Archive:

March 2012, Part 4

Jim Miller on Politics




Pseudo-Random Thoughts



Worth Study:  (And I deliberately saved this for a weekend, hoping that more of you will give it some time.)  James Q. Wilson's bitter summary of how the press has changed how it covers our wars.

Sample:
But the war coverage does not reflect merely an interest in conflict.  People who oppose the entire War on Terror run much of the national press, and they go to great lengths to make waging it difficult.  Thus the New York Times ran a front-page story about President Bush's allowing, without court warrants, electronic monitoring of phone calls between overseas terrorists and people inside the U.S.  On the heels of this, the Times reported that the FBI had been conducting a top-secret program to monitor radiation levels around U.S. Muslim sites, including mosques.  And then both the New York and Los Angeles Times ran stories about America's effort to monitor foreign banking transactions in order to frustrate terrorist plans.  The revelation of this secret effort followed five years after the New York Times urged, in an editorial, that precisely such a program be started.
(Emphasis added.)

You may think, having read that selection, that Wilson was a bitter man.  In fact, he was famous for being nice, even to ideological opponents.

There's much more, and, as I said, I hope you spend some time studying what Wilson has to say.

I plan to come back to the implications of his argument in a later post, or posts.

(You can find this essay, along with much else worth reading, in this collection.)
- 4:56 PM, 31 March 2012   [link]


The Linda Problem:  There is probably no better introduction to Kahneman and Tversky's work than the Linda problem.  You can see it, in its simplest form, here.

It has been tested again and again on psychologists' second favorite lab animal, undergraduates in psychology classes, with dismaying results.
The stark version of the problem made Linda famous in some circles, and it earned us years of controversy.  About 85% to 90% of undergraduates at several major universities chose the second option, contrary to logic.  Remarkably, the sinners seemed to have no shame.  When I asked my large undergraduate class in some indignation, "Do you realize that you have just violated an elementary logical rule?" someone in the back row shouted, "So what?" and a graduate student who made the same error explained herself by saying, "I thought you had just asked for my opinion." (p. 158)
Graduate students, too?  Yes, though in one of his tests, 64 percent of graduate students in the social sciences chose correctly.  Whether that is a good result, or a bad one, I'll leave for you to decide.  (And I must admit that I would be afraid to run the test with mathematics graduate students, afraid that some of them would get it wrong.)

What this shows me is that we aren't very good natural logicians, a conclusion that many are still resisting.  And other work by Kahneman and Tversky showed me that we aren't very good natural statisticians, something I will discuss in a future post, or posts.
- 4:29 PM, 31 March 2012   [link]


Not Everyone Is Excited About The Big Payout In Our State-Run Numbers Racket:  This morning, ABC White House correspondent Ann Compton criticized it, and brought in a prominent witness in support of her position — Barack Obama.

She played a recording of Obama, back when he was a state senator, criticizing these lotteries because they exploit the poor.  (He's right.)  So, kudos to both of them.

I'm not a complete spoil sport; I have no objections to people buying a few lottery tickets for entertainment, but I do worry when I see accounts of people who think of them as investments.

(Almost obligatory:  Lotteries are often said to be taxes on the willing — and on the innumerate.  The latter may explain why they are so popular with most of our TV talking heads.

Privately-run numbers rackets usually pay better than the state-run numbers rackets.)
- 9:47 AM, 30 March 2012   [link]


Jimmy Carter Comes Out In Favor Of The Republican Position On Abortion:  On, of all places, the Laura Ingraham show.
I never have believed that Jesus Christ would approve of abortions and that was one of the problems I had when I was president having to uphold Roe v. Wade.  And I did everything I could to minimize the need for abortions.  I made it easy to adopt children, for instance, who were unwanted and also initiated the program called Women and Infant Children, or WIC, program that’s still in existence now.  But except for the times when a mother’s life is in danger or when a pregnancy is caused by rape or incest, I would certainly not or never have approved of any abortions.
Those three exceptions, the life of the mother, incest, and rape, are the three exceptions that have been in national Republican platforms since 1980.  (As I understand it, Catholic doctrine allows for abortions in those rare cases when it is necessary to save the life of the mother.)

