February 23, 2006

Port Deal

The latest political showdown and Bush Administration controversy seems to be the UAE ports deal. Everyone seems a bit shocked that Bush has threatened to veto any legislation blocking or delaying the deal, and that he did it so quickly and forcefully. Bipartisan condemnation of the deal is on the rise and a veto-overriding super majority may be in the making.

So the question is, why is Bush doing this? There are four possibilities that come to mind:

  1. Bush has lost whatever marbles he had and he and Cheney are colluding with their cronies and Arab oil buddies to the detriment of US security. This seems to be the standard argument of the crowd that claims that the Iraq War was all about Halliburton profits.
  2. Bush is simply reacting to Congress' attempt at oversight in a predictable (for him) way. He maintains his right to act unilaterally on matters of foreign affairs and is not about to let Congress tell him what to do. Whether you think this is an example of Bush trying to slip something by Congress and being unreasonable in response to their attempts at oversight, or of opportunistic Congressmen making a last-minute stink for political advantage over a properly vetted executive decision, seems to depend somewhat on your partisanship.
  3. Bush has made the port deal part of a larger diplomatic deal with the UAE and is fighting hard not to have it scuttled. Despite their often anti-Israeli stance and persistence as a money-laundering hub, they are one of our (useful) allies in the Middle East, and this deal may be a quid pro quo either retrospectively for help during the Iraq War, or in exchange for future help (for instance, in any coming confrontation with Iran). Bush is willing to use his veto, and expend political capital, to keep that deal going forward.
  4. Bush made the port deal part of a larger deal with the UAE, but wants Congress to get him out of it. This may seem unlikely, but Presidents often play the good guy to smooth foreign relations, while relying on Congress to do the necessary dirty work. Clinton and the Kyoto Protocol come to mind as a somewhat recent example. In this scenario, the UAE would have made much-needed support in current or future operations contingent on the port deal. The Administration, recognizing the need to keep them as an ally, but also the foolhardiness of giving them port operations, decides to publicly support the deal while maneuvering to get it killed by Congress. The more political capital he expends (and the more forcefully he expends it) the more likely the Emirates are to believe that he did the best he could. We may then be able to maneuver them to a more acceptable pay-off for support.
Now, that last item is pure speculation – perhaps born out of too many Tom Clancy novels and West Wing episodes – but it is how, in my imagination at least, foreign policy (should) work. If I had to bet, would I bet on that option? Probably not, but given that many see the Meiers-Alito rope-a-dope in a similar light, I'm not sure I would rule it out.

It is dependent on the idea that giving port operations to an Arab government-owned company is a bad idea – an idea that I'm open to, but not set on, and not qualified to judge without a lot more information. I would add, though, that I think you need a pretty good reason to disallow it.

Update: Before writing this, I wish I'd read this article, which claims that their was a "secret agreement" with the UAE company to provide records on demands to help with investigations. Not sure what to make of that, although it doesn't rule out any option above.

Posted by richard at 09:14 AM | Comments (6)

February 06, 2006

Red, Blue, Rich, Poor

Kevin Drum notes an interesting paper (PDF) on Republican voting in poor states vs. in rich states. The author of the paper has a blog where he discusses the results.

The argument is that in rich states (like Connecticut, the richest) poor voters vote Republican in almost the same amount as rich voters do (i.e. the slope of percentage voting Republican as a function of income is pretty flat). On the other hand, poor states (like Mississippi, the poorest) poor voters vote Republican much less than rich voters do (i.e. the slope is fairly positive). In fact, they show that this result works across states with the slopes being negatively correlated with state-wide income.

Here's the finding in a pretty clear (once you ponder it for a sec) graph: Slopes for MS, OH, CT

I actually think the graph is excellent – it packs a lot of information into a small space. The y axis is the percentage voting Republican in the 2000 election, the x axis is a quantile-based scale of individual income, the open circles denote the number of voters in each quantile for each state and the black circles show the mean income for the state.

So I'm with them so far, but then I thought... wait a second, what exactly is the "quantile-based scale" for income? A first glance, it's likely that it's a national scale because there explicitly are different quanitities shown in each quantile for each state – that wouldn't make a lot of sense if they were state-specific quantiles. Looking at the paper, I see this footnote on page 6:

The National Election Study uses 1 = 0–16 percentile, 2 = 17–33 percentile, 3 = 34–67 percentile, 4 = 68–95 percentile, 5 = 96–100 percentile. We label these as −2, −1, 0, 1, 2, centering at zero so that we can more easily interpret the intercept terms of regressions that include income as a predictor.
The assumption has to be that those are national income percentiles. And it's worth noting that they are most definitely not quintiles – they are very uneven. The paper's 0 and 1 include 61% of the electorate while 2 only includes the top 5%. Why these specific breaks are used is not stated, but it would be interesting to see how the results would change if different breaks where used. It also makes it difficult to visually interpret the size of the circles on the graph.

But back to my main point: these are national quantiles. The problem with this is that I would posit that any "income-effect" on political persuasion would have a lot more to do with relative income within your peer group, and to the extent that it is absolute, would be modulated by cost-of-living adjustments.

Looking at the chart again, and knowing that it's the poorest state, it seems clear that the people in income level 2 in Mississippi must be much less than 5% of the state electorate, while those in income level 2 in Connecticut must be more than 5%. For the sake of argument, let's say that income level 2 in Mississippi is 2% of the electorate, while in Connecticut it's 8%. I would expect the top 2% of a state's electorate to be pretty different from the top 8%, even if the absolute ranges were the same, simply because their relative "status" on the income scale is significantly higher. And that's before we take into consideration that after cost-of-living adjustment, the 2% of Mississippians in that top national ventile would feel much more rich than the 8% of Connecticutters in it.

Likewise the bottom quantile must be much bigger than 16% in Mississippi and much smaller than 16% in Connecticut. Similar relative income and COLA effects would occur as on the top side.

So here's an alternative hypothesis for the results they're getting: in each income quantile the Mississippians feel richer than the Connecticutters in the same quantile and therefore they vote Republican. This can be seen as a slight twist on the economic determinism argument, with subjective, relative income replacing objective, absolute income as the determinant.

So would correcting for this make the effect they found go away? Probably not... or at least it's not clear that it would. But it would be interesting to see how the model held up on state-specific quantiles and/or COL adjusted ones. Would the top 2% of Connecticutters be more Republican than the top 8%, thus pushing the slope positive and diminishing the overall effect?

I look to my statistical friends to catch any errors I've made in my logic.

Posted by richard at 10:58 PM | Comments (0)

July 31, 2004


Besides having an awesome name, the Bloomington Pantagraph has charged that Michael Moore doctored the image of their paper that he showed in Fahrenheit 9/11:

A scene early in the movie that shows newspaper headlines related to the legally contested presidential election of 2000 included a shot of The Pantagraph's Dec. 19, 2001, front page, with the prominent headline: "Latest Florida recount shows Gore won election."

The paper says that headline never appeared on that day. It appeared in a Dec. 5, 2001, edition, but the headline was not used on the front page. Instead, it was found in much smaller type above a letter to the editor, which the paper says reflects "only the opinions of the letter writer."

For those that care, here's a screenshot of the image:


Now, granted, this is flashed on the screen for 1.5 seconds in a collage of other headlines and makes little difference to the main thrust of the movie. But, to the point I've made before, if he's willing to do this kind of thing for a side story, why should I trust anything he has to say about the important things: the oil pipelines, the Saudi relations, the recruiting techniques.

Posted by richard at 12:13 PM | Comments (7)

July 18, 2004


Virginia Postrel points out the dispicable affirmation in the Texas Republican Party platform "that the United States of America is a Christian nation." Ummm, not my America.... sorry.

Posted by richard at 06:24 PM | Comments (0)

Charming Idiots

Here are the bullhorn-toting fools that graced Union Square today:
The Bush Regime Engineered 9/11
Beyond the normal Haliburton, oil-pipeline in Afghanistan rhetoric, their major contribution seemed to be that there was no way a plane could hit the Pentagon because, like, fighter jets could get there "in seconds... well, minutes at least".

And, yes, this is the first time I was glad to have a camera on my cell phone.

Posted by richard at 04:42 PM | Comments (0)

June 30, 2004


Mindles H. Dreck from Asymmetrical Information manages to say a bunch of things that I agree with 100%.

We have devoted a lot of space to defending the President/administration from over-the-top rhetoric. In some sense we've felt almost forced to. I wonder occasionally whether addressing partisan polemics makes you partisan yourself. That's actually one of the thoughts that's diminished my enthusiasm about posting. I know I'll be backed into some argument where fierce partisans insist that if I don't share their wildly unreasonable demonization of the other side I must be....one of them!

The diminishing enthusiasm part really resonates with me – the polemics and the defense against the polemics makes it difficult to say anything meaningful. It makes it harder to reflectively criticize the legitimate problems with the administration because you're constantly being bludgeoned with them when defending the policies that you agree with.

As a transplanted Texan, I also still cannot get used to a place where you risk pissing off everyone at the party because you support the president, the war, and, heaven forbid, capitalism.

And then he lays out his position, which mirrors mine pretty closely:

Both parties are chickenshit on gay marriage. I don't think the state should have anything to say about it. On the other hand, it's sad to me that anybody thinks state recognition should be important to their own sense of worth. This is what becomes of subsidies (which the legal status of marriage is). They are inherently discriminatory. It's appalling that people think marriage has to be 'defended' with subsidies or other attempts at social engineering.

Free trade is incredibly important to the growth of the world economy and the distribution of wealth to the far corners of the earth. Steel and agricultural subsidies are inexcusable even if the other guys are doing it. These protections simply slow us down and screw the little guy - in Africa or South America, that is.

The FCC's actions are just chilling to free speech. The new fines are restrictively punitive, and create at least the moral hazard of using them to shape political speech.

Bush never saw a spending bill or entitlement he didn't like, all small government rhetoric aside. Descriptions of his spending policy as some kind of fiscal rope-a-dope defy imagination.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, the decision to transplant Gitmo's prisoner treatment guidelines to Iraq is a textbook example of bureaucratic stupidity. The lack of control of potential WMD sites immediately after the invasion is a major screw-up - one that made the world a MORE dangerous place (remember the 'one vial' argument? Since we really thought they were there, job one should have been lockdown, regardless of the invasion pace).

I'm tired of people who think that businespeople are automatically immoral actors, or that the mere existence of profit or business self-interest signifies a problem. In my experience, the profit motive often protects us from the human instinct to control others when we gather in groups. Without the more objective monetary yardstick, it seems like the unspoken prime directive of groups (read:bureaucracies) is to control others, despite the best intentions of the individuals involved. I sit on a nonprofit board and I've seen it in action.

I endorse the mission in Iraq, which WAS, contrary to much invective, about bringing democracy to the Middle East. Or did I just imagine all the pre-war criticism of the administration being in the thrall of a 'cabal' of Straussian Neo-cons with precisely that mission? You remember, back when everyone thought WMDs were a lock? I understand some people thought Saddam could be deterred. I don't understand people who think it is all about oil or Halliburton. An immense good has been done getting rid of Saddam. It is beyond me why people are so vested in portraying that as entirely venal. Counter-tribalism, I guess.

Pure dynamist.

Posted by richard at 10:46 AM | Comments (5)

March 11, 2004

More on Waffling

David Adesnik at OxBlog has more on the debate about John Kerry's flip-flops.

It's a rather calm description of a debate between two other (more polarized) bloggers, along with a slew of links. Worth a read if you care about this issue – and it does seem to be shaping up to be one of the main narratives of the campaign.

As Mike F. said in a comment, opponents do always try to label the candidate a flip-flopper. But my point is that it sticks on some and not others. We'll see if Kerry can successfuly change the topic.

One theory I've heard: once Bush starts attacking (which is sure to be nasty) he'll jump on the Kerry-as-waffler bandwagon, thus painting him into such a defensive corner that he'll be vulnerable and won't be able to distance himself in the final days from some of his more liberal positions.

Posted by richard at 02:08 PM | Comments (4)

March 05, 2004

I feel ashamed...

I seriously thought to myself, just for half a second, "hey, maybe he'll die..."

Ashcroft hospitalized with gallstone complications

But that's not nice no matter how awful you think he is. So let's just hope he's too sick to commit to another 4 years.

Update: He's still in intensive care. And with more thought, I feel even worse about my initial reaction. Here's to hoping he recovers fully, because I really don't wish any ill on him or his family – I just wish he wasn't Attorney General.

Posted by richard at 04:46 PM | Comments (2)

March 04, 2004

Maple syrup with that?

Slate has an article on John Kerry's Waffles. It remarks, "If you don't like the Democratic nominee's views, just wait a week" and provides a handy table of his "evolved" views. Unfortunately, in almost every instance, I like the old Kerry more than the new.

Now that could just be the effect of the primary season, and he could move back to his "real" position in the general election, but let's just say that I don't like the trendline.

Posted by richard at 05:18 PM | Comments (1)

March 03, 2004


I posted below about the politics of science, not so much in defense of the Bush Administration as to call into question the objectivity of the Union of Concerned Scientists that issued the report.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention this recent example that seems to confirm the UoCS's concerns, at least about stacking advisory committees. It seems that Bush recently dismissed (registration required) two members of his council on bio-ethics:

President Bush yesterday dismissed two members of his handpicked Council on Bioethics -- a scientist and a moral philosopher who had been among the more outspoken advocates for research on human embryo cells.

In their places he appointed three new members, including a doctor who has called for more religion in public life, a political scientist who has spoken out precisely against the research that the dismissed members supported, and another who has written about the immorality of abortion and the "threats of biotechnology."

Despite my defense below, I have to agree with the libertarian half (which often, incorrectly I think, gets called the "Right" half) of the blogosphere, which criticizes this move here, here, and here.

The cynic in me still thinks this is probably the unfortunate SOP for presidents, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't criticize it.

Posted by richard at 10:07 AM | Comments (0)

February 24, 2004

Bush Opposes Gay Marriage

While my position on gay marriage is too complicated to sum up in a short post, I completely disagree with this move: Congress Is Urged to Pass an Amendment to the Constitution. You don't go messing with that document to take freedoms away from people, even people you have a problem with.

Posted by richard at 12:33 PM | Comments (1)

Political Science

I've had my first request for a blog post on a specific topic and this is my attempt to please the fans....

Almost simultaneously, Julia sent me the New York Times article, Scientists Say Administration Distorts Facts, and Mike F. asked why I hadn't blogged about this similar USA Today article, which should be "right up my alley". Both articles discuss this Union of Concerned Scientists report on Scientific Integrity in Policymaking, which was billed as "an investigation of the Bush Administration's misuse of science". The report (available here as a PDF), and a statement signed by 20 Nobel laureates, blasted the administration for "censorship and political oversight of government scientists", as well as distortion and misrepresentation of scientific facts for political purposes.

Now Mike is right, I take science pretty seriously (too seriously epistemologically according to Julia) and I have no patience for bad science or distorted science in the public sphere, whether trying to pass Daubert tests to go after corporations, or to justify "creation science" alternatives to evolution. Where the Bush Administration ignores or suppresses scientific knowledge to justify their policies (and there are instances of this – more on this below) they deserve to be excoriated.

But the short answer to Mike's question about why I hadn't blogged on the topic is that I had read the articles and written them off – basically I didn't buy their premise. Contrary to their headlines and ledes, the UCS report, rather than the unbiased critique of an independent organization of scientists, is just another election year partisan attack, picking up on the compelling meme of an administration that plays fast and loose with the truth.

Although their name conjures up comforting images of geniuses, united in their avuncular concern for the fate of humanity, the reality is one of activists (yes, some of whom are scientists) united in their radical environmentalism. Not that that negates their criticisms, but it does, in my mind, make it much less of a story – more like, "Greenpeace says Bush Administration misrepresents facts about environmental damage of drilling in ANWR" – not such a shock.

That was the reason for my initial dismissal. But asked to blog about it, I did a little more research. Although not mentioned in this report, the UCS's interests go beyond environmentalism, arguably beyond what science can directly inform, to the realm of national security policy, where their aim is "a world free of nuclear arms". Staunch members of the "peace" lobby, they have criticized missile defense in all its forms, since SDI in the 1980s. In 1998, they published a report that maintained that fears about North Korea's nuclear program were overblown. According to ActivistCash, which maintains a scathing overview of the UCS:

In 1997 UCS organized a petition that warned of “global warming” and advocated U.S. ratification of the Kyoto treaty. It was signed by 1,600 scientists, and so UCS declared that “the scientific community has reached a consensus.” But when a counter-petition that questioned this so-called “consensus” was signed by more than 17,000 other scientists, UCS declared it a “deliberate attempt to deceive the scientific community with misinformation.”

Greenwatch, an admittedly conservative non-profit monitoring group, gives the UCS a 1 on an ideology scale, where 1 is "radical left" and 7 is "market right". NCPA Adjunct Scholar S. Fred Singer, president of the Science & Environmental Policy Project and a former official with the Environmental Protection Agency said, "UCS is an advocacy organization of mainly non-scientists that specializes in signing up prominent scientists for political causes."

And they're not even right very often. From the beginning, the UCS preached Carl Sagan's vision of nuclear winter and drank Paul Ehrlich's Malthusian kool-aid, writing in 1980 that "it is now abundantly clear that the world has entered a period of chronic energy shortages.”

Finally, and most ironic, the UCS led the charge condemning Bjørn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist, applauding when the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty found Lomborg "guilty" of not living up to scientific standards. Unfortunately, the Danish Ministry of Science later cleared Lomborg, saying that the attempt to silence him was "completely void of argumentation".

So I think I was right to question the objectiveness of their analysis. But none of this should detract from their criticism of the Bush Administration – that should stand on it's own. So what about the report and what it actually says?

While quite a catalog, I wanted to see if the list stood up to scrutiny, so I looked into some of the details of their criticism of an EPA report, specifically the section on climate change research. Following a pattern that was consistent throughout the report, the authors elide the difference between distorting scientific evidence and drawing different policy conclusions from that evidence. For instance, the report says:

After coming to office, the administration asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to review the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and provide further assessment of what climate science could say about this issue. The NAS panel rendered a strong opinion, which, in essence, confirmed that of the IPCC.... Yet Bush administration spokespersons continue to contend that the uncertainties in climate projections and fossil fuel emissions are too great to warrant mandatory action to slow emissions.

(Emphasis added.) Notice the change from the statement about scientific results (the NAS panel confirming the IPCC report) to a policy decision. A cost-benefit analysis needs to be used to decide policy, not just an appeal to scientific fact, otherwise we are free to make statements like "the studies show that drivers over 70 years old are 5.3 times as likely to get in an accident as younger drivers.... but the administration continues to contend that mandatory revocation of their licenses is unnecessary." It's a non sequitur without the cost-benefit analysis.

Further down, they criticize the administration for asking in June 2003 that the findings from a "discredited study" be added to the EPA report in place of the infamous hockey stick graph. They footnote the Soon & Baliunas's paper in Climate Research and Michael Mann's response in Eos. There is a problem with this critique, though. First, while certainly contentious, there was and still is debate about the original paper as well as the hockey stick it attacked. Soon still stands by the work. (If your not familiar with this paper, four editors of Climate Research ended up resigning over it – despite passing peer review, after drawing fierce criticism from environmental advocates, the journal said that the paper should have been edited before being published because some of the summary statements, while perhaps true, could not be conclusively shown from the data). But more importantly, Mann's response that "discredited" it wasn't published until July 2003, a month after the administration asked for the addition. The UCS report implies otherwise. In addition, they quote EPA "internal memos" that the Wall Street Journal reports were simply e-mails between EPA employees, not official memos.

Other issues include concerns about criteria for the selection of scientists for advisory panels and litmus tests for appointees. These are troubling, just as are litmus tests for judicial nominees, but excuse me for thinking that it's not uncommon to appoint people with views you approve of to these advisory panels. Given the slant of some of the other criticisms, I'd hesitate to get too worked up over this issue until I've seen evidence that other administrations acted significantly differently. It's wrong when it happens, but like pork barrel legislation, it's hard to criticize one party for it when the other is waiting to get their fill.

The list continues with an assortment of incidents in environmental and public health areas.

Reading the report cynically, you can't help but wonder whether the issues are "a random selection of incidents and issues," as White House science advisor John Marburger said. Are these just sour grape issues, where the UCS disagrees on policy, or is the Bush Administration worse than normal? The cynic in me says that this is de rigeur inside the beltway, and has been since before there was a beltway. Would the Clinton administration have embraced (did they?) studies that debunked global warming, showed gun control to be ineffective, proved TV violence caused aggressive behavior, or questioned the harmful effects of marijuana?

I suppose, though, that we should measure an administration against the administration we would like to have as well as the administration we are likely to have.

So, to that end, there are three specific areas where I think this administration does use junk science and does exert too much influence over scientific findings: drug research, stem cell research, and reproductive health. The first can't be pinned on Bush alone, while the other two are specific to Republican administrations. My feelings about each are different, though.

Since 1936's Reefer Madness junk science has been used to fight the war on drugs. Although less openly racist today, the desire to be good drug warriors has led both Democratic and Republican administrations to ignore studies that minimize the dangers of marijuana in relation to alcohol or cigarettes, that tout the health benefits of needle exchange programs, or that highlight the potential health benefits or medicinal uses of currently illegal drugs. While slightly more rabid (with Ashcroft) in its approach than previous administrations, Bush cannot be blamed for the pervasive distortion in this area.

As far as stem cell research goes, the Bush Administration openly constrained what scientific investigation is allowed, caving to the religious right to some extent. While I disagree with the policy decision in this case, I do see this as one where policy needs to drive science, rather than science driving policy. If stem cell research truly is immoral, like, say, testing chemical weapons on prisoners, (which I don't believe) then our policy should be to ban it, not wait and see if we learn anything from it. Unfortunately this is a normative issue, not one that science can help us out with, and our morals need to inform our policy.

Finally, and this is probably my largest gripe in this area with the current administration and one in which I agree 100% with the UCS report: reproductive health. The promotion of abstinence-only approaches to contraception and STD prevention over condoms. The delaying of an over-the-counter version of the "morning after pill". The obfuscatory language of the "partial-birth abortion" ban. These all distort scientific studies, misuse scientific oversight abilities, or abuse scientific terminology to push a conservative agenda. These are as misguided as not funding third-world population control efforts simply because they also offer education about abortion, and they are inexcusable in my mind.

So that's where I stand. Comments?

Posted by richard at 03:13 AM | Comments (0)

February 17, 2004

Canadian Gun Control

Well, I obviously disagree with the whole notion behind the Canadian Gun Registry, but that may just be because Margaret Atwood scared me with The Handmaid's Tale and the idea of registries in general. And I guess they don't have a second amendment up there.....

But whatever you think about gun control, 1000 times over budget is just outrageous:

Nearly $2 billion has either been spent on or committed to the federal program....

The gun registry was originally supposed to cost less than $2 million. In December 2002, Auditor General Sheila Fraser revealed that the program would run up bills of at least $1 billion by 2005.

But the calculations remained incomplete, so CBC News obtained documents through the Access to Information Act and crunched the numbers.

Somehow, the computer system to track the registered gun owners will cost more than $750 million instead of the $1 million expected.

Posted by richard at 12:38 PM | Comments (6)

January 27, 2004

NH Primary

Quick prediction, since everyone seems to be doing it. Since nothing bad will happen to me, other than having to put up with the derision of my few readers, for getting this wrong, I'm encouraged to go out on a limb:

  1. Kerry
  2. Edwards
  3. Dean
  4. Lierberman
  5. Clark

Of course, wishful thinking is probably playing a role here as well. Unlike some, I feel no need to add percentages — I'll just be happy if I'm close.

Update: well, the limb done broke. I knew it was a long shot that Edwards would beat Dean, but I'm actually really surprised that Clark did so well. I just cannot understand why anyone would vote for him — I find him pretty dispicable. I'm sorry Joe-mentum wasn't conserved, because he's at least consistent. Here's the final order:

  1. Kerry
  2. Dean
  3. Clark
  4. Edwards
  5. Lieberman

Posted by richard at 01:28 PM | Comments (0)

January 26, 2004

Internet Democracy

The New York Times had an article on the effect of the Internet on democracy, focusing on the fears of "cyberbalkanization". Some social scientists are concerned that cyberspace, while potentially increasing civic participation, is leading to more extremism. As people choose the sites they visit and the content they consume, they surround themselves with like-minded folks who don't challenge their pre-conceived notions.

First, I was disappointed to see that they didn't have any quotes from people optimistic about the role of the Internet in politics, or any sites, like e.thePeople, that are actually trying to build a public space for respectful dialogue.

But more importantly, as Jack Balkin, a law professor at Yale, points out on his Balkinization blog, the article conflates two different kinds of activities: efforts to organize and motivate like-minded people into acting (like MoveOn.org and the candidate web logs) and ones that strive to provide a place for discussion and debate. These two activities are different, and it's unreasonable to expect to find them in the same place. It speaks to a larger misconception of the Internet that you see fairly often in the mainstream media — the idea that the Internet is monolithic. The beauty of the medium is that a thousand flowers can bloom, some partisan, some pragmatic, some ideological, some objective, some hateful, some spin-ful, some extreme, some high-brow, some low, some professional, some amateur, some reliable....

I, of course, am thankful that my comment section will always challenge me and never let me get complacent about my views.

Posted by richard at 12:12 AM | Comments (2)

January 21, 2004

Random Thoughts on the Union

The President has spoken, the Democrats responded and the pundits are off and running. Thought I'd put down a few thoughts while they're in my head, and hopefully generate some comments.

First, "if [PATRIOT Act techniques] are good for embezzlers and drug offenders, they even more important for terrorist cases." Um, how about they're not okay for embezzlers and drug offenders. If you're going to defend an encroachment on civil liberties by reference to the war on drugs, you're not going to score too many points. But that's too easy — let's compromise, how about we keep the powers for terrorists but take it away for drugs and white collar crimes. And we throw the book at anyone, including Ashcroft, who uses the powers to harass bong sellers and pornographers.

Second, though I'm totally opposed to a Federal Marriage Amendment, I think the President approached it from the exact right direction politically. Framing it as a choice between amending the Constitution the way the Framers intended vs. letting activist judges amend it – that's probably a winner politically. Nevermind that he's abandoning the states' rights stance that's supposed to be a Republican mainstay. Nevermind that he's on the wrong side of this one in the long term (once all the old people who are so opposed to gay marriage die). At least he put some window dressing of respect and dignity for all individuals....

Third, he was pretty strong on Iraq, and I agree with Howard Fineman and Peggy Noonan on Hardball — he was begging for the Democrats to come after him on the war and foreign policy. Which leads me to....

Fourth, how horrible was the Democratic response? Nancy Pelosi looked like a deer caught in headlights, and she said nothing, nothing on foreign policy that wasn't a repeat of the same platitudinous clichés. She did not inspire confidence at all. Daschle was better, sticking to their stronger domestic issues — but I can't believe he took time to talk about country of origin labelling on food products! This is the State of the Union?

Anyway, as a political speech it was okay, a good start to a campaign. As a SOTU, it disappointed. I hate the fact that rhetoric is dead. Killed by television? Certainly a steep downward slope from Kennedy. Is it too much to ask that we use a thesaurus and find another word for "thug", "killer", and "assassin". The colloquialisms are the real killers. I want the President, the Democratic responders, a candidate, anyone, to say something uplifting, something grand. Show me a vision, an idea, a direction, a dream.... anything.

Another thing from Hardball – what about that AIDS money for Africa. Wish he'd brought it up again. If, as Bill Frist claims, the Democrats are to blame for blocking the appropriations, then stuff it in their face by renewing the commitment. But don't just let one of the few uplifting moments from the previous years slide off the agenda while no one was looking.

That's about it. What did you think?

Update: one more thing that I thought was particularly strong and is a large part of my support for the war in Iraq: "For diplomacy to be effective, words must be credible -- and no one can now doubt the word of America." The credible threat argument is the biggest weakness of the multilateralists. But I won't change any minds here....

Second update: yes, I shouldn't complain about Daschle's food labelling next to Bush's steroid testing of all things. No issue too small I guess.

Posted by richard at 12:03 AM | Comments (4)

January 20, 2004

Iowa Caucus

The results are in, and Kerry (38%) managed to more than double Dean (18%) in Iowa. In my mind, the real winner is Edwards both for coming in second (32%) and for his speech afterwards. The pundits were eating it up and he added to it with strong appearances on CNN and MSNBC.

Even better for Edwards was the juxtaposition of his speech with Howard Dean's absolute melt-down. Dean's speech was horrible — he looked like he was going to blow a gasket and he looked positively anything-but-presidential. Screaming the names of states, he sounded like something uncontrollable that had gotten away from his handlers — hmmm, perhaps that's not too far off the mark, actually. I think he's done for. Democrats have wisely realized that he's not electable and are focusing in on pragmatic choices who can achieve their number one objective: get rid of George W. Bush.

I've always thought that Edwards was the one to watch out for. He's an excellent speaker, has reasonable (and remarkably detailed for a candidate) policy proposals on his web site, and is probably the most likely to win some Southern states. I could even see myself voting for him – though I am concerned about his coziness with the ATLA trial lawyers and their money. And I'm not sure I understand voting for the authorization for the Iraq war, but then voting against the reconstruction money (as both he and Kerry did).

If Edwards wins the nomination, Bush is in serious trouble — and now there's a real chance of that happening. Rolling out Ted Kennedy may help Kerry in New Hampshire and the northeast, but it will kill him when trying to capture southern votes. I don't think much of Clark, but we'll see whether concentrating on New Hampshire was a good strategy for him — right now it doesn't look so good since Kerry (who he's been taking votes from) is sure to get a bounce and Edwards (who he compete with on southern credentials) now looks like less of a long shot.

Oh, and we're all winners that protectionist rhetoric and union muscle only bought Gephardt a plane ticket home.

Posted by richard at 01:03 AM | Comments (1)

December 11, 2003


I'm all for separation of church and state. I even think the Ten Commandments don't belong in court houses and that "Under God" should not have been added to the Pledge to distinguish ourselves from the atheist communists.

But this pushes it way too far: French experts favor law banning head scarves from public schools.

Somehow, people seem to think we've reached a point where expression is so dangerous it must be suppressed. Do not challenge the orthodoxy that is secular humanism — the experts have spoken.

Hat Tip to Hit & Run.

Posted by richard at 03:32 PM | Comments (2)

December 07, 2003

Political Discourse

I've posted a couple of articles recently (on disability and ecology) that people have taken to task in the comments as further evidence of my heartless "conservative" politics. Now, I'm happy to have the comments because getting pushback from smart people on some of the things that I'm thinking about is one of the reasons I set up this site. But, re-reading those two articles in particular, I'm not sure why they elicited that response.

Perhaps the people commenting think they know my politics outside of the blog and therefore they can assume that I was marshalling evidence for a larger world view. But I assure you, sending people back to work missing fingers and clear-cutting rainforest are not even remotely close to my positions on these issues.

Perhaps they followed the links in the story and, recognizing the destination as a conservative or libertarian site, took issue with the tone or position of the linked-to author. But I read both righty and lefty blogs, and I don't always agree with everything they say (imagine that), even in the posts I link to. I try to say what I found interesting or compelling — do I need to explicitly disavow the parts I find hyperbolic or contentious? I'm not sure if there's time in the day to do that.

Regardless, I assure you that I am not trying to take over the world with a conservative agenda. Perhaps I'd like to make it a bit more libertarian, but I'd settle for more of the presumption of liberty we found in Lawrence. Revive the Privileges and Immunities clause, so we don't have to overload Due Process with everything. Take the Tenth Amendment seriously.

But beyond that, with this blog, I'm want to think about policies in a way that I believe is useful, non-partisan, issue-neutral, but rarely done. I want to think about:

  • consequences — often unintended, often unrecognized. We need to know whether our policies do more harm than good – in my mind, you cannot truly evaluate a policy or proposal without examining the consequences. And as a corollary,
    • incentives matter. Time and time again, in aggregate, people tend to do what they are incented to do. Understanding how these incentives work and their effects is crucial to understanding the consequences of policies. But incentives are often overlooked or denied because they paint an unflattering picture of people or our society. Also, we must recognize that
    • trade-offs are not optional. There are no silver bullets and to bring up a negative consequence of a policy proposal is not to condemn it, since all options will be burdened with negative trade-offs.
    We also should care about the
  • principles, if any, that guide our actions, and when those principles are in conflict or are unlikely to bring about the consequences we desire. And most importantly, we need to discuss the
  • goals, particularly the difficult, sticky, unpleasant details of those goals. What exactly are we trying to achieve? An imagined pristine forest, or a hands-off one (not a clear-cut one!) Vagueness buys votes, but we're less likely to get what we expected. Finally, in reaching our goals, what
    • metrics do we use to measure success or failure? Are we going to know when our goals are met?
So that is the spirit in which I bring up these issues. If I'm advocating a policy (or policy change) I'll try to make it clear. In the mean time, please resume your critical comments....
Posted by richard at 11:38 AM | Comments (2)

December 04, 2003


Another fascinating post at Marginal Revolution about the rise in disability claims.

Basically, since 1984, the number of non-elderly people receiving the payments has almost doubled. It turns out that the rules for qualifying for Social Security Disability Insurance payments were significantly relaxed in that year.

There is a powerful graph and links to studies at the post above.

The fact that most of the new claims are for "back pain" and that the mortality rate of recipients has plummetted by almost 40% shows that the incentives, not new dangerous conditions, are driving people to these programs.

How serious is this? The money quote: "annual disability expenditures exceed that of welfare (TANF), Unemployment Insurance, and the Earned Income Taxed Credit combined."

Another distorting effect: recipients are not counted in the unemployment rolls, meaning that since 1984, four million people have joined the ranks of the unemployed and are not counted as such. Although since both Clinton and Bush benefited from this, don't hold your breath for it to be changed any time soon.

Posted by richard at 06:45 PM | Comments (4)

October 08, 2003

So it's Governor Schwarzennegger

Results are here at CNN.

One interesting thing. With 99% of precincts reporting, Schwarzenneger got 88,001 more votes than Gray Davis, i.e. more people voted for Arnold than against the recall. That should quiet one criticism of the recall process — that more people could want Davis for governor than any other candidate, and he could still lose.

Here's an interesting map (via Instapundit) of the results by county. Schwarzenneger trounced everyone everywhere except a thin strip near San Francisco.

Now to see if he can govern.... The Republicans may soon wish they weren't in charge in California.

Posted by richard at 12:39 PM | Comments (1)

September 18, 2003

Common tactics

Interesting article from Jacob Levy over at the The New Republic: Ducking the Question. He points out that the same strategy is used in many political debates (from volunteer army vs. draft, to school choice, to entitlement programs, to tax policy):

The general form of these arguments ("lucky duckies" as well as the arguments from the left) is: If we subject everyone to the same rules, institutions, or conditions, then there will be political demand to make them fair or otherwise tolerable. If we only subject some people to them, then some may be unfairly singled out or burdened; there will be opportunities to divide the citizenry, play the interests of some against those of others, and to undermine the overall desirable outcome. The only detail that changes from argument to argument is the class to which one tries to yoke people--the class of taxpayers, the class of potential soldiers, the class of recipients of government checks, etc.

Though he's not trying to defend the Wall Street Journal op-ed that ruffled so many feathers (the "lucky ducky" one about the lower-class workers who pay no taxes), I'm sure it won't go over well that he's likening it to all of the other arguments — and claiming that they are equally flawed. But he does point to the political effectiveness of this tactic, regardless of its defensability.

It's a nice insight into the political invulnerability of Social Security — precisely because it treats everyone nearly the same and doesn't discriminate (i.e. use means testing to take into account need) it's incredibly popular.

Posted by richard at 06:32 PM | Comments (1)