Monday, February 16, 2009

Things that just ain't so

It ain't so much the things we don't know that get us into trouble, it's the things we do know that just ain't so.
-- Artemus Ward

In This Week's Sift:
  • Myths. The stimulus lets government overrule your doctor, $30 million for mice, the unpopularity of investigating Bush, and the plot to get Rush off the air. Those are just a few of the baseless assertions that pass for facts these days.
  • Republican Watch: Newt's Energy Policy. It sounds great, but it boils down to oil and nuclear.
  • Some Brains Should Drain. Even the Obama administration is being taken in by the Wall Street brain-drain fear. But I just can't credit the idea that the architects of the current mess have a better job waiting somewhere else.
  • Short Notes. Porn star for Senate. Take your gun to church. Blackwater is no more. Planned Parenthood thanks Sarah Palin. Deregulation restores your right to have salmonella in your peanut butter. And more.

The Right has gotten very good at introducing false "facts" into the public debate. Typically, one of these "facts" begins its life in a memo or an email at some think tank or Republican congressional office. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Matt Drudge release it into the wild, where it gets repeated by Fox News and major Republican politicians. At that point, it's "news" and starts showing up on CNN and the broadcast networks. Once it gets that far, usually the best you can hope for is that it gets reported as a "controversy" rather than a fact. ("Next, our panel of experts debates whether up is down.") The major networks have such a fetish about "balance" that they will never come out and say "This is just false."

A common technique here is the "refused to rule out" story. Liberals are plotting to do something unless they rule it out to the satisfaction of conservatives, who will refuse to be satisfied.

Anyway, here's a sampling of recent myths.

Stimulus Myths. When the Republicans decided to go all-out against the stimulus bill (it passed with the support of three Republican senators and no Republicans in the House), they started telling horror stories about the specific programs "hidden" in the bill.

I have to conclude that the Democrats did a pretty good job of combing silly programs out of the stimulus, because the Republicans were quickly reduced to making stuff up. (A good summary of what is really in the bill is here.) The stimulus bill produced an amazing collection of mythology, almost all of which found its way into this single speech by Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia. I'll limit myself to two myths:

The government will overrule your doctor. This one started with an article by Betsy McCaughey, former Republican lieutenant governor of New York who now works at the conservative Hudson Institute.
One new bureaucracy, the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology, will monitor treatments to make sure your doctor is doing what the federal government deems appropriate and cost effective.
McCaughey then made a tour of the cable talk shows, repeating the point that the Democrats had hidden a Big-Brotherish takeover of medical decision-making in the stimulus bill.

This is such a misreading of the text that it almost has to be intentional. It's got the information flow backwards: the system is supposed to make information easily available to your doctor, not to make your doctor's decisions easily reversible by the government. (Also, it's not a new bureaucracy; it was established by the Bush administration in 2004.)

CNN's medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen asked McCaughey to show her where the bill does what she claims, and came to the conclusion that it "doesn't exactly say that". When challenged, McCaughey retreated to the position that the bill's language "could allow" what she describes -- in other words, the bill doesn't rule it out to her satisfaction.

The Wonk Room observes that McCaughey played a similar role -- cherry picking phrases out of a bill and making them sound alarming -- in the campaign against the Clinton health plan in the 1990s. Keith Olbermann notes that the Hudson Institute has funding from drug companies. McCaughey's response to Olbermann doesn't deny that, but claims that her position at Hudson is unpaid.

Pelosi's mouse. Many, many Republican congresspeople (Congress Matters quotes 18 of them) told this story: The stimulus bill contained $30 million for "Pelosi's mouse" -- the salt marsh mouse, which has a habitat in Nancy Pelosi's district in California.

Greg Sargent at The Plum Line has the real story: It starts with an email circulated by the staff of the Republican House leadership, claiming that people at an unnamed federal agency had told them they would spend $30 million of their stimulus money on “wetland restoration in the San Francisco Bay Area — including work to protect the Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse.”

The Republicans have not revealed the names of the people they talked to, the agency, what line in the bill produces the $30 million, or how much of the alleged $30 million is directly devoted to the mouse habitat.
“There are no federal wetland restoration projects in line to get funded in San Francisco,” Pelosi spkesperson Drew Hammill said. “Neither the Speaker nor her staff have had any involvement in this initiative. The idea that $30 million will be spent to save mice is a total fabrication.”
The American people don't want to see Bush investigated. We hear this over and over again from political pundits who think their own affection for people like Karl Rove is shared by the public. But then pesky data starts to show up. Gallup polled the public about three issues: politicizing the Justice Department, spying on Americans illegally, and torture. In each case, the plurality (from 38% to 41%) was for a criminal investigation and another 24-30% wanted an investigation by an independent panel, making 62-71% favoring some kind of investigation.

Interestingly, rather than headlining this poll "2/3rds of Americans want Bush investigated," Gallup decided to lump the independent-investigation folks together with the don't-investigate folks and headlined the piece: "No mandate for criminal probes of Bush administration". That's your "liberal media" at work.

