Monday, August 27, 2012


I reject that number completely, that people die in America because of lack of health insurance.

-- Rick Santorum on the campaign trail last December

I reject your reality and substitute my own.

-- Adam Savage, Mythbusters

This week everybody was still talking about Todd Akin

It won't die, no matter how much the Republicans would like to kill it. The most entertaining responses have been musical. Like this piece from Taylor Ferrera.

Or this from the Renegade Raging Grannies.

Bria and Chrissie want to thank Akin.

CoochWatch is actually directed at Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, but I can't help speculating that Akin has something to do with the timing of this piece.

But I decided not to rehash everything I covered last week, so I went looking for a more general lesson to learn. Here's what I came up with:

Five Pretty Lies and the Ugly Truths They Hide. When implemented, conservative policies cause a lot of ugliness. And when confronted with these ugly consequences, conservatives rarely adopt a more compassionate position. A few brave ones talk about necessary sacrifices and breaking eggs to make omelets, but most just paper over the ugliness with a pretty lie. “Raped women don’t get pregnant” is just the first lie on my list. It hides the ugly truth that they want to force women to have babies for their rapists.

... and you might also find this stuff interesting

Paul Ryan on abortion:
I stand by my pro-life record in Congress. It’s something I’m proud of. But Mitt Romney is the top of the ticket and Mitt Romney will be president and he will set the policy of the Romney administration.

I wonder if Mitt Romney understands that statements like this endanger his life.

People sometimes question why VPs are such yes-men. Well, it's their job. A VP should NEVER admit a policy difference between himself and the president. If he does, he's telling all the violent lunatics in the country that they can change government policy with a gun.

A former Congressman writes from Azkaban: "Maybe we shouldn't have let Lord Voldemort start his own SuperPAC. It just seems like under the old rules, even He-Who-Must-Not Be-Named had to be, you know, named."

Ezra Klein:
This is where things get tricky. Romney’s welfare ads are not racist. But the evidence suggests that they work particularly well if the viewer is racist, or at least racially resentful. And these are the ads that are working so unexpectedly well that welfare is now the spine of Romney’s 2012 on-air message in the battleground states.

So ... I'm not racist, I just focus my campaign on people who are. Yeah, that's tricky all right. It fits right into the model I put forward last week in How Lies Work.

With the death of Neil Armstrong, we're down to eight living people who have walked on the Moon. The youngest will turn 77 in a few weeks, so we're maybe 10-20 years from seeing this human experience recede into the past. "Look on my works, ye Mighty ..."

A guy gets one of those obviously bogus many-thousands-of-dollars checks in a direct-mail pitch. It's marked "non-negotiable" and everything, but on a lark he deposits it at an ATM, certain that any day he'll get a notice saying the check has bounced. And then nothing happens for a long, long time ...

More music. If the rich are going to fight a class war this intensely, maybe the rest of us need to get our act together. "It's time to clean that guillotine ..."

And keeping with the French Revolution musical theme, a full chorus does "One Term More" a la Les Miz.

And then there's "Romney Girl" (to the tune of "Barbie Girl"), who perfectly illustrates the point National Review was making:

From an evolutionary point of view, Mitt Romney should get 100 percent of the female vote. All of it. He should get Michelle Obama’s vote.

Because really, deep down, aren't American women just look for a dominant male? Or is that just latent homosexual National Review writers?

Finally, when Romney started editing video of Obama, I don't think he realized it would lead to this:

Yale history professor Beverley Gage asks an interesting question: Sure there are liberal books, but why isn't there a liberal canon? You know -- a short list of books that everybody in the movement either has read or feels guilty about not having read. Conservatives have Atlas Shrugged, The Road to Serfdom, Free to Choose, and a few others. There really aren't any liberal books that play the same role.

My opinion: Liberals have a different relationship to texts. We're not looking for political scripture. To tell the truth, most of us are ambivalent about scripture in general. Christian liberals usually aren't literal-minded about the Bible either.

But conservatives resonate with the idea that Ultimate Truth got written down years ago. "Here! Read it! It will change your life."

Speaking of a different relationship to texts, James Martin, author of The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, writes the gospel the way it would have been if Jesus had been a modern-day conservative. (This gives me a chance to re-plug my corporate rewrite of Genesis.)

When Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson denounced Barack Obama in a Newsweek cover article, the reaction across the internet was: Seriously?

The head-scratching didn't come from Ferguson opposing Obama; almost half the country is against Obama. But such a distinguished scholar mangling his facts and using obvious rhetorical tricks to hide the weakness of the case he's making? Doubling down with more deception when he's caught? What's up with that? It's embarrassing. (Newsweek was embarrassed too; it had to admit that it doesn't fact-check.)

After apologizing to the country on behalf of the Harvard community, alum James Fallows speculated:
I wonder if one of Ferguson's students will have the panache to turn in a similar paper to see how it fares.

It took Esquire's Stephen Marche to solve the mystery of the sophomoric professor. He followed the money.
Look at [Ferguson's] speaking agent's Web site. The fee: 50 to 75 grand per appearance. That number means that the entire economics of Ferguson's writing career, and many other writing careers, has been permanently altered. Nonfiction writers can and do make vastly more, and more easily, than they could ever make any other way, including by writing bestselling books or being a Harvard professor. Articles and