the common good.” Not only that, but these are short-term measures: “It’s temporary and we know it’s temporary.” That would be unlike the emergency housing offered by FEMA, which is… erm… temporary (although, to be fair, some people have been living in so-called short-term FEMA trailers since Hurricane Katrina nearly six years ago). Tents are so much more aesthetically pleasing than single-wide trailers, don't you think? Now, double-wides... that's a whole different story.

Mayor Scott sees no need to make an exception for residents, just because a sizeable segment of the population has been rendered homeless through literally no fault of their own. After all, the mayor’s house is still fine. And the guys who come by on Wednesdays for poker and beer weren’t affected, so I really wish these whiners would shut up and let us get on with our game. Besides, he’s concerned about keeping those ridiculously low property values from falling off the scale altogether. Or, of course, he could be an arrogant old white guy who, as one resident puts it, “wants to clean all the trash out. He doesn't like lower-class people.”

Whatever the case, it’s clear that Cordova will never emerge from the Dark Ages as long as Scott is in power. As John Archibald of the Birmingham News points out, some Cordova residents were hoping the new Interstate 22 highway would help turn the town into a bedroom community for Birmingham, a move that actually would raise property values, quite likely in a big hurry (admittedly, not without a down-side). But who wants to move to a town with a certifiable douchebag as a mayor?

There is apparently a compromise in the works, although Scott seems to be clinging to his rulebook and screaming maniacally in the face of common sense. For his sake, though, he’d better find a solution in a big ol’ hurry. He’s already being mocked by Taiwanese animators. He’s now about one step away from being a term in the Urban Dictionary. Ask Rick Santorum how that worked out for him.