Archive:

May 2010, Part 3

Jim Miller on Politics




Pseudo-Random Thoughts



RIP, Martin Gardner:  the New York Times has a good summary of his remarkable career.
Martin Gardner, who teased brains with math puzzles in Scientific American for a quarter-century and who indulged his own restless curiosity by writing more than 70 books on topics as diverse as magic, philosophy and the nuances of Alice in Wonderland, died Saturday in Norman, Okla.  He was 95.
. . .
His mathematical writings intrigued a generation of mathematicians, but he never took a college math course.  If it seemed the only thing this polymath could not do was play music on a saw, rest assured that he could, and quite well.
(His career is, incidentally, a good argument against credentialism.)

One thing I learned from Gardner over the years is that stage magicians are almost never fooled by "psychics".  Because, of course, the magicians use some of the same tricks.

The Times misses the best part of this story:
For all Mr. Gardner's success in refuting those who take advantage of people's gullibility, he sometimes could not help having fun with it himself.   In one Scientific American column, he wrote that dwelling in pyramids could increase everything from intelligence to sexual prowess.
I met Gardner briefly years ago, and he told me what happened after that column.  It started, much to his dismay, a minor craze for pyramids, which he could have profited from, but did not.

A publisher's representative came up to see him and offered him a very lucrative deal to do a whole book on pyramid power.  After a long discussion in which the representative finally grasped that Gardner did not believe in pyramid power — and, much more amazingly — wasn't interested in doing a book just for money, the representative suggested that Gardner do the book — and then refute it with an exposé or, if you prefer, a confession.

The representative, or other similar representatives, had no difficulty finding authors with fewer scruples.   As I recall, several books on pyramid power made the best seller lists soon after.
- 6:36 PM, 24 May 2010   [link]


Big Bucks In Bankruptcies:  And more than a few abuses.
While most of corporate America may be just emerging from the Great Recession, bankruptcy specialists have spent the last two years enjoying an unprecedented boom.  Ten of the 20 largest corporate bankruptcies in recent decades have occurred over the last three years, according to BankruptcyData.com, with Lehman snaring honors as the biggest corporate belly-flop in American history.

These megacases — Lehman, General Motors, Chrysler and Washington Mutual, to name a few — are orders of magnitude larger than most bankruptcies in the past, and their size and complexity have created a feeding frenzy of sorts for those asked to sort them out.  To date, Weil, the lead law firm representing Lehman, has billed the Lehman estate for more than $164 million.

Analysts, lawyers and others involved in the larger bankruptcy boom say that some fees are legitimate — and that others are, at a minimum, highly questionable.
For some "highly questionable" examples, read the article — and try not to think of vultures, jackals, and hyenas as you do.

(Regulators have put the brakes on some of the abusive billing, but I doubt that they have the time, or the power, to stop the biggest abuses.)
- 3:07 PM, 24 May 2010   [link]


Is Harry Reid Borrowing Gray Davis's Strategy?  Looks like it.   For those lucky enough not to remember California's recalled governor, some recent history:
During the 2002 election campaign, Davis took the unusual step of taking out campaign ads during the Republican primaries against Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan.  Davis claimed that Riordan had attacked his record and that his campaign was defending his record.[1]  Polls showed that, as a moderate, Riordan would be a more formidable challenger in the general election than a conservative candidate.  Polls even showed that Riordan would defeat Davis.[2]  Davis attacked Riordan with negative ads in the primary.
At the beginning of the primary campaign, moderate Riordan had a substantial lead over conservative Bill Simon.  He might have lost that lead anyway, but Davis's ads did not help him.

Most neutral observers, and even some partisan observers, thought that Davis ran these ads to drive Riordan out of the race, because he thought he had a better chance against a conservative than a moderate.  (And a moderate who had been mayor of California's largest city.)

Simon did lose, but by a narrow enough margin to make me think that Davis's strategy might have made the difference, that Davis would have lost if Riordan had been the Republican nominees.
Davis won re-election with 47.4% of the vote to Simon's 42.4%.  The Simon-Davis race led in the lowest turnout percentage in modern gubernatorial history, allowing a lower than normal amount of signatures required for a recall.[16] Davis won the election but the majority of the voters disliked Davis and did not approve of his job performance.[17][18]
Now, Harry Reid, who is unpopular in Nevada, seems to be using the same strategy as Davis did.   (With the added advantage that senators can not be recalled.)
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has knocked down his leading Republican challenger, paving the way for a potential fall fight with a tea party favorite who may be easier to beat. Reid's unceasing attacks on his biggest-name challenger — former Nevada Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Lowden — have dragged her down into a tight three-way race with lawyer Danny Tarkanian and former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who has won the endorsement of the Tea Party Express.
If he succeeds, Reid will owe his success, in part, to the Tea Party Express, who have been backing Angle strongly.  (I get email solicitations from them at least once a week, asking for contributions to Angle's campaign.)

Reid may be wrong; it is possible that Angle would the tougher opponent.  But he knows the two women, and the politics of Nevada, so it would be a mistake to dismiss his strategy as a sure loser.  I don't, as yet, know enough about the two women to have an opinion, but I have learned over the years to respect the strategies chosen by successful politicians.

