Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Angry Birds and Dreamers

The Oath of Office for members of Congress, taken by all newly elected members in an open session of each House:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
The Oath of Office for the President of the United States, taken by the President-elect, before he or she can officially take office:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.
At tonight's State of the Union Address, there will be a number of guests in attendance--as there always are--invited by various politicians for various reasons, from simple friendship to political patronage to making a statement of one sort or another. And with regard to the last, the guest list will include at least two undocumented immigrants, people who are here illegally, who are in violation of the law, criminals as a matter of definition.

Our elected leaders in Washington, D.C, all of them, have sworn to defend the Constitution, that fundamental document establishing our government and defining how our laws are made. It's really no great leap to allow that our elected leaders, in defending the Constitution, should not be openly defying federal law, nor should they be assisting in or otherwise sanctioning such defiance. That's really not too much to ask, is it?

At the same time, new information has surfaced indicating that the NSA has been using smartphone apps--like the ever-popular Angry Birds--to track people and to compile personal information about them, information like sex, age, buddy lists, address book entries, and, of course, phone call logs. And our elected officials aren't really doing anything about the NSA's transgressions. Oh sure, some are spouting off on cable news about these things, calling the NSA's actions "outrageous" and the like. But it's just bluster, just talk. Similarly, the President promised change, but basically left things exactly as they are now, left it up to the NSA to police themselves, to decide what they can and can't do.

And make no mistake here, on the issue of NSA overreach: this is not a Democrat/Republican thing at all. The previous Administration was no better then the current one. Indeed, it set many of these things in motion. Still, it's a Democrat in charge right now. And its Democrats who are showing total disdain for the law by inviting criminals to accompany them to the State of the Union Address.

On the one hand, they--led by the President--are willing to ignore the law in the supposed name of justice and humanity. On the other, they--again, led by the President--pretend that the law really matters, that they are actually concerned about government agencies being properly limited in their power, even as they actually do nothing in this regard, allow the continued abuse of power to the detriment of actual U.S. citizens. Who do they work for, again?

But I don't mean to sound unduly harsh, with regard to undocumented immigrants. In fact, I recognize that many--probably most--would be happy to just be citizens themselves, are trying to just live their lives, support themselves and their families, and are not engaged in criminal activity, per se. Apart from the fact that they are in this country illegally, of course. And let's be clear on this, too: their status as illegals is a consequence of an overt criminal act on their part (or their parents' or relatives' in the case of minors). So while I do sympathize with their plight, I'm not going to pretend they are not what they are, unlike our elected leaders, who apparently think they can personally choose which laws they get to follow, which laws they are supposed to defend and uphold.

Of course, we're often told--by those in charge--that there are just far too many undocumented immigrants now, that the government doesn't have the resources to identify all of them, much less take any kind of specific action against them. Yet, there are apparently enough resources to track the people who play Angry Birds, to compile information on them. At last count, that number was in excess of 40 million.

So again, our elected leaders ignore their duties, ignore the oath they took when they assumed office, in order to allow a massive illegal surveillance program of U.S. citizens and to score some political points by glad-handing people in open violation of the law. And tonight, they'll all get together and hear how the last is important, how it matters, while the first is really no big deal. Sure.

The State of the Union is, itself, a Constitutionally mandated event. It's a solemn occasion, or at least it used to be. Now it's apparently just a big show. With far too many clowns.

Cheers, all.

Income Inequality drivers: the trends being ignored

With the next State of the Union Address scheduled for this evening, we already know what some of the major themes will be. Consistent with Administration and Democrat talking points that have been permeating punditry land since the New Year, one of these themes will be the issue of income inequality. Many of you have probably read some of the articles out there on this, seen talking heads going on and on about it, and may quite possibly feel like the issue is actually very important, is actually something about which we--as a nation--should be concerned.

And that's more than fair, in my opinion. It is an important issue that requires attention from everyone, because it's not right, at all. There is too much wealth at the top of the pyramid right now and too little at the bottom.

Of course, this has always been the case. The people at the tippy-top have always had far more than those at the bottom, in any sufficiently large society during any period of history. It was true for the "Robber Baron" period in U.S. History, the "Warring States" period in Chinese history, the periods of Ancient Rome, both Empire and Republic, Medieval Europe, the Mayan Empire, the European eras of "Exploration" and "Colonization," Ancient Egypt, the apogee of the Kingdom of Mali, Feudal Japan, and pretty much any other example one might think of. It was even true--hold on to your hats--for the Soviet Union and for pre-European North America, among large societies like the Iroquois League.

The issue is how much is too much, in terms of both the relative disparity in income between top and bottom, and the numbers of people in the bottom group. To this end, there are a lot of studies, statistics, and charts out there being used to demonstrate how this disparity has grown (exponentially, usually) in the past several generations, the past forty to fifty years. The argument being made by most people who are focused on the issue is simple: there is more disparity now than ever before between the top and the bottom. Here's a very typical piece making the argument, complete with handy charts, at Mother Jones. Note that one of these charts--"Average CEO Pay vs. Average Worker Pay"--is pretty much nonsense, because it's really not using average CEO pay at all, something I've addressed in detail previously.

Still, many of the other charts--not all of them--are fair representations of reality. Look at the first one, the "big reveal," as it were:

In this chart, the numbers are staggering. The top tier has an average income in excess of $23 million dollars per year, while 90% of the population has an average household income of less than $30 grand per year. Of course, that "top tier" is only .01% of all households. In 2010, there were just under 150 million households in the U.S., so that means that about 15,000 households make up that top .01%. Are they all making $23 million? Not even close. That number is the average, and just as overall incomes are skewed by huge numbers at the top, so too are the numbers in just this group. Because if one were to look at the top .001% or the top .0001% (1,500 households and 150 households, respectively), there would be an even bigger gap. The last group would be pushing the $100 million mark or more in average income without a doubt.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Processing Schumer's Tea Party ignorance

On Friday, Senator Charles "Chuck" Schumer went after the Tea Party in a big way; he devoted an entire speech to the subject, and an op-ed at HuffPo, as well. Before digging in to the meat of Schumer's remarks, I think it interesting to note how, supposedly, the Tea Party was more or less "over." Pundits on the left have been proclaiming it's death, or at least its move to irrelevance, for years. Seriously. The Occupy Movement was--according to many of these pundits--some sort of death blow. Yet here we are, two years removed from Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy Movement is today about as significant as Thomas E. Dewey is...today!

But the pundits--and the Democrats, and the Administration--were not deterred. Since then, the Tea Party has been declared dead or over again and again and again. Polls have been cited by those on the Left to show how no one cares about the Tea Party anymore or--even better--how most people disapprove of the movement.

Given all of this, one has to ask the question: what the hell is Chuck Schumer doing, why is he targeting the Tea Party when it's supposedly on decline, especially given that Schumer is running for reelection in New York, hardly a Tea Party stronghold? He's gotten a little press from the speech, but hardly anything particularly significant.

The truth is, Schumer understands something that many of his fellow Democrats--and a good chunk of the punditry, on the Left and the Right--do not, something that they, in fact, have never understood. And this is partly because Schumer, whatever else he may be, is not stupid. Far from it, in fact. I personally think he's right up there with former Representative Barney Frank and former Senator Chris Dodd, when it comes to cagey, clever politicians. Of course, I also think this triumvirate should be in jail, that they should have gone there following the financial collapse of 2007/2008, because they were more responsible for that mess than any other people on the planet. But I digress.

