Saturday, May 06, 2006

Colbert, One More Time

The powers-that-be in the traditional media are still telling all of us why Colbert's anti-Bush rant wasn't funny. It's a definitional thing, it seems. It wasn't funny because the experts tell us so, and telling why something is not funny seems a lot easier to do than telling why something is funny.

But I found it hilariously funny. I laughed so much I started hickupping. And what was funny about it was the fact that here Colbert was acting out the daydream lots of us have had: to actually tell in the face of the authorities what you think of them. And the authorities had to sit and listen and even pretend to enjoy it. They couldn't get up and have the police drag him away into the "Allowed Protest" cages, they couldn't have a major newspaper erase his comments from a blog thread, they couldn't write long articles about the inexplicable rage of Colbert and so on.

So they do the next best thing which is to say that Colbert really wasn't funny. When he was, in the way that really mattered, and that way wasn't about the specific jokes he told.

You might like this little ode to Colbert.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Fruits of Bush's Abstinence Policy?

The Guttmacher Institute is viewed as a fairly objective source of abortion-related data in the United States. It has now come out with a new study which found this:

Poor women are getting pregnant unintentionally at considerably higher rates now than in the mid-1990s, and they are giving birth to many more unplanned children and having more abortions.

In contrast, the rate of unplanned pregnancies and resulting abortions for more affluent women declined substantially during the same eight-year period, according to a new study by researchers at the Guttmacher Institute who analyzed federal data.

As a result, the study found, women living in poverty are almost four times more likely to become pregnant unintentionally than women of greater means.

"Clearly, something is changing, and it doesn't bode well in terms of unplanned pregnancies and abortions for poor women in particular," said Heather Boonstra, one of the authors of the Guttmacher report.

Guttmacher is a nonprofit group that does research, policy analysis and public education on sexual and reproductive health issues.

Based on nationwide data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics and other sources, the researchers found that from 1994 through 2001, the rate of unplanned pregnancy increased by almost 30 percent for women below the federal poverty line. For women in families comfortably above poverty (now $16,000 annually for a family of three), the rate of unplanned pregnancies fell by 20 percent during the same time.

Asked what was driving the trends, the authors noted that some state and federal reproductive health programs have been cut and made more restrictive in recent years, and the decline in contraceptive use could be a result of those changes. Both have increasingly focused on abstinence rather than contraception, and some have argued that switch is also leading to reduced contraceptive use and more unintended pregnancies. Many social conservatives argue, however, that contraceptives all have limitations and that the only way a woman can ensure she will not have an unintended pregnancy is to refrain from sexual intercourse until she is ready to have a child.

That last sentence is entertaining as following the advice in it would mean that men, too, will be limited to just as many sexual intercourses as will guarantee a pregnancy to happen. It's also interesting because the woman appears to get pregnant or not all alone, by refraining from something called sexual intercourse, which you can get from a slot machine in the nearest Target. What I mean here is that it always pays to look at the way things are expressed as opposed to how they happen in reality.

And reality doesn't seem to give the abstinence-only policies of the Bush administration very high marks among the less well-off. If contraceptives are made more difficult to acquire unintended pregnancies do tend to rise. That the same trends are not being seen among the wealthier is most likely because access to contraception has not yet been made harder to those who have money.

Porter Goss Resigns

This is the Friday dump of news Americans are not supposed to remember later on. I have been collecting material on the so-called Hookergate and the possibility that Goss is implicated in it. I have no idea if he is, of course, and that is why I haven't posted on any of it earlier. But this sudden resignation is very odd.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Value of Mothering

A study came out a few days ago about the monetary value of all the services that mothers provide. Presumably also fathers, but the study didn't have them participate, perhaps because Mothers' Day is approaching rapidly and it's nice to have something positive about mothers this time of the year.

The conclusions of the study are simple: Mothers are so expensive that hardly any families can afford them. I'm only half-joking here:

A full-time stay-at-home mother would earn $134,121 a year if paid for all her work, an amount similar to a top U.S. ad executive, a marketing director or a judge, according to a study released Wednesday.

A mother who works outside the home would earn an extra $85,876 annually on top of her actual wages for the work she does at home, according to the study by Waltham, Massachusetts-based compensation experts

To reach the projected pay figures, the survey calculated the earning power of the 10 jobs respondents said most closely comprise a mother's role -- housekeeper, day-care teacher, cook, computer operator, laundry machine operator, janitor, facilities manager, van driver, chief executive and psychologist.