Democrats are planning to destroy conservative talk radio by bringing back the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine is an FCC policy that was thrown out by the Reagan administration. It said that federally licensed TV and radio stations (i.e., not cable or internet) had to present controversial issues in a balanced way. If reinstated, it might require radio stations that carry Rush Limbaugh to balance his show with a liberal show. Some stations might decide it was easier just to drop Rush.

Unless you pay attention to talk radio or other conservative media, you probably have heard nothing about the attempt to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine. That's because there is no attempt. There is no pending legislation, other than a Republican bill to strip the FCC of the power to reinstitute a Fairness Doctrine. (Democrats who don't support that Republican bill are refusing to rule out the Fairness Doctrine. Those schemers!) During the campaign Obama said he did not support the Fairness Doctrine. None of the major liberal media-watch organizations is pushing for it. It's got zero support on the liberal blogs. (We love Rush. We want to make him the poster boy for the Republican Party.)

But this issue is a bugaboo on the right, where they talk about it at great length and interpret every Democratic head-fake as the start of a major campaign. (I think they expect us to do it because they would if the situation were reversed.) Typical is this article from the conservative Gateway Pundit, which accuses liberal Media Matters of pushing the Fairness Doctrine. But the link supporting that claim is just an article criticizing conservative talk radio; the Fairness Doctrine is not mentioned. Or this one from conservative NewsBusters, where a Huffington Post article laughing at conservative paranoia about the Fairness Doctrine is interpreted as part of the plot to bring back the Fairness Doctrine.

Most recently, Politico over-interpreted David Axelrod. When Fox News' Chris Wallace asked Axelrod if he would "rule out reimposing the Fairness Doctrine", Axelrod refused to announce policy over the head of the new FCC chair. (It looks like this is one of the operating procedures of the Obama White House, and the media is having trouble adjusting to it. Policy announcements more often come from the experts lower in the administration, and top White House people -- including Obama -- are discouraged from anticipating what they will say.) Politico's Michael Calderone thought Axelrod's non-statement was worth writing an article about, because he didn't rule anything out.

Republican Watch: Newt's Energy Policy
Newt Gingrich in the Moonie Times wants to end "Bush-Obama" big government policies and instead stimulate the economy by tax cuts, including "Rep. Paul D. Ryan's proposal to eliminate the capital-gains tax."

It's fascinating to watch conservatives distance themselves from the unpopular word Bush, while continuing to promote tax cuts for rich people and all the other Bush policies. Did any of them say a word against President Bush in 2002-2003 when he was popular? Did any of them propose policies different from Bush when they ran in 2006 and 2008? Not that I noticed. But the word Bush -- they've totally distanced themselves from it. Us big-government liberals are responsible for Bush now.

Newt goes on to say that his American Solutions think tank will soon produce an energy policy
that will turn American energy assets (including clean coal, ethanol, more production of oil and natural gas, new technologies from hydrogen to wind and solar and a vastly expanded nuclear-power program, as well as a dramatic modernization of the electric grid and an expansion of conservation) into money that stays here at home.
Sounds great, doesn't it? Except:
  • No one has any idea what "clean coal" is. Perpetual-motion machines sound good too, but that doesn't mean we know how to make them.
  • Ethanol (at least the corn-based kind we've been producing) requires so much energy to produce that the energy gain is minimal. Remember Granny Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies making corn moonshine by cooking something in her still? Scale that up and you start to understand where ethanol comes from.
  • Hydrogen is a method for transporting and delivering energy, not an energy source. There's no hydrogen well that you can stick a pipe into. Instead, you need to use energy to produce hydrogen; then you move the hydrogen somewhere and burn it to get back slightly less energy than you put in.
  • "More production of oil and gas" is the whole drill-baby-drill thing from Sarah Palin's campaign. You can drill all you want, but the world's remaining oil and gas -- if you could burn it all without cooking the planet -- is almost all somewhere else.
  • "new technologies" like wind and solar, and "a dramatic modernization of the electric grid and an expansion of conservation" is some of that wasteful spending that Republicans hated in the stimulus bill. When conservative flagship National Review listed "50 of the most outrageous items in the stimulus package" they denounced "money-losing technologies that have not proven cost-efficient despite decades of government support" (presumably wind and solar energy) and "programs [that] would spend lavishly on technologies that are proven failures." Also included among their "outrages" were the $4.5 billion for the grid, the $6.2 billion for the Weatherization Assistance Program (conservation), and a number of other programs they described as "green sugar".
So Newt's list boils down to this: flim-flam, more subsidies for Big Oil, stuff Republicans overwhelmingly voted down when it was actually proposed, and "a vastly expanded nuclear-power program."

I wonder why he didn't just say that?

I tend to think of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity as the far right, but in fact there are regions of right-wing craziness that go far beyond Rush and Sean. (A good site for keeping track of them is Public Eye.) Recently I took a look around the web site of the anti-immigration group VDARE. VDARE's Peter Brimelow thinks that anti-immigrant hostility is a wave that the Republican Party can ride back to power.

