Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The October Surprise: Throw Money and Call It Coincidence

by Ken Houghton

Got scandal? Throw money at it.
The timing was perfect: [four-term Rep. Thomas M.] Reynolds [announced that President Bush would authorize millions of dollars in federal disaster aid for his Congressional area] hours after testifying before the House Ethics Committee about his role in the Mark Foley sex scandal—knocking reports on the scandal out of the spotlight.

For those who believe "I gave at the office":
The White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which will provide the funds, say [Karl] Rove exerted no influence on the decision to grant relief or on the timing of the announcement.

"The stars were aligned. It was a coincidence," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

But other evidence doesn't point that way:
In Missouri, Sen. Jim Talent is struggling to retain a seat that is considered vital to maintaining the GOP's Senate majority.

Talent, whose mother died of breast cancer, has made support for fighting the disease an element in his campaign. Recently, Rove's deputies arranged for First Lady Laura Bush to appear with Talent to promote Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Once a year, the National Park Service bathes the soaring Gateway Arch that dominates downtown St. Louis in pink light—the signature color of the breast cancer awareness campaign. This year, the pink lighting coincided with Laura Bush's visit. The White House says it encouraged the action.

Twice is parody, third time's a pattern:
Similarly, the Transportation Department, responding to White House prodding, dispatched the federal highway administrator to Columbus, Ohio, last week to announce grants for a transportation hub to facilitate moving freight among air, rail and highway carriers. The event was designed, an administration official said, to boost prospects for Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, the No. 4 Republican in the House, who is trailing her opponent.

And when environmentalists from the San Francisco Bay Area sharpened their attacks on Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), chairman of the House Resources Committee, the White House political office arranged for President Bush to stop in his district to sign legislation protecting wetlands—with Pombo standing by his side.

As they say in the blogsphere, read the whole thing. And then compare that with the Democrats who are trying as hard as possible to excoriate their base (via MyDD):
Representative Ellen O. Tauscher of California, a co-chairwoman of the 47-member New Democrat Coalition, said that 27 of the top 40 contested House seats were being pursued by Democrats who have pledged to become members of the group, which says its chief issues are national security and fiscal responsibility.

"I think there's tremendous agreement and awareness that getting the majority and running over the left cliff is what our Republican opponents would dearly love," Ms. Tauscher said, adding that this was something "we've got to fight."

Nice to know that rallying to the cause with get us spat upon. I feel so motivated.

UPDATE: PGL at AngryBear reads the article in the LA Times and notes:
So when President Bush says we should spend taxpayers’ monies on priorities, you get the idea what he really means.

Note to voters: the White House thinks you are ill-informed at best, stupid enough to believe a parlor trick at worst.

Monday, October 30, 2006

One Outta Three Ain't Bad

by Tom Bozzo

Bill Wineke says in the State Journal that next weekend, Catholic Mass-goers will be treated to a 14-minute audio recording of the bishop announcing his positions on the "marriage referendum, the death penalty referendum and the issue of embryonic stem-cell research." While this sort of preannouncement itself might simply depress that Sunday's attendance, Wineke reports that the order was accompanied by a strict admonition that nothing remotely resembling a negative gloss shall be given from the pulpit under pain of whatever discipline might befall a diocesan priest for suggesting that the Bishop might be full of something other than holiness. (The Diocese posted the full letter here (pdf) and the audio of the Bishop's homily here [WMA format].) And that's because, you see, the U.S. Catholic Church has such an oversupply of chaste heterosexual priests that message discipline can be their first concern!

So maybe in an advanced excercise of reverse psychology, Morlino is trying to get more people to hear his sensible (anti) position the death penalty and the far less sensible positions staked out by his church on the other issues by tempting us to see just what might be snigger-worthy about his spiel. Other than that the Bishop's delivery is vaguely like Eugene Levy's in "A Mighty Wind," that is.

One thing I'd almost be fascinated enough to hear would be how (if at all) Morlino and the diocesan lawyers are attempting to stay on the side of the line between moralizing and electioneering that's consistent with tax-exempt status. On the same-sex marriage and civil unions ban, Morlino would be joining the likes of the wingnutty Focus on the Family in testing what a 501(c)(3) organization can get away with as "educating" people on the issue.

Even if Morlino ostensibly sticks to offering his own opinions, we might wish that the quality of the education were likely to be better.

On same-sex marriage, the Church position, as we've noted before, is a mishmash of incoherently selective Biblical fundamentalism and rank hypocrisy. Once you move beyond ancient assertions of at best dubious provenance towards a rational view of homosexuality, it becomes frankly silly for any self-appointed defender of marriage to want to do anything other than encourage the formation and preservation of stable relationships. Morlino is also a fan of the "we're just saving civilization" pitch, regarding which we note the continuing absence of the breakdown of civil society in those polities that tolerate same-sex marriage or at least equivalent civil rights.

And sure enough, Morlino is insulting his congregants' intelligence by drawing a line straight from changes in traditional marriage to the collapse of the family (q.q.v.), and saying that he's sick and tired of the public telling him that their intelligence is being insulted.

The gist of his argument is that there's no "right to redefine marriage." (You might wonder just who had the right to redefine marriage as an exchange between exactly one man and exactly one woman in the first place.) This is sufficient to let Morlino completely ignore the fundamental political issue — seeing as the state can't make churches recognize civil marriage (*) — of whether it's fair or otherwise appropriate to deny same-sex couples an array of civil rights.

On stem-cell research, the Catholic church is also in a bind. Politically (**), and even morally (***), it's necessary to explain why research use of donated embryos is unjustifiable. That, unfortunately, has led to the adoption of vacuous right-wing talking points on subjects like the purported adequacy of adult stem-cell research. This leads to other moral problems as it's reprehensible to misstate the science. Moreover, even if you happened to think that adult ailments could never justify research on embryos, there are subjects of obvious research interest, such as processes of embryonic development, for which embryonic stem cells are obviously (if not uniquely) suited.

So by the time we get around to having the Church on the good guys' side in the effort to bring Wisconsin its own useless and expensive death penalty — where as a corollary to the absence of doom in Massachusetts, we note that failing to kill murder convicts hasn't turned Wisconsin into a set for Escape from New York III — I'm inclined to say thanks but no thanks.


(*) For example, the Catholic Church doesn't recognize civil marriage involving divorced Catholics.

(**) See: Tommy G. Thompson, seemingly having fallen off the weight loss wagon of his HHS days (cashing in on the K Street Project while it lasts is calorie-intake-extensive?), trying to save Mark "Most of My Substantive and Even Scurrilous Criticisms of Jim Doyle Could Boomerang on Me and My Involvement in the Corrupt Republican Congress" Green's bacon from Michael J. Fox by claiming Green really isn't against stem-cell research (but pointedly failing to note that Green most definitely is against the embryonic stem-cell research pioneered at the UW).

(***) While it, admirably for the most part, casts a much more skeptical eye on takings of human life than many other organizations, it falls short of asserting that doing so is never justifiable.

Happy Hallowe'en

by Ken Houghton

As schools emphasize nutrition, those of you who prefer dark chocolate should be thrilled by this article from Newsday:
Trick-or-treaters may be shocked to learn that chocolate has more health-promoting plant flavonoids than broccoli or Brussels sprouts.

In fact, in a recent study, dark chocolate also beat green tea, red wine and blueberries in antioxidant levels.

And the longest term study should encourage you as well:
[I]n a recent Dutch study that followed nearly 500 men over age 65 for 15 years, chocolate emerged as a possible heart protector.

Chocolate-lovers had lower blood pressure, and men who consumed the least cocoa were twice as likely to die from a heart attack as men eating the most. The cocoa connection held true, even when scientists accounted for risk factors like smoking, obesity and lack of exercise.

Why my wife will live longer than I will:
Why is dark (rather than milk) chocolate, such a star? Dark chocolate is simply more chocolatey. With up to 50 percent more cocoa than milk chocolate, its flavonoid content is naturally higher.

So maybe Professor Lupin's remedy for Dementors in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (movie here) isn't a bad idea at all.