You can go to the site and find out how much extra you deserve to be paid. Of course you won't get anything, and that's the sad bit about this study: It's meaningless because there is no actual plan to start paying mothers for the work they do. In any case, who should do the paying? People have very different opinions on that.

These kinds of studies have been done before. They suffer from a few other problems in addition to the nonexistence of any actual money payments. For example, the questions allow the respondents to record all the housework they do as part of the mother's job, but in reality only the part that is caused by the presence of children should be counted. We all do a certain amount of housework, whether we have children at home or not, and counting all that as belonging to mothering overstates the actual workload.

Another problem with the study is the way the hours spent in different ways are priced. Take the hours a mother spends counseling her children. The study prices these hours by the professional fees psychologists charge. And household management hours are priced at the going rates for upper management.

But the reason psychologists or managers earn a lot is because they have extensive training for the job. A psychologist may have a doctoral degree, and getting one takes years and lots of money. The higher salary of a psychologist is partly to compensate for these additional costs, or rather the expertise that is acquired during the expensive training. The average mother or father is not a trained psychologist and applying the rates of such is incorrect.

An additional problem has to do with the difficulty of measuring hours of household activities in this way. Not only are the estimates subjective and likely to be biased upwards rather than downwards but it's also very hard not to do double-counting. For example, if you are driving your children to a soccer game while giving them psychological advice, do you count one hour of driving and one hour of counseling within the same one-hour time segment? I suspect that most people do, because in reality we tend to multi-task in this way. But should this one hour get the salaries of both a psychologist and a chauffeur?

None of my criticisms mean that mothering wouldn't be extremely valuable, only that this way of trying to value it doesn't really work, except perhaps in a sense of cheering people up.

The American Malady

This time, in concrete terms. A recent study argues that Americans are sicker than Brits:

The United States spends more than twice as much per person on health care as Britain and yet, according to new data released today, older Americans are "much sicker" than their English counterparts.

The conclusion, in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA, surprised some in Britain, where American private health care is widely perceived as highly effective, if expensive. It also seemed to confirm mutual stereotypes, tossed across the Atlantic, that Americans are prone to obesity while Britons drink too much.

Sir Michael Marmot, the professor who is a co-author of the report from University College London, said the research showed that the differences in health could not be ascribed to the "usual suspects" such as smoking, obesity or alcohol abuse. Indeed, he said, neither could the disparate nature of health care systems in the United States and Britain be blamed for the difference in levels of health.

"I'm arguing that it's due to the differences in the circumstances in which people live," Sir Michael said in a telephone interview. "Work, job insecurity, the nature of communities, residential communities, et cetera — I think that's the place we should try to look."

There is a small chicken-and-egg problem with the first sentence of this quote: "The United States spends more than twice as much per person on health care as Britain and yet, according to new data released today, older Americans are "much sicker" than their English counterparts." The author seems to argue that the United States is not getting value for money if it spends so much and its citizens are still less healthy than those of Britain. But another way to look at the same relationship is to assume that the United States needs to spend twice as much because Americans are less healthy. The only way this problem could be sorted out would be with the use of time-series data: If the ill-health precedes large expenditures on medical care the second explanation would be correct, for example.

The study results are fairly hard to interpret in any other way than the one suggested by Sir Michael Marmot. For example:

"The researchers found that U.S. citizens in late middle age are much less healthy than their English counterparts for diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, heart attack, stroke, lung disease and cancer," the press release said. For instance, it said, the prevalence of diabetes was twice as high in the United States as in England and hypertension was 10 percent more common in America.

Comparing the habits of older people, the article said "smoking behavior was similar in both countries, with about one in five people between the ages of 55 and 64 years currently smoking."

But it observed: "Obesity rates were much higher in the U.S. and heavy drinking was more common in England."

The article concluded that wealthier and better-educated people in both countries were much healthier than poorer and less-educated people. "Differences in socio-economic groups between the two groups were so great that those in the top education and income level in the U.S. had similar rates of diabetes and heart disease as those in the bottom education and income level in England," it said.

(I believe that the second "groups" in the last sentence should be "countries" to make the sentence meaningful.)