So, Schumer doen in fact understand something important here, which is this: the simple idea of the Tea Party, a loose coalition of like-minded citizens who refuse to respect government agents as a matter of course, is and always has been a huge danger to people who hold the reigns of power. This is or was every bit as true of the Occupy Movement. And this reality gives politicians like Schumer--who are more interested in their personal power than in anything else--two options: pretend to sympathize with the movement or demonize it.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Climate Change waves

It seems like there's something of a cycle to climate change. I don't mean actual climate change; rather, I'm referring to the appearance of climate change as a major topic of discussion. It cycles. It's all anyone can talk about for a while, then it kind of recedes into the background until it's suddenly, once again, front page news.

I find this to be an interesting pattern, particularly in context of what is so often said about climate change, how it's the Biggest Threat mankind has ever faced, how we are all doomed unless we do something about it Right Now, and how there is no room for discussion on the issue because its Settled Science. In this regard, we've been in a trough for a while now; climate change hasn't been a driving issue perhaps because more important things--like Kanye West's latest exploits, "Bridgegate," and the Obamacare fiasco--have been on center stage.

But looking just at the last--Obamacare--isn't it interesting how health insurance has been presented as such a critical issue, even in the face of climate change? I mean, what does it matter if one has health insurance, if mankind is on the verge of extinction because of climate change?

Getting back to the cycle, though, one might possibly note that climate change falters as an issue when it falters as a theory. After being all the rage some years ago, it fell off the front page following the East Anglia email scandal (the use of a "trick" to hide declining temperatures that didn't fit the narrative). Prior to that, there was the collapse of the hockey stick graph, after a period of pronounced "global warming" fanboy-ism in the wake of An Inconvenient Truth. More recently, the lack of a warming across the past fifteen or so years brought the climate change alarmists to heel for a time, at least until someone figured out a new way to "interpret" the data. With such clever "science" in hand, the climate change crowd is suddenly reinvigorated and--once again--editorials and "news" pieces on climate change are commonplace. Robert Tracincki noted just how deceptive all of this is, how un-scientific it is:
This is an obvious shifting of the goalposts. The measure of warming that they all thought was fine and dandy when temperatures seemed to be rising now doesn't show rising temperatures. So they have to reinterpret the data to get the result that fits their theory.

When someone posted my article on Facebook, commenter Jordan Phillips named the basic pattern of global warming arguments: "In a real scientific theory, you have to make some kind of blind prediction that makes you vulnerable and accountable, so that if later observations contradict the prediction then your theory has no squirm room to avoid its fate. But catastrophic manmade global warming theory is the opposite: it's based on waiting for a weather event to happen, then rationalizing how that event was caused by global warming."

So global warming science is not just ad hoc but post hoc.
Looking at the cyclical pattern of climate change through this kind of lens, wherein reality is manipulated to serve the agenda, works very well. But there's another way to see the pattern. Climate change returns to the newscycle when it's convenient for those pimping it, when it serves as a distraction from other things, other issues that are doing damage to the same side of the ideological divide that is all gung-ho about climate change.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

McDonnell: burn him down, too

Today, the Feds officially filed an indictment against former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen McDonnell. The charges, as laid out in the document (filed in the U.D. District Court for Eastern Virginia):
  • 1 count of conspiracy to commit honest-services wire fraud 
  • 3 Counts of Honest-services Wire Fraud 
  • 1 Count of Conspiracy to Obtain Property Under Color of Official Right 
  • 6 Counts of Obtaining Property Under Color of Official Right 
  • 1 Count of Making False Statements to a Federal Credit Union
The Richmond Times-Dispatch has the details. Basically, the bulk of the charges stem from interactions between McDonnell (and his wife) and former CEO of Star Scientific Jonnie Williams, Sr. According to the document, the McDonnells improperly accepted all kinds of gifts, monetary and otherwise, from Williams in exchange for help promoting his company.

Star Scientific is "a technology-oriented company with a mission to promote maintenance of a healthy metabolism and lifestyle." It manufactures dietary supplements, initially aimed at curbing the desire to smoke tobacco, but now also including an ant-inflammatory supplement--AnatablocTM--designed to help the body fight inflammation without using additional drugs. Currently, Star Scientific stock is trading at around $1, after having been as high as almost $5 in mid-2012.

The "scheme" as specified in the indictment:
As set forth in greater detail below, from in or about April 2011 through in or about March 2013, the defendants participated in a scheme to use ROBERT MCDONNELL'S official position as the Governor of Virginia to enrich the defendants and their family members by soliciting and obtaining payments, loans, gifts, and other things of value from JW and Star Scientific in exchange for ROBERT MCDONNELL and the OGV performing official actions on an as-needed basis, as opportunities arose, to legitimize, promote, and obtain research studies for StarScientific's products, including Anatabloc®. And asalso detailed below, the defendants took steps throughout that time to conceal the scheme.
The indictment goes on to detail specific instances wherein the McDonnells not only received payments from Williams, but also solicited them:
On or about May 2, 2011, JW had a private meeting with MAUREEN MCDONNELL at the Governor's Mansion. During the meeting, MAUREEN MCDONNELL informed JW that she and ROBERT MCDONNELL were having severe financial difficulties. MAUREEN MCDONNELL asked JW for a $50,000 loan. MAUREEN MCDONNELL also told JW that she could help Star Scientific but that she needed JW's financial assistance.
There is a lot more, all of it of a similar nature. This is--to put it mildly--hugely damaging stuff. There's not a whole lot of room in here for the McDonnells to wiggle free. Taken together, the charges will likely lead to prison time for both, if they are convicted. Note also that the indictment contains a forfeiture notice, as well, putting all of the McDonnells property in jeopardy.

McDonnell's response to the filing of the charges:
"I deeply regret accepting legal gifts and loans from Mr. Williams, all of which have been repaid with interest, and I have apologized for my poor judgment for which I take full responsibility. However, I repeat emphatically that I did nothing illegal for Mr. Williams in exchange for what I believed was his personal generosity and friendship.  
"I never promised – and Mr. Williams and his company never received – any government benefit of any kind from me or my administration. We did not violate the law, and I will use every available resource and advocate I have for as long as it takes to fight these false allegations, and to prevail against this unjust overreach of the federal government."
I'd like to believe him, but it all smells pretty bad to me. Moreover, it's interesting that--according to the above statement--the McDonnells' money problems seem to have disappeared jn a rather short period of time, though it's beyond me how a sitting governor could end up in such dire straits to begin with (which of course suggests the "financial difficulties" angle was something of a ruse).

But we'll have to wait and see how things play out.

Cheers, all.

Every one's a bootstrapper...at least in their own minds

There are things people often refer to as certainties, like death and taxes, things that are always present or eventually occur no matter what we do, how we live, or where we live. And the things cited run the gamut, from natural occurrences like death, changing weather, and rising suns, to societal ones, like taxes, lawsuits, and political arguments. When it comes to politicians, proper, there are some things we come to expect from our elected leaders as a matter of course: we expect them to tell us what we want to hear, to make promises, to project themselves as caring, honest citizens just like us.

When it comes to the last, which we all know to be something of a game, there is one common tool used to this end by most politicians: a bootstrapping narrative of their origins.

The idea of bootstrapping is essentially that of succeeding--in life or a particular task--without the help of anyone else. The term itself has been around for a long time, since the the nineteenth century, at least. Specifically, its meaning is to pull oneself up by the straps of one's boots. Such straps still exist on most boots today, usually in the form of loops on either side of the boot to allow the insertion of hooks which one would then pull to help get the boot properly on the foot. Many sneakers have such straps, too, a single loop directly on the top of the back edge.

Thus in theory, to pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps would be an impossible task. Linguist Ben Zimmer discussed the origins of the term, noting the following:
Cites from the 19th century are easy enough to find on the databases, though the original sense was not simply "to raise or better oneself by one's own unaided efforts", but to try to do so in a ludicrously far-fetched or quixotic manner. The 1834 cite below, for instance, is ridiculing a person who claimed to have invented a perpetual motion machine...