(Allahpundit has a long, and not very instructive, discussion of the political benefits to the Democratic party of copying the Republican platform, as Carter and Allahpundit see them.  I mention the post because that's where I found this story, and because it shows us something about Carter's thinking, something about the way he mixes religion and practical politics.)
- 7:47 AM, 30 March 2012   [link]


Ivo Zdarsky Makes His Home In An Airplane Hangar In Lucin, Utah:  And, given his personal history, that seems appropriate.
Speaking of Communist Czechoslovakia, what better time — now that Mr. Zdarsky is defrosting a hunk of antelope he shot to make the reporter lunch — to flash back to the summer of 1984, and the flight to freedom that made him briefly famous?

An aviation engineering student in Prague, Mr. Zdarsky was designing airplane propellers and was disgusted with a government that would not let him speak his mind or go into business for himself.  Denied an exit visa, he built his own plane, a hang glider with an engine from a notoriously bad East German car called the Trabant.
And, after a close call with the secret police, was able to use his airplane to fly to Vienna and freedom.

Isn't reading about Zdarsky's home more fun than reading another post about Trayvon Martin?

(Here's Lucin, Utah, if, by some chance, you have not heard of this major metropolis.)
- 4:56 PM, 29 March 2012   [link]


Today The New York Times Is Opposed To Judicial Activism:  Why?  Because, as they say in their editorial, the Supreme Court may rule all of ObamaCare unconstitutional.

Tomorrow, the Times will be in favor of judicial activism, if a court is deciding to, for example, enact gay marriage.

I can not think of a single time in the last twenty years when our newspaper of record viewed judicial activism unfavorably and the result favorably, or the reverse.  It is much like their stance on the Senate filibuster, which they favor when it helps leftist causes or individuals, and oppose when it hurts them.

They do not, I fear, realize that these switches make them look more than a little ridiculous.
- 4:22 PM, 29 March 2012   [link]


President Obama Is A Republican:  According to Democratic congressional candidate Darcy Burner, anyway.

In a series of tweets last year, Darcy Burner, one of the Democratic candidates in the crowded field going for Jay Inslee’s open seat in the 1st Congressional District, lambasted President Obama.

In one from August 2011, Burner wrote: “In 2008, I gave thousands to @BarackObama. OFA [Obama for America] called recently for $, I told them not 1 dime: I don’t support Republicans.”

If you are far enough left, I suppose that Obama does look like a Republican.

(For those not familiar with Washington state politics:  Burner ran for Congress in the 8th district in 2006 and 2008, unsuccessfully.  I thought that the Democrats might have won that seat in 2006 with a stronger candidate.  She raised millions from the netroots left, but was too extreme for the district.)

By way of Orbusmax.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(Two corrections:  The 1st district did not belong to professional politician Jay Inslee, though he sometimes acted as if it did.  In theory, he was supposed to represent the people of the district, which he did, as long as they belonged to a leftist interest group.

Washington state redrew district lines, so Burner is not running in the same 1st district that Inslee (mis)represented, although the old and new do overlap considerably.  You can see a map of the old 1st district here and a map of the new 1st district here.)
- 7:38 AM, 29 March 2012   [link]


Two Good Jokes From Justice Scalia Yesterday:   Here.

And here.
- 6:51 AM, 29 March 2012   [link]


Professor Althouse Suspects The Obama Administration is trying to lose the ObamaCare case.
Let me state the obvious and not belabor it: Whoever loses will easily and powerfully leverage that loss in the political arena.
That isn't obvious to me, but I thought you should know about her argument.

(Althouse voted for Obama, so she may be more likely to see political cunning where I see incompetence.)
- 12:33 PM, 28 March 2012   [link]


Deducing The General From The Particular In The Trayvon Martin Case:  Along with the new popcorn popper came Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow.

I have been browsing through the book and found that chapter 16, "Causes Trump Statistics", applies directly to the Trayvon Martin case, or, more precisely, to the attempts to draw political conclusions from it.