International comparisons have for a long time shown similar findings when mortality rates are used as a very crude measure of extreme ill health. The United States has shorter life-expectancy and higher infant mortality rates than countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany or Canada. The advantage of this new study is that it uses measures of illness rather than measures of death. That rules out the influence that higher murder rates have on the American mortality statistics.

If it indeed is the case that Americans are less healthy because of "work, job insecurity, the nature of communities, residential communities, et cetera" we end up smack in the middle of politics. For it is politics that has created a society where workers are expected not to take more than a week or two off out of every year and politics that makes jobs so insecure. Indeed, one recent political strategy tried to strip Americans of their Social Security benefits, too. Imagine how many heart attacks that plot may have caused.

Coming Out Of The Nanny Closet

This is a nasty title. I feel honor bound to continue being a vicious feminist who is misunderstanding poor Caitlin Flanagan's point of view. In reality Caitlin is a wonderful person who gives money to Doctors Without Borders. But according to Caitlin, the Democratic Party will not have her:

I am a 44-year-old woman who grew up in Berkeley who has never once voted for a Republican, or crossed a picket line, or failed to send in a small check when the Doctors Without Borders envelope showed up. I believe that we should not have invaded Iraq, that we should have signed the Kyoto treaty, that the Starr Report was, in part, the result of a vast right-wing conspiracy. I believe that poverty is our most pressing issue and that we should be pouring money and energy into its eradication. I believe that allowing migrant women and children to die of thirst in American deserts is a moral transgression that will stain us forever.

But despite all that, there is apparently no room for me in the Democratic Party. In fact, I have spent much of the past week on a forced march to the G.O.P. And the bayonet at my back isn't in the hands of the Republicans; the Democrats are the bullyboys. Such lions of the left as Barbara Ehrenreich, the writers at Salon and much of the Upper West Side of Manhattan have made it abundantly clear to me that I ought to start packing my bags. I'm not leaving, but sometimes I wonder: When did I sign up to be the beaten wife of the Democratic Party?

Here's why they're after me: I have made a lifestyle choice that they can't stand, and I'm not cowering in the closet because of it. I'm out, and I'm proud. I am a happy member of an exceedingly "traditional" family. I'm in charge of the house and the kids, my husband is in charge of the finances and the car maintenance, and we all go to church every Sunday. This month Little, Brown published a collection of my essays about family life called To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife. It's written in the spirit of one of my great heroes, the late housewife writer and feminist Erma Bombeck. It's not a book about social policy or alternative lifestyles or anything even vaguely political. It's a book about how much I miss my mother, who died recently, and about the struggles I have had fighting breast cancer without my mom around to help me. It's a book that pays tribute to the '50s housewife instead of ridiculing her.

Well, no, you are not a member of a traditional family, Caitlin. The traditional family does NOT consist of a working father, a working mother, a nanny and/or a housekeeper. You have yourself stated that neither you nor your husband has ever changed sheets in your house. The traditional family has at least one blood-related person who changed sheets. Even minor Greek goddesses change sheets, scrub toilets and wash floors.

But not Caitlin Flanagan. She has created an odd myth of possibly nonexisting happy 1950 housewives, but by no stretch of imagination can she be counted as one. She works as a writer. She is a working mother, and a wealthy one. Indeed, she is the very thing her articles so mercilessly flagellate. And her assertion that the book based on these articles is not even vaguely political is utter and despicable rubbish. The book is all politics, the sexual kind.

That's two errors corrected. Here's a third one: Flanagan is not criticized for her lifestyle choice (the mythical one about being a traditional housewife). She is criticized for all her writing being a nonstop war against women who work, against women who believe in the equality of sexes, against women who do not view marital sex as nothing more than a wifely duty.

If you are going to go out with a sword, swatting it carelessly left and right, people are going to be mad at you. It's as simple as that, Caitlin. You make up arguments about the glorious 1950s without ever bothering to try to find evidence to back them up. Sex really was better then? How do you know this? Well, you don't know it. It's just a fun thing to say that poor sex now is the fault of the women who have jobs, to whack them on the head with the Flanagan sword.

No. Caitlin is not attacked for her pretended lifestyle choice but for her vicious writing and its message: Women do not deserve equality.

Could this be the reason why she might not be welcomed by all in the Democratic Party if that really is the case? Equality for all except for women. How does that sound as a slogan?

And the reference in the above quote to being the "beaten wife" really stinks, considering that Flanagan's articles never discuss the way housewives might have been trapped in situations of domestic violence in the 1950s, given that they had no earnings and no shelters to go to in those days.