(Full disclosure:  I get many emails from political groups, most of them conservative.  Most of them I just glance at and discard.)
- 1:25 PM, 24 May 2010   [link]


It Helps To Do The Basic Arithmetic:  As Willis Eschenbach shows in this fine post on the very slowly vanishing Greenland ice cap. Eschenbach begins with some apparently scary numbers from Grist (and the Union of Concerned Scientists), and then gently deflates them.
So now we have something to which we can compare our one-third of Lake Erie or 400 Sidney Harbors or 550 times the weight of the global population.  And when we do so, we find that the annual loss is around 200 km^3 lost annually out of some 3,000,000 km^3 total.  This means that Greenland is losing about 0.007% of its total mass every year . . . seven thousandths of one percent lost annually, be still, my beating heart . . .

And if that terrifying rate of loss continues unabated, of course, it will all be gone in a mere 15,000 years.
By which time, we may have other problems to worry about.

(Incidentally, I had not heard of his reference, the The Physics Factbook, before I read the post, but it looks like a very useful source.)
- 9:20 AM, 24 May 2010   [link]


Europe Is Learning About Demography:  Again.  And, as usual, the demography lessons are unpleasant.
With low growth, low birthrates and longer life expectancies, Europe can no longer afford its comfortable lifestyle, at least not without a period of austerity and significant changes.  The countries are trying to reassure investors by cutting salaries, raising legal retirement ages, increasing work hours and reducing health benefits and pensions.
. . .
According to the European Commission, by 2050 the percentage of Europeans older than 65 will nearly double. In the 1950s there were seven workers for every retiree in advanced economies.  By 2050, the ratio in the European Union will drop to 1.3 to 1.
(According to the chart that accompanies the article, there are already just over three European workers per retiree now.  You don't have to be a mathematician to realize that that ratio already makes it difficult for nations to afford lavish retirement benefits.)

The crisis pits young against old, and government employees against everyone else.
In Athens, Aris Iordanidis, 25, an economics graduate working in a bookstore, resents paying high taxes to finance Greece's bloated state sector and its employees.  "They sit there for years drinking coffee and chatting on the telephone and then retire at 50 with nice fat pensions," he said.  "As for us, the way things are going we'll have to work until we're 70."
. . .
Gustave Brun d'Arre, 18, is still in high school.  "The only thing we're told is that we will have to pay for the others," he said, sipping a beer at a cafe.  The waiter interrupted, discussing plans to alter the French pension system.  "It will be a mess," the waiter said.  "We'll have to work harder and longer in our jobs."
There are no good solutions, and every practical solution horrifies working politicians — which helps explain why they have delayed so long in finding solutions.

(Some economists — and I really do need to look at some of the original studies some time — believe that the rise in pension benefits helped cause the baby bust in Europe, the baby bust that made this problem so intractable.)
- 7:51 AM, 24 May 2010   [link]


Jose Lopez Madrigal Is Not an ideal immigrant.  But the federal government hasn't been able to keep him out of our country.

The city of Seattle, just a few miles south of Everett, has a policy of protecting illegal immigrants, so it may not be accidental that he is in this area.

(I suppose, to be fair, that I should add that he is not a typical illegal immigrant, either.)
- 7:17 AM, 24 May 2010   [link]


Djou Wins!  The Republicans finally win a special election in, of all places, Hawaii.
Republican Charles Djou emerged victorious tonight in the special election to fill Hawaii's vacancy in Congress, giving Hawaii its first GOP member of Congress in 20 years.

Djou won the special mail-in election with 39.7 percent of the vote in the final printout, released at 9 p.m.

The final printout represented 171,417 ballots returned by voters in the district, which stretches from Waikiki and downtown to Mililani.

Democrat Colleen Hanabusa was second at 31 percent, with Democrat Ed Case third at 27.8 percent.
(You can find the official results here, where you can learn, among other things, that a Republican nicknamed "Googie" received 194 votes.)

Djou won because the Democrats were split — and because he is a fine candidate.

Can he keep the district in November?  The odds are against him, but not terribly so.  (Until I see a poll, I won't put a number on the odds.)

Hawaii's 1st district is less Democratic than its second district.  George W. Bush won 47 percent of the vote there in 2004, and the previous congressman, Democrat Neil Abercrombie, had some close races in his long career, notably in 1996, when he won with just 50 percent of the vote.

Usually, independent voters are a smaller share of the electorate in special elections than in general elections.  If Djou can win them over before November, and if he can pick up some Democrats from the two disappointed factions, he would have a good chance of holding the seat.

Especially since he is an almost perfect candidate for Hawaii.  He is Chinese-American; his wife's maiden name is Kawasaki, which won't hurt in appealing to Japanese voters.  He has a business degree from Wharton and a law degree from USC.  He is an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii, and a captain in the Army Reserves.  (Military service is a bigger plus in Hawaii than in most of the United States.)

