May 2015, Part 2

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Gets The Death Penalty:  The commenters at the Daily Mail, judging by a quick look, mostly approve.

(No, I didn't read all the comments, 2,523, as I write.)

Yesterday, talk show host (and author) Michael Medved made an argument for the death penalty for Tsarnaev that I hadn't heard before, but find very powerful:  If you sentenced Tsarnaev to a life sentence, he would probably spend his time propagandizing, and perhaps even recruiting, while in prison.

We can all hope that the appeals process does not drag on forever.

(Let me suggest that you spend a few minutes looking at the four people killed by the brothers, especially if you are not sure about the death penalty.

Minor corrections:  Officer Sean Collier worked for Massachusetts Institute of Technology, not the Somerville police department, and was ambushed, not killed in a fire fight.  The Mail is confusing him with another officer who was wounded badly, but survived.)
- 3:49 PM, 16 May 2015   [link]

The Telegraph Has Produced an excellent blinking map, showing the changes between the 2010 and 2015 British elections.  It shows you, for instance, how the Liberal Democrats lost seats in northern Scotland to the Scottish National Party.

Using hexagons, as they do, for each district gives you a better perspective on the sizes of the changes.  (It would be trickier to do the same thing for the US, since our states, and our House districts, vary so much in size.)

You'll notice, if you study the map for a few minutes, that London is about the same size as Scotland.   That's not a mistake; in fact, greater London has a larger population than Scotland (about 8.4 million to 5.3 million), so even though the Scottish districts have fewer people, on the average, the areas are about the same.
- 1:20 PM, 15 May 2015   [link]

Is President Obama Misinformed About Chemistry Or History?   Probably both.   A high school student who has taken a good course in either chemistry or world history should know that chlorine was the first modern chemical weapon used on a large scale*.

If you don't want to watch the whole video, move ahead to about 2:30, where Obama says: "Chlorine itself, historically, has not been listed as a chemical weapon, . . . "

Actually it has been "listed" that way, for decades.

It is possible, of course, that Obama knows that, but was lying to the reporter.  If so, it seems like a rather silly lie.

(I added that large-scale qualifier because in World War I the French used tear gas, and the Germans used a "chemical irritant", before the Germans turned to chlorine in 1915.  At that time, tear gas was not prohibited by treaties signed by the two nations.)
- 7:28 AM, 15 May 2015   [link]

Nicola Sturgeon's Party Won An Historic Victory In Last Week's British Election; Nicola Sturgeon Was Unhappy With The Result:  For the first half of that title, you just have to look at the results.  The Scottish National Party went from 1.7 percent of the total vote to 4.7 percent, and from 6 seats to 56 seats.  It won all but three seats in Scotland.  (Labour, which long dominated Scotland, was reduced to a single seat, as were the Liberal Democrats.   The Conservatives held their single seat, but made no gains.)

For the second half of that title, you'll have to take my word, along with with some recent evidence.

As I watched the returns on the BBC on election night I saw Sturgeon interviewed twice, and each time she appeared angry, in spite of her party's great victory.


Because she had hoped to be part of an informal ruling coalition.  She expected that Labour would win enough seats in England and Wales so that she could offer them control, at a price — a very stiff price.  She made it clear in the second interview that she thought Labour had let her down by failing to win enough seats in England.

Blackmail might be too strong a word for how she intended to control a Labour government, but it is hard to think of a weaker word that will do as well.

(She may also have realized that her tactics in the weeks before the election had hurt the chances of such a coalition.  She was, I thought, too obvious about what she wanted, and she must have frightened some voters in England.)

So, what's she trying now?  A different tactic, with a different target.
The SNP is prepared to push ahead with an unofficial second independence referendum if David Cameron refuses to grant one.

A senior party source in Westminster said Scots, who rejected independence last September, would choose to leave the UK if a vote was held tomorrow, adding: ‘You only have to win once.’
Cameron will be meeting with her, and is taking a soft approach, which I think is correct, tactically.  He can, for instance, promise to continue the subsidies that England sends to Scotland, and promise to give greater powers to the Scottish parliament.