Enough already. The reasons why people like me hate Flanagan's writings are really very simple:

First, she argues for patriarchy and the inequality of the sexes within the family and hence within the wider society. One follows from the other. Are feminists supposed to embrace her for telling us that we should be second class citizens?

Second, she doesn't even bother to do her woman-bashing well. She is a good writer but not a very good thinker and her empirical research lacks a lot. She doesn't alter her arguments when someone presents relevant criticisms; she simply repeats them in the next piece. This is insulting to the readers.

Third, she is a sham. She does not have the lifestyle she pretends to have. In fact, she is exactly the type of woman her articles deplore.

But what angers me much, much more than anything Caitlin Flanagan writes is that her genre of feminist-bashing is now so mainstream that none of the above points matter. A good laugh is had by all the good-ole-boys who watch while Flanagan says what they really think. If only all those pesky women would stop asking for rights! If they could be made to disappear at places of work! And to reappear with the slippers and the sex back at the house! How lovely! Now imagine how manly the Democratic Party would be if only Caitlin would sort this little woman problem out. Then we could get down to real politics

This is what angers me about Flanagan and her ilk: those carrying water for the return of the patriarchy. In a way they deserve such a return, because it would be fair wages for their services. But the rest of us do not.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Wading in Wingnuttia

Warning: Do Not Try This Wading At Home. Experienced Professionals At work.

The Free Republic (Google it as I won't link there) reacted in the expected wingnut manner to the decision that Zacarias Moussaoui was not going to be given the death sentence: Lots of anger and wishes that he'd be killed while in prison but only after many years of suffering and so on, lots of anger at the members of the jury and suspicions that they are all liberals, and also some Kerry blaming.

Then there were the comments on the feminization of America as the cause for our downfall (the downfall of not killing Moussaoui promptly and in a stern and masculine manner). The most extreme of these comments is this one:

I agree. People who have no brains will think killing him would have made him a hero to the Muslims. Actually NOT killing him has made us look like weak , spineless saps to a society who respects ONLY strenght and violence. To that culture we are now not to be feared , they are laughing at our feminine court system. DISGUSTING I say . Real men would have strung his ass up outside the courtroom on national TV and used it as a warning to the rest of the Islamic scumbags out there.We're lost I tell you , LOST !!!!!

Now this is interesting. What Al Qaeida wants is a world where women are neither seen nor heard, where women have few rights and essentially no opportunity to be independent human beings. Where beheading is the way one demonstrates power. Yet this opponent of Al Qaeida seems to want fairly similar things. There is the association of femininity with weakness and spinelessness, the urging to do public executions as a way to show masculine might.

Osama bin Laden would like this way of thinking. His war is a war against modernity, against secularity and against things such as women's rights. He wants to destroy modernity, and the opponents from the other side seem to want to help him do just that thing.

Eileen Collins Retires

She is the first woman ever to command a U.S. spacecraft:

NASA astronaut veteran Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot and command a U.S. spacecraft, is hanging up her orbital wings to pursue more terrestrial exploits, the spaceflight veteran said Monday.

"It has been wonderful," Collins told of her shuttle flight career. "The number one thing for me now is to spend time with my family."

Collins, 49, commanded NASA's first shuttle mission – STS-114 aboard Discovery – since the 2003 Columbia disaster, and is a veteran of four orbiter flights throughout a nearly 16-year astronaut career.

"Eileen Collins is a living, breathing example of the best that our nation has to offer," said NASA chief Michael Griffin, in a statement. "She is, of course, a brave, superb pilot and a magnificent crew commander."

But the experienced shuttle astronaut will not plunge into a post-spaceflight career immediately. Collins said she's reserved the entire upcoming summer to spend with her husband, Pat Youngs, daughter Bridget, 10, and son Luke, 5.

"They've put up with all of my training schedules and then I was gone for five weeks over last summer," Collins said of her family, citing the three weeks of quarantine and two weeks in space during her last mission, not to mention the many national and international appearances that followed her return. "Now that it's been eight or nine months, I'm just going to chill out and finish the remaining work to be done from STS-114, then it's on to something new."

Collins said she hopes her retirement will also allow newer astronauts an opportunity to fly before the shuttle fleet itself retires in 2010. Though a native of Elmira, New York, Collins said she will remain in Houston, Texas – home to NASA's Johnson Space Center – for the time being.