The key, says Brimelow, is for the party to recognize that white people are its base. McCain beat Obama 55-45 among whites, and if he could have captured Ronald Reagan's 65% of the white vote, he'd be president. Yes, the non-white portion of the electorate is going up, but look at Alabama:
[In] Alabama, like the South in general, whites are only 65 percent of the electorate, whereas in the US at large they cast about 77% of the vote. So the GOP is in much worse shape in Alabama than in America generally. But still the GOP won overwhelmingly in Alabama—because it got 88 percent of the white vote in this last election.
Yep, that's the message Republicans should be pushing: White people, unite! Today Alabama, tomorrow the USA! Brimelow continues:
I think that whites, that is to say Americans, will organize. They will ultimately throw off the leadership they currently have. I think immigration will become an issue, and the issue will become an important part of that self-organization process, with your help

Porn star Stormy Daniels is being recruited to run as an independent against Louisiana Senator David Vitter. Commenting on Vitter's role in the D.C. Madam scandal , Davis said to CNN: "I might be a porn star, but I haven't done anything illegal. The big question is not just 'Why is David Vitter still in office?' but 'Why he isn't in jail?'" Huffington Post collects some of her recent interviews (with political journalists).

If this works, maybe we should recruit some dominatrix types to run against the senators who support torture.

Some Brains Should Drain
The stimulus bill contains a broader pay cap on TARP-receiving executives than the Obama administration wanted. Their reason for objecting to the pay cap goes like this:
“These rules will not work,” James F. Reda, an independent compensation consultant, said on Friday. “Any smart executive will (a) pay back TARP money ASAP or (b) get another job.”
(Like getting the TARP money paid back is something we should worry about.) An unnamed source in the administration supposedly warned Congressmen against causing a "brain drain" in the TARP-receiving firms.

Here's how I read this story. As head of the New York branch of the Federal Reserve these last few years, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has been contaminated by the information bubble surrounding the top Wall Street executives. People inside that bubble still believe that they are financial geniuses, and can't see what is obvious to the rest of us: They are failures. They're collectively responsible for the biggest economic disaster in many, many years. And even to the
extent they weren't individually responsible, it was their job to see something like this coming and maneuver their firms around and through it. They failed.

So, is it really true that other firms are eager to hire away, say, the top execs at Citibank? (1) I doubt it. (2) Let them. A new management team at Citi or one of the other insolvent banks is only a disaster if you think the current team is uniquely brilliant. Other than possibly the execs themselves, who believes that?

One more thing I notice about this argument: Nobody ever makes a similar case for blue-collar folks. I mean, at least some of GM's assembly-line workers must be very good at what they do. It's not their fault the company is going under. Why don't we worry that, if pay gets cut, GM's best workers will be hired away by some other factory? It's exactly the same logic. But no, when a manufacturing company is in trouble, we take for granted that the workers should have to tighten their belts to save their jobs. Why not bankers?

Short Notes
A 64-year-old diabetic veteran describes the nitty-gritty of getting healthcare from the Veterans' Administration. It's not a horror story and nothing awful happens to him, but in some ways the very ordinariness of his account makes it worse. I can easily imagine millions of people dealing with this kind of hassle and expense on a regular basis.

Planned Parenthood has Sarah Palin to thank for more than $1 million in donations. But Sarah isn't saying "You're welcome."

When your name becomes toxic, change it -- preferably to something unpronounceable. Blackwater is now Xe. Soon, I figure, Jeb Bush will change his name to some non-alphabetic symbol, like Prince did.

A lot of us have wondered what the heck Bernake and Paulson said behind closed doors last fall to scare Congress bad enough to pass the original TARP bill. We're starting to find out.

More like Rome every day. Now we're going to start trading citizenship for military service.

In God we trust. But just in case ... in Arkansas, you may soon be able to take a concealed weapon into church with you.
Department of Poetic Justice. It's hard to raise money in this bad economy -- especially if you're the guy responsible for it. Fund-raising for the George W. Bush Presidential Center at SMU is going slowly.
Wonder why there's salmonella in our peanut butter and mercury in our corn syrup? The number of food inspections by the FDA has been going down since about 1972. Food safety turns out to be one of those things that the free market doesn't do very well without government "interference".

I hadn't heard anything about this until a friend mentioned it to me, but lots of companies have stopped matching 401(k) retirement-plan contributions. (According to Eastman Kodak, General Motors, Motorola, Sears, FedEx, and maybe soon Starbucks.) It's a way for a company to cut its employee costs without changing people's take-home pay. But you have to wonder about the long-term effects, both on retirement savings and on the stock market. For a trend that affects so many people, this has gotten surprisingly little coverage.

18,000 couples are trying to save their marriages. They're same-sex couples, and they'll be divorced against their will if Proposition 8 is unheld in California. The Courage Campaign has put together this "don't divorce us" video.

No comments: