Monday, April 5, 2010

Meanwhile, in the Real World

I reject your reality and substitute my own. 
-- Adam Savage, Mythbusters
In this week's Sift:
  • Propaganda Lesson: A Manufactured Scandal Evaporates. A conservative scholar tried to show us that the stimulus was a big Democratic slush fund. Instead, she demonstrated how corporate money turns into right-wing propaganda. Plus updates on other fake scandals: ACORN, Climategate, and the thousands of new IRS agents Obama's going to hire. It all leads up to a Rachel Maddow rant worth sending to your conservative friends.
  • Recovery, Sort Of. Technically, the recession has been over for months and the stock market turned around a long time ago. Now it looks like the economy has finally started creating jobs again -- but not many of them. 
  • Catching Up With Pope Benedict. Not being very pro- or anti-Catholic, I lost track of the Church's pedophilia scandal several years ago. But when I heard people calling for the Pope to resign, I figured I'd better catch up.
  • Short Notes.  A California high school greets a hate group with song and celebration. Palin's April Fools joke. First thoughts about the iPad. Studies of lesbian birds. National Review convenes a white panel to figure out what's wrong with blacks. And more.

Propaganda Lesson: A Manufactured Scandal Evaporates
It's good to have Nate Silver on the job. 

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University recently published a study of how the stimulus funds were distributed. She noted that congressional districts represented by Democrats 
received 1.53 times the amount of awards that Republican[-represented district]s were granted
Blogging at National Review's The Corner, she was more direct:
Unemployment isn’t a factor, but politics is. Your stimulus dollars at work.
From there it was all over the conservative blogosphere. Allahpundit on Hot Air wrote sarcastically:
I’m sure everything’s kosher: Surely a president who showed such fierce resistance to special interests during the ObamaCare process wouldn’t let political considerations affect his stimulus awards.
Pretty damning, right? At water coolers around the country the message was getting out: The stimulus was just a big political slush fund.

But then Nate Silver looked at what was happening under the hood of de Rugy's study. The congressional districts that received the most stimulus funding -- they all contained capitals of large states: Sacramento, Albany, Austin, Tallahassee, and so on.
This, of course, makes perfect sense. A lot of stimulus funds are distributed to state agencies, which are then responsible for allocating and administering the funds to the presumed benefit of citizens throughout the state. These state agencies, of course, are usually located in or near the state capital. ... 

The other piece of the puzzle, of course, is that state capitals are much more likely to elect Democrats to Congress for a variety of reasons. They are, by definition, urban (although some smaller state capitals like Montpelier stretch the definition). They are, by definition, home to large numbers of governmental employees, who may be more sympathetic to bigger government. They tend to be highly educated and often are home to large state universities.
Duh. A lot of stimulus money headed for conservative Texas passed through its state capital Austin, a liberal university town represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett. Corruption? No, it's called federalism.

How could an academic researcher make such an obvious mistake? Well, who says it was a mistake? All in all, de Rugy's report is a pretty good example of how corporate money turns into made-to-order academic studies which turn into right-wing propaganda.

The Mercatus Center may have a university affiliation, but it was founded by Rich Fink (you gotta love that name), former president of the ultra-conservative Koch Family Foundations. Board members include Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese and billionaire Charles Koch. Funding largely comes from Koch Industries, a private energy company. (Coincidentally, Greenpeace recently published a report on Koch Industries and its funding of global-warming denial, a topic then picked up by Rachel Maddow.) 

Veronique de Rugy is a career conservative scholar. Prior to Mercatus, she was at the American Enterprise Institute (a Koch beneficiary, according to Greenpeace) and the Cato Institute (co-founded by Charles Koch). She looks like an academic, but her bread is buttered by how well she pleases people like Charles Koch, not by her reputation for unbiased research.

Remember Climategate? Hackers stole data from the Climate Research Unit of East Anglia University, so that global-warming deniers could publish pieces of climate scientists' emails out of context and create the appearance of some sinister conspiracy.

I've mentioned before that Penn State did an investigation of its climate scientist, Michael Mann, who was implicated in the "scandal". He was cleared of any dishonesty.

This week the Science and Technology Committee of Parliament chimed in with a report on its investigation
insofar as we have been able to consider accusations of dishonesty—for example, Professor [Phil] Jones’s alleged attempt to “hide the decline”—we consider that there is no case to answer. Within our limited inquiry and the evidence we took, the scientific reputation of Professor Jones and CRU remains intact.
Not that anybody is paying attention so long after the "scandal" made headlines. 

In both cases, a separate study is evaluating the scientific results themselves, and not just the researchers' honesty. (That's what "limited inquiry" means in the quote.) Those reports will appear later, when even fewer people are paying attention. When they report (as they will) that the case for global warming remains intact, even fewer people will notice.

So despite the eventual debunking, mission-accomplished for the propagandists: Several climate scientists have been smeared, the whole field has been put under a cloud, the victims have lost god-knows-how-many working hours responding to this distraction, and unknown numbers of scientists around the world have been intimidated into staying out of the public eye. All based on nothing. 

Good work, guys. I hear Koch Industries might be hiring.

Have you heard that the IRS will have to hire 16,500 new agents to enforce the health-care mandate? investigated and found that Republicans made that number up, based on more-or-less nothing. 

According to the USA Today, when the Massachusetts Department of Revenue began enforcing that state's similar mandate (conservative Republican RomneyCare being the model for radical socialist ObamaCare) "the state tax agency did not get extra staff or money for enforcement and has not had serious difficulties gathering the information".

Remember the tapes of ACORN giving advice to the guy posing as a pimp? By promising not to prosecute on privacy-invasion charges, California Attorney General Jerry Brown got to see the unedited video rather than the fabricated final product. We already knew that James O'Keefe went into ACORN offices wearing a tie rather than the outrageous pimp outfit he edited into his videos. But Brown's official report gives us a new detail:
In each of [the] ACORN offices they visited together, Giles posed as a prostitute fleeing an abusive pimp, and O’Keefe posed as her boyfriend, trying to help her

That changes the picture a little, doesn't it?

If you've got friends and relatives emailing you the latest laundry list of conservative fantasy, I recommend sending them a link to this video: Friday Rachel Maddow went on a righteous rant against made-up stories, beginning with the ACORN-pimp scandal and moving on to a litany of other current and recent nonsense. She concludes:
What we're dealing with here is the unmooring of politics from facts. ... It's the triumph of fake politics: advantage gleaned from stuff that's not real.  ... Let's have the great American debate about the role of government and the best policies for the country. It's fun! It's citizenship. It's activism. It makes the country better when we have those debates. And your country needs you; it needs all of us. But two things disqualify you from this process: You can't threaten to shoot people, and you have to stop making stuff up.

Recovery, Sort Of
The economy gained 162,000 jobs in March. For most of the last few decades that wouldn't be worth noting, because it takes about 100,000 new jobs a month just to stay even with population growth. But it was the biggest gain in three years.

GDP started upward again in the third quarter of 2009, nearly nine months ago, and the Dow Jones has crept up to a post-recession high just short of 11,000 -- still well below the 14,000 peak in 2007.

Don't expect a boom any time soon though. We're close enough to peak oil that production can't increase quickly. And while in the long term it should be possible to have economic growth without more oil, in the short term it isn't. So each jump in the world economy will increase oil demand. But supply won't increase (because it can't), causing a price spike that will dampen the economy again.

But we could have a bubble in something. With interest rates this low, everyone is tempted to find something to invest in. People are still scared, but they dearly want to believe they can do better than the 1/4 % their money market accounts are paying. It's only a matter of time before somebody cooks up a believable high-return-no-risk story, comparable to "real estate never goes down". And then there will be another bubble.

Catching Up With Pope Benedict
I've been slow to take an interest in the Catholic Church's latest round of troubles. Priests abusing kids, the hierarchy more interested in avoiding scandal than in protecting the innocent -- it's a lurid story, but we've heard it before. Since I was never Catholic and have little feeling one way or the other towards the Catholic Church, it took people calling for the Pope's resignation and the Vatican asserting his legal immunity to get my my attention.

If you're also a late-comer to the story, here's a timeline. The gist: Nobody has accused the Pope himself of abusing anybody. But in the last few months it has become increasingly apparent that he bears responsibility far beyond the vague he-was-in-charge kind. And he hasn't responded well.