I'm trying very hard not to see this writeup of her leaving as gendered in the predictable way. But I'm failing. Sigh.

Collins has this to say about women and men in her field:

"I can honestly say that in my job day to day, I'm not really aware that there's any difference between male and female crew members," Ms Collins said in an interview last year. "It may be cool to the rest of the world that a woman is the commander of this flight. I think that's great."

Or this, depending on the source:

Collins said she's felt the importance of her shuttle firsts when speaking with young women outside of NASA who are eager to learn how they can become astronauts as well.

"So there has been an impact and I hope that it's been a positive one," Collins said. "I hope that if I'm going to be a role model that I can be a good role model."

At the astronaut level, however, the differences between male and female astronauts stem only from their work capabilities, she added.

"Within the job itself, the male-female commander, the male-female astronaut, it's really the same," Collins said. "What really matters is how the person does their job."

She's a pathbreaker. They are no longer very common among women, partly because many jobs have already had their female pathbreaker. There's still the job of the president and that of the Pope, of course, and they will likely be still there as the unexplored territory by any intrepid great-granddaughter of Collins. So it feels right now. It also feels like some of those paths that were cleared with much work, suffering and sacrifice might close up again.

But that's because I have one of my gloomy days. Right now I'm listening to the news about the flu pandemic. Thou Shalt Not Expect Bush to help you. Because the federal government couldn't even cope with the aftermath of a hurricane, and this just goes to prove that the governments are worthless. Much better to build your own dams and to start your own private respirator machines now. - How did all this get into the post? Blogging is fun.

A Deep Question For The Day

If you could change your sex just by pressing a painless button, would you do it?

Then a second question:
If you could change your gender just by pressing a painless button, would you do it?

For purposes of this discussion, your sex consists of your primary and secondary sexual characteristics and your gender of the way your society's traditions, norms and rules expect your sex to live.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Why We Have Not Won In Iraq

Shelby Steele tells us that the reason is white guilt. America feels guilt over the shameful colonial history of whites and this makes America suspectible to the accusations of the anti-war faction here at home. The result? A long and minimal war, where we are holding back when we should just do a lot of shock and awe. To kill the Islamoterrorists, even if we end up killing most of other people there, too. Or perhaps especially if we end up killing most of the others, too:

Possibly white guilt's worst effect is that it does not permit whites--and nonwhites--to appreciate something extraordinary: the fact that whites in America, and even elsewhere in the West, have achieved a truly remarkable moral transformation. One is forbidden to speak thus, but it is simply true. There are no serious advocates of white supremacy in America today, because whites see this idea as morally repugnant. If there is still the odd white bigot out there surviving past his time, there are millions of whites who only feel goodwill toward minorities.

This is a fact that must be integrated into our public life--absorbed as new history--so that America can once again feel the moral authority to seriously tackle its most profound problems. Then, if we decide to go to war, it can be with enough ferocity to win.

Steele thinks that we need a ferocious war, the kind of war where lots and lots of people die, because somehow this will defeat Islamic terrorism, and he is giving the administration a permission to ignore white guilt and to just get on with the business of ass kicking. Steele can give this permission as he has a black father.

So now you know. Though Steele's analysis fails to cover the reasons for this war and the administration's inability to manage the occupation. Or the fact that the Iraqis are Caucasians. Or the fact that the Bush administration doesn't pay any attention to the anti-war factions.

William Kristol agrees that a ferocious war would kick ass. Preferably someone else's ass, as Kristol prefers to urge others on in this war business. He is peeved at the administration for going all soft in the middle of the Iraq seduction, and he really hates the effeminate Europeans for that:

Yes, that's the view from Foggy Bottom. And it's true the Europeans don't fear the Bush administration any more. Nor, unfortunately, do others. One might also note that, despite all the goodwill built up by our outreach to the capitals of Europe,
President Bush seems much weaker today than he was in the bad old days of unilateralism and bellicosity, and so does the United States. But the State Department is popular, and at least we don't look like Neanderthals in the drawing rooms of Europe and Georgetown.

Condi and her colleagues may come home and say, privately, it ain't so. But it is so. Much of the U.S. government no longer believes in, and is no longer acting to enforce, the Bush Doctrine. "The United States of America understands and believes that Iran is not Iraq." That's a diplomatic way of saying that the United States of America is in retreat.