The shift in the metaphor's sense to suggest a *possible* task doesn't seem to have occurred until the early 20th century. Even in the 1927 article I cited in a previous post ("The Bootstrapper", reprinted from the Times of London), the headstrong American belief in self-improvement is presented as rather preposterous.
Portrait of Baron von Münchhausen, 
by G. Bruckner, 1740
He also talks about the idea of the term originating in the stories of Baron von Münchhausen, the 18th century German nobleman known for telling outlandish stories about his adventures. In one of these stories, he recounted how he had saved himself from drowning in a swamp by pulling himself--and his horse--out of the swamp using his own hair, an obvious impossibility. Even though there is no evidence to support the idea the the term "bootstrapping" had ever been a part of this tale--it was always the hair--the gist of it was the same, an outrageous act of self-betterment.

But again, in current parlance "bootstrapping" has lost this quixotic aspect; it is recognized as a valid thing, a descriptive term that can be fairly applied to many, many people. And--as a group--politicians generally seem to believe it should be applied to them.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The curious silence on Rasmussen's supposed bias

During the last two major election cycles--the 2010 Presidential Election and the 2012 Mid Term Elections--one would have been hard-pressed to enter any discussion relating to current polling data and not be smacked in the face with the "Rasmussen is biased in favor of Republicans" canard. Indeed, this idea was given seemingly eternal justification (in the minds of those who spread it) by none other than Nate Silver in a 2010 article where he argued that Rasmussen's bias could be explicitly measured and that it stood--in that election cycle--at around 3.9 percentage points (meaning Rasmussen polls wrongly leaned almost four points towards Republican candidates, by and large):
Moreover, Rasmussen’s polls were quite biased, overestimating the standing of the Republican candidate by almost 4 points on average. In just 12 cases, Rasmussen’s polls overestimated the margin for the Democrat by 3 or more points. But it did so for the Republican candidate in 55 cases — that is, in more than half of the polls that it issued.

If one focused solely on the final poll issued by Rasmussen Reports or Pulse Opinion Research in each state — rather than including all polls within the three-week interval — it would not have made much difference. Their average error would be 5.7 points rather than 5.8, and their average bias 3.8 points rather than 3.9.

Nor did it make much difference whether the polls were branded as Rasmussen Reports surveys, or instead, were commissioned for Fox News by its subsidiary Pulse Opinion Research. (Both sets of surveys used an essentially identical methodology.) Polls branded as Rasmussen Reports missed by an average of 5.9 points and had a 3.9 point bias. The polls it commissioned on behalf of Fox News had a 5.1 point error, and a 3.6 point bias.
Now I respect Silver as a thinker, as a person with an exceedingly strong grasp on numbers and their manipulation, when it comes to polling data and other things. But the idea that there is a firm basis for establishing bias, as distinct from error, is laughable in my opinion. Note how, in this same article, Silver singles out CNN for a high error rate--comparable to that of Rasmussen--yet says nothing about bias:
Other polling firms that joined Rasmussen toward the bottom of the chart were Marist College, whose polls also had a notable Republican bias, and CNN/Opinion Research, whose polls missed by almost 5 points on average. Their scores are less statistically meaningful than that for Rasmussen Reports, however, because they had only released surveys in 14 and 17 races, respectively, as compared to Rasmussen’s 105 polls.
Polling is, of course, far from an exact science. And sometimes, polls do err badly, because of the way they are built or because of pollster assumptions. Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog has been dedicated to analyzing all of the available polling data in order to supposedly get a better picture of things. And in that regard, his predictions on political races have never really been all that impressive. It's not that they're bad, it's just that they're nothing special, in my humble opinion.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

I have no respect for Assange, but when he's right...

...he's right.

Assange, appearing on CNN yesterday said the following, with regard to President Obama's speech on "Signals Intelligence":
Well, we heard a lot of lies here in this speech by Obama. He said, for example...[interruption from CNN host]...that the National Security Agency has never abused what it has done. When the Fisa court has found -- even the Fisa court -- has found again and again that it has done just that. So if the National Security Agency is interpreting what national security means, the secret court, Fisa, is interpreting what national security means, of course, ambiguous terms. And in a secret institution, they gradually become corrupted over time. That’s precisely how we ended up in this process.
I don't know how many actual lies there were in the President's speech, but there is no doubt that Assange has identified one. What the President actually said:
What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale--not only because I felt that they made us more secure, but also because nothing in that initial review, and nothing that I have learned since, indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens 
To the contrary, in an extraordinarily difficult job--one in which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can be catastrophic--the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people. They’re not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls or read your emails. When mistakes are made--which is inevitable in any large and complicated human enterprise--they correct those mistakes.
These claims by Obama are simply untrue. Unless one assumes that the President is incredibly inept and clueless, to the point that he doesn't understand pretty much anything. And that's just not something we can believe, particularly about "the most sophisticated consumer of intelligence" the world has ever seen.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The White House seems to get a clue, but actually blows it again

Today, the Administration announced a number of substantial changes in NSA surveillance programs, what it calls "U.S. Signals Intelligence." Of particular note are those associated with the collection of so-called "metadata," a topic I've delved into substantially in the past. Back in June of last year, I discussed it in detail and explained what, exactly, the term represents:
Now, let's be clear on terminology here. "Metadata" is properly defined as data about data. It's data collected about specific groups of data. Thus for something like phone calls, the data would be all of the individual phone calls en toto, who made them, who was called, what was said, etc. But if we were to then look at this set of data from above (in a manner of speaking), we could collect a whole new set of data--times calls were made, locations made from, durations of calls, etc.--and compile that data with reference to those criteria alone. The internals of the calls wouldn't matter. That's metadata.
I also delved into the government's argument that the collection of metadata was not really on par with the collection of other sorts of data, that it lacked real significance for the individual, that it wasn't "personal" data as a matter of course and therefore was not an invasion of privacy of any sort. To that end, I cited Kieran Healy's excellent essay which demonstrates how metadata could easily have been used by the British in the eighteenth century to identify revolutionary leaders like Paul Revere.

Shorty after that piece, I explored the specifics of FISA, from noting why it was enacted into law to specifying what was explicitly required according to the legislation. With regard to the collection of data--meta or otherwise--by U.S. intelligence agencies, I spent a great deal of time explaining the concept of "minimization procedures," what they were, why they were required (by law), and how this requirement was not being met in the case of current NSA programs. Some details in this regard:
Still, the requirement for "minimization procedures" has once again come up (section (4)), so let's get a handle on what this means. 50 USC § 1801 provides all of the definitions for the terminology uses in Title 50. For "minimization procedures," it says the following:
(h) “Minimization procedures”, with respect to electronic surveillance, means—(1) specific procedures, which shall be adopted by the Attorney General, that are reasonably designed in light of the purpose and technique of the particular surveillance, to minimize the acquisition and retention, and prohibit the dissemination, of nonpublicly available information concerning unconsenting United States persons consistent with the need of the United States to obtain, produce, and disseminate foreign intelligence information;(2) procedures that require that nonpublicly available information, which is not foreign intelligence information, as defined in subsection (e)(1) of this section, shall not be disseminated in a manner that identifies any United States person, without such person’s consent, unless such person’s identity is necessary to understand foreign intelligence information or assess its importance;(3) notwithstanding paragraphs (1) and (2), procedures that allow for the retention and dissemination of information that is evidence of a crime which has been, is being, or is about to be committed and that is to be retained or disseminated for law enforcement purposes; and(4) notwithstanding paragraphs (1), (2), and (3), with respect to any electronic surveillance approved pursuant to section 1802 (a) of this title, procedures that require that no contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party shall be disclosed, disseminated, or used for any purpose or retained for longer than 72 hours unless a court order under section 1805 of this title is obtained or unless the Attorney General determines that the information indicates a threat of death or serious bodily harm to any person.
Why is this in here? Simple, when FISA was passed in 1978, Congress did not want the Act to become the basis for a nationwide and continuous surveillance program, nor did it want ancillary information obtained by federal agencies used for purely political purposes (again, the whole point of FISA). So in this regard, any program that collects data on U.S. citizens is supposed to be close-ended, not open-ended, and non-vital information is supposed to be dumped, forthwith. FISA is specifically about not creating a permanent database on things like phone records. It doesn't matter if the data is regular run-of-the-mill data or if it is "metadata," the federal government is not supposed to be holding on to it, period.
The last line sums things up: any data collected by the NSA--or any other agency--on U.S. citizens for intelligence purposes cannot be retained indefinitely. This is, again, one of the principle goals of the FISA legislation, to prevent a permanent database of what-should-be-private information on U.S citizens. And in December of last year, the DC Court of Appeals agreed. In Klayman v. Obama, Judge Richard Leon found that this collection of metadata was a likely violation of the Fourth Amendment and furthermore, that the NSA was repeatedly violating the minimization procedures that it had established. In other words, there basically were no minimization procedures being followed, in direct contradiction to FISA.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Attack of the Liberal Lilliputians

The Chris Christie bridge scandal/fiasco remains a juicy piece of red meat for a number of groups: the Democrats of course, the pundits and talking heads in general, and the folks on the Right (like me) who don't particularly care for the New Jersey Governor.

In my previous bit on this scandal, I made my feelings about Christie known. To be clear in this regard, I don't like Christie's style, I don't think he really has a firm set of principles in line with a conservative ideology at all (as evidenced by his attempt to steal unused gift cards), and I think he's obnoxious. I do believe he is an effective leader, however. And if--somehow--he were to end up as President, he might actually do a decent job. Still, I think having a leader who practices and/or promotes a "paybacks are a bitch" kind of politics is bad news.

In this particular case--the Fort Lee bridge scandal--Christie's underlings used their authority to punish a political foe (or foes), ostensibly due to a lack of an endorsement. Initially, only a couple of people--appointed by Christie but not on his staff--were involved and they were forced to step down, while Christie could and did claim a lack of involvement. But when the story broke about Christie's Deputy Chief of Staff being involved, that line got a little harder to sell.

Christie was still not prepared to admit his involvement, however, and held a press conference to announce the firing of Bridget Anne Kelly, while still insisting that he had no direct knowledge of what went down. But he also "accepted responsibility" for the incident and promised that he would cooperate with and not stand in the way of further inquiries. As I noted in my previous bit, what else could he do? He played it the only way he could, regardless of whether he was telling the truth or not.

To this end, I'm not sure I believe him about his lack of knowledge. It's not consistent with his style of governance in the least to be in the dark on, well, pretty much anything. And it is consistent with his style to engage in political payback. Still, I cannot rightly say that I know he is lying. What I can say it what I said previously (my boldface):
As the e-mail exchange above indicates, the closures were all about Mayor Sokolich getting exactly what he deserved, in the minds of Christie's troops. The idea that such a mindset isn't reflective of Christie's leadership style is simply not believable. The fish stinks from the head, as it were.
To me, this is the only fair conclusion to be had right now. Those who still support Christie have to accept this aspect of his leadership style. Those adamantly opposed to Christie have to allow they have no actual evidence to reach a more damaging conclusion.

Monday, January 13, 2014

NLRB v. Noel Canning: what's at stake

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral arguments from the petitioner (the National Labor Relations Board) and the respondent (ostensibly listed as "Noel Canning," but in reality  a consortia of people and groups with a vested interest in this case) with regard to the case NLRB v. Noel Canning, an appeal of the decision handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals, DC Circuit, in January of 2013.

The basic issue that was decided then--and is being challenged now--is the nature of a Presidential power: that of making "recess appointments." Generally speaking, the President is obliged to put his nominations for many offices before the Senate, who are then supposed to vote on these nominations, either approving them or not. But the Senate is not always cooperative in this regard, and the President doesn't always want some nominations to undergo a great deal of scrutiny.

The Constitution provides something of an escape clause in this regard. From Article II, Section 2:
The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.
This power--of making recess appointments--is actually quite specific. The only "Vacancies" the President may "fill up" are those that occurred during "the Recess" of the Senate. Not "a recess," not "a break," but "the Recess." It exists primarily for emergencies, like perhaps the death of the Secretary of Defense during a time of war. Rather than having to wait for Congress to come back into town and begin a new Session, the President is permitted to immediately appoint a replacement, who would then hold office until the end of the next Session of Congress (the idea being that during that Session, the Senate would have the opportunity to confirm the appointment).

Set all the legalese and mumbo-jumbo you may have read aside, because this ain't rocket science. It's easily understood, a very basic and necessary power granted to the President for purposes of expediency, not as a means of circumventing the Senate.

Yet, the slow and steady abrogations of these limits by leaders of the Executive Branch has led to the current state of affairs, where this power is used arbitrarily to avoid the confirmation process for one reason or another. During the tenure of President George W. Bush, Senator Harry Reid used a "trick" to prevent Bush from making a number of recess appointments (which Bush really shouldn't have been making, anyway): he kept the Senate technically in session by calling it to order every three days, even if no quorum was present (the so-called pro-forma session). And this trick worked; President Bush did not choose to break tradition, to violate the rules, so he abstained from making recess appointments during pro-forma sessions.

Enter the legal scholar, President Barack Obama.

In 2012, President Obama decided to go ahead with some recess appointments, even though the Senate was technically in session (a pro-forma session), maintained by yet another trick from House leader John Boehner, who would not allow a vote to end the Congressional Session in the House--and thereby forced the Senate to remain in session--over the winter break. He did so based on a rather lame legal opinion from Justice which argued pro-forma sessions were not "real" sessions and therefore did not actually interrupt intrasession recesses.

Friday, January 10, 2014

December Jobs Report: no line left to hold

I have to admit something: I actually thought November's Jobs Report from the BLS was not all that bad. The unemployment rate went down, while the labor force participation rate actually went up. It seemed to possibly be the beginning of some positive trends, real trends, not ones manufactured to serve political agendas. Alas, the December Jobs Report is now out and it has come down like a sack of bricks on the heads of people like me, who were trying to be positive, even when they knew they were kind of dreaming.

Recall that in the November report, the unemployment rate ticked down to 7.0% (from 7.2%), even as the LFPR went up to 63.0% (from 62.8%). And the total jobs added topped 200,000. While there were still some internal issues, some specifics that were less-than-positive (like too much part-time work), it was tough to argue that the report was something other than good news, even allowing that some of the job increases were holiday-related.

In the latest Jobs report, the usually key metric--the unemployment rate--has dropped yet again. The BLS now figures it to be 6.7%, the lowest it has been since October of 2008! So that has to be good news, right? We should be hearing the blasts of trumpets throughout the land, heralding this breakthrough. The Administration, battered and beaten by one things after another, can finally push back via this strongly rebounding economy. Can't it?

In a word, no. Various media outlets are leading with the second most important metric in the report: the number of added jobs. As I noted above, the November Report showed some 200,000 jobs added (or jobs created, for those living on fantasy land), and the December report actually revises that number slightly upward. But what about the number of jobs added in December, itself? A measly 74,000, which as frequent readers of this blog know is nowhere near the number needed just to keep pace with population growth (around 150,000 jobs is the minimum in this regard).

Given this number, how exactly did the unemployment rate manage to tumble down by nearly a third of a percentage point? Yep, you guessed it: the LFPR went right back down again, from 63% to 62.8% (where it was in October). And even more significantly, over half a million people exited the labor force. As Tyler Durden notes, this number--the people not in the labor force--is now at a record all-time high of over 91.8 million:

Courtesy Zerohedge.com

Looking at the numbers from the BLS, it appears that an astounding one million plus people (1.13 million) have left the labor force in just the past three months. And if we look at the numbers from a year ago, we see an exit from the labor force of 2.363 million people. That's some scary stuff. The change in the total noninstitutional population (the base number used by the BLS for all of these metrics) for the same period was plus 2.395 million. That's a difference of only 32,000. Or in other words, in the past year our economy has been able to absorb only 32,000 new workers.

But then, we've known for a while that the economy was more or less stagnant and these numbers bear this out. The hope was that things were beginning to trend in a positive direction. The new numbers make it clear this isn't the case in the least. Some are pointing to weather playing a role here, but that should have been more than offset by holiday-related gains in December, gains that supposedly helped push up the number in November. This didn't happen, which suggests the November gains were more of an aberration than anything else.

Cheers, all.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The race for the "public intellectual" crown

In a recent piece, entitled The Plain Truth: Leftists aren't funny, I noted an incident on the Melissa Harris-Perry show, wherein Harris-Perry put up a picture of the Romneys and their grandchildren as a point of departure for comments from her roundtable of guests. For those who are unaware, one of the many children in this picture happens to be black, the adopted child of one of the Romney children. Harris-Perry's guests cracked wise about this, Harris-Perry joined them in their forced laughter, and a good time was had by all.

Then came the public comments the day after, mostly about just how nasty and inappropriate the jokes were, and how tasteless the segment was. Harris-Perry and her guests--whose names really aren't important--apologized. Harris-Perry herself broke down in tears during her on-air apology. Many thought--and still think--the tears were phony. But I think they were probably genuine. Because frankly, Harris-Perry should have known better. The whole thing was beneath her, given her background (both personal and professional).

Harris-Perry has a BA from Wake Forest (English) and a PhD from Duke (political science). She's taught at Princeton and the University of Chicago (currently, she's at Tulane). She's written two academic treatises and is a regular columnist for The Nation. And of course she has a show on MSNBC. Significantly, at Tulane she founded the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South and serves as its director, as well.

This is not an intellectual lightweight. And given the nature of her scholarship--which is heavily focused on race--she should have known better than to encourage an on-air mocking of the Romneys' black grandchild. But she did. And she looked bad because of it.

Yet from the ashes of her embarrassment, a new bone of contention has surfaced. For after her apology, after numerous pundits on the Right had gone after Harris-Perry, Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic moved to defend Harris-Perry. And in doing so, he said the following (my boldface):
There is a sense that Romney's grandchild should be off-limits to mockery. That strikes me as fair. It also doesn't strike me that mocking was what Harris-Perry was doing. The problem was making any kind of light of a fraught subject—a black child being reared by a family whose essential beliefs were directly shaped by white supremacy, whose patriarch sought to lead a movement which derives most its energy from white supremacy. That's a weighty subtext. But there is no one more worthy, and more capable, of holding that conversation than America's most foremost public intellectual—Melissa Harris-Perry.

There may well be intellectuals with more insight. And there are surely public figures with a greater audience. But there is no one who communicates the work of thinking to more people with more rigor and effect than Harris-Perry. Her show brings a broad audience into a classroom without using dead academic language and tortured abstractions. And she does this while awarding humanity on a national stage to a group unaccustomed to such luxury—black women.
That bit in bold, the claim that Melissa Harris-Perry is "America's most foremost public intellectual," has led to something of a back and forth between Coates and Dylan Byers of Politico. Byers initially responded on Twitter, prompting this piece from Coates, which was then followed by this rebuttal from Byers. There will probably be more back and forth, but the essential issue here has already been established: whether or not Harris-Perry is the "most foremost public intellectual" in the land.

Robert Gates for President?

Gates' memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, is set to be released on January 14th. But advance copies are already out and reviews are pouring in, as the book is setting off a series of firestorms for the embattled White House which just can't seem to catch a break. One of most damning snippets from the book--so far--is the following:
"Hillary told the president that her opposition to the [2007] surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. . . . The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying."
No one enjoys hearing something like this, that a President or other national leader put politics ahead of national interests, even if it's something that most suspect happens all of the time. But couple the above with revelations about Obama's commitment to the war in Afghanistan--or lack thereof--and a deeply anti-military image is emerging, far beyond what was previously supposed by some, of the President and his Administration:
Mr. Gates writes that Mr. Obama had early doubts about his decision in late 2009 to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for the mission,” he writes. Mr. Gates says that Mr. Obama was taken aback by a 2009 request from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, for a major military surge. “I think Obama and his advisers were incensed that the Department of Defense – specifically uniformed military – had taken control of the policy process from them and threatened to run away with it.”
The above piece at the Wall Street Journal lists a number of other--nine more, to be precise--revelations from the book to round out the "top ten" in this regard. And by and large, most of them point to this adversarial relationship between the Administration and the military leadership. And again, while this is not at all surprising on the surface, the depth of the divide, the degree of antipathy between the two sides is very significant, if we accept Gates' characterizations.

The question thus becomes: should we? Is there any reason to doubt Gates, his observations, and his characterizations?

Consider George Tenet's "tell all" memoir, At the Center of the Storm: The CIA During America's Time of Crisis, published back in 2007. Initially, it was hailed as something of a bombshell, especially with regard to Tenet's story about how the Bush Administration had already fixated on an Iraqi invasion immediately after 9-11 and how his "slam dunk" comment was being misrepresented. Look at this review from the New York Times:
Mr. Tenet notes that his “slam dunk” remarks came “10 months after the president saw the first workable war plan for Iraq,” and “two weeks after the Pentagon had issued the first military deployment order sending U.S. troops to the region.” He points out that many senior Bush administration officials, including Paul D. Wolfowitz and Douglas J. Feith, were focused on Iraq long before 9/11, and that Mr. Cheney asked Bill Clinton’s then-departing secretary of defense, William Cohen, before the 2001 inauguration to give the incoming president a comprehensive briefing on Iraq and detail possible future actions.

On the day after 9/11, he adds, he ran into Richard Perle, a leading neoconservative and the head of the Defense Policy Board, coming out of the White House. He says Mr. Perle turned to him and said: “Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility.” This, despite the fact, Mr. Tenet writes, that “the intelligence then and now” showed “no evidence of Iraqi complicity” in the 9/11 attacks.
The last bit here, the meeting between Perle and Tenet on the day after 9-11, was the big one. It was seized on by most every media outlet because it was just so damning for the Bush Administration, with regard to the lead-up to the Iraq War. But the problem here was that the meeting Tenet describes never happened. It couldn't have happened because Richard Perle was in France on the day after 9-11. He did not return to the United States until September 15th (and he denies having said what Tenet attributes to him, regardless).

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Burn Chris Christie down

Updated on January 9th, after Chris Christie's press conference.

The Fort Lee bridge scandal is now much more than just an annoyance for the Chris Christie administration. New details implicate at least one member of Christie's "inner circle" in the scandal, Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly.

For those unaware of the background here, on the first day of the current school year in New Jersey, September 9th, 2013, two of the three traffic lanes allowing access to Fort Lee, New Jersey from the George Washington Bridge were surreptitiously closed by the New Jersey Port Authority with no warning whatsoever. Days later, Port Authority official David Wildstein claimed the closures occurred so the Port Authority could review "traffic safety patterns" (his words in an email he sent to the press) at the Bridge. Frankly, I'm not even sure what this phrase actully means. "Traffic safety" is one thing, "traffic patterns" is another, but what the hell is "traffic safety patterns"? It doesn't make any sense in this context.

Regardless, that's the meat of what happened. The inside story on all of this is that David Wildstein is--actually, I should say was--an official hired by a Chris Christie appointee at the Port Authority, its Executive Director Bill Baroni. Wildstein resigned from the Port Authority in December, effective January 1st of this year. Aside from this link to Christie, Wildstein was also an old school chum of the Governor's and a former mayor of a New Jersey town. And it was postulated by some that the closures were wholly punitive, that Fort Lee was targeted (the closures caused real problems) because its Mayor--Mark Sokolich--did not endorse Christie in the latter's reelection campaign. Here's a good timeline, which includes recent developments.

Up until today, that's all there was. Things smelled bad, but there was really no hard evidence directly linking the Christie Administration with the closures, much less indicating that the closures were some kind of political payback. Until today. For now, we have a series of e-mails released by Wildstein (who was under subpoena to do so) that more or less prove the allegations are true. From TPM, first this exchange:
Documents obtained Wednesday by TPM show that Christie's Deputy Chief of Staff for Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs, Bridget Anne Kelly, talked about the closures with the agency that oversees the bridge weeks before they ocurred. 
"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," Kelly wrote in an Aug. 13 email to David Wildstein, one of Christie's appointees to the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. 
"Got it," Wildstein replied.
Then this exchange:

The eternal extension of unemployment benefits

One of my all-time favorite movies is the Mel Brooks classic Blazing Saddles, starring Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Mel himself, and many other comedy greats. In the movie, Brooks plays William J. LePetomane, an idiotic governor of an unnamed state in the Old West and Korman plays Hedley Lamarr, the state's evil Attorney General. In the movie, during a meeting in the Governor's office with Lamarr and other officials, Lamarr tells LePetomane to sign a provision to allow the state to snatch two hundred thousand acres of Indian land. LePetomane responds by asking what the land will cost. The full exchange:
Hedley Lamarr: If you will just sign this, Governor. Right here.
Governor LePetomane: Yes, yes. What the hell is it?
Hedley Lamarr: Well, under the provisions of this bill, we would snatch two hundred thousand acres of Indian land, which we have deemed unsuitable for their use at this time. They're such children.
Governor LePetomane: Two hundred thousand acres? Two hundred thousand acres? What'll it cost, man, what'll it cost?
Hedley Lamarr: A box of these [a box of paddleballs].
Governor LePetomane: Are you crazy? They'll never go for it. And then again they might. Those little red devils, they love toys!
Here's a clip of most of the scene (plus a little more):

And for those who must know, the Governor's secretary, Miss Stein, was played by Robyn Hilton.

But I digress. The reason I bring up this particular scene is to note two things. First, the fact that even though LePetomane is something of a fool, even he knows enough to ask what something--in this case a government bill--costs, before agreeing to sign off on it. And second, the justification Lamarr offers for taking the land from the Indians: it's "unsuitable" for them and, more importantly, "they're such children."

Yesterday, a bill to extend unemployment benefits passed the Senate and now goes to the House, where its future is still unknown. This extension, if it ultimately passes, would be yet another one in a series of extensions dating back to 2008, when President Bush signed the Unemployment Extension Act of 2008 into law. As many pundits on the Left are overly fond of pointing out, Republicans supported this measure, by and large. And of course Bush was a Republican President. These same pundits tend to forget that prior to signing the bill, Bush threatened to veto a similar one. And those Republicans who voted for it felt--like Bush--that they were voting for a short-term extension, based on expectations that the economy was going to get worse.

Monday, January 6, 2014

What exactly is a "Frank Luntz"?

Okay, I'm being facetious with that question. I know who Frank Luntz is--though I've never met the man--and I know what he does. He's a political consultant and pollster-for-hire who made his bones working for Newt Gingrich and the Republican Party in the mid-1990's. His specialty is what might be called "message shaping," as he uses focus groups and polls to determine the most effective way, the most effective language, to get a politician's or a political party's message across to the voters. Since then, he's worked for various other Republicans, as well as for conservative-style politicians in some other countries. But mostly, he's been something of a mainstay on FoxNews, particularly around election time when he's called on to run focus groups for the network.

And I guess, on some level, he must be pretty good at what he does because he's been getting paid very well for a while now. Apparently, he also does similar work for corporations and the like, helping shape messages for them, too. He's written a number of books on this topic, though I must admit I have never read any of them and most likely never will.

Still, I don't mean to cast aspersions on the man. I really don't. He has a niche, he has marketable skills and the talent to market them. And he's done that, quite successfully.

That said, I really don't care what Frank Luntz thinks about anything. I don't care what his personal politics or political views are in the least. I certainly don't care if the 2012 Election plunged Luntz into a state of depression, to the point that he has been unable to work, has lost faith, and has essentially "given up."

Molly Ball has a piece out at the Atlantic on Luntz and the current state of his life. In it, she details how upset Luntz was after Romney's loss to Obama in 2012, how he apparently believes the loss was avoidable, and how there's something different now in the political discourse:
His side had lost. Mitt Romney had, in his view, squandered a good chance at victory with a strategically idiotic campaign. ("I didn't work on the campaign. It just sucked, as a professional. And it killed me because I realized on Election Day that there's nothing I can do about it.") But Luntz's side had lost elections before. His dejection was deeper: It was, he says, about why the election was lost. "I spend more time with voters than anybody else," Luntz says. "I do more focus groups than anybody else. I do more dial sessions than anybody else. I don't know shit about anything, with the exception of what the American people think."  
It was what Luntz heard from the American people that scared him. They were contentious and argumentative. They didn't listen to each other as they once had. They weren't interested in hearing other points of view. They were divided one against the other, black vs. white, men vs. women, young vs. old, rich vs. poor. "They want to impose their opinions rather than express them," is the way he describes what he saw. "And they're picking up their leads from here in Washington." Haven't political disagreements always been contentious, I ask? "Not like this," he says. "Not like this."
Ball goes on to note how Luntz actually blames Obama for all of this, and I'm mildly sympathetic to this point of view, but only insofar as I see how effective the Administration has been at using class warfare to its advantage. To suppose it has actually changed the character of the population as whole is beyond ridiculous. But there's no reason to go down that road here. The above is meaty enough for my purposes.

For while I certainly hoped Romney would win the 2012 Election and at times thought he had a chance to do so, I'm smart enough to know that it was always an uphill battle for Romney. He was deeply flawed as a candidate (though certainly not as a person, in my opinion). And he was matched up against a President who was still very, very popular, a President who basically had most of the mainstream media in his pocket, at least for the Election. So this idea of Luntz's, that the Election was somehow Romney's for the taking, is a load of crap. Sure, Romney could have done some things better. So could have Obama. But at the end of the day, the voters voted (and we all have to live with that reality, unfortunately).

Similarly, the idea that the level of contentiousness in political discourse is somehow at unprecedented levels or the like is also crap, a claim I've debunked several times. Of course in these past pieces, the claim was being put forward by Democrats or pundits on the Left. And they were blaming the Right--Tea Party folks in particular--for the new level of divisiveness. Now, we have Luntz blaming the Left. But he's every bit as wrong as the boneheads I criticized in the above pieces. Anyone with even a modicum of understanding about the political history of the United Sates should know this. And frankly, the fact that a highly paid political consultant lacks such an understanding is troubling, to say the least.

That said, there is something different about the current state of affairs. And that's the habit the media has of putting people like Luntz (and Carville, and many others) on pedestals, of creating pundits who pretend to speak as experts on political issues and current affairs. This isn't to say folks like these are dullards or the like. Far from it, actually. But the idea that they necessarily always have something significant to say, that their opinions are somehow more meaningful than those of the typical citizen is nonsense. When they're being paid to do a job, their opinions are tainted as a matter of definition (and that includes Luntz's FoxNews focus groups). When they're being paid to just give their opinions, that's all they are giving. We needn't listen to them at all, because they are not office holders. By deferring to them--as so many in the media do--we give them power they should not have, in my opinion.

So when I hear about Frank Luntz being in a dark place, being unable to perform at work, I just don't care. He's not in Congress. He's not a government official. If he doesn't want to do any more political consulting, he doesn't have to. He's free to live his own life however he chooses. And I'm free to ignore him completely, to pay no heed to his personal trials and tribulations, in the same way I pay no heed to those of Snooki. Or the Kardashians. Or the Duck Dynasty crowd. Or those of pretty much anyone whose antics hold no interest for me and have no impact on my life.

Cheers, all.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The plain truth: Leftists aren't funny

I've been an avid talk radio listener for decades. And I listen to all sorts of shows in this regard, though I tend to favor political ones. For a long time, I listened to Rush Limbaugh and Randi Rhodes on an almost-daily basis, to and from work, grad school, or wherever I might be going. For those unaware, Limbaugh is the nationwide king of conservative talk radio, while Randi Rhodes was--when I first listened to her--a South Florida personality, only. Eventually, she became one of the "big guns" at Air America, along with Al Franken and Janeane Garofala in those years after Bush invaded Iraq when progressives and liberals could really make some waves by criticizing the Administration (not unlike the heady days under Clinton, when the blue dress dominated the news cycle, to the obvious advantage of people like Limbaugh). When not listening to one of these two, I sampled whatever else was available, to the point that I've heard basically every major radio host tackling politics (and many who aren't) across the last ten or more years.

I've also watched--and still watch--my fair share of pundits on TV, with little regard for the network. Unlike talk radio though, I find little enjoyment here. Most of the pundits on the cable news networks just aren't very good at their jobs, in my opinion (with the assumption being that their jobs entail giving insightful commentary about newsworthy current events). Still, they can sometimes be worth watching, when they have interesting guests or when they--on those rare occasions--have something insightful to say.

I note all of this because I want to be clear here: I listen to, read, and watch this stuff. I have for a long, long time. And thus, when I say the following, I want you, my reader, to know that I'm deadly serious: for the most part, liberal and progressive pundits aren't funny. They suck at telling jokes, at any kind of humor, really. When they try to include humor in their political commentary, they fail miserably.

People have wondered for years why talk radio is dominated by the Right. The answer is simple: the talk show hosts who are actually entertaining tend to be conservative. Even the bad hosts on the Right are more entertaining than those on the Left. Seriously. And this same formula has turned out to be true for TV pundits, as well. Step back and think about it. Are there any hosts on, say, MSNBC who are actually funny, who can make clever quips that cause you to crack-up or at least smile broadly? No, there are not. And on the radio? Oh. My. God. Air America in its heyday had hour after hour of progressive talk, hour after hour of dullards pimping a point of view with absolutely no clue how to crack jokes with political overtones.

There are a handful of exceptions, to be sure, but for the most part Leftists just aren't funny, even though they try very hard to be funny, to be clever. But their attempts at humor invariably turn into nothing but lowbrow insults. They hurl these insults, then cackle among themselves. In the case of shows with multiple hosts, one will attempt to make a joke and then the other(s) will interject a round of obviously forced laughter, far too loud and far too long. Of course, on a meta-level this actually is funny to me, though I'm laughing at them, not with them.

Franken and Garofalo represent the epitome of failure in this regard. Over and over again, one of them would offer up an insult of Bush or some other Republican that was supposed to be funny--but wasn't--and the other would break out in uncontrollable laughter, usually repeating the "joke" several times, as well.

The Rape of Africa continues unabated, Part II

As frequent readers of this blog might know, I make it a point to stay abreast of what is happening in many African nations, mostly because I feel too little attention is paid by much of the media and the public in this regard. What follows here is the second of a three part series on the state of Africa--mostly sub-Saharan--in general. The first can be found here.
The first part in this series ended with a look at the GDP, foreign aid flows, and foreign investment dollars for a number of sub-Saharan African nations: the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, the Republic of the Sudan, the Republic of South Sudan, and Uganda. Here is a map of all the sub-Saharan nations from Freedom House that also shows the level of freedom--as assessed by Freedom House--for each nation therein:

Key: Green=Free, Yellow=Partly Free, Purple=Not Free
All of the nations I listed above are rated as either "Not Free" or "Partly Free." In fact, in all of sub-Saharan Africa--some fifty nations--there are but nine which were rated "Free" in 2011. Twenty-one were rated "Partly Free" and nineteen were rated "Not Free." This interactive map at Freedom House provides specific information on each nation, including levels of freedom for the Press in each and for internet usage (use the "Countries and Topics" tab).

Note the nation right in the center of the map, colored yellow and therefore "Partly Free," according to Freedom House. This is CAR, the Central African Republic. And the designation of "Partly Free" is likely to change in the very near future, I think. These current rankings use data compiled up until 2011. But in late 2012, CAR became embroiled in yet another civil war. It pitted the government forces of CAR--ostensibly a democratic government in theory--against a loose coalition of rebel groups operating under the leadership of Michael Djotodia and named Séléka. The rebels were victorious and Djotodia became the new President of CAR in March of 2013, and shortly after that--in September of 2013--he proclaimed Séléka to be officially disbanded.

But the various groups comprising the rebel forces never actually laid down arms at all, and areas of CAR quickly spiraled into chaos as these various groups went on a series of rampages, with plenty of looting, killing, and raping. Militias formed immediately in opposition to these events, but this only led to even more violence. Peacekeeping forces have been dispatched to CAR by the UN, but they have had little effect. A number of UN peacekeepers have already been killed. Reports are coming in now of children being beheaded in the capital city of Bangui, while nearly one million people have been displaced by the violence, according to the UN (CAR's population is less than five million).

On top of all this, the violence has a religious component as well, as most of the groups in the rebel coalition were predominantly Muslim and the militias that have risen to oppose them are mostly composed of Christians. Interestingly, somewhere between 50% and 80% of CAR's population is Christian (depending on who you ask/believe), while only 10-15% is Muslim. And even though Djotodia and those in his administration are all Muslims, the rebel groups that brought him to power turned on him in short order.

The unfortunate truth here is that there is nothing exceptional nor even all that unusual going on in CAR, as compared to much of sub-Saharan Africa. While not every nation there is undergoing spasms of violence or civil war right now (though a number of them are), chances are good (far too good, in my opinion) that many have in the recent past or will in the near future. Which brings us back to the question posed at the end of Part I: Why is it that--as a continent--Africa appears to consistently trail the remainder of the world in economic development, in standards of living, and in so many other metrics, from education to health? Indeed, this is the answer to that question: much of Africa has been a virtual see of political turmoil for decades. Consider this graphic from Virgil Hawkins, author of Stealth Conflicts (a book which details how many of the worst conflicts in the world have been largely ignored by most news organizations):

Source page: http://stealthconflicts.wordpress.com/2008/12/30/new-world-maps/

The percentages are of conflict-related deaths, just from 1990-2007. It's a truly shocking graphic and the lack of attention to events in Africa from most of the media (Mr. Hawkins has additional graphics on the above page which make this point clear) is shameful, to say the least.

Friday, January 3, 2014

NAFTA, twenty years out

On December 8th, 1993 President Bill Clinton signed NAFTA--the North American Free Trade Agreement--into law. Earlier in that same year, NAFTA legislation was passed in both Mexico and Canada. Following its passage in the United States, NAFTA went into effect on January 1st, 1994, just about twenty years ago. The initial pact between the three North American nations was made in 1992, between President George H.W. Bush of the United States, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of Canada, and President Carlos Salinas of Mexico.