The cases. Trouble for the Pope comes in three chunks, corresponding to three periods in his career. In Germany, where future pope Joseph Ratzinger was an archbishop from 1977 to 1982, Der Spiegel (literally "The Mirror", Germany's equivalent of Time) has been exposing a widespread clerical abuse problem. The most damning case for the Pope is Father Peter Hullermann, who Ratzinger allowed to transfer into his diocese in Munich after accusations of abuse in Essen. Hullermann's therapist warned Ratzinger's diocese that Hullermann should be kept away from children, but the warning was ignored and the abuse continued.

Next, Ratzinger became a cardinal and took a job in the Vatican as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the modern successor to the Inquisition, the office in charge of internal church discipline. Two cases that came under Ratzinger's pervue were Father Lawrence Murphy, who molested boys at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin, and Father Marcial Maciel of Mexico, founder of the Legion of Christ, who was accused of molesting more than 20 seminarians under his authority, as well as financial irregularities and fathering a secret family. Neither priest was ever defrocked. Both are dead now.

Father Murphy never faced any formal discipline for his actions. Maciel, who was a favorite of the previous Pope despite accusations of abuse, is a mixed case. Pope Benedict removed him from active service in 2006, but took no further action. Maciel died in 2008 at the age of 87, and the Legion of Christ is only beginning to acknowledge his faults. Benedict's defenders argue that at least he did something about Maciel after he became Pope.

Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Last May the Irish government released the Ryan Report, the result of a 9-year investigation into the physical and sexual abuse of children in government-supported orphanages and reform schools, most of which were run by Catholic monastic orders, especially the Congregation of Christian Brothers. The report concluded that
Sexual abuse was endemic in boys’ institutions. ... Cases of sexual abuse were managed with a view to minimising the risk of public disclosure and consequent damage to the institution and the Congregation. This policy resulted in the protection of the perpetrator. ... When confronted with evidence of sexual abuse, the response of the religious authorities was to transfer the offender to another location where, in many instances, he was free to abuse again. ... The deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education towards the Congregations compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection and monitoring of the schools.
Benedict's reaction has been tepid. In a recent open letter to Irish Catholics, he sympathized but sounded distant, as if he wished the Irish well in dealing with a problem that has little to do with him:
Like yourselves, I have been deeply disturbed by the information which has come to light regarding the abuse of children and vulnerable young people by members of the Church in Ireland, particularly by priests and religious. I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them.
Responses. That letter prompted a public reply from the Irish singer Sinead O'Connor, who as a teen spent 18 months in a Dublin reform school. She wrote in the Washington Post:
To many people in my homeland, the pope's letter is an insult not only to our intelligence, but to our faith and to our country. To understand why, one must realize that we Irish endured a brutal brand of Catholicism that revolved around the humiliation of children. ...

Irish Catholics are in a dysfunctional relationship with an abusive organization. The pope must take responsibility for the actions of his subordinates. If Catholic priests are abusing children, it is Rome, not Dublin, that must answer for it with a full confession and in a criminal investigation. Until it does, all good Catholics -- even little old ladies who go to church every Sunday, not just protest singers like me whom the Vatican can easily ignore -- should avoid Mass. In Ireland, it is time we separated our God from our religion, and our faith from its alleged leaders.
Other Catholics have circled their wagons around the Pope. The Vatican has begun a blame-the-media campaign focused particularly on the New York Times. The Catholic League took out a full-page ad in the March 24 Times with this conclusion:
Here's what's really going on. The Times has teamed up with Jeffrey Anderson, a radical lawyer who has made millions suing the Church (and greasing professional victims' groups like SNAP) so they can weaken its moral authority. Why? Because of issues like gay marriage and women's ordination. That's what's really driving them mad, and that's why they are on the hunt. Those who doubt this to be true need to ask why the debt-ridden Times does not spend the same resources looking for dirt in other institutions that occurred a half-century ago.
No doubt Der Spiegel, Sinead O'Connor, the Irish government, and the Archbishop of Canterbury all have similarly nefarious reasons for pursuing the issue.

A view from the outside. if you believe, as I do, that priests are people and churches are bureaucracies, the tragedy of all this remains but the shock goes away. Whenever you give people unsupervised power, some of them will abuse it. And if you put a bunch of abusers together in an organization, the bureaucracy will try to cover for them. Nobody should be surprised.

That pattern isn't new and it isn't uniquely Catholic. The Founders understood it well. To them, unsupervised power was the central problem of designing a government; that's what motivated the whole checks-and-balances structure in the Constitution.