On the last page of the chapter, Kahneman quotes from a study by Richard Nisbett and Eugene Borgida:
Subjects' unwillingness to deduce the particular from the general was matched only by their willingness to deduce the general from the particular.
When we are given a general fact, for example, some crime statistics, most of us are reluctant to use that fact to guide our decisions.  When we are given a vivid story, we are all too willing to generalize from it.

And if you need some examples, just tune in to news programs on television and see what they imply about the Martin case.  Almost all of them imply conclusions about whites, blacks, "white Hispanics", guns, Florida laws, and on and on.

Almost all of those conclusions are illogical — regardless of what actually happened between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.

They are illogical because the journalists are trying to make generalizations from a single example, without any idea of how typical it is.

And that's why I haven't written about the case, and don't plan to, except for a post or two on how it is being used politically.

(Kahneman is very cautious in that chapter, noting that some stereotypes contain some truths, and that there are costs for ignoring those truths.  But he doesn't give any examples.   I'll be less cautious and give you one:  You are foolish if you are not more careful around young men dressed as gang bangers.)
- 11:29 AM, 28 March 2012   [link]


Starbucks Adds Protein To Its Frappuccinos:  And gets in trouble with vegans.
The website thisdishisvegetarian.com reports Starbucks' Strawberries & Creme Frappuccino is not vegan, even if it contains soy, after a barista alerted the site that the company's new strawberry flavoring contains "cochineal extract" - which is essentially crushed up dried bugs used as dye.
Why the bugs?  Because Starbucks is trying to switch to "natural" products.  And I have to admit that bugs are more "natural" than many other dyes.

(If you're squeamish, you may not want to read the whole article on cochineal bugs, because you will learn just how widely they are used in foods and cosmetics.

But there are some fascinating details in the article.  For instance:  Many Muslim authorities say the bugs are "haraam", that is, forbidden, while Jewish authorities are divided on whether they can be eaten.  And I had not known that the bugs were the second most valuable export from colonial Mexico for many years.)
- 8:33 AM, 28 March 2012   [link]


The Continuing Mystery Of Axelrod, Obama, The Chicago Tribune, And The 2004 Illinois Senate Race:  Let me lay out the facts in order, and let you draw your own conclusions.

In 1977, David Axelrod graduated from the University of Chicago, and immediately went to work for the Tribune, Chicago's most influential newspaper, by far.  At the age of 27, he had worked his way up to City Hall Bureau Chief and political columnist, an impressive rise.  But he was not satisfied and, after eight years at the newspaper, left to become a political consultant.

On the whole, Axelrod did very well for those who employed him, though one can wonder whether the voters were always as well served by his efforts, as the candidates.  Among the candidates he advised were Deval Patrick, John Edwards, and Eliot Spitzer, none of whom can considered outstanding successes.  (And there are other, lesser failures among his employers I could mention, though there are also some — Paul Simon, for instance — who can be considered public servants.)

In 2004, Axelrod advised Barack Obama in his successful senate race.  There were a number of strange events in that race; I want to draw your attention to two of them.

Until rather late in the primary race, Obama trailed Blair Hull, a multimillionaire who was financing his own campaign, and State Controller Dan Hynes, who had the backing of most of the party organization.  Hull's negative advertising knocked Hynes down, but he did not benefit from that.

Mark Hemingway, writing in the 3 November 2008 issue of the National Review, explains why not:
Before Axelrod signed on to work with Obama's Senate campaign, he interviewed to work for Blair Hull — Obama's main challenger, and then the favorite to win the Democratic primary.  A former professional gambler turned securities trader, Hull was exceedingly wealthy and willing to spend millions.  During interviews with Hull, Axelrod mentioned some ugly rumors surrounding Hull's divorce.  Hull acknowledged the rumors but declined to give Axelrod specifics.  Axelrod eventually joined Obama's campaign and, wouldn't you know it, right as Obama's television ads began in earnest, the details of Hull's divorce surfaced in the Tribune.  Many found the timing suspicious—even if Axelrod wasn't given details, he had a good idea of Hull's vulnerabilities and where to start looking for dirt. (p. 21)
(The Tribune had endorsed Obama, a very unusual endorsement for the newspaper, considering his left wing record.)

There's more.  Here's the story of the general election from the 2008 Almanac of American Politics.
The Republican nominee was Jack Ryan, who led the eight-candidate field with 35% of the vote and, like Obama, had an attractive life story.  He had graduated from Harvard Law and Harvard Business schools, made a fortune working for Goldman Sachs and had then gone on to teach in an inner city school.  He and Obama might have had a series of civil exchanges on the issues.  But Ryan, like Hull, had a divorce problem.  Before the primary, he released the records of his divorce from television actress Jeri Ryan, except for some passages which he said would be harmful to his nine-year-old son.  After the primary the Chicago Tribune pressed for full disclosure.  In June a California judge agreed.  It turned out that Ryan had pressed his former wife, against her wish, to go to sex clubs in Paris. (p. 540)
Ryan dropped out, the Republicans were unable to find a reasonable substitute, and Obama won easily.

Did Axelrod, working with former colleagues at the Tribune, arrange these two sets of stories in order to elect Obama?  I know what my tentative answer to that question is, though I will admit that I do not have definitive proof.

But I am absolutely sure that the Tribune owes us an explanation of its actions in that race.

And I am also sure that Ryan and, probably, Hull would have made better senators than Obama did.

(Hull was accused by his former wife of kicking her in the shins, if you are wondering.)
- 4:09 PM, 27 March 2012   [link]


Popcorn Is health food.
Scientists with the American Chemical Society say popcorn actually has more of the healthful antioxidant substances called "polyphenols" than fruits and vegetables.
That agreeable news arrived on the same day as the Poplite popcorn popper I had ordered from Amazon.  So I tested the finding by making two small batches of popcorn and eating them.  I can report that I feel, at the very least, no worse than I did before.

I enjoyed the popcorn enough so that I am reluctant to add these caveats:  There are many polyphenols, and their health effects are "controversial".  So you shouldn't assume that popcorn will do that much for your health — but in moderate amounts it probably won't hurt you.  And it is almost certainly better for you than many snack foods.

(And the popcorn popper?  It's OK.  It's inexpensive and makes fine popcorn, but is a little noisy and lacks a power switch.

I added olive oil to the popcorn, instead of using the butter melter, following a suggestion in one of the comments at Amazon.)
- 10:58 AM, 27 March 2012   [link]


Jane Fonda Playing Nancy Reagan!?  Apparently, it's true.
In the midst of recruiting an all-star ensemble for his long-gestating passion project "The Butler," director Lee Daniels has tapped Jane Fonda to play Nancy Reagan.
Variety doesn't seem to think that's weird, but I do.

(I continue to think that Fonda peaked with Barbarella.)
- 9:00 AM, 27 March 2012   [link]


Congratulations To KOMO's Keith Eldridge:  Yesterday, he gave serious coverage to a demonstration with one demonstrator.  That beats the serious coverage given by Channel 13 to a demonstration with two demonstrators, which was my previous record.

(Would it be possible for a local TV station to give serious coverage to a demonstration with zero demonstrators?  I think it might be, though I haven't figured out exactly how they would do that.)

As you would expect, the Eldridge demonstration was obviously staged for the TV cameras.  As you would expect, since the point of the demonstration was to attack Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna, Eldridge's coverage was uncritical.   In general, our local TV personalities treat leftist demonstrations with respect, almost regardless of the claims made by the demonstrators.

As you would expect, there was no evidence that Eldridge had done any fact checking on the young woman's story.  He did not even ask her if she was getting support from any leftist organization.  Nor did he ask her who she was supporting for governor.

(For those who don't follow Washington state politics:  McKenna is running for governor and has a good chance to defeat former 1st district congressman Jay Inslee, his almost certain Democratic opponent.)

Here are three suggestions for Mr. Eldridge:  First, he should take a look at the poll results I summarized here and here.  I think he will be especially interested in the Pew finding that the least informed Americans were those who got their news from ABC — and local TV stations.

Second, I think Eldridge ought to tell us just how he happened to be there to cover this one-woman demonstration.  I would guess that she had the support of some leftist organization.  Shouldn't we know which one?