To both Steele and Kristol I say this: Viagra is the solution you are looking for. Much neater and quicker than slaughtering a lot of people just so that nobody will find out.

Meet The Second Youngest Secretary of State

Todd Rokita of Indiana appears to be proud of his young age, and perhaps of his opinions, too:

Rokita, a republican, who holds one of the highest elected offices in the state and is treasurer of the National Association of Secretaries of State, gave his speech Wednesday night in the Indiana Memorial Union as part of the IU Republican Women lecture series titled, "Something to Talk About." During the lecture, he spoke about election reform, economic development and Hurricane Katrina.

The responsibility of reconstruction after the hurricane, he said in a post-lecture interview, should have been placed upon the shoulders of citizens, churches and neighbors. Rokita criticized American reliance on the federal government after the disaster, saying this increased the scope and role of federal government, hindering America's chances of ever containing it.

"I never thought about it like that," sophomore Molly Carpenter said. "I used to think that the federal government did do a bad job. I never thought before that the people should take responsibility."

No, Rokita is not twelve. He is thirty-four. But he thinks like a twelve-year old, a slow developer at that, for only someone very young could think that it's a great idea to have the hurricane victims themselves responsible for the reconstruction afterwards. For that is what "neighbors" means: other people who also lost all they owned.

Then the fascinating idea that "people" should do this stuff, not the federal government. I guess the federal government consists of androids or aliens or robots. Not people, in any case. I never realized that.

Molly Carpenter got one of those "aha!" moments there, didn't she? Maybe she should next think about sick people paying for the costs of their treatment without any insurance, even if they have paid in premia for such insurance for decades. I bet she never thought of that, either! Well, Molly, most hurricane victims have paid federal taxes. Don't they deserve anything from those taxes?

And Rokita, who are the people not responsible for helping hurricane victims? You argue that citizens, churches and neighbors should pay and suffer the negative effects of the reconstruction. Who should not? Who is it in this country that is neither a citizen nor a neighbor, but is still somehow included in the federal government?

Corporations? I'm sure Mr. Rokita will go very far before he gets to be old and wise. If ever.

Do Democrats Cause Cancer?

From the Simpsons cartoon version of Fox News. Not that different from the actual Fox News which had this to say about yesterday's strike:

Addressing the May 1 "Day Without Immigrants" protests on the May 1 edition of Fox News' Your World, host Neil Cavuto asked: "So is it freedom of expression, or economic terrorism?" At various points throughout the program, the on-screen text echoed Cavuto's question, asking: " 'A Day Without Immigrants'; Economic Terrorism?"

Notice the interesting bloating of the definition of terrorism. Anything the poor do will end up counting as terrorism, whereas anything the rich do counts as being patriotic. Hence, embezzling money from the government in Iraq is patriotic, but refusing to work on one day of the year might be economic terrorism. And you already most likely know that being anti-war or criticizing the Bush administration is also being in cahoots with the terrorists.

The CEO of the USA

Bolten is describing his new boss, George Bush:

"He doesn't necessarily change his mind, but there's no penalty internally for disagreeing with the group or with the president," Bolten said. "But I say internally, because he's very much a CEO, and when he makes a decision, then everybody within the White House should salute and get in line, at least publicly, with that decision."

So now you know how to run perhaps the most powerful country on earth. Just like you would run Enron or Halliburton or any large firm. It's kinda cute that this administration thinks they have hit upon something new and improved by deciding to run a country as if it was there just for selling things.

From the same story, Bolten is talking about the changes he's planning:

Bolten said it may be worth considering whether to end the daily televised press briefings where reporters and the press secretary frequently air disputes in front of the cameras, but he will leave that decision up to Snow.

"I think that will be Tony Snow's first test - to see what kind of power player he really is and whether he's able to establish the right kind of relationship with the press that we need going forward," Bolten said, appearing on the same show that Snow hosted for seven years.

Damage control? PR managers do that for firms, too.

Then there's this bit which appeals to my inner housekeeper:

But he said that does not mean the president's policies are going to get an overhaul. "I don't think we need to change, but we do need to refresh and re-energize," Bolten said.

Buy some of those air-fresheners and hide them behind furniture. Or move that chest to a different wall and plunk some dried flower arrangements on it. It's like having the whole house redone! Or the policies of the government.

Berlusconi To Resign...