Clerical abuse isn't a new or uniquely Catholic problem either. A few years ago I was researching the history of my own Unitarian Universalist denomination, and learned about one of our famous writers, Horatio Alger, whose rags-to-riches stories made him one of the best-selling authors of the 19th century. Fiction, it turns out, was a second career for Alger; he started out in the Unitarian ministry. At his first parish he was accused of molesting two teen-age boys, and was allowed to leave town without scandal on the condition that he leave the ministry as well. (The hope that good deeds can make up for a clergyman's past wrong-doing is the subject of his poem Friar Anselmo's Sin.)

Alger's story points to what the uniquely Catholic problem is: the monolithic structure of the Church. Alger's parish was self-governing, so he was answerable to people, not just to a God that he himself could claim to speak for. So while Alger was never tried as a criminal, he wasn't allowed to make a career out of sexual abuse either.

The Catholic Church still hasn't grasped what the Founders knew in the 18th century: A system without checks and balances is not built for human beings. So unless God is ready to take a more hands-on approach to running the Catholic Church than He ever has in the past, some fundamental restructuring is in order. Until that happens, the lesson has not been learned.

Short Notes
If you're looking for something upbeat to watch, check out what happened when an anti-gay hate group picketed Gunn High School in Palo Alto.

April 1 premiere of Sarah Palin's "Real American Stories" on Fox News was an unintentional April Fools joke. The Fox web site said the guests would "speak to Palin", but it turns out the headliners never met Palin. She was just the studio host for canned interviews, some done years ago.

Hip-hop star LL Cool J was supposed to be on the guest list, but got pulled after he tweeted:
Fox lifted an old interview I gave in 2008 to someone else & are misrepresenting to the public in order to promote Sarah Palins Show. WOW.
Yeah, but controversy raises ratings, right? Not so much.

Here's a hint about which way the wind is blowing: Now that he has won the Republican Senate primary in Illinois, Mark Kirk won't repeat his pledge to repeal the health-care bill.

The iPad is out, and Huffington Post collects a bunch of rave reviews. But they miss the less enthusiastic WaPo review, in which a woman with small hands complains that she can't find a comfortable way to hold the iPad. PCWorld lists iPad alternatives.

I have mixed feelings. The this-changes-everything hype goes right past me, but if a tablet can replace the laptop I usually travel with, great. And a big iPod could replace my living-room computer, which is mostly a media machine anyway. But I think the iPad's weight, price, and battery life make it a poor substitute for a Kindle. And as an long-time rebel against the Microsoft monopoly, I dislike the idea that iTunes has to manage all my media and all my software has to come from the Apple App store.

When Canada denies freedom of speech to right-winger Ann Coulter, who comes to her defense? Left-winger Glenn Greenwald. I'm sure she'd return the favor, right?

The NYT magazine has an interesting if somewhat lengthy discussion of homosexuality in the animal world. The slide show that goes with it is hilariously titled The Love That Dare Not Squawk Its Name. (It's a play on the closing line of this poem.)

Paul Krugman explains financial reform, making one main point: Breaking up the big financial institutions shouldn't be the central goal, because that just puts us back in the situation during the Great Depression, when the problem was small banks falling like dominoes.

He wants to focus on regulation, and not letting banks of any size take big risks. Those regulations also need to be extended beyond traditional banks to "shadow banks" like Lehman Brothers. Anything that plays the role of a bank needs to be regulated like a bank.
A Florida urologist has posted a sign asking Obama voters to seek care elsewhere. The sign has no force -- he's not refusing care to people who come in anyway. But folks who advocate for those "freedom of conscience" provisions in health-care laws should take notice: This is where that stuff leads.

Conscience provisions that single out specific issues avoid this kind of trivialization, but at a different price: The government privileges some people's consciences over other people's. The Hyde Amendment, for example, bans federal funding of abortions because people who abhor abortion shouldn't have to pay for it through their taxes. However, death-penalty opponents still pay for executions, pacifists still pay for weapons, and vegetarians still pay for meat inspectors. What makes a pro-lifer's conscience special?

National Review convened a panel of six experts to puzzle out why recessions still hit black people harder than white people, even though we solved that pesky race-discrimination problem a long time ago. The experts -- all whites, for some reason -- couldn't agree on what blacks do to make themselves more vulnerable to a bad economy. It remains a mystery.

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