The Dreadful Dick Dawkins Part I

by Drek

Regular readers of this blog, not to mention my usual blog, are probably aware of my religious orientation. This is effectively public knowledge given the occasional posts I have left on each site. As one might expect, this means that I have a certain awareness of common arguments used against atheism and keep my eye on prominent atheists.

If you're having a hard time thinking of any prominent atheists you're not alone. Our relative absence is because (1) there aren't many atheists to start with, (2) we have good reason to hide, and (3) the only people who are often credited with being atheists are generally thought to be evil. Of course, the association of these folks with atheism is largely unfair, and others who likely were not theists but who did great things are often claimed by the other side, but that's not the point.

Despite all this, there are at least a few well-known atheists and one of them is evolutionary biologist and science popularizer Richard Dawkins. Some of you may have heard of Dawkins recently due to the publication of his new book, The God Delusion. In this book Dawkins argues, as you might expect from the title, that religion is a delusion* and a dangerous one at that. Now, in the interests of full disclosure I have to admit that I haven't read this book yet. I want to read it, I look forward to reading it, but I have not as yet actually read it. So, I can't speak to its quality. I also feel that I should point out that however much I appreciate Dawkins' existence, I don't completely agree with his approach to religion. Do I think that religion is a sort of mass consensual fantasy? Pretty much, yes. Do I think it's largely harmful? Yep. Do I think that science or evidence can actually disprove the validity of religion? Oh, hell no. I don't think this is at all possible, and usually think it's counterproductive to try it. So, while I appreciate Dawkins as a public figure fighting for atheism, I don't really think his project will ever bear fruit. Ultimately this means that while I expect to enjoy The God Delusion I doubt I will agree with it unreservedly.

Yet, in saying all that, I think I can still object to the recent book review on Dawkins' work published in the New York Times. This review, written by Jim Holt,** is quite frankly negative. Okay, that's an understatement: it's actually rather vicious. In the viciousness, however, it's fairly clear that the reviewer simply doesn't like Dawkins' message and wishes he'd just keep his atheism to himself. This, and this alone, is really what I have a problem with. Religious persons of all stripes are permitted, and often expected, to try and convert their friends and neighbors. Often they are rewarded for conspicuous displays of piety and religion acts as a sort of human capital. So, I consider it a bit absurd for someone to be condemned not merely for taking pride in their own religious views, but for simply doing what everyone else does already: doubting the gods of others, and giving voice to that doubt.

After all: we are all atheists. Those who take the title merely doubt one more god than everyone else.

In any case, an examination of the review of Dawkins' book proves to be somewhat interesting so, without further ado, let's take a look.

The review starts off by observing that the purpose of Dawkins' book is "consciousness raising" and that Dawkins depicts atheism as a "brave and splendid" endeavour. While the reviewer clearly intends these observations to be somewhat sarcastic, I'm forced to observe that such is the purpose and message of virtually any book written in praise of a faith. Why should atheism be any different? The test of a book like this is at least partly in its veracity which, as of yet, remains to be determined.

Dawkins' book apparently proceeds as follows:

Dawkins’s case against religion follows an outline that goes back to Bertrand Russell’s classic 1927 essay “Why I Am Not a Christian.” First, discredit the traditional reasons for supposing that God exists. (“God” is here taken to denote the Judeo-Christian deity, presumed to be eternal, all-powerful, all-good and the creator of the world.) Second, produce an argument or two supporting the contrary hypothesis, that God does not exist. Third, cast doubt on the transcendent origins of religion by showing that it has a purely natural explanation. Finally, show that we can have happy and meaningful lives without worshiping a deity, and that religion, far from being a necessary prop for morality, actually produces more evil than good. The first three steps are meant to undermine the truth of religion; the last goes to its pragmatic value.

So, in essence, this book is at least as much an argument against religion as it is an argument for atheism. This is often fairly standard for atheistic works, sadly, for two reasons: first, atheists (in my admittedly limited experience) often consider hard truths more valuable than pleasing fictions. Thus, a strong inkling that god does not exist is sufficient to render belief unnecessary and undesirable. Second, atheists often have the perspective that a lack of belief in god is a default condition- in other words, one has to be taught to believe. As such, in a weird way we don't feel we have to talk others into our position because their natural inclinations are in that direction. This is unfortunately naive. At a deeper level, however, the truly disappointing thing is that so much of the public perception of atheism is that it is a force destructive of religion, without being constructive of another social order. As we will discuss in a later post, this is probably the greatest achilles heal faced by modern atheism.

From here, however, the criticism gets going:

What Dawkins brings to this approach is a couple of fresh arguments — no mean achievement, considering how thoroughly these issues have been debated over the centuries — and a great deal of passion. The book fairly crackles with brio. Yet reading it can feel a little like watching a Michael Moore movie.


It’s all in good fun when Dawkins mocks a buffoon like Pat Robertson and fundamentalist pastors like the one who created “Hell Houses” to frighten sin-prone children at Halloween. But it is less edifying when he questions the sincerity of serious thinkers who disagree with him, like the late Stephen Jay Gould, or insinuates that recipients of the million-dollar-plus Templeton Prize, awarded for work reconciling science and spirituality, are intellectually dishonest (and presumably venal to boot). In a particularly low blow, he accuses Richard Swinburne, a philosopher of religion and science at Oxford, of attempting to “justify the Holocaust,” when Swinburne was struggling to square such monumental evils with the existence of a loving God.

So, first off, Dawkins is strident. Well, I can't fault him for that. Atheists are the great mysterious minority. How many are there? We don't know. Why do they believe as they do? We don't know. How many explicitly atheistic organizations are there? We don't know, but surely not many of any size. We are a community so secret even we don't know who we are. So, if Dawkins is vocal about his atheism, I feel a sense of gratitude. More of us need to be open about our faith, even if I don't approve of evangelism. Secondly, I fail to see what aspect of being a "serious thinker" renders your sincerity automatically unassailable. I suspect that Gould was sincere, but if Dawkins has a case to make, then I welcome him to make it. Third, let's be honest about the Templeton Prize: there is much in it to be suspicious of. It's a prize meant to show that religious thought is making as much progress as science, but it is by no means a prize awarded to hard-nosed efforts to resolve the thorny conflicts between science and fundamentalist religious doctrine. Past winners have included such scienctific "luminaries" as Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, Billy Graham, known among other things for some interesting remarks on Jews, and Mother Teresa, who, despite her excellent reputation, is somewhat controversial. Certainly the TP has also gone to legitimate scholars, but they are in very strange company. So, frankly, I think a little criticism of the Templeton Prize is bloody well warranted. Finally, the reviewer himself is perhaps taking things out of context in his discussion of Richard Swinburne's work. To "justify the holocaust" suggests to many an effort to make such behavior appear warranted or reasonable, however I suspect that Dawkins was criticising an effort to "justify the existence of the holocaust in a world ruled by a loving god." This is an entirely different matter and Dawkins is well within his rights to question such an effort.

Following all this the reviewer castigates Dawkins for failing to argue clearly and well, but then fails to do so himself, in the process making one of the classic errors of the atheist/theist debate:

It is doubtful that many people come to believe in God because of logical arguments, as opposed to their upbringing or having “heard a call.” But such arguments, even when they fail to be conclusive, can at least give religious belief an aura of reasonableness, especially when combined with certain scientific findings. We now know that our universe burst into being some 13 billion years ago (the theory of the Big Bang, as it happens, was worked out by a Belgian priest), and that its initial conditions seem to have been “fine tuned” so that life would eventually arise. If you are not religiously inclined, you might take these as brute facts and be done with the matter. But if you think that there must be some ultimate explanation for the improbable leaping-into-existence of the harmonious, biofriendly cosmos we find ourselves in, then the God hypothesis is at least rational to adhere to, isn’t it?

Sadly, despite what this paragraph would have you believe, the alternative of random, meaninglessness is not a belief in god. Non-random processes can occur in a purely naturalistic world, and meaning can exist without a great unseeable skybeast. As always, however, commentators enjoy trying to recreate the issue as a dichotomy and, sadly, this often goes as much for Dawkins as anyone else.

If we skip forward, we find the reviewer mentioning Dawkins answer to the classic problem of origins: without god, where did the Universe come from? The answer, comments Dawkins, is that he doesn't know, but that it's silly to say that god made it. This isn't so much an answer as giving a name to one's ignorance. Simply saying "god did it" makes us feel as though we have explained something when, in fact, we remain as ignorant as ever. Yet, the reviewer attempts a bizarre and incredibly flacid challenge to this fundamental point:

If God is indeed more complex and improbable than his creation, does that rule him out as a valid explanation for the universe? The beauty of Darwinian evolution, as Dawkins never tires of observing, is that it shows how the simple can give rise to the complex. But not all scientific explanation follows this model. In physics, for example, the law of entropy implies that, for the universe as a whole, order always gives way to disorder; thus, if you want to explain the present state of the universe in terms of the past, you are pretty much stuck with explaining the probable (messy) in terms of the improbable (neat). It is far from clear which explanatory model makes sense for the deepest question, the one that, Dawkins complains, his theologian friends keep harping on: why does the universe exist at all? Darwinian processes can take you from simple to complex, but they can’t take you from Nothing to Something. If there is an ultimate explanation for our contingent and perishable world, it would seemingly have to appeal to something that is both necessary and imperishable, which one might label “God.” Of course, it can’t be known for sure that there is such an explanation. Perhaps, as Russell thought, “the universe is just there, and that’s all.”

So, wait, hang on... Dawkins is wrong because god might have evolved? Or he's wrong because thermodynamics shows that things get messier over time?*** Or is he wrong because evolution requires material to work with and we're now talking about where the material came from? Or is he wrong because we could label whatever arbitrary starting point the universe has "God" and let it go from there? That last one is my personal favorite: as long as we ignore the concept in question and just bandy the label around, the argument is never wrong! Wheee! In short, the reviewer doesn't seem to know why Dawkins' point is wrong here, but he's sure it must be. Somehow or other. In the end, the problem remains: either we accept Bertrand Russell's point that "the universe is just here" or we accept the theistic version of the same argument, "the universe god is just here."

I could keep at it, describing and challenging the idiocy of this review, but I won't. It's frankly too painful for me to endure, particularly when the reviewer once more brings up Stalin, and Mao, and Hitler. Instead I will simply discuss the reviwer's ending paragraph:

As for those in between — ranging from agnostics to “spiritual” types for whom religion is not so much a metaphysical proposition as it is a way of life, illustrated by stories and enhanced by rituals — they might take consolation in the wise words of the Rev. Andrew Mackerel, the hero of Peter De Vries’s 1958 comic novel “The Mackerel Plaza”: “It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us.”

This is not a proof of god's omnipotence, but rather a demonstration of what mankind can acheive with sufficient dedication. We can produce magnificence, and we can produce horror, but in either case we produce it ourselves. Yet, Dawkins is making an argument that is logically compatible with Mackerel's assertion, and it deserves serious consideration:

Perhaps the final proof of god's omnipotence is that he need not exist in order to damn us.

UPDATE: See the second part of this series here.

* Yes, I know one isn't supposed to use a word in the process of defining it. This is why I linked to a dictionary definition which, ironically, uses a conjugated form of the word in defining it. Seriously, I don't even know what to do with that.

** I'm fairly certain there's no relation to the conservative politian and creationist shill Jim Holt.

*** As a side note, entropy says no such thing. Entropy does not, contrary to popular belief, say a whole lot about organization and instead deals with energy flow. Check here for a brief explanation.

As a final note: This post was adjusted to remove a point that, frankly, just didn't make any sense. As long as this thing is, it's hardly surprising that I screwed up. Special thanks to my colleague the Warbler for pointing this out.


by Ken Houghton

I've gotten as tired of posting the RNC mailings I get as you've gotten of reading them.

So, in context of the Lovely and Talented Shakespeare's Sister's experience with a Gospel Hour and pending Tom's One Outta Three Ain't Bad post on the Catholic Church's effort to motivate the Masses, I'm simply going to list out the names and dates (excluding RNC Chair Ken Mehlman) on the e-mails received, in reverse chronological order, from the RNC for the month of October:

Newt Gingrich, 29 October
Senator Bill Frist, M.D., 27 October
Laura Bush, 26 October
Governor Milt Romney (MA), 24 October
Governor George Pataki (NY), 22 October
Senator Sam Brownback, 19 October
President George W. Bush, 17 October
President George W. Bush, 12 October
Dick Cheney, 5 October

I may have left one or two out. And this excludes the already-discussed McCain e-mail of 27 September.

By contrast, here is the list of e-mails I have received from Democratic politicians (excluding Tom McMahon and DNC Chair Howard Dean):

Senator Barack Obama. Period.

Again, I may have missed one or two. And the plural of anecdote is not data. But I'll give you odds—and would love to be proved wrong—that the national mailings that Duncan Black or Mrs. McEwan have received don't have such breadth.

As Bruce Sterling noted "Are you 486?," the Internet is not the exclusive province of progressives.

Friday, October 27, 2006

(Romulus, MI) Noblesse Oblige?

by Tom Bozzo

If there's been one national security issue on which the Bush administration has been astonishingly steadfast, it's been keeping private aircraft away from the airport I'll never call anything other than Washington National Airport. (*) I know this is a great sacrifice, since it exiles their paymasters' jets to Dulles and maybe forces a few flunkies either to fly commercial or fight traffic.

But seemingly not all.

It was with some interest during a very long wait for a flight today (**) that I saw a Dassault Falcon 900 in private markings zoom off in the afternoon. Then, after dark, a generically painted Cessna Citation X pulled up to a corner of the former general aviation ramp, possibly disgorged occupants into a convoy of what appeared to be a Crown Victoria and three SUVs, then sodded back off again. The obvious implication is that these represent Official Business of some description. Extraordinary rendition? Whisking Biggus Dickus to the next no-press-allowed fundraiser? Not requiring Tony Snow to endure the general humiliation of air travel and possible mockery from fellow passengers?

I say: Plutocrats, demand your equal access! Stop payment on that check until Kenny Boy convinces Rove to convince the WPE that he should not stay the course.


(*) If not for the presence of a Legal Sea Foods location at the north end of the new terminal, and of course its wonderful convenience to downtown Washington, it would be Teh SuXX0r for lack of modern travelers' amenities, especially in the sorry A terminal.

(**) Having done my bit to ensure that today's postal rate hearings were conducted with ruthless efficiency, I found that I could not beat my late flight thanks to the Friday get-the-hell-back-home rush.

Ain't Technology Grand

by Tom Bozzo

I technically could be liveblogging today's Postal Rate Commission hearings, but for several reasons that would be a Very Bad Idea (*). Still, it's technically possible. Three cheers for our wired (or, strictly speaking, wireless) government at work!

(*) Whether it would necessarily be a less worthwhile use of bandwidth than simulblogging "American Idol" or any other pseudo-reality-TV show is an open question.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Rick Santorum's Gathering Storm

by Ken Houghton

My morning radio listening featured a surprise this morning: Nachum speaking with Senator Rick Santorum.

Santorum repeatedly used the phrase "Islamofascist." (Nachum notably did not lower himself to that level.) And he continues to blame the media—apparently for quoting him accurately.

But most interesting is that The Senator from Virginia Pennsylvania plans a speech today on "the Gathering Storm" that we must address or be seen as enablers of the Islamofascists. (Who, certainly, have no support from our allies—say, in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.)

Given how accurate the Threatening Storm proved to be, we can only expect that the Churchillian Santorum, his evangelical base, and the religious leadership that supports him will have a greater grasp on reality than the Senator himself.

UPDATE: Again via Duncan Black (who pulls the perfect quote from the piece), here's coverage of the speech.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

My Current and Tom's Home State Does Good

by Ken Houghton

Via Duncan, sense prevails (90-page PDF):
Denying committed same-sex couples the financial and social benefits and privileges given to their married heterosexual counterparts bears no substantial relationship to a legitimate governmental purpose.

A rose is a rose is not-necessarily-a-rose:
Despite the rich diversity of this State, the tolerance and goodness of its people, and the many recent advances made by gays and lesbians toward achieving social acceptance and equality under the law, the Court cannot find that the right to same-sex marriage is a fundamental right under our constitution.

But separate is not yet equal:
The Domestic Partnership Act has failed to bridge the inequality gap between committed same-sex couples and married opposite-sex couples. Significantly, the economic and financial inequities that are borne by same-sex domestic partners are also borne by their children. Further, even though same-sex couples are provided fewer benefits and rights by the Act, they are subject to more stringent requirements to enter into a domestic partnership than opposite-sex couples entering a marriage.

Cue Peter Cook, the Impressive Clergyman:
[T]he issue is not about the transformation of the traditional definition of marriage, but about the unequal dispensation of benefits and privileges to one of two similarly situated classes of people.

The burden is on the oppressor to justify oppression:
[T]he State has not articulated any legitimate public need for depriving committed same-sex couples of the host of benefits and privileges that are afforded to married heterosexual couples. There is, on the one hand, no rational basis for giving gays and lesbians full civil rights as individuals while, on the other hand, giving them an incomplete set of rights when they enter into committed samesex relationships. To the extent that families are strengthened by encouraging monogamous relationships, whether heterosexual or homosexual, the Court cannot discern a public need that would justify the legal disabilities that now afflict same-sex domestic partnerships.

New Jersey still believes its Constitution protects all of its people:
Our current laws concerning same-sex couples are more in line with those of Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut than the majority of other states. Equality of treatment is a dominant theme of our laws and a central guarantee of our State Constitution. This is fitting for a state with so diverse a population. Article I, Paragraph 1 protects not only the rights of the majority but also the rights of the disfavored and the disadvantaged; they too are promised a fair opportunity for pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness."

It is left to the legislature to determine if a marriage of true minds may be called a marriage, but it must be able to look and act as if it were one:
The Legislature could simply amend the marriage statutes to include same-sex couples, or it could create a separate statutory structure, such as a civil union. Because this State has no experience with a civil union construct, the Court will not speculate that identical schemes offering equal rights and benefits would create a distinction that would offend Article I, Paragraph 1, and will not presume that a difference in name is of constitutional magnitude. New language is developing to describe new social and familial relationships, and in time will find a place in our common vocabulary. However the Legislature may act, same-sex couples will be free to call their relationships by the name they choose and to sanctify their relationships in religious ceremonies in houses of worship.

Compliance has a reasonable timeframe:
To bring the State into compliance with Article I, Paragraph 1 so that plaintiffs can exercise their full constitutional rights, the Legislature must either amend the marriage statutes or enact an appropriate statutory structure within 180 days of the date of this decision.

Playground Diplomacy

by Drek

In a recent interview with Vice President Dick Cheney, we were treated to this question and answer:

You have accused the Democrats of self-defeating pessimism. And the whole question about what is "cut and run." And given the conversations that have been taking place here at the White House over the weekend, looking for new strategies, have you redefined what that means, "cut and run?"

I would define it in terms of what the strategy is of our opponents. Keep in mind that --I think, Gen. Casey made this point this morning in his briefing -- we've never been defeated in a stand-up fight in Iraq in over three years. What the enemy's banking on is that they can break our will, that the American people don't have the stomach for the fight. And Osama bin Laden's believed this for years. He goes back and cites the experience of Beirut in 1983, where after we lost 240-some people, we then withdrew from Beirut and so forth. He cites these examples to validate his strategy. When we see the Democratic Party recommending that we withdraw from Iraq, that basically is validating the al-Qaida strategy. It says, "Yea, Osama bin Laden's right. The American people don't have the stomach for the fight." We can't afford to let that happen.

This is an interesting way to put things. It suggests that by remaining committed to Iraq we aren't "fighting terrorism," in the sense of reducing the prevalence of terrorists, which is the usual way it's portrayed, but rather are fighting the perception that we're vulnerable to terrorism. By blowing the snot out of a country that had nothing to do with September 11th, we're demonstrating our commitment to standing up for ourselves. You know, when it's put like that, it almost sounds like compelling logic.

Along those lines, there's this hot story:

Osama bin Laden has released another videotape harranguing the United States. He has reiterated the al Qaeda commitment to destroying American imperialism and promises that there will be another "massive attack" on the United States in the next several months. He also had a great deal to say about the character of the United States in general. He stated that the U.S. is "weak and corrupt," and lacks the political will to, "make their women wear burqas," and that he, "Double-dog-dare[s] the United States to invade China."

Vice President Dick Cheney responded to these allegations saying, "This video drives home the necessity of fighting terrorism both here and abroad. Our patriotic American women must make the necessary sacrifices to demonstrate our resolve to Osama bin Laden." When asked about bin Laden's comments on China, Cheney answered, "He double-dog-dared us! We can't just let that pass! If we do, everyone else in the international community will think we're chicken and we'll never get to play on the monkeybars at recess!" Sources close to the Pentagon suggest that the 101st Airborne is being flown to Taiwan.

I love a good reason for carnage and bloodshed. As soon as the Republicans come up with one, I hope they let me know.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The SportsNight of World Series Post

by Ken Houghton

I haven't been watching the World Series on television. (Lack of time, not lack of interest.) So it came as a bit of a surprise when I received an e-mail complaining that Game 2 featured a performance by John Mellencamp of "Our Country," followed by the National Anthem from Anita Baker. I thought I was justified in snarking, "What, Bob Seger wasn't available?"

Turns out he performed the National Anthem "America the Beautiful" for Game 1.

Considering the "controversy" over Kenny Rogers's possible use of pine tar, it seemed as if FOX wanted us to relive the George Brett Eighties.

All that will change for games Six and Seven, if those happen. Instead of partying like it's 1983, Rogers's second appearance will be heralded by Marshall Mathers to be followed, if necessary, by the man who inducted Seger into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and the cover of whose new live CD is a clear tribute).

UPDATE: I am told that the declaration that Eminem and Kid Rock would be performing was,as I feared, a joke from My Loyal Reader. Looking at the results to date of this poll (final poll to be found here later), the following comments remain accurate.

(c) 2006 ESPN

Was FOX realizing they were appealing to the wrong demographic? Or did they have a pre-release of this news from Forbes?
Rock 'n' roll legend Elvis Presley ceded his crown to Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain on Forbes.com's list as the top-earning dead celebrity.

The list, published on Tuesday, said grunge rocker Cobain earned $50 million between October 2005 and October 2006. Presley wound up in the No. 2 slot with $42 million, down from last year's $45 million.

The coolest part of the article?
Rounding out the top five were [Charles Schulz,] Beatle John Lennon at $24 million and groundbreaking physicist Albert Einstein at $20 million, whose estate profited from such licensing deals as the popular "Baby Einstein" educational videos. [emphasis mine]

The Era of Elvis may finally be ending as Gen Y spends its excess cash flows on itself and its youngest.

Even baseball broadcasting may have to adapt. Which, if it means there may soon be an end to playing "Rock and Roll Part 2" at sporting events could even get me back into the ballpark.

Leader of the Party of Personal Responsibility

by Ken Houghton

With a hat tip to Crooks and Liars, Tony Snow sums up the Bush administration ethos:
Q Is the President responsible for the fact people think it's stay the course since he's, in fact, described it that way himself?


Leadership. Just like I pictured it. Skyscrapers and everything.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Program Note

by Tom Bozzo

The next few days will be maximally busy in my "real" "life," so expect little posting from me over the course of the next week. (*) I trust that the co-bloggers will step up in the meanwhile, especially if Republican desperation for money keeps Ken in Wingnut Watch material.

Also, Henry Farrell already said much of what I was going to say about Roger Lowenstein's lame review of Jacob Hacker's The Great Risk Shift, so I'll point you there as a proxy to a post.

To offer a topic to the co-bloggers for possible discussion, one thing I'll suggest is that Hacker may have given up too much ground in suggesting that certain of the private sector depredations on regular folk that Lowenstein says he "whines" about (**) can't or shouldn't be undone. That anything the private sector does is Only Right and Natural is as facially false as a suggestion that "market discipline" necessarily yields the "best" prices (***).

Evaluating how much Hacker actually gave away in his discussion will have to wait for a return of my free time.


(*) Not that it necessarily matters, as the Rest of the World's fascination with Anne Hathaway drives unprecedented amounts of search-engine traffic here.

(**) As if CEOs wouldn't whine their way straight to court if their boards told them that the realities of globalization meant that they'd have to give up personal use of the company jets during their retirements.

(***) See, e.g., the first installment of David Cay Johnston's NY Times series on the miracles of electricity deregulation, continued here. Of course, what's implicit is competitive market outcomes, but if those could be taken for granted as a state to which markets naturally gravitated, much of the economics profession would be unemployed.

George Pataki joins those trying to convince me Democrats are liberal and organized

by Ken Houghton

Just a few highlights:

Dear Ken,

It only takes a few people stepping forward in any situation to make a difference. Today, you can be one of those people.

In 2004, fewer than 36,000 votes spread across just three states--an amount you could fit into a baseball stadium and have plenty of room to spare--decided the presidential election in favor of President Bush.

A few questions:
  1. When did it become common to end the salutation of a business letter with just a comma?
  2. Who were they?
  3. How well do they sleep at night?, and finally,
  4. Why has this been called a "mandate" for the past nearly-two years?

This year's elections will be just as close. So when RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman asked me to help make sure our Party's Get-Out-The-Vote programs are fully funded, I jumped at the chance.

That's why the e-mail is dated October 22nd.
If we fail to win, liberal Democrats will take over every committee in Congress and undo everything President Bush and the GOP Congress have accomplished -- including rolling back the landmark tax cuts and reducing our commitment to winning the War against Terror.

  1. Does anyone believe there are enough "liberal Democrats" in Congress to take over every committee?
  2. If the Democrats plan to do something like that, why didn't they before (via the L&T Shakes)?, and
  3. Why doesn't this note mention a fear that they might investigate the Administration? Maybe because they know that the majority of voters think of impeachment as a priority?

The RNC is implementing an aggressive campaign strategy to contact, identify and turn out every GOP voter.

So I see. But clearly they're at the bottom of the barrel for people to sign off on that strategy.

Evidence Toward a Suspicion - People are getting *****ed by their Agents

by Ken Houghton

If you only got your information from the WSJ (which article is discussed in both Tom's recent post and the Calculated Risk link to which he refers), you might get the impression that the worst types of loans are being given to the least-qualified buyers.

However, at the end of a previous, marvelous survey post, Calculated Risk posts this photo (which I shamelessly mirror here).

Think about this a moment. People with lowest average incomes (which we can reasonably assume to be a proxy indicator that they are the least creditworthy) are receiving less risky loans than their better-compensated peers.

The purpose of an Economic Agent is that they can get a better deal for you than you can get on your own. Here, the Agents are directing customers to take on more risk than they need to, with little to no upside potential.

Sure, the headline is that firms are "relaxing their credit standards." But the reality appears to have been that those with the best credit have been paying more than their optimal cost.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

James and the Giant Pr*ck

by Unknown

Saturday afternoon found us in a park, watching some 7-8 year old boys* play league soccer. For the most part, the kids looked like they were having fun. (Well, one of the goalies broke into tears when a corner kick from the opposing team hooked beautifully and expertly into the top part of his net. He perked up when his coach assured him that he needed to grow three feet taller before he could hope to prevent a goal like that, which was true enough.)

Except James. Now, I don't know James, but he looked like a classic bookworm: toothpick legs, shorts hiked up to near grandfatherly location around his waist, uncoordinated, a slow runner, and not terribly assertive. The expression on his face alternated between fear (when it looked like the ball might come toward him), sheer terror (when the ball was coming toward him), and outright dejection (when he missed it).

James just sort of trailed around after the ball, or more accurately after the pack of kids surrounding the ball. If the ball happened to squirt out of the pack in James' direction, he'd take a tentative kick at it. As often as not, the ball would continue on its former trajectory undisturbed.

Cut to James' dad, who had the look of an ex-lineman about him: big, burly, but losing the battle against age and flab. He was on crutches, but this didn't stop him from pacing up and down the sidelines to berate his son.
"Don't just stand there, James;"
"C'mon, you let it get right by you, James;"
"Don't be so slow, James;"
"Stop messing around, James;"
"Why'd you let that scrawny kid beat you, James;"
"Get your head in the game, James."

And, of course, the more the father yelled, the more dejected James looked and the slower he trailed after the ball-pack.

The coach seemed perfectly willing to ignore James' dad, although I did notice that he'd praise James for little things (e.g., making contact with the ball) more often than he did with the other kids. The little old lady in the lawn chair next to us -- a grandmotherly type, who knitted through the entire game -- had a better solution: "someone ought to accidently knock that guy over and break his other leg."


*I was surprised that by age 7 or 8, soccer leagues are already gender-typed. Is this usual?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Help a Brother Out

by Tom Bozzo

(Title lifted from CT.)

Marginal Utility pal Gary Farber could use some help. Please hit his tip jar if you can.

As occasionally bears noting, Gary is a veritable one-man blogiverse when he's on a roll, and his blog should be part of your blog-reading rituals.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Lost in translation

by Unknown

My nomination for the Worst Opening Sentence of an Unpublished Academic Paper (or, alternatively, "Opening Sentence of an Academic Paper Most Likely to be Quoted by Ann Coulter"):

Women's employment is considered to be a major problem faced by contemporary societies.
I hate it when those damned women start working. Society just goes to hell in a handbasket.

(This is, incidentally, NOT what the author intended to communicate. Writing -- at least in English -- is clearly not his or her forte.)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Dear Internets

by Tom Bozzo

Why have you been so fascinated with Anne Hathaway for the last few days?

Meanwhile, searchers for "Trader Joe's, Madison Wisconsin" may note that today is opening day over at the Monroe Commons store.

The Site Meter is showing a veritable flood of Google image searchers looking for Ms. Hathaway, mostly from various foreign Google Images domains, and this blog doesn't seem to be a high-ranked return. The European premieres of "The Devil Wears Prada" may not be coincidental.

Look Out Below!

by Tom Bozzo

This makes me glad to have no plans to move for the foreseeable future. Dane County residential real estate sales in September were off 53 percent year over year, which Jeff Richgels of the Cap Times rightly describes as "stunning" (see update below, though), and still off 29 percent over September 2004. The upshot is that at the September sales pace, there's a stunning 12+ months' inventory of houses and condos on the market. This compares with 6 months or so that's considered normal. Obviously, this would tend to put a lot more pressure on prices than has been seen so far.

The supply of new listings is down slightly — from signs such as a dearth of higher-priced FSBO listings, I suspect people who might have been inclined to try to find out just how crazy the market was six months or so ago are sitting on their hands now — but nowhere near in line with sales yet. New home permits were also down in the ballpark of 50 percent year-over-most-recent years. And it should be noted that the Madison-area economy (the non-housing part, anyway) has been relatively strong.

Meanwhile, if you have access to the online W$J, go see Ruth Simon's Personal Journal piece (subscription req'd, sorry; see Calculated Risk for an excerpt) showing both rising delinquencies (headed towards the last local peak, in 2002) and loosening mortgage standards. The Comptroller of the Currency gave a speech to the American Bankers Association noting a "significant easing" of standards, the opposite of what you'd expect in as the market "cools." Reportedly, the main form of "easing" is increased use of "nontraditional" mortgage products — i.e., interest-only and negative amortization loans, the latter being especially risky with flat or declining prices. That such products are ticking time-bombs for many households' finances has been extensively discussed elsewhere.

So, to recap, the housing market cooling has been sharp despite lenders trying to pump even more funny money into the market. Good luck with that soft landing, Chairman Ben!

Update: Must check my own archives! Last September's house and condo sales were reported at the time to be 563, vs. 443 last month — so the year-over-year decline is "only" 20.8%. Which is still pretty bad. The 29.2% two-year drop is correct. That's bad, too. It's unclear whether the original 2005 sales figures had been revised upwards, as the data Richgels reported aren't on the Realtors Association of South Central Wisconsin's website.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology...

by Tom Bozzo

The MacBook Pro's built-in camera may not be magic, but it sure entertains the preschoolers...

Photo 4

Photo 2

Photo 8

...and running two computers at once is undeniably cool.
Stupid Computer Tricks
(click to embiggen)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


by Tom Bozzo

See the stupidest fucking guys on the face of the planet in action. Please vote accordingly.

Mac Geek Heaven

by Tom Bozzo

Now: on my desk at work.

Tomorrow: I go insane and install a Windows XP VM. On the plus side: I'll get to take Stata with me wherever I go!!

Old Posts Get Comments: "Ask Dr. Economist" (1/30/05)

by Tom Bozzo

It's not too odd to see people land various places in the archives as search engine referrals drive a lot of the non-RSS traffic here. But most comments resulting from such referrals are, not surprisingly, attempts at comment spam (*). This one was a real comment asking a couple real questions:
I have read a number of books written by economist of law Richard A. Posner. The word utility is used often, for instance, we make choices based on their utility, that kind of thing, but I'm not quoting Posner there, that is rather my impression of what he is saying.

When psychologists talk of people's motivations, it frequently reminds me of the utility Posner references in his books. Last week, I asked the psychologists (in our Math and Cognition seminar): what is the relationship between what they are calling decisions of psychology and the utility discussed by economist Posner? They basically answered that utility is abstract. The psychology part is what we choose here and now independent of the abstract utility of the choice.

Further, one of the psychologists later said how much he enjoyed my comments about Posner and utilitarianism. Well, I never talked about utilitarianism, and here is my second, more important question: when economists speak of utility, that is not synonymous with utilitarianism, is it? Can't utility be looked at from the vantage point of many philosophical positions?

I'm answering this here in part because I'm not completely done with the study of Iraqi mortality due to the war by Burnham (et al.) in the Lancet, and I was going to pick on Judge Posner a bit. I'll note as a correction that Posner is more appropriately characterized as a lawyer who moonlights in economics and not an economist with an unusually strong interest in the law, but back to him later.

The psychologists seem to be telling you that the "rational choice" model of economics doesn't necessarily apply to a lot of actual decisions, and I think they're right. (The program, particuarly associated with Posner's co-blogger and quasi-Nobel laureate Gary Becker, of applying the rational choice model willy-nilly within what's traditionally been the province of sociology drives some of our blog-pals to shrill unholy madness, with some justification.) It's not that people don't necessarily have preferences of the sort formalized in utility functions, but we're under no particular obligation to have complete or mathematically well-behaved preferences. Experiments have claimed to show departures from the standard choice model, and other experimenters have claimed that the first group's results are a byproduct of their experimental protocols. My reading is that some economic decisions are made in ways that are observationally indistinguishable from the utility maximizing model, which may represent the behavior being trained in for certain situations. But we aren't utility calculators as a general matter.

As for the second question, the utility maximization model of microeconomics, and the microfoundations of macroeconomics, is not synonymous with utilitarianism. Utilitarianism's roots far pre-date the mathematical utility model, for one thing. You can develop a mathematical utilitarianism by way of social utility maximization, regarding which there is a fair body of economic theory, though you can find economists who will deny (at least in part) the necessary tradeoffs between individual and social welfare that the existence of well-behaved social utility functions usually imply.

Which brings us back to Posner, who lately has been making what I'm sure he considers utilitarian arguments that various of what might be thought of as our basic liberties should be curtailed to more effectively fight the War on Terra. (**) The argument, it seems, boils down to the claim that freedoms that are great in the abstract are no good to you if you're dead, and this is the basic sales pitch for the likes of the Torture Authorization Act and the parallel effort to legalize various forms of spying on citizens. Posner at least is more consistent in that he can grasp a utilitarian argument for, say, taxing wealth — even in the form of the irrationally-hated estate tax — whereas the typical Republican Senator can countenance torture of the not-provably-threatening but not taking a dollar out of the investment accounts of an already-dead rich person.

A propos of the Burnham et al. study, we note for the record the difference in the messages to citizens and to the poor suckers who are entitled to experience the "birth pangs" of the neocons' Middle East project. We are supposed to give up freedom for our own personal safety. They may get blown up in airstrikes while fleeing for their lives, caught in various forms of crossfire, or assaulted with power tools prior to an execution-style shooting, but hey at least Saddam Hussein's henchmen aren't the perps. A utilitarian case that it matters much who's torturing you to death, conditional on being tortured to death, is weak to say the least. So it matters, if the war is to be justified on humanitarian grounds, that the post-war anarchy not be a bigger nigthmare than what it replaced.

This is where war opposition meets clear-eyed pragmatism, against the starry-eyed fantasy of the stay-the-course set. The practical question remains, we paid thousands of lives and a half-trillion dollars for what?!


(*) Subject to summary deletion per MU administration practice.

(**) Which will do nothing, of course, to make Posner a likelier candidate for the Big Show, ageism in Republican SCOTUS selections being rampant and young monarchists moreover being in ample supply.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


by Tom Bozzo

Julia's 0th birthday — snoozing with Mommy.

1st birthday, with pumpkin cheesecake.

2nd birthday (-1 day: party with the Twin Cities cousins) — blowing out the candle on the Strawberry Shortcake cake.

Happy birthday, sweet pea!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Friday Preschooler Blogging

by Tom Bozzo

Been a while...
John got a haircut and didn't cry at all. For real! And let Pam the barber use the electric trimmers!! And got the haircut before preschool class pictures!!! Thanks to Mom-Mom for the immediately beloved hoodie! Next stop: potty training.

Julia models her new rain gear. Thank you, Aunt Judy! (Hard-learned lesson: rain boots are cumbersome running-gear when it isn't raining.)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Former ATF Chief Dana Carvey-as-George Bush

by Unknown

Photo credit: Joshua Roberts, Getty Images, courtesy of the Washington Post.

Losing the American Statistical Association Vote?

by Tom Bozzo

The WPE, on the latest study of excess mortality in Iraq due to the war in the Lancet, h/t Ken:
President Bush slammed the report Wednesday during a news conference in the White House Rose Garden. "I don't consider it a credible report. Neither does Gen. (George) Casey," he said, referring to the top ranking U.S. military official in Iraq, "and neither do Iraqi officials."

"The methodology is pretty well discredited," he added.
The Shakespeare's Sister comments section responds at the appropriate level:
Oh yes. Bubble Boy knows statistical methodology like the back of his hand. Fo' shizzle.
More seriously, Daniel Davies's reviews at CT (1, 2) of the totally innumerate and merely bad objections to the 2004 study by the same authors remains an appropriate entry point to discussion of the latest results. They've been widely re-linked, but in matters of gravity, more never hurts, eh?

Innumeracy indeed reigns in the gamma quadrant. The famed statistician Glenn Harlan Reynolds
starts his post on the total innumeracy side by approvingly linking a post by Tim Blair (which itself makes some pointless comparisons with various WWII civilian death figures) with the note that the researchers supposedly based their results on a "paucity of actual data." By this, Blair means that he objects to the inflation of the sample results to the population figures that are (duh) the object of the study. (At this point, an admission of having never taken a sufficiently advanced statistics class, slept through most of the lectures, and/or flunked the class, would be appropriate.) Measuring population characteristics with what seem to be amazingly small numbers of observations is what statistical surveys do. This "logic" would, by analogy, suggest that it's conceptually worse to try to represent 60 million or so votes with 500 or so respondents to a phone survey.

In fact, the epidemiology experts quoted in the press as "skeptics" don't question the broad sampling methodology employed in the Lancet study. Rather, the concerns relate to secondary details: adequacy of the sample (as noted above) and representation of non-sampling errors in the study.

The sample size critique seems to flow mainly from this statement, obtained by the NY Times:
Robert Blendon, director of the Harvard Program on Public Opinion and Health and Social Policy, said interviewing urban dwellers chosen at random was “the best of what you can expect in a war zone.”

But he said the number of deaths in the families interviewed — 547 in the post-invasion period versus 82 in a similar period before the invasion — was too few to extrapolate up to more than 600,000 deaths across the country.
As a statement relating to the sampling methodology, Blendon's claim would have to be regarded as conclusory, since it's not rocket science to determine a target sample size to obtain a desired level of precision in the result (and the Lancet article is clear as to what they intended to be able to measure given their sample [*]). Like another widely-quoted actuality from biostatistician Donald Berry, it is more properly a critique of the potential role of non-sampling errors, or what Berry termed the study's "tone of accuracy." (**) I say "non-sampling" insofar as the actual paper reports sampling margins of error (95% confidence intervals) for what looks to be every sample-based result that's mentioned in the text.

Indeed, the Lancet article has a fairly extensive discussion of possible sources of non-sampling error, though for what should be obvious reasons to those in the know they are not quantified. While the factors cited by the researchers could lead to substantial errors, they are by no means confined to a single direction of error. Here are two notable ones that would tend to downwardly bias the results:
I've seen other mischaracterizations ranging from innocent misstatements to complete idiocy.

In the former category, Cervantes (a non-critic whose post is very good; see the link above above) states that response rates are not provided, when the report does indicate two forms of non-response (due to no answer and refusal to participate; both are reported as just under 1%, which is very low). Cervantes also raises the question of substitution of blocks of housing units within clusters, though as discussed above, this does not obviously affect results in the direction favored by study critics.

Less innocently, or so it would seem, a commenter to Juan Cole's post explaining how body count methods could understate actual deaths implies that respondents produced more death certificates than they were asked, which inappropriately compares a pair of statistics: the fraction of deaths where interviewers requested death certificates (87%) and the fraction of those requests where a certificate was provided (92%). Needless to say, the upshot of the high confirmation rate is that the potential upward bias from unsubstantiated death reports in the survey would not change the picture of substantial excess mortality. (***)

On the utter stupidity front, the Rightwing Nut House lives up to its name in trying to make hay about a breakdown of casualties, rounded to whole percents, adding up to 101% instead of 100%. Commenters who can't conceive of rounding error should stay away from numbers. They also should get a Questionable Frame award for characterizing mere measurement of the war's human cost as "ghoulish" and "unseemly."

Finally, as is noted by Kieran Healy at CT, some of the criticism amounts to simple incredulity — e.g., Michael O'Hanlon of Brookings, quoted by the Washington Post:

"I do not believe the new numbers. I think they're way off," he said.

Other research methods on the ground, like body counts, forensic analysis and taking eyewitness reports, have produced numbers only about one-tenth as high, he said. "I have a hard time seeing how all the direct evidence could be that far off ... therefore I think the survey data is probably what's wrong."

O'Hanlon had published a paper before the fact using a variety of methods to predict a potential Iraqi death toll from an invasion that could easily range into the tens of thousands on both the military and civilian sides. While the invasion itself might have been less severe than the worst-case pre-war scenarios, O'Hanlon didn't seem to have particularly accounted for the extended insurgency. He noted that the relatively brief 1989 invasion of Panama resulted in something ranging from 10-30 times as many Panamanian civilian deaths as U.S. military deaths — and the U.S. forces in Iraq would seem to be much more heavily armed and armored than the airborne forces that conducted most of the Panama operation, not to mention have access to far superior battlefield medicine. So, with 3,000 coalition soldiers dead, and another 20,000 wounded (thousands severely), it's not at all inconceivable a priori that the civilian toll over the time period could extend far beyond the body counts in which administration's defenders have taken refuge.

So while exact magnitudes may be debated, there's in the end no doubt that the war has been hard on lots of Iraqis. In this regard, an Onion "priceless national treasure" moment — one of those headlines without story — best sums things up:
New Woodward book blows the lid off what everybody already knew.


(*) That was to be able to measure a doubling of the death rate with high degrees of confidence and power. The study's critics, of course, don't really note that the study design would not tend to identify relatively small increases in the death rate as statistically significant.

(**) The AP characterized Berry's reaction as follows:
Donald Berry, chairman of the statistics department at the University of Texas' M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, said he believes the study was done ''in a reasonable way.'' But he said the range of uncertainty given for the estimates was much too narrow, because of potential statistical biases in the survey.
(***) I read somewhere that there have been some writers who have suggested that Iraqis might have hoodwinked the interviewers with forged death certificates. It doesn't seem that credible that, in a war zone, this would be something that hundreds of Iraqis would be inclined to do in case the U.N. or some other academics happened to come on by. But even if true, this theory would suggest that the Bushies have been doing just a grand job winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi populace.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Dead Battery

by Ken Houghton

The above is the likely headline on either the Daily News or the New York Post tomorrow after Cory Lidle accidentally crashed his plane into a building around 72nd and York Avenue today, following the Thurman Munson crash of 1979.

One of the news agencies reporting this as being "close to Rockefeller Center," while the ESPN's article describes the crash site as "a red-brick tower overlooking the East River, about five miles from the World Trade Center." These may be considered small distances elsewhere, but for New York, that's several million people and multiple neighborhoods away, as a casual glance at Google Earth will show.

Jason Giambi expresses the tragic part, and the personal:
"My thoughts are with Cory's relatives and the loved ones of the others who were injured or killed in this plane crash. I have known Cory and his wife, Melanie, for over 18 years and watched his son grow up. We played high school ball together and have remained close throughout our careers. We were excited to be reunited in New York this year and I am just devastated to hear this news."

For the rest of us, Scott Lemieux sums it up.

But I expect—or perhaps hope—that Bill Gallo's cartoon tomorrow will have Munson greeting Lidle.

Death of Irony, Part MMMDLVI

by Tom Bozzo

In the Isthmus, Madison Bishop Robert Morlino is seen weighing in on the Wisconsin same-sex marriage/civil unions ban. From a homily he reportedly gave in March:
Our mission to purify the culture in the United States is down the tubes if we cannot protect marriage.
Oh, where to start? Thanks, but no thanks? Pot calling the kettle black?

I have to wonder whether the purported "mission" is sent down the tubes more by allowing the gay faithful to marry than by playing musical assignments with "problem" (not necessarily gay) priests, bearing at best middlingly truthful witness about it, and generally behaving like a bunch of embattled CEOs when actual moral leadership is called for.

The overt irony, of course, is that gay priests marry straight people all the time. Indeed, the scheme of things as descibed by the Catholic Catechism routinely stands gay men in for Jesus, not that there's anything wrong with that.

Things are undoubtedly Different for those of you whose background is in more fundamentalist traditions. But Catholicism is liberally non-literalist when it suits its purposes (*), which makes its instances of selective fundamentalism more conspicuous — especially motivations for its insistence on a celibate male priesthood and significant elements of its positions on sexual morality. After all, once you take a scriptural passage saying X, Y, and Z are "unclean" and decide to tolerate Y and Z, "I said so" looms larger than "God said so" as the justification for deploring X. (**)

I would think that this selective fundamentalism would fare very poorly in a hypothetical second coming. Were I to handicap the contents of the Newer Testament, it would be likelier to feature the conversion of water to Macon-Villages at the Gay Wedding Feast of Cambridge than any denunciation of homosexuality as per se immoral. In fact, I'd wager that the pathetic excuse that the Catholic church uses for excluding women from the priesthood would suffer badly from some combination of (a) a coeducational Last Last Supper and/or (b) Jesus returning as a woman. (***)

Beyond the specific oddity of "defending" marriage by arbitrarily excluding people who want in, what's this "purify the culture" business? It's one thing to insist on orthodoxy in a religious domination, and leading no church myself, I have no opinion on the direction of any particular sect — though I will note that a rump Catholic church made up of William Donohue-style nutballs would be a gift to snark. The "culture" at large, though, is pluralistic and almost surely wouldn't agree with Morlino on the nature of the impurities. So what coercive power would be brought to bear in this effort? The Spanish Inquisition?!


As an added bonus, Morlino provides a sort of complete idiot's guide to the "intelligent design" [sic] of human reproductive biology. We wonder if he noticed the sniggers of the teenagers and eye-rolling of certain adults as he uncorked:
One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to look at human anatomy and see how the equipment works.... When we look at the drive of every human person for total intimacy and we look at the anatomy of the human body the conclusion is: one husband, one wife, one lifetime, with openness to children.”
I don't disagree that the reproductive machinery has a primary function of (literally) disseminating information and integrating it to produce hopefully Adorable Offspring. But I wonder how someone with an inclination to take Morlino's flying logical leap manages not to wonder about all the apparently unauthorized functions human anatomy provides.

For example, perhaps Morlino is some combination of master of his domain and the most sheltered man alive and hasn't figured out that there is entertainment to be found in, say, masturbation. (****) Nor is the "anatomy of the human body" any insurmountable obstacle to combinations other than "one husband, one wife." I'd also view the Data on people willing to get married who ultimately don't want to live together to be Saying Something about that "one lifetime" business.

In summary, just say no.

A Fair Wisconsin Votes No


(*) Ol' Papa Benno, though, has been viewed as more open to literalist creationism than his predecessor.

(**) And, really, dispensing dietary and sexual advice isn't a very divine sort of thing to do when you think about it.

(***) Which would probably lead sexist elements of the old guard to other highly selective anti-fundamentalism.

(****) But I'd guess somthing between disingenuousness and rank hypocrisy is likelier. And "I spanked the monkey but didn't like it and felt such moral outrage at myself that I'll never ever do it again" would have to be the least credible claim this side of Boomer politicians' efforts to explain what they did with themselves in the late-sixties.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

It has come to this: The Bully on the Playground is...North Korea?

by Ken Houghton

I couldn't make up this headline, unless I were working for The Onion.

UPDATE: Knew I should have printed it here. Before it was confirmed that the North Korean test worked only slightly better than those tests of the U.S. "Missile defense" system, it was close to "U.S. calls North Korea a 'Bully.'"

And it's painfully accurate, as Pammy's favorite lame duck puts forth the case:
North Korea's reported threat to fire a nuclear missile is an attempt to bully Washington into face-to-face talks with Pyongyang, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said Tuesday.

"This is the way North Korea typically negotiates, by threat and intimidation," he said. "It's worked for them before. It's not going to work this time."

And here's the BATNA:
Bolton said the North Korean regime is unwilling to take part in the multilateral negotiations "because they're not getting what they want." [emphases mine]

"We want the elimination of their nuclear weapons programs," he said.

Well, that's working well, eh?

Statistical Behavior of Statistics Matters!

by Tom Bozzo

A couple weeks ago, I had noted that the business economics press and the commentariat that gets interviewed basically struck out in interpreting a "surprise" increase in new home sales. (Correct answer: the month-to-month change could not be distinguished from statistical noise and therefore was No News; the more precise year-to-date and year-over-year changes remained ugly.)

Today, Barry Ritholtz is doing yeoman's duty on a more active front by explaining how the same statistical considerations make the larger employment growth shown in last month's "household survey" employment, relative to the "establishment survey," effectively meaningless, with appeals to the former the "last refuge of bullish employment scoundrels." Indeed, both the household survey and establishment survey month-to-month employment changes were in the ballpark of one standard error (a little less for the latter, a hair more for the former) — it's just that the standard error of the household survey's month-to-month change is some 4.5 times larger than that of the establishment survey.

Given that the "true" employment increases are small relative to the sampling standard error of the household survey, good old noise will naturally give scoundrels frequent spin opportunities. Barry is dead right in saying "case closed."

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Auction Follow-up

by Ken Houghton

Following up to this post, we have some data points. The overview:
More than 1,000 items from the archives of CBS Paramount Television Studios went on the block over three days at Christie's auction house, and fans forked over a total of $7.1 million for set furniture, pointy Vulcan ears and other props.

Proof that TNG fans have too much DI:
A model of the Starship Enterprise used in the pilot and title sequences of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" sold for $576,000 Saturday at an auction of costumes, sets and props from 40 years of the "Star Trek" sci-fi franchise.

The 78-inch-long miniature of the "Enterprise-D," built by Industrial Light and Magic, debuted in 1987 in the episode "Encounter at Farpoint," and then was used in many subsequent episodes, as well as the film "Star Trek Generations."

I'm fairly certain this was Tom's "top item," though at a much lower estimate ["estimated at $25,000-$35,000"]. I'm also guessing he wasn't the top bidder.

Evidence that TOS fans are saving for our Social Security:
Other top sellers from Saturday's auction included a spacesuit belonging to the series' Dr. McCoy from the episode "The Tholian Web,"* which fetched $144,000; and a replica of Captain James T. Kirk's chair on the bridge in the first Star Trek series.

And a strange data point:
The painted wood [replica of Captain James T. Kirk's chair on the bridge in the first Star Trek series] for a 1996 episode of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" that mixed action from that newer series with old footage, but it still sold for $62,400.

Don't know how to treat that one. But there is some glimmer of hope: after Enterprise went from being "the show that launched a network" to "the show that sunk a network," the auction was not televised. However,
Some Christie's employees taking bids by telephone wore Star Trek uniforms, and a live feed of the auction was carried on the History Channel's Web site.

Coming soon, a review of How William Shatner Changed the World.

*My admittedly-vague memory is that McCoy was in a space suit only at the very beginning of the episode, if at all. I suspect Kirk's suit, which was shown throughout the episode, would have fetched more than just a gross of Clevelands.

We'll Know L'Affaire Foley Really Has Hit the Fan When the Vice President Stops Signing Fund-Raising Letters as "Dick"

by Tom Bozzo

Ken, dear that he is, forwarded me another one of his GOP money begs for disposition — this time Richard B. "Dick" Cheney writes:
The liberals are desperate and will do anything to reclaim control of the U.S. House and Senate. Unless we work every single day between now and Election Day to identify, contact and make sure every Republican voter sends in an absentee ballot or actually gets to the polls -- we risk not only the Democrats stonewalling President's Bush agenda but advancing policies that weaken American's efforts to fight the War on Terror and raise your taxes.
Ah, Death of Irony, your name is "Dick" Cheney. Weaken the War on Terra or raise your taxes. What could be worse?

Maybe if "Dick" pursued studies in economics rather than political science, he might have happened across the old Milton Friedmanism, "to spend is to tax." Now, I'm sure that somewhere in the economically illiterate wingnuttiverse, someone is saying how terrific it is that what may well be the local economic expansion peak has brought us a mere quarter-trillion dollar unified deficit. Meh. Even that dubious accomplishment seems to have been accomplished with some assistance from the indefatigable duo of Smoke and Mirrors.

Meanwhile, as for that war thing, let's not forget some of the things Dick's One Percent Doctrine means: for one thing, per Soixante Minutes, it means detaining every Robert Johnson at the airport as a suspected terrorist. At the risk of violating some secret CFR provision against mocking the do-not-fly list, and having "Dick" (uh, I mean, his "boss" — wink) declare me an enemy combatant, perhaps the legendary bluesman would be highly suspicious had he not died sixty-eight years ago. But otherwise, there are just thirty-five such suspected terrorists in the Madison phone book alone. We have no idea just who Robert Johnson the Possible Terrorist might be, but it stands to reason that it would be easier and cheaper to exert the purported power of the purportedly unitary exective to shackle an FBI agent to that particular Robert Johnson and to leave the other tens of thousands of law-abiding Robert Johnsons alone.

This, of course, is not to mention the elephants in the room.

Plus, if any of you out there want to know what sort of suckers the Republicans take their contributors for, and an observation towards Brad DeLong's occasional series of "they lie about everything," here's "Dick" telling Ken how the GOP is a poor grass-roots organization bucking the financial power of Big Liberalism:
The Democrats rely on unions and wealthy liberals to fund and operate their voter turnout. The RNC's Get-Out-The-Vote relies on the voluntary contributions of grassroots supporters like you, Ken.
Riiiight. That guy lighting the cigar with the $100 bill? That's nobody. Nope, never heard of K Street — is that NW, NE, or SE? And between you and me (and not that Comptroller General), it was just me, Gramma Millie and her bridge club in those Energy Task Force meetings.

What an asshole.

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