(There's more on Djou in this Wikipedia article.  Caveat: All of the material appears to come from Djou, or his supporters.)
- 8:28 AM, 23 May 2010   [link]


All Right, You're Silly:  New York Times columnist Charles Blow describes some of Detroit's many problems, but then ends on an implausibly optimistic note.
In fact, the January poll found that despite all of its problems, 63 percent of people felt optimistic about the future of the Detroit area.  Call me silly, but I agree, as soon as they stanch the violence and raise a new civic identity from the ashes of the old one.
I wish I could agree with Blow; I wish that I could find some reason for that optimism — but I can not, not in the near future, perhaps not even in the medium future.

The area's economy is unlikely to come back as long as the United Auto Workers keep their steel grip on the area.  (Oh, there will be some small scale successes; for instance, now that Detroit homes are practically free, you will probably see the art scene there grow.  But nothing big.)

The Detroit violence will not be "stanched" as long as most boys there grow up in fatherless homes.   (The violence can be limited by putting criminals in prison, and keeping them there for years, but it can not truly be stanched in a city where so few boys have fathers who teach them how to be men.)

Most of all, Detroit's problems will not be solved, as long as so many people in Detroit generally agree with Charles Blow's picture of the world.  (In particular, they will have to move beyond race, and I think too many Detroiters are, like Blow, trapped by a fundamentally racial picture of the world.)

(The current mayor, Dave Bing, is, as far as I can tell, a decent man, who will try to do the best for his city.  But I am not sure just how much he can do — without much help from his city council, or from the federal government.)
- 2:42 PM, 22 May 2010   [link]


Mt. St Helens, 1979-2009:  Here's a nifty little video from NASA:

Note that the color scheme changes in 1984.  And that much of the blast area has not recovered, which won't surprise those who remember this post.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(By way of commenter Don Penim in this post.   Those fascinated by Mt. St. Helens will want to read the whole post.)
- 2:42 PM, 21 May 2010   [link]


Mark Steyn Explains What Is Happening In Greece:  And why the rest of us should care.
Unlovely as they are, the Greek rioters are the logical end point of the advanced social democratic state: not an oppressed underclass, but a pampered overclass, rioting in defence of its privileges and insisting on more subsidy, more benefits, more featherbedding, more government.

Who will pay for it?  Hey, not my problem, say the rioters.  Maybe those dead bank clerks' clients, assuming we didn't burn them to death, too.  The problem facing the Western world isn't very difficult to figure out: we've spent tomorrow today, and we can never earn enough tomorrow to pay for what we've already burned through.  When you're spending four trillion dollars but only raising two trillion in revenue (the Obama model), you've no intention of paying it off, and the rest of the world knows it.  In Greece, the arithmetic is starker.  To prop up unsustainable welfare states, most of the Western world isn't "printing money" but instead printing credit cards and pre-approving our unborn grandchildren.  That would be a dodgy proposition at the best of times.  But in the Mediterranean those grandchildren are never going to be born.  As I pointed out in my bestselling hate crime America Alone four years ago, Greece has one of the lowest fertility rates on the planet—1.3 children per couple, which places it in the "lowest-low" demographic category from which no society has recovered and, according to the UN, 178th out of 195 countries.  In practical terms, it means 100 grandparents have 42 grandkids.  Greek public sector employees are entitled not only to 14 monthly paycheques per annum during their "working" lives, but also 14 monthly retirement cheques per annum till death.  Who's going to be around to pay for that?
. . .
And yet and yet . . . riot-wracked Athens isn't that much of an outlier.  Greece's 2010 budget deficit is 12.2 per cent of GDP; Ireland's is 14.7.  Greece's debt is 125 per cent of GDP; Italy's is 117 per cent.  Greece's 65-plus population will increase from 18 per cent in 2005 to 25 per cent in 2030; Spain's will increase from 17 per cent to 25 per cent.  As lazy, feckless, squalid, corrupt and violent as Greece undoubtedly is, it's not that untypical.  It's where the rest of Europe's headed, and Japan and North America shortly thereafter.  About half the global economy is living beyond not only its means but its diminished number of children's means.
Our birth rate, and our attractiveness to immigrants, will make it possible for us to avoid this disaster — but not if we continue doing what we have been doing.

(Steyn couldn't resist this jab at the New York Times:
"Another reform high on the list is removing the state from the marketplace in crucial sectors like health care, transportation and energy and allowing private investment," reported the New York Times.  "Economists say that the liberalization of trucking routes—where a trucking licence can cost up to $90,000—and the health care industry would help bring down prices in these areas, which are among the highest in Europe."

Removing the state from health care brings down prices?  Who knew?  This New York Times is presumably entirely unrelated to the New York Times that's spent the last year arguing for the governmentalization of U.S. health care as a means of controlling costs.
And neither can I.  Perhaps the Times thinks privatizing health care brings down costs in Greece, but not in the United States.)
- 1:23 PM, 21 May 2010   [link]


A Vole, not a rat.   (Which is unfortunate for fans of metaphors, since the rodent that joined Obama on stage can be used in so many posts, articles, columns, and cartoons.  Some will call it a rat, anyway, of course.)

If you are even mildly compulsive about such things, you will want to read this Wikipedia article on voles.

Sample:
Voles are commonly mistaken for other small animals.  Moles, gophers, mice, rats and even shrews have similar characteristics and behavioral tendencies.  Since voles will commonly use burrows with many exit holes, they can be mistaken for gophers or some kind of ground squirrel.  Voles can create and will oftentimes utilize old abandoned mole tunnels thus confusing the land owner into thinking that moles are active.  When voles find their way into the home, they are readily misidentified as mice or young rats.  In fact, voles are unique and best described as being a little bit like all the other animals they are so commonly thought to be.
Voles live quickly, and can reproduce at an extraordinary rate, for mammals.
- 9:20 AM, 21 May 2010   [link]


Funny, She Doesn't look Muslim.   (She's a little skinny for my tastes, but I guess that is what is now fashionable.)
- 8:53 AM, 20 May 2010
On the other hand, looks can be deceiving.
This week, an American beauty pageant took center stage in the global war of ideas.  The Lebanese-born Rima Fakih's coronation as Miss America left some commentators wondering if political correctness had helped the first Muslim win the crown.  Others gallantly came her to rescue to argue that the crowning of a Michigan girl whose family hails from an area of Lebanon dominated by Hizbullah is a victory for freedom: in the face of dour Islamic fundamentalists, these pundits claim, the celebration of female beauty will serve as an "instrument of liberation".  But of course, a Muslim woman's willingness to show off her flesh is no more a triumph for modernity and moderation than the veil is an index of extremism.  For instance, even one of Lebanon's most popular divas, Haifa Wehbe—a woman whose music videos would make most Michigan strippers blush—has professed her admiration for Hizbullah.
True enough, but it is also true that how people dress, or don't dress, usually does tell us something about their political and religious views.
- 12:34 PM, 22 May 2010   [link]


Nice Non-Work, If You Can Get It:  All over the United States, taxpayers are beginning to catch on to public pension scams.  Some of the worst are in New York.   The Times starts with an example, but quickly moves to a conclusion.
In Yonkers, more than 100 retired police officers and firefighters are collecting pensions greater than their pay when they were working.  One of the youngest, Hugo Tassone, retired at 44 with a base pay of about $74,000 a year.  His pension is now $101,333 a year.
. . .
The Yonkers experience shows how errors, misunderstandings and wishful thinking are piling hidden new costs onto New York's public pension system every year, worsening the state's current fiscal crisis.   And the problem is not just in New York.  Public pension costs are ballooning everywhere, throwing budgets out of whack and raising the question of whether venerable state pension systems are viable.

In fact, the cost of public pensions has been systemically underestimated nationwide for more than two decades, say some analysts.  By these estimates, state and local officials have promised $5 trillion worth of benefits while thinking they were committing taxpayers to roughly half that amount.
A trillion here, a trillion there, pretty soon, you're talking real money.  (As Everett Dirksen might say, if he were alive today.)

In general, I think we are going to have to move from defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution plans.  We will, on the whole, be better off if we do so, but there will be much pain getting from here to there.
- 7:45 AM, 21 May 2010   [link]


Another Diplomatic Triumph for Barack Obama.
The YouGov poll showed that almost three-quarters of British people think that relations with America have worsened since President Barack Obama took office.
It takes a certain kind of perverse genius to produce a result that bad, given former Prime Minister Brown's desire for good relations, and Obama's popularity in Britain at the beginning of his presidency.
- 4:33 PM, 20 May 2010   [link]


What Should We Do About Fannie Mae And Freddie Mac?  Phase them out gently, says Harvard economist Edward Glaeser.
But despite my skepticism about the mission of Fannie and Freddie, we won't and shouldn't get rid of them overnight.  They still hold vast portfolios.  The housing market is still fragile.  We should reform them and gradually reduce their role in the markets, moving slowly to avoid panic and dislocation
That sounds about right to me.

If our Democratically-controlled Congress follows his advice, we will know that they are serious about financial reform.

(If you are curious about Glaeser's political views, you should read his review of a book by Paul Krugman.)
- 8:46 AM, 20 May 2010   [link]


Smoking Propeller:  The South Korean investigators have found a North Korean torpedo propeller.
Investigators have found at the 11th hour found a desperately needed smoking gun linking North Korea to the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan, a government official claimed Tuesday.  Investigators apparently discovered a propeller from the torpedo that likely sank the ship in relatively good condition in waters where it sank and the serial number inscribed on it is North Korean.

"U.S., Australian and other foreign experts who took part in the investigation agree that a North Korean torpedo caused the Cheonan to sink and that this is the smoking gun following various pieces of the torpedo and traces of gun powder that had been gathered so far," the official said.
The South Koreans have, very prudently, brought in experts from many other nations to look at the evidence as they collected it.  This last piece should end any doubts about what sunk the Cheonan, and killed 46 sailors.

(Minor correction:  The Chosun Ilbo translators are pretty good, but they keep calling the explosive from the torpedo, "gun powder".  It has been a long, long time since torpedoes used an explosive that inefficient in their warheads.)
- 4:50 PM, 19 May 2010
More from the BBC and the New York Times.
- 9:12 AM, 20 May 2010   [link]


Paul Krugman Is Right:  Didn't expect that headline from me, did you?

But he is right, and has been right, about the euro.
The official answer is that this just shows the need for more flexible labor markets.  But this was a subject we all batted back and forth in the initial debate about the euro, circa 1990: nobody has labor markets that flexible.  If the euro isn't workable without highly flexible nominal wages, well, it isn't workable.
(By "highly flexible nominal wages, he means that employers — and employees — have to be willing to impose — and accept — big pay cuts.)

To be fair, I should add that Krugman has been more rational, more of an economist and less a screaming party hack, since George W. Bush left the White House.  Although I never expect him to recover from his Bush Derangement Syndrome, he is beginning to move on to other issues, and, sometimes, treat them rationally.

(By way of Megan McArdle, who has more to say on the subject.)
- 1:21 PM, 19 May 2010   [link]


What Happened In The Pennsylvania 12th Special Election?  The Democrat, Mark Critz, won with 52.6% of the vote.  Since Republicans had high hopes of winning this seat, most "mainstream" reporters are describing this a serious setback for the party.

I am not sure that it is, even though this district looks like a swing district.  (Kerry won it in 2004 by 7,958 votes; McCain won it in 2008 by 873 votes.)  On the other hand, this was the best showing for a Republican candidate in the district since the 1974 election.  (Quibble:  The boundaries of the district have changed, so the earlier elections are not exactly comparable to later elections.)  It is true that the late Congressman Murtha had the advantage of incumbency, but it is also true that, in recent elections, he had been charged with corruption, and with demeaning our military.

And there were special factors yesterday.  There was a hard-fought Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, which appears to have brought out many Democratic voters.  In November, when Critz will again be running against Tim Burns, the turnout should be more even.  And, the Republican party should be more united by then.  Burns had to simultaneously fight the special election, and a vigorous primary against the previous Republican nominee, William Russell.

So, if I were a Republican strategist, I would not giving on winning this district in November, though I think that Republicans should take this warning from Michael Barone seriously.
Thus the electorate in the 12th special election consisted of almost twice as many registered Democrats as registered Republicans.   More important, I suspect, is that the primary/special election evidently didn't bring out the kind of voters who put this traditionally Democratic district (narrowly) in the McCain column in 2008: tradition-minded Democrats who didn't like Obama and never much liked Republicans but who felt obliged to vote out of civic duty.
Similarly, Republicans should look hard at their message, and how it looks (or can be made to look) to traditional voters.
More than anything else, the election of Critz demonstrates the enduring appeal of Murthanomics.   As I defined the term three weeks ago, under Murthanomics, "the keys to prosperity are protectionism and pork-barrel federal spending," and Critz won mainly by presenting himself as the heir to his former boss's legacy.  Polls showed that voters in PA-12 reacted negatively to the names of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi -- to whom Burns relentlessly strove to link Critz -- that did little to taint the Democrat who promised to preserve the Murtha legacy.
Those issues won't work in every district, but it would be a mistake not to realize that they will work in many districts.  Economists may be satisfied that freer trade improves our lives, but most voters are not economists.

(House Republicans will try hard to link Critz to Obama and Pelosi between now and November.  I expect that he will be given a pass by the Democratic leadership to vote against them on almost every important issue, but the Republicans still may be able to pin him, and Democrats in similar districts, down from time to time.)
- 12:51 PM, 19 May 2010   [link]


No Federal Budget This Year:  And for the most political of reasons.  The Democrats don't want voters to know how bad the deficits are.
The chance that the majority Democrats will pass a budget this year is "fading," Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said Tuesday.

He is pessimistic because House Democrats don't know whether they want to pass a resolution that would officially acknowledge the certainty of big deficits.  House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and other Democrats have indicated that would be a tough vote in an election year.
If the Democrats won't pass a budget, they should return their pay to the Treasury.
- 6:56 AM, 19 May 2010   [link]


Can You Trust Barack Obama On Foreign Policy?  Marty Peretz, writing in the New Republic, says no.
There is already so much evidence that Obama's tactical and strategic views derive from his tout va bien disposition in world affairs that we shall quickly come to the belief that he is simply not to be trusted on foreign policy.  This is a sad conclusion, But it is better to conclude that than to be led into his wonderland.
The conclusion is not surprising; many conservatives came to similar views even before Obama was nominated.  Nor is it entirely surprising to see this coming from Peretz, after the Obama administration's attacks on Israel.  But the harshness of the judgment is striking.

(Peretz is arguing that Obama is naive.  I have come to a darker conclusion.  I think that, like many on the far left, he sees a different set of enemies than most Americans do.)
- 6:40 AM, 19 May 2010   [link]


No Predictions On Today's Elections:  From me, anyway, because the polls for primaries are simply not very good.
In the last three general elections, polls have collectively been mostly unbiased, and as such, polling averages and trend estimates that minimize sampling error have been very accurate predictors of the final margins.   Primary elections, however, have often been a very different story.   Individual polls tend to be more variable and there are many examples of contests where the final polls have collectively missed the final margins by a mile -- most recently in the Democratic presidential primaries in 2008, especially New Hampshire, South Carolina and the Virginia's Democratic primary for Senate in 2009.