Will such gifts be enough for Sturgeon?  It's hard to say.  But I do have the impression that she would rather be a large frog in a large pond (Britain) than the largest frog in a small pond (Scotland).  But that's no more than an impression.

(For what it is worth, the SNP does not yet dominate local politics in Scotland; they hold 408 of 1,223 elected offices in local governments.  Nor is their hold on the Scottish parliament unshakable; in the 2011 election they won 64 of 129 seats, with just 44 percent of the vote,   Those numbers suggest to me that there is a real possibility of other parties, especially Labour, gaining, at the expense of the SNP.)
- 7:51 PM, 14 May 2015   [link]

Worth Reading:  Joanne Jacobs's post, "Why turnarounds don't work".  Here's how she begins, and ends:
The Obama administration spent $3.5 billion on School Improvement Grants to “turn around” very low-performing schools, reports the Washington Post.  However, most states lacked the staff, technology and expertise to improve failing schools, according to a U.S. Education Department research brief.
. . .
"About a third of the schools that received School Improvement Grants improved, a third of the schools performed about the same, and a third got worse, according to preliminary research released in 2013."
(I put the last paragraph in quotes, because she is quoting from that Post article.)

In other words, it is likely that we spent $3.5 billion and produced no net improvements in those schools.

But — and this is something that Jacobs does not discuss — it is also likely that politicians in some of those states benefited from these grants, as well, of course, as some of the people who received them.

In both those ways, this program reminds me of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, where Barack Obama passed out money to political allies, who ran programs that produced no measurable improvements in Chicago schools.

And now I will take a big leap:  From what I can tell, President Obama did not learn from that educational failure, did not learn that fashionable ideas from his left-wing friends often fail when put into practice.  That's why I said, yesterday, that he has little ability to choose policies, rationally.

I understand just how harsh that conclusion is, and I can only tell you that I wish I had not come to it.

(I don't have to tell many of you that the Department of Education would really like to find improvements, if there were any.)
- 8:56 AM, 14 May 2015   [link]

It's OK To Release The Names Of Undercover Operatives If The NYT Does It:  Remember the Valerie Plame affair, when her identity as an undercover CIA operative was leaked by Richard Armitage?  (As you probably recall, Scooter Libby, who had nothing to do with the leak, was punished severely for it.)

We were told then that releasing the names of undercover officers was a very bad thing to do — and I don't disagree with that general principle, though there is some question about just how undercover Plame was at the time.

Now, the New York Times has printed the names of three undercover CIA officers.  Which has drawn a protest from former CIA officials.
Twenty senior former CIA officials—including every CIA Director (including DCIs) dating back to William Webster (1987-91)—wrote a letter to the NYT to take issue with NYT Executive Editor Dean Baquet’s defense (in this interview on Lawfare) of his decision to publish the names of the three covert CIA operatives in a story a few weeks ago.
But almost no attention from anyone else.

I read that interview with Baquet, and found his arguments unpersuasive — and revealing.  Summarizing briefly and, I hope, not unfairly, Baquet makes three main arguments:  Many people, including people in foreign governments, knew the identities of the three, anyway.  The CIA is now conducting military operations, and it is customary to name the officers in charge of military operations.  And these three were also involved in the "enhanced interrogations" of terrorists, which Baquet calls "torture".

The first two are unpersuasive, the third, revealing.

That people in foreign governments knew their identities does not mean that all our enemies did, does not mean, for instance, that some "lone wolf" terrorist here in the United States knows them.  Moreover, revealing their identities allows many of our enemies to go back, look at where the men were stationed, and make informed guesses about their sources in those countries.

Many military operations are secret, for good reasons; they would not succeed if they were public, as anyone who has read even a little military history would know.

It is the third, I think, that reveals Baquet's real motive:  These men — in his view — did something very wrong by "torturing" those terrorists.  And so he hopes, by revealing their names, to make it more likely they will be punished in some way.

And if that makes it harder to prosecute the war on terror, well, that's not his department.
- 8:12 AM, 14 May 2015   [link]

"Why Did Russia Give US Secretary Of State John Kerry Potatoes?"  The answer turns out to be simple.
Mr Lavrov’s present harked back to January 2014, when Mr Kerry gave Mr Lavrov two large Idaho potatoes as the pair met in Paris to discuss the Syria crisis.