Bush had very much wanted to achieve passage of the agreement during his first term, but despite his "fast track" authority (granted him by the Trade and Tariff Act of 1984) to make such a deal, he was unable to make it happen, thus it fell to Clinton--who was very much behind the idea--to shepherd it through Congress. This he did, with Republican support. NAFTA was--from the beggining--something of a political hot potato in the United States (and in Canada). Ross Perot's economic platform for his unsuccessful Presidential campaign in 1992 was largely built around his opposition to NAFTA, a key point that distinguished him from Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush during the campaign and likely the chief reason for his notable success as a third-party candidate. His characterization of the widely predicted job flight to Mexico (if NAFTA passed) as a "giant sucking sound" is well-remembered to this day.

Even though there was significant support for NAFTA in both the Republican and Democratic parties, there was also significant opposition. It is difficult to define these divisions, from an ideological standpoint. There was, at the time, a great deal of criticism from NAFTA opponents in Congress of their brethren who supported the agreement. More often than not, the accusation leveled at the pro-NAFTA crowd was that they had essentially sold their voted for political capital or for simple pork, or that they were beholden to large corporations. Those supporting NAFTA portrayed the opposition as out of touch with reality, as stuck in a past world of protectionism and isolationism.

But now, with two decades of economic development, growth (and contraction), and change to look at, we can perhaps begin to assess the consequences of NAFTA.

This is no easy task, to be sure. There are a number of pieces out there already attempting an assessment, but by and large most are far from objective--from what I have seen--and attribute things directly to NAFTA in ways that cannot be fully justified (if at all). Consider this piece by Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute (a liberal/progressive think tank which I've discussed previously). It opens with the following:
The Agreement created a common market for goods, services and investment capital with Canada and Mexico. And it opened the door through which American workers were shoved, unprepared, into a brutal global competition for jobs that has cut their living standards and is destroying their future.
That certainly sound pretty bad: NAFTA has lowered living standards for American workers and it is destroying their future. But what are these conclusions based on? Not a whole heck of a lot, judging from the article. Mostly, it seems Faux is simply looking at the current state of affairs and arbitrarily blaming NAFTA for the problems he sees. Faux claims that NAFTA has "directly cost the U.S. a net loss of 700,000 jobs," a number that probably comes from a 2011 EPI paper by Robert Scott, which estimates that since the passage of NAFTA, some 682,900 jobs have been "displaced." Here is the reasoning behind this figure:
The employment impacts of trade deficits are assessed using an input-output model that estimates the direct and indirect labor requirements of producing output in a given domestic industry. The model includes 202 U.S. industries, 84 of which are in the manufacturing sector. The model estimates the amount of labor (number of jobs) required to produce a given volume of exports and the labor displaced when a given volume of imports is substituted for domestic output. The net of these two numbers is the estimated number of jobs displaced by changes in the trade balance, holding all else equal.

U.S. exports to Mexico in 2010 supported 791,900 jobs, but U.S. imports displaced production that would have supported 1,474,800 jobs, as shown in the bottom half of Table 1. Therefore, the $97.2 billion U.S. trade deficit with Mexico in 2010 displaced 682,900 jobs. Since the United States had a small trade surplus in 1993 (not shown), all of those jobs were displaced between 1993 and 2010. On average, 40,200 jobs have been lost or displaced per year since NAFTA took effect.
Scott is basically imagining these numbers, using an economic model that assumes a static world, apart from the net changes to trade surpluses and deficits between the United States and Mexico. It's an impressive analysis, mathematically speaking, but is ultimately a waste of time, as the rest of the world is not static at all. Thus, Faux's conclusion--that NAFTA directly cost the U.S. these jobs--is nonsense.

This isn't to say that NAFTA has had no consequences in this regard, that it hasn't led to changes in available jobs between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. It most certainly has, but attempts to absolutely quantify these changes are pointless, because it just can't be done. Still, it is valid--to an extent--to look at trade balances as a means of assessing NAFTA's impact. And most certainly, Mexico has benefited here, with increased industrial activity and exports for its economy as a whole.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Benghazi and the clueless NYT Editorial Board

David D. Kirkpatrick, the Cairo Bureau Chief for the New York Times, has penned an extensive piece on the Benghazi attack of September 11, 2012. It is chock-full of information, analysis, and--unfortunately--unjustifiable conclusions. Still, it is well worth reading, if only to broaden one's depth of knowledge on the specifics of the attack and some of the players involved. But the wrong-headed conclusions arrived at by Mr. Kirkpatrick should not go unchallenged. Why? Because they are--in turn--being used to make even more ridiculous conclusions, like these from the New York Times Editorial Board (my boldface):
The report by David Kirkpatrick, The Times’s Cairo bureau chief, and his team turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or another international terrorist group had any role in the assault, as Republicans have insisted without proof for more than a year. The report concluded that the attack was led by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s air power and other support during the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and that it was fueled, in large part, by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam. 
In a rational world, that would settle the dispute over Benghazi, which has further poisoned the poisonous political discourse in Washington and kept Republicans and Democrats from working cooperatively on myriad challenges, including how best to help Libyans stabilize their country and build a democracy. But Republicans long ago abandoned common sense and good judgment in pursuit of conspiracy-mongering and an obsessive effort to discredit President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who may run for president in 2016.
The Editorial Board then goes on to say the following (my boldface):
Mr. Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who has called Benghazi a “preplanned, organized terrorist event,” said his panel’s findings that Al Qaeda was involved was based on an examination of 4,000 classified cables. If Mr. Rogers has evidence of a direct Al Qaeda role, he should make it public. Otherwise, The Times’s investigation, including extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack, stands as the authoritative narrative.

While the report debunks Republican allegations, it also illuminates the difficulties in understanding fast-moving events in the Middle East and in parsing groups that one moment may be allied with the West and in another, turn adversarial. Americans are often careless with the term “Al Qaeda,” which strictly speaking means the core extremist group, founded by Osama bin Laden, that is based in Pakistan and bent on global jihad.

Republicans, Democrats and others often conflate purely local extremist groups, or regional affiliates, with Al Qaeda’s international network. That prevents understanding the motivations of each group, making each seem like a direct, immediate threat to the United States and thus confusing decision-making.
There's a lot going on here, a number of catastrophic logic failures or outright stupidity on the part of the Board, so let's take it all one step at a time. This is from Kirkpatrick's piece:
Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.
Obviously, the Board simply restates Kirkpatrick's above conclusions. But the actual evidence Kirkpatrick provides is based almost entirely on interviews conducted with Libyans who claimed to have been present during the attack, a point driven home by the National Review Online's own editorial board, with regard to the role of the now-infamous YouTube video (my boldface):
The second finding: The massacre was partly a spontaneous event, and some of the Libyan attackers were angered by a YouTube video that Islamists across the Middle East cited as the inspiration for September 11’s violent demonstrations. This is remarkably thinly sourced — the account admits that “many [of those arriving at the U.S. compound] learned of the video for the first time,” and merely maintains that “Libyan witnesses . . . said they received lectures from the attackers about the evil of the film and the virtue of defending the prophet.” Even the Times didn’t manage to find witnesses who could support the Obama administration’s chronology. Susan Rice told us that a video-related demonstration gave rise to the attack; David Kirkpatrick and his Islamist sources say that those angered by the video arrived at a compound already overrun by attackers who had coordinated their assault.
To be clear: there is no verifiable evidence presented by Kirkpatrick that this video was the impetus for the assault in Benghazi. None. Rather, there is weak--at best--evidence that the video may have been used to "rile up" locals not involved directly with the actual attack in order to increase the general chaos of the situation. This is a far cry from the video "fueling" the attack, to say the least.