There are many reasons why primary election polling is more error prone -- see AAPOR's investigation of the 2008 primaries for a complete catalogue -- but I'll highlight three: Smaller electorates are harder to sample and model, final snapshots sometimes miss late trends, and the lack of party preferences leave more voters feeling truly uncertain about their choice until confronted with a ballot.
I am not brave enough to make any predictions, but others are, and you can find one here.  (Curiously enough, just under the post explaining why polls for primaries are often lousy.)

No predictions, but I don't mind telling you that I will be delighted if the Republican picks up John Murtha's seat.  (If he doesn't, it might be because the party was not united; in fact, the Republican candidate, Tim Burns, is running in both a special election and a Republican primary today.)
- 3:42 PM, 18 May 2010   [link]


Richard Blumenthal And The Press:  You've probably heard about the Democratic Senate candidate's little problem.
Many politicians have faced questions over their decisions during the Vietnam War, and Mr. Blumenthal, who is seeking the seat being vacated by Senator Christopher J. Dodd, is not alone in staying out of the war.

But what is striking about Mr. Blumenthal's record is the contrast between the many steps he took that allowed him to avoid Vietnam, and the misleading way he often speaks about that period of his life now, especially when he is speaking at veterans' ceremonies or other patriotic events.

Sometimes his remarks have been plainly untrue, as in his speech to the group in Norwalk.  At other times, he has used more ambiguous language, but the impression left on audiences can be similar.
But you may not have seen these details:
In at least eight newspaper articles published in Connecticut from 2003 to 2009, he is described as having served in Vietnam.
. . .
And the idea that he served in Vietnam has become such an accepted part of his public biography that when a national outlet, Slate magazine, produced a profile of Mr. Blumenthal in 2000, it said he had "enlisted in the Marines rather than duck the Vietnam draft."
. . .
On a less serious matter, another flattering but untrue description of Mr. Blumenthal's history has appeared in profiles about him.  In two largely favorable profiles, the Slate article and a magazine article in The Hartford Courant in 2004 with which he cooperated, Mr. Blumenthal is described prominently as having served as captain of the swim team at Harvard. Records at the college show that he was never on the team.
So Blumenthal had help from reporters and editors in spreading these stories, even though he told them inconsistently.  Were they covering for him deliberately?  Or were they just not doing basic fact checking?

Did reporters at the New York Times finally do what other reporters should have done?  Maybe, maybe not.  A Republican opponent is claiming credit for the revelations.  And it is certainly possible that a tip from Linda McMahon started the newspaper's investigation.

(Any other prominent politicians who haven't been candid about their pasts?  Why, yes, for example, this one, who was exposed by an article in the New York Times, though it didn't seem to do him much damage.)
- 8:31 AM, 18 May 2010   [link]


Thirty Years Ago, Mt. St. Helens Blew Up:  Or blew out, to be more exact, since the explosion did not go straight up.

I had planned to have a new collection of pictures from the newer, higher resolution web camera, but found that I do not have a wide variety of pictures from that camera, though I have several quite pretty pictures.  So I am recycling this lower-resolution set from last year.

(Click on a picture to see the full-sized version.)

And I will remind you again that the web cameras do not show you the Crater Glacier, which has been growing rapidly.  (If you work for Washington state, remember to call it the Tulutson Glacier.)

The best overall description of the eruption I have seen is in the 3rd edition of Stephen Harris's Fire Mountains of the West.  His chapter on Mt. St. Helens includes details like this:

The May 18 eruption released a staggering amount of energy — a force equivalent to 27,000 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs detonating sequentially over a span of nine and a half hours — but St. Helens still had a reserve of magmatic power.  During the next five months, the volcano produced five additional explosive eruptions, each of which ejected ash clouds 35,000 to 50,000 feet above sea level and discharged pyroclastic flows though a wide breech in the crater's north rim. (p. 271)

The plants and animals near the mountain have been recovering — and teaching biologists much about ecology as they come back.  The best article I have seen on the recovery is in the May issue of the National Geographic.

I've climbed it twice since the eruption.  It isn't a difficult climb in the summer.   In fact, it's like hiking on a tilted beach.  The view from the rim is spectacular — and spooky, if you have any imagination at all.  (You can find the current rules for climbers here)

More official info here and here

Cross posted at Sound Politics.
- 6:54 AM, 18 May 2010   [link]


Double Standards And Danny Westneat:  The Seattle Times columnist has long puzzled me; he often arrives at at a conclusion without showing his work, as if he had teleported to the conclusion from some unknown location.  It is not just that I disagree with his conclusions — though I often do — it's that I often can't understand how he reaches them.

Over time, I have come to a tentative solution to this problem, tentative because I do not have direct evidence for some of the steps in my argument.  Simply put, I think that Westneat judges political actors differently depending on their party, race, and sex.  Specifically, Westneat treats white Republicans, especially white male Republicans, as responsible adults, who can be blamed if something goes wrong when they are in charge.  Or just in the neighborhood, in some instances.

In contrast, Westneat treats politically correct minorities as children, who can not be held responsible for their actions or inactions.  Some examples:  Like almost every other "mainstream" journalist, Westneat blames George W. Bush for Katrina failures, but has little to say about former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, or former Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco.   (The citizens of Louisiana disagree, as polls showed, and as the election of Bobby Jindal showed.)