The American said then that he and Mr Lavrov had spoken by phone when he was on holiday in Idaho, and the Russian recalled the region’s famously giant tubers.
It's better that Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, and Kerry are exchanging potatoes than insults or threats, I suppose.

And, as diplomatic stunts go, this is way better than Hillary Clinton's "Reset" button.

(The Telegraph doesn't explain why Lavrov also gave Kerry a basket of tomatoes.)
- 5:45 AM, 14 May 2015   [link]

What Should We Make Of President Obama's Remarks On Poverty?  When I read excerpts from his remarks at the panel discussion at Georgetown University, I found them hard to believe.

For example:
Now, part of what’s happened is that -- and this is where Arthur [Brooks] and I would probably have some disagreements.  We don’t dispute that the free market is the greatest producer of wealth in history -- it has lifted billions of people out of poverty.  We believe in property rights, rule of law, so forth.  But there has always been trends in the market in which concentrations of wealth can lead to some being left behind.  And what’s happened in our economy is that those who are doing better and better -- more skilled, more educated, luckier, having greater advantages -- are withdrawing from sort of the commons -- kids start going to private schools; kids start working out at private clubs instead of the public parks.  An anti-government ideology then disinvests from those common goods and those things that draw us together.  And that, in part, contributes to the fact that there’s less opportunity for our kids, all of our kids.
That sounds bizarre when you recall that President Obama went to a series of private schools, Punahou, Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard, that he sent his kids to private schools in both Chicago and Washington, that he and his wife chose to live in an exclusive neighborhood in Chicago, and regularly vacation on Martha's Vineyard,  And that he had agreed to block the opportunity vouchers, established by Dick Armey, that would have allowed a few poor kids to join his daughters at Sidwell Friends.

When I read those lines, I wondered whether he had any self-knowledge, whether he thought the rules applied to others, or whether he was baiting conservatives, whether he was, for whatever reason, trying to provoke angry responses from conservatives.  (If he was, he succeeded.)

But if you read that in the context of the preceding paragraph, it makes more sense.
And when I read Bob’s book, the first thing that strikes you is when he’s growing up in Ohio, he’s in a community where the banker is living in reasonable proximity to the janitor at the school.  The janitor’s daughter may be going out with the banker’s son.   There are a set of common institutions -- they may attend the same church; they may be members of the same rotary club; they may be active at the same parks -- and all the things that stitch them together.  And that is all contributing to social mobility and to a sense of possibility and opportunity for all kids in that community.
("Bob" is Harvard Professor Robert Putnam, and the book Obama is referring to — I don't know whether he has actually read it — is Our Kids.)

What Obama was doing was restating Putnam's argument, sympathetically.   That's a standard trick used by salesmen, by con men, by politicians, by, in fact, almost everyone who is skilled at persuading others.

The person begins by agreeing, and then uses that agreement to attempt to persuade others to, in turn, agree with him (or her).

If you look through the panel discussion, you'll see that Obama does that, again and again.

What is Obama trying to persuade others to do?  To spend more money on his programs.  If you study what he says about those programs carefully, you'll see that he does not bother to provide any evidence that his programs will actually help the poor — and that he does not even consider the possibility that some anti-poverty programs have made the poor worse off.

Having read through the entire panel discussion, I have even more respect for his abilities as a politician, and even less respect for his ability to identify programs that will help the poor.  Or, to put it more generally, even less respect for his ability to choose policies, rationally.

(There are places in that panel discussion where he is trying to bait his opponents, and he does, like the Clintons, think that the rules don't apply to him.)
- 3:22 AM, 13 May 2015   [link]

Steve Kelley Has Some Fun with Hillary Clinton's unwillingness to answer questions from reporters.
- 2:30 PM, 13 May 2015   [link]

Misplaced Modifiers:  From the White House press office.

Keith Koffler is annoyed by this incompetence; I am mostly amused, because those two mistakes are pretty funny.

(How would I rewrite them?  I would break the first into two sentences, one on the conference, and one on Obama's part in it.  I'm not sure how I would rewrite the second since I am not sure what a "convening" is, though I can guess by assuming it comes from "convene".  It's not in either of my standard dictionaries.

Both sentences err, in my opinion, by putting the Obamas at the center, a mistake that should no longer surprise us, coming from this White House.)
- 7:39 AM, 13 May 2015   [link]

Hillary Clinton Is Dodging Reporters:  But she can't dodge Glenn Kessler — who just gave her four Pinocchios for this statement:
"In New York, which I know a little bit about because I represented it for eight years and I live there now, our undocumented workers in New York pay more in taxes than some of the biggest corporations in New York.”

–Hillary Clinton, roundtable in North Las Vegas, May 5, 2015
Glenn Kessler chases down two of the sources of that comparison, an opinion column by Albor Ruiz and Senator Bernie Sanders's web site, and shows that they aren't entirely reliable.

It's a good piece of detective work, and will give you an idea of just how complex these matters can be.

Here's Kessler's conclusion:
But comparing the taxes of hundreds of thousands of people to the tax bill of one corporation is a stretch and fairly misleading.  Even the companies that pay little or no federal income taxes end up paying lots of other taxes. So it’s a nonsense comparison.

We wavered between Three and Four Pinocchios, but ultimately settled on Four.  As a former senator, Clinton should know better.
Comparing taxes of large corporations to taxes of individuals is misleading in a fundamental way.   On the whole, corporations don't pay taxes, they pass them on.  If that isn't obvious, consider this simple example.  Suppose the United States imposed a new tax on gasoline refiners.  What would happen to gasoline prices?  They would go up.  The tax might be, formally, a tax on corporations, but it would be paid, indirectly, by consumers.

Who pays those corporation taxes — stockholders, workers, or consumers — varies, but eventually they are passed on to individuals.

(Kessler is my favorite fact checker.  I can think of only one time when I thought he was incorrect, though there are other times when I might quibble with some parts of his analyses.   There are other fact checkers, I am sorry to say, who, when they are right, I introduce with that condescending word, "Even".)
- 3:53 PM, 12 May 2015   [link]

Was There Vote Fraud In Last Week's British Election?  Sure.

For example, here's a BBC article on possible cases in Scotland.
In Glasgow, officers said they were looking into one case of "personation".

A similar allegation involving a vote cast at a polling station in the Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East constituency was also being probed.

Claims of personation in two Edinburgh constituencies - South and South West - have also been reported.
("Personation" is a "term used in law for the specific kind of voter fraud where an individual votes in an election, whilst pretending to be a different elector".)

But I doubt very much whether any of those examples in Scotland affected the results there.

On the other hand, it is possible that the widespread use of "postal ballots" did make a difference, in some places.
Asian voters are being intimidated into handing over their postal votes on a scale larger than the few arrests so far suggest, a former prosecutor has warned.

Nazir Afzal said that a form of feudal blackmail had been imported from south Asia with families facing retribution unless they voted for bullying candidates.  Women and girls were being disenfranchised as households were being persuaded to hand over their ballot forms.
This kind of vote fraud is hard to detect, and hard to prosecute, since, usually, a daughter or wife must bring a complaint against her father or husband.

(Nazir Afzal is quite well known in Britain.)
- 2:16 PM, 12 May 2015   [link]

Worth Reading:  Although his argument isn't new, Walter Russell Mead's discussion of the persistent bias in the way our news organizations judge our presidents is one of the best I've seen.

Here's how he begins:
Once again, be very glad we don’t have a Republican president right now.  If we did, we would be treated to a merciless media pounding, night-and-day, on the series of strategic failures, mistakes and false starts that have characterized America’s war strategy in Afghanistan since 2009.  We’d be getting constant reminders of how the President, who repeatedly said that this was a just war that America had to win, and who told us that we should vote for him because he wouldn’t let anything distract him from the vital task of winning said war, hasn’t managed to win it, or even end it, after six long years.

Fortunately for us, there is a Democrat in the White House who, by and large, the press likes and wants to succeed.  Thus our newspapers and television screens are blessedly free from invective, derision and snark when it comes to news from Afghanistan.
Mead concetrates on Afghanistan, but he could, just as easily, have a made a similar argument about the Obama/Clinton intervention in Libya, where they didn't even make a plan for what would happen, after the regime was overthrown.