Third, Eldridge should commit journalism.  He should go to experts and ask them what Washington state could do for the young woman, under our current state laws.  And if the answer is nothing, he might go to the Democratic politicians who have been running this state for years and ask them why.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(There's some background on Eldridge here.   You can watch the video of the one-woman demonstration here.

For the record:  If what she says about her illness is true, she has my sympathy, and, I hope, the help of Washington state officials.)
- 7:48 AM, 27 March 2012   [link]


Greeks Have Been Exporting Olives And Olive Oil for about five millennia.  So you would think they would be good at it.

But they aren't, as entrepreneur Fotis I. Antonopoulos found out.
But Mr. Antonopoulos's entrance into e-business ran into trouble almost from the start.  Finding prize-winning olive oil was not hard, he said.  Nor was convincing farmers that they needed to find prettier bottles.

But getting a small warehouse in Athens was a nightmare.  No warehouses are allowed in the city.  Instead, he had to settle on a storefront and cover up the windows.

And there were permits and certificates to be obtained from the tax office, the pension office, the Chamber of Commerce, the Health Department, the Building Department, the Fire Department and more.
Getting those permits took a full month of standing in line.  (Antonopoulos split the time with his three partners, all of whom are now more well read than they were.)  The article gently hints that he could have gotten them much faster if he had paid some bribes.

Those familiar with seaports, or any kind of modern commerce, will be fascinated by the idea of a seaport without warehouses, legal ones, anyway.

Those familiar with American regulations will be impressed by how much farther the Greeks have gone than most of our bureaucrats.  Classic example: Two different inspectors were unable to agree on whether a circular staircase was legal.  (And, yes, I have heard of some similar examples here.)

There is a bit of good news in the article; the company is up and running, and at least breaking even.

(Here's the company site, in case you need some of their products.)
- 7:05 PM, 26 March 2012
Or maybe six millenia.  Amusingly, the Wikipeida article on olive oil has different dates than the article on olives.  Well, I did say, "about".
- 12:44 PM, 27 March 2012   [link]


Need A Feel-Good Story On Race Relations?  I do, so I'll retell one I saw in the Washington Post some years ago.

A single black mother living in Washington, D. C. was worried about her two sons.  They were getting close to the age where the gangs would tempt them, and she was wise enough to realize that she might not be able to keep them out the gangs, by herself.

So she decided that she would do something radical:  She would move her boys to a place where there were no gangs for them to join.  She chose a small town in Montana.

When she visited the town, she had one disquieting experience.  While she was in the town's cafe, she could see that some of the locals were talking about her.

But her worry over the gangs overcame that, and she moved to the small town anyway, where she and her boys were doing well, at the time of the Post story.

(Oh, and the discussion she saw in that cafe?  It was just townsfolk engaging in one of the favorite small town pastimes: matchmaking.  There was a single black man living in the county, and the townsfolk were trying to decide whether they should call him in, and arrange an introduction.)
- 2:55 PM, 26 March 2012   [link]


True Enough, but you should do it privately, Mr. Santorum.
"If you haven't cursed out a New York Times reporter during the course of the campaign, you're not really a real Republican is the way I look at it," Santorum said during an interview on "Fox and Friends" Monday morning.
Technically, what Santorum said was not a curse, just rather crude language.
- 8:12 AM, 26 March 2012   [link]


"A GOP Grows In Brooklyn"  I couldn't resist that headline — and the story is interesting, too.
Officials this week may formally crown Republican attorney David Storobin the winner in last week’s special election for ex-Sen. Carl Kruger’s seat in the borough’s 27th Senate District.  (Kruger was convicted of corruption and forced to step down.)

After last Tuesday’s polling, Storobin, a political novice, holds a slim 118-vote lead over City Councilman Lew Fidler, a longtime Democratic machine pol.  The final tally hinges on this week’s count of absentee ballots.
Registration in the district is 4-1 Democratic, so this would be an upset almost as big as Bob Turner's upset, won by votes in the same part of Brooklyn.

If I were Mitt Romney's strategist, I would already be planning a campaign appearance there, not because I would expect to win New York state, but because an appearance there would help with similar voters in other, winnable states.