In December 2006, a powerful windstorm hit this area, killing 15 people and knocking out power for days.  As far as I can determine, then King County Executive Ron Sims did nothing to relieve the suffering — and drew no blame for that failure from any local journalist.  Certainly, I have never seen any criticism of Sims' inaction during and after the storm from Danny Westneat.  (Having failed here, Sims is now working for the Obama administration.)  As those unfamiliar with Sims may already have guessed, he has a better tan than I do.

There was an even more remarkable example in a column Westneat wrote one month ago.

Before discussing the column, let me remind you of a small problem we all have:

CBO deficit estimates, March 2010

(Thanks much to a reader for correcting the colors and direction of the graph.)

The lighter-colored red bars show how much worse Obama's policies are likely to make our long-term budget problems.  And that's without counting the likely effects of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid health insurance "reform".  I suppose that I should add that these Congressional Budget Office estimates are generally more optimistic than they should be, often because Congress requires them to use unreasonable assumptions.

One or two people have been disturbed by these dismal prospects.  Some have even gone out to demonstrate against the policies that are bankrupting our country.  And after more than a year of those demonstrations, Danny Westneat left the comfort of his leftist cocoon and went out to talk to a few of those demonstrators.

We get a hint about what might go wrong in that encounter from this:

For instance, several speakers inspired the crowd with stories about how the most courageous and noble people left are the capitalists. Because they bravely walk the road of struggle against a powerful, socialistic bureaucracy.

And I'm thinking — didn't the capitalists just nearly destroy capitalism?  Only to be saved by the socialists?

Didn't all that happen just a year and a half ago?

It is possible, even likely, that Westneat has heard of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  It is possible, even likely, that Westneat knows that the big banks that received federal loans have paid much of the money back, with interest.  It is possible, though unlikely, that Westneat knows that the Bush administration objected to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, precisely because they were not subject to market disciplines.  It is almost certain that Westneat does not know about Barney Franks' support for those two corrupt institutions, since Franks is one of the most politically-correct Congressmen, ever.

With that poor start, it is not surprising to read his conclusion:

The tea party's focus on deficits is right on.  But it needs to get real.  It needs a Ross Perot-like figure to spell out an honest plan — one that's probably going to have both tax increases and spending cuts (as Bill Clinton pushed through).

Also, drop the red-scare rhetoric.  And run as fast as you can from bumper-sticker simpletons like Sarah Palin.

Otherwise, this tea party's stuck in Wonderland.

Westneat blames the tea party demonstrators for not having a comprehensive plan to solve our massive deficit problem.  And he is probably right that most of them do not have such a plan in their pockets or purses.  (If Westneat really wants such a plan, he should investigate what Republican Congressman Paul Ryan has come up with.  Experts seem to think that Ryan's effort is serious, and might actually solve our deficit problems.)

But why should they?

Few of the demonstrators are elected officials, and none of them are President of the United States, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Majority Leader of the Senate, Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, or Chairman of the House or Senate Appropriations committees.  Those are the people who are obligated to come up with a plan.

None of them have, though they have made our deficits far worse by their actions since the Democrats took control of Congress after the 2006 election.  Not only have none of them come up with a plan, this year the Democratically-controlled Congress may not even pass a budget.

But Westneat has not a word of criticism for those people, not does he ask any of them to come up with a plan.  (Or even pass a budget this year.)

Why doesn't Westneat hold them responsible?  I would like to hear his answer to that question.  Until I do, and maybe even after I do, I will, tentatively, conclude that he does not think that Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and all the rest, are responsible adults who can be held accountable for their actions.

But he does think the tea party demonstrators are, since he holds them responsible for not having a plan for our deficits.  That is, I suppose, an indirect compliment, just as his refusal to hold Obama and company responsible is an indirect, but very nasty, insult.   Perhaps Westneat should consider dropping his double standards, and judging all of us by our actions, and by the content of our characters.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(Oh, and two small suggestions for Westneat:  First, instead of casting a childish insult at former Governor Palin, why not look up her record on budgets in Alaska?  You might learn something, if you are able to suppress your political correctness for a few hours.

Second, consider giving Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole some credit for our improved budgets after the 1994 election.  I would like to believe that doing so is not a firing offense at the Seattle Times, at least not yet.)
- 5:26 PM, 17 May 2010   [link]


Here's A Round-Up Of News On Mini-Nukes:   Sample:
While utility-scale reactors cost about $2.3 billion apiece and produce 1.2 gigawatts of power, Hyperion's price tag is $50 million for a 25-megawatt reactor more comparable to a diesel generators or wind farms.

Transportable by truck, the units would come in a sealed box and work around the clock, requiring less maintenance than a fossil fuel plant, the developers say.  They'd cost 15 percent less per megawatt of capacity than the average full-scale atomic reactors now in on the drawing board, according to World Nuclear Association data.
Let me speculate a little (and if you actually know something about these issues, please correct me if I am wrong).  Mini-nukes might reduce our need for immense new systems of transmission lines because they could be placed close to demand, and could be moved when demand changes.
- 1:23 PM, 17 May 2010   [link]


Ten Good Things About Britain's Liberal Democrats:  Conservative Daniel Hannan lists them.  Here's the first:
1. Standing up to lobbyists (except in Brussels).  Lib Dems are often better than Tories at grasping the difference between being pro-market and being pro-business.  As Douglas Carswell points out, they have an especially good record when it comes to seeing through our defence contractors.
As that "except in Brussels" caveat reminds us, the Liberal Democrats have been (and still are, as far as I know) far too prone to judge the European Union by its propaganda, rather than its results.   And far too willing to give in to Brussels bureaucrats.  But it is also true that the party has some policies that a conservative, or even a libertarian, could support.