Will they have to pry his hands off the doorframe finger by finger?

A Message From Earth

Still getting hotter, mama earth is, and not in a sexy way:

The greenhouse gases widely blamed for raising the planet's temperature are still building up in the atmosphere.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Monday there was a continuing increase in carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide in the air last year, though methane leveled off.

The agency said and there was a decline in two chlorofluorocarbons, gases blamed for the ozone hole over the Antarctic.

Overall, NOAA said, its annual greenhouse gas index "shows a continuing, steady rise in the amount of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere."

The index was set at a base value of 1.0 in 1990. For 2005 it was 1.215, the agency said.

Greenhouse gases, produced by industry, automobiles and other engines, tend to trap heat from the sun at the planet's surface, reducing the amount of heat radiated back out into space.

The result has been a gradual increase of temperatures over recent decades, raising concerns that human activities will result in a damaging climate change.

We are like a patient who insists on a second opinion, and then a third opinion, and then a fourth opinion about the necessity of a life-saving but painful operation. There will be no fifth opinion because the funeral comes first.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Smell Of Fear

I didn't realize that you can make it into a headline, but Lou Dobbs has managed that:

Dobbs: Radical groups taking control of immigrant movement

May Day

Will be renamed The Mission Accomplished Day. You know, the day when military operations in Iraq ended. The Memory Hole (an Orwellian term denoting a hole in the wall through which bits of history will be sent when they no longer match the desired reality) must not be allowed to work in this case, and renaming the day that way would keep it in our memory a little longer.

The Mission was not Accomplished in Iraq. But Bush is fairly close to accomplishing a totally different mission: that of kicking off the other legs of our political system in favor of absolute presidential powers:

President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution.

Among the laws Bush said he can ignore are military rules and regulations, affirmative-action provisions, requirements that Congress be told about immigration services problems, ''whistle-blower" protections for nuclear regulatory officials, and safeguards against political interference in federally funded research.

Legal scholars say the scope and aggression of Bush's assertions that he can bypass laws represent a concerted effort to expand his power at the expense of Congress, upsetting the balance between the branches of government. The Constitution is clear in assigning to Congress the power to write the laws and to the president a duty ''to take care that the laws be faithfully executed." Bush, however, has repeatedly declared that he does not need to ''execute" a law he believes is unconstitutional.

I like the idea in some ways. It would be fun to decide not to obey those parts of any contracts I sign that I don't really want to obey. But I have no such excuse as perpetual war and being a commander-of-chief to do that.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

John Kenneth Galbraith, RIP

He died at the age of ninety-seven. Galbraith was an economist, an important one, and one who appears to deserve an obituary from the august New York Times which says things like this:

Mr. Galbraith was one of the most widely read authors in the history of economics; among his 33 books was "The Affluent Society" (1958), one of those rare works that forces a nation to re-examine its values. He wrote fluidly, even on complex topics, and many of his compelling phrases — among them "the affluent society," "conventional wisdom" and "countervailing power" — became part of the language.

An imposing presence, lanky and angular at 6 feet 8 inches tall, Mr. Galbraith was consulted frequently by national leaders, and he gave advice freely, though it may have been ignored as often as it was taken. Mr. Galbraith clearly preferred taking issue with the conventional wisdom he distrusted.

He strived to change the very texture of the national conversation about power and its nature in the modern world by explaining how the planning of giant corporations superseded market mechanisms. His sweeping ideas, which might have gained even greater traction had he developed disciples willing and able to prove them with mathematical models, came to strike some as almost quaint in today's harsh, interconnected world where corporations devour one another.

"The distinctiveness of his contribution appears to be slipping from view," Stephen P. Dunn wrote in The Journal of Post-Keynesian Economics in 2002.


Mr. Galbraith was admired, envied and sometimes scorned for his eloquence and wit and his ability to make complicated, dry issues understandable to any educated reader. He enjoyed his international reputation as a slayer of sacred cows and a maverick among economists whose pronouncements became known as "classic Galbraithian heresies."

But other economists, even many of his fellow liberals, did not generally share his views on production and consumption, and he was not regarded by his peers as among the top-ranked theorists and scholars. Such criticism did not sit well with Mr. Galbraith, a man no one ever called modest, and he would respond that his critics had rightly recognized that his ideas were "deeply subversive of the established orthodoxy."