By way of Noemie Emery.
- 1:01 PM, 12 May 2015   [link]

Michael Barone's First Take on the British election.

Here's an excerpt that I found especially interesting.
Ukip nearly matched its pre-election poll showing in popular votes, but not necessarily at the expense of Conservatives.  Britons are expert tactical voters: they know the political balance in their constituencies and cast votes to achieve national results. In closely contested English seats, Ukip-inclined voters switched to Conservatives.  But the Ukip vote held up in safe Labour seats, often finishing in second place.  Meanwhile, Cameron ruthlessly attacked his coalition partners, the Lib Dems, in the belt running southwest from London to Cornwall.

The pre-election polls were not as far off as in 1992, when they projected an even vote and Conservatives won the popular vote by 8 points.  But as in recent local, European Parliament and UK parliamentary by-elections, they seem to have under-predicted the Conservative percentage and over-predicted Labour by 2 points each.  So here.   Whether that's because of "shy Tories" unwilling to tell interviewers their preference, or whether it is because of a late, undetected Conservative surge, is unclear.
It doesn't have to be one or the other, of course.

As I mentioned in this post, the Daily Mail, with a readership of almost 4 million, gave its readers detailed instructions on how to vote tactically in 50 marginal seats.

(The "shy Tory" idea is an old one, and probably not entirely wrong.  But it fails to explain why supporters of UKIP (sometimes called "Ukipers") aren't at least as "shy", since UKIP does not get favorable treatment from the BBC, or other left-leaning news organizations.)
- 9:27 AM, 12 May 2015   [link]

The CIA's (Unclassified) Version Of What Happened At Benghazi:  That's what you get from this Politico excerpt from Mike Morell's book, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA's Fight Against Terrorism--From al Qa'ida to ISIS.

Since Morell was, until quite recently, the deputy director of the CIA, I assume this is what the CIA wants us to believe happened.  That doesn't mean that what Morell says in the excerpt is false, but we should recognize that it is, necessarily, incomplete.

There is nothing in it, for instance, about what President Barack Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were doing during the hours-long series of attacks.

Nor should we be surprised that Morell does his best to make his former agency look good.

In fact, in an interview with Politico's Michael Hirsh, Morell says that's one of the reasons he wrote the book.
Hirsh:  You also wrote the book to set people straight on the CIA, correct?

Morell:  There are three myths out there about the agency.  One, we are James Bond, and we can do anything.  That’s a myth.  The other myth out there is the New York Times myth—that we can’t get anything right.  Then there’s the myth that we’re rogue, which was one of problems with Senate Intelligence Committee report on Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.  All of those things are myths.  The reality is that these are incredibly dedicated people … and we get many things right but we also make mistakes.
Despite those caveats, I found his account of Benghazi plausible if, as I said, incomplete.

And I think that you will probably agree with what Morell implies, that the State Department failed to protect its people.  As he does not say, but expects you to know, the State Department was then headed by Hillary Clinton.

(The excerpt clears up one detail that shouldn't have bothered me, but did.  As you probably remember, the State Department "facility" in Benghazi was called, in many accounts, a "consulate".  It became clear, fairly early, that it wasn't a consulate, but I hadn't known, until I read the excerpt what it was called, officially.  It was a "Temporary Mission Facility".

You may be tempted, as I was, to see if there are any interesting comments on the excerpt.   There probably are, but when I looked they had been buried in a comment war.)
- 8:45 AM, 12 May 2015   [link]

President Obama Says he can "understand science".
We’re going to have to tackle climate change.  We’ve got some folks in the center right now who think because we get a snowy day, they bring in snowballs into the chambers and think that’s science.  (Laughter.)  I'm not a scientist, but I know a lot of scientists.  I can understand science.  And what the science says is that our planet is warming in such a way that it is going to increase drought, and it is going to increase wildfires, and it is going to displace millions of people around this planet, and increase the severity of floods and hurricanes, and it will cost lives and it will cost our way of life, and it could affect the incredible natural bounty that Oregon represents.  And that’s not the kind of America I want to pass on to our kids and our grandkids.
Well, sure.  Even grade school kids can understand a little science, and I am willing to concede that he probably understands science at least as well as the average grade school kid.

But I see no evidence that he has gone much beyond that level, no evidence that, for example, he understands basic concepts of statistics, concepts that are required for a real understanding of so much scientific work.

It is still mostly unclear what he did in college — or didn't do — but one thing is reasonably certain:  He did not take the science and math classes that Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George W. Bush took.

Nor is there any evidence, from what we know of his reading, that he has tried to make up for those deficits.

Obama speech by way of CNS.
- 1:09 PM, 11 May 2015   [link]

Which Books Does Freeman Dyson Recommend On Climate Science And Religion?  Two, Bjorn Lomborg's Cool It — and William James's Varieties of Religious Experience.

The interviewer for the New York Times seems to think those are separate topics, but Dyson sees them as linked.
On to controversial topics:  What books would you recommend on climate science?  On the relationship between science and religion?

On climate science, I recommend “Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming,” by Bjorn Lomborg.  On science and religion, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” by William James.  Lomborg is an economist, and James was a psychologist.  Both books were written by skeptics, with understanding and respect for the beliefs that they were questioning.  The reason why climate science is controversial is that it is both a science and a religion.  Belief is strong, even when scientific evidence is weak.
Those last two sentences sum up the problems with climate science neatly, don't they?

(Note:  I've linked to an expanded version of an interview published in the print edition, last month, so you may want to read the whole thing, even if you saw the print version.

There are some surprises in the rest of the interview, including his taste in science fiction.   I've read the books he mentions by Lomborg, Edward Wilson, and Robert Kanigel, and learned from all of them.

Here's the usual Wikipedia biography.)
- 6:03 AM, 11 May 2015   [link]

Happy Mother's Day!  I first started using mother ducks on this holiday in 2003, but I like this picture, from 2004, better.

This year, for whatever reason, I have seen mother ducks on Lake Washington only when I am not carrying a camera.  Probably just coincidence.
- 3:15 PM, 10 May 2015   [link]

Some Bettors Did Guess That Cameron was going to win.
Matthew Shaddick, head of political odds at Ladbrokes Plc, told Bloomberg: 'Punters were piling into a Tory majority at 10/1 on the day, when we thought it had no chance and some political scientists put it at exactly a zero percent possibility.

'The vast majority of money we took was on Cameron to win, even if we took a slightly opposite view.

'Punters were much more confident and right on the number of seats and Cameron winning than the pollsters were.'
Did bettors somehow pick up on a last-minute shift to Conservatives, a shift missed by almost all journalists and pollsters?

That's what it looks like to me.
- 4:18 PM, 9 May 2015   [link]

If You Are Interested In The Freddie Gray Case, the place to go is Legal In-sur-rec-tion, where you will find informative posts like this one by Andrew Branca, giving you the views of an experienced Maryland prosecutor.

(For the record:  The cause of Gray's death is a mystery to me.  I can imagine scenarios in which one or more of the police officers are completely responsible, and others in which they are blameless, but I haven't see much evidence for any of those scenarios.)
- 3:43 PM, 9 May 2015   [link]

The Conservative Win In Britain Was A Little More Impressive Than It May Look:  The way districts are drawn in Britain puts them at a disadvantage.
The way the Conservatives are done over is geographical.  As a kind of historical rule, Labour seats will be underpopulated compared to Conservative seats.  Say you have two blocks of 100,000 voters.  Labour might get five seats out of that 100,000 votes, whereas the Conservatives, if they got 100,000 votes, they might only get three or four seats, because more people live generally in Conservative-held seats. if you think about the Southeast of England, that's where it tends to happen.
. . .
We have what are called boundary reviews roughly every 10 years, but they don't keep up with what's actually happened.  They have a boundary review, and they might implement changes, but by the time the election comes around, the changes are already outdated.   I don't think it's necessarily a conscious thing, it's just an accident of the system.  But there's a vested interest for Labour certainly in not changing the way the system works.
I've seen claims in the British press that their districting system is worth two or three points in elections, that the Conservatives have to win by more than that to win more seats.  I suppose it would depend partly on how recent the boundary review was.
- 3:12 PM, 9 May 2015   [link]