(Americans who want good relationships with Britain will be pleased that Conservative William Hague is the new Foreign Secretary.  He's a good friend of the United States, and from what I know, the best kind of friend, one who wants a good relationship because he thinks a strong tie is in the best interests of both nations.

If Daniel Hannan seems familiar, but you can't quite place him, that's probably because you watched his famous video.)
- 1:09 PM, 17 May 2010   [link]


The Paradox Of "Open" Government:  The best short explanation I have seen is in Yes Minister.
In fact, paradoxically, government is more open when it is less open.  Open Government is rather like live theatre; the audience gets a performance.  And it gives a response.  But, like the theatre, in order to have something to show openly there must first be much hidden activity.  And all sorts of things have to be cut or altered in rehearsals, and not shown to the public until you have got them right.
Keep that analogy in mind whenever you watch a political event.  Almost all of them are, in some sense, staged.
- 8:53 AM, 17 May 2010   [link]


The Unsurprising Posner Apology To The Chinese:   John Hinderaker and Jay Nordlinger were surprised by this story.
[Assistant Secretary of State Michael] Posner said in addition to talks on freedom of religion and expression, labor rights and rule of law, officials also discussed Chinese complaints about problems with U.S. human rights, which have included crime, poverty, homelessness and racial discrimination.

He said U.S. officials did not whitewash the American record and in fact raised on its own a new immigration law in Arizona that requires police to ask about a person's immigration status if there is suspicion the person is in the country illegally.
Nordlinger replied:
I hope I have read that incorrectly, or am interpreting it incorrectly.  Did we, the United States, talking to a government that maintains a gulag, that denies people their basic rights, that in all probability harvests organs, apologize for the new immigration law in Arizona?   Really, really?
Posner apologized more than once, as Hinderaker shows.

Though I share Hinderaker's and Nordlinger's outrage, I was not surprised — and they shouldn't have been surprised, either.

For years, pollster Scott Rasmussen has been asking Americans whether this country is generally "fair and decent" or "unfair and discriminatory".  Every time he has asked that question, a majority has chosen "fair and decent".  That majority has even grown a little since Obama's election and is now up to 71 percent.

As Michael Barone points out from time to time, for example, here, that question unites Republicans and divides Democrats.
Republicans by a wide margin (78 percent to 12 percent) see America as fair and decent, while Democrats are split (49 percent to 36 percent).
. . .
I think this split among Democrats is a permanent problem for the party.  The Democratic base is split between those who like hearing good things about America and those who like to hear the nation denounced or, if that's too strong a word, criticized.  Bill Clinton was skillful enough to weave together rhetoric celebrating America and apologizing for its past misdeeds, but not all Democratic politicians are so deft.
Any Democratic administration will include officials who believe that this country is generally "unfair and discriminatory".  From time to time, those officials will say so — even to the representatives of a regime that is responsible, according to some estimates, for 70 million deaths, and repression on a gargantuan scale.
- 7:41 AM, 17 May 2010   [link]


"Moderate" Elena Kagan supported a leftwing extremist candidate in 2006.  With a maximum donation.
- 5:51 AM, 17 May 2010   [link]


Is President Obama Spreading Cynicism?  He warns graduates to be wary of cynicism in this Parade Magazine piece.
At times like these, when the future seems unsettled and uncertain, it can be easy to lose heart.   When you turn on the television or read newspapers or blogs, the voices of cynicism and pessimism always seem to be the loudest.

Don't believe them.
But you can make a strong argument that he is increasing cynicism by his own actions, particularly his casual attitude toward campaign promises.

During the 2008 campaign, he made some silly promises, for example, promising to have the negotiations over health insurance on C-SPAN.  (If you believed that, you are naive; negotiations that complex simply can't be carried on in public.  And if you do put them on TV, that will only drive the real negotiations elsewhere.)  He made many dubious promises, for example, promising not to raise taxes for families making less than $250,000 a year.  He made promises that would be relatively easy to keep, for example, promising to give the public time to look at bills before he signed them.

And he has been breaking all three kinds of campaign promises.  I expected him to break the silly promises and the dubious promises, but I was a little surprised to see him break some of the easy promises.  Perhaps I was not as cynical about Obama as I should have been.

In my experience, broken campaign promises spread cynicism about politicians — and should.  If voters are often cynical now, it is partly because the voters have seen too many politicians treat their campaign promises as disposable.

(The Parade piece deserves a full analysis, for what it shows about Obama's thinking, but I may not have time to do one.  It's bad enough so that I suspect he wrote most of it himself.)
- 5:29 AM, 17 May 2010   [link]