"As a matter of vested interest, if not of truth," he added, "they were compelled to resist." He once said, "Economists are economical, among other things, of ideas; most make those of their graduate days last a lifetime."

Ridiculed with faint praise? It's a very odd obituary, both admitting that Galbraith was immensely read and influential and arguing that he was a charlatan whom no real economist could love. And that he is quite outdated these days.

I'm eagerly looking forward to the next New York Times obituary of a conservative economist. There are loads of them, cartloads, in fact, and I expect every one of them to be discussed as proponents of wingnut policies. Anything less would show media bias.

Why do I bother? In any case, Brad deLong has a good post on Galbraith and the New York Times obituary. If you want to learn more about Galbraith's ideas you can do worse than by reading the Good Society.

The rest of this post I want to dedicate to the question of mathematical modeling in economics and the reasons why Galbraith didn't go that route. And no, this is not going to be boring at all, but very important to understand.

Social sciences have for long suffered from a sort of penis envy. Sciences such as physics and chemistry and mathematics are seen as "hard", whereas the poor social sciences have long been regarded as "soft". Hence the penis envy, or possibly a gendering of scientific fields of inquiry, with the priority given to those which can use mathematical methods. The idea is that numbers make things neutral, objective, true, something that can't be debated. If only we could do the same thing with economics and sociology! Imagine the importance of our cool and neutral findings on the human species!

Economics, the lucky stepdaughter (heh) of hard sciences has more numbers to work with than sociology, and economists have long strived to take advantage of these numbers and to make economics into a Real Manly Science. This has worked so well that now you have to do graduate level mathematics if you want to be an economist, and you can talk in code and have people flee your presence in cocktail parties quite easily. Trust me. I know this for a fact, and I can make a mathematical model of the rate of fleeing as a function of my verbosity.

This mathematizing of economics has had the added advantage of real sibling envy from sociologists, who also would like to be viewed as hard scientists. Even the psychologists have entered the fray from humanities, by deciding that everything in psychology exists because of the primitive caveman and his happy housewife sidekick were programmed in a certain way, easily demonstrable by showing undergraduate American and British young men pictures of female faces and by administering a large number of fancy statistical tests to the results.

Mathematics is a language, and what we say with it will be no better than the original information and assumptions we use. If we start with false assumptions we are going to end up with false conclusions. If we want to use empirical information to test the model we are building we need a simple model in most cases. So a lot of stuff will be cut out or ignored. Reality does not cut out and ignore stuff like this. This does not mean that simple models couldn't be important or that mathematics is useless in economics. Quite the opposite. But mathematics is not a religion and the knowledge we get by applying formal modeling is not superior just because it is based on formal modeling. It may be easier to follow and to criticize than a verbal explanation of a phenomenom, largely because the "words" in mathematics have very precise definitions and the "grammar" of the functions is known to all in the fields. But what the "sentences and paragraphs" say still depends on what we assumed at the beginning and on how good our data are, not just on how eloquent the mathematical language might be that we use.

Galbraith understood this. He was looking at features of the economic markets which did not lend themselves to easy mathematical expressions, and not because of faulty or unimportant reasoning, but because the required mathematics did not exist in some obvious form. Galbraith wanted to look at the complicated reality, the big picture, if you like, and the tools to do this were (and still are) limited to thinking and the use of ordinary language.

I am not opposed to the use of mathematics in economics. It certainly has its place, and there are many great economists who use mathematics skillfully and with benefit. But mathematics shouldn't displace the kind of analysis Galbraith excelled at, because if it does we will end up with a shriveled and juiceless discipline. I'm reminded here of Galbraith's novel about a professional economist who after a lot of dithering decided that it might be safe to branch out from analyzing the refrigerator market to the freezer market. If we can only speak about those things that can be easily modeled, well, then this sort of a career move would be a major step forwards: using the same mathematics but with a new question.

Galbraith didn't want to do that. He wanted to analyze interesting questions, questions which really mattered, and he wanted to convey his reasoning in terms which many readers could understand. If he sometimes failed in his arguments or his clarity, well, he could have always chosen to write about the freezer markets. This would have guaranteed his place as a respected economist.

Colbert Fun

If you weren't watching CSPAN last night (and most of us don't) you can still catch Colbert's jokes here. Whether they are jokes may depend on the sense of humor of the butt of the jokes. In this case the butt of the jokes was the whole press corps as well as the administration.