(Fans of gerrymandering will like the shape of the 27th district.  It's probably ethnic gerrymandering, not party gerrymandering.)
- 7:52 AM, 26 March 2012   [link]


Subsidized Loans And Solyndra:  Most criticisms of the failed solar energy company have come from those who see political influence and corruption in the Obama administration's decision to grant a loan to the company.

But I think there is a more fundamental criticism that should be made.  I want to show you that the program that funded Solyndra was a mistake, even if it had been administered fairly.  (And I don't think that it was.)

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a venture capitalist, that you spend your days looking for startup companies with ideas and people that might be profitable in a year or two.   Over a single year, you might fund as many as ten of those companies.

Do you expect most of those companies to make money?  Not if you are a halfway smart venture capitalist.  Instead, you know that most of them will fail, for all sorts of reasons — including other startup companies that you've never heard of with slightly better ideas and people.

But a few will make money, and those few will do well enough to make your investments profitable, overall.  Two successes out of ten might be enough to make you happy, and a little richer.

So when a startup company comes to you looking for money, do you offer them a loan?  No, you offer to buy a part of the company.  That way you can earn enough from the few successful companies to make up for the majority that will fail.

But that is exactly what the program funding Solyndra (and several other failed companies) did.  Instead of purchasing part of the companies, the program offered them low-cost loans.

So, as any halfway smart venture capitalist could have told you, the program was almost certain to lose money for the taxpayers — as it has.

(In the first Chrysler bailout, the congressmen and senators who set the terms were smart enough to get stock options in return for the loan guarantee, so the taxpayers had a chance to make money on the deal — as we did, eventually.)
- 6:48 AM, 26 March 2012   [link]


Wipeout!  Ordinarily, I wouldn't be writing about an election in the Australian state of Queensland.  (And, ordinarily, I don't think most of you would be interested in a local election in the northeast corner of Australia.)

But the result of this election was so smashing that it deserves a little coverage.  (Even though the BBC doesn't seem to think so.)
Labor suffered one of the worst defeats of a state government since Federation, and the worst defeat of a sitting government in Queensland history.  From 51 seats in 2009, it was reduced to only seven seats, suffering a swing of 15.4 percent.  The LNP [Liberal National Party] will form government for the first time in its history, jumping from 34 seats to 78.  Katter's Australian Party won two seats, though leader Aidan McLindon lost his own seat.  The remaining two seats were taken by independents.
Why?

Oddly enough, the Australian news sources I've looked at all seem to think that everyone knows the answer, and so they don't see any need to tell us what made Anna Bligh and her government so unpopular.

So what follows is more speculative than I would like.  Bligh surprised the voters by selling state assets, after not mentioning the subject before the 2009 election.  The Labor Party in Queensland had been in power so long that it had accumulated scandals that led many to think it time for a change.  Bllgh's stands on cultural issues may have alienated some working class voters.  (That might explain some of the support for Katter's Australian Party.)  The unpopularity of the national Labor Party, under Prime Minsiter Julia Gillard, hurt the local party.

But, as I said, that's speculative, so if you know more about what made the voters in Queensland so determined to change their government, please let me know.

Want a rough American comparison?  Try this one:  Imagine the Republicans sweeping all the state offices in California, and taking over both houses of the legislature with more than 2-1 majorities.  (It's a nice thought, isn't it?)

(By American standards the Liberal National Party is the conservative party.  Relatively speaking.

Anna Bligh is a descendant of the famous mariner, William Bligh.  Which would seem to offer some possibilities to Australian cartoonists.

People of a certain age may want to hear this song.)
- 7:02 PM, 25 March 2012   [link]


To Obama, All Those Small Allies (And Some Big Ones) Look Alike:   Don't believe me?  Watch this wonderful video where a Danish journalist shows that there is a certain similarity in what Obama says to allied leaders, especially leaders of smaller countries.

Why can't Obama (or, at least, his speech writers) come up with some new lines?  The simplest answer is the most likely — sheer laziness, when it comes to doing the job he is being paid to do.
- 4:53 PM, 25 March 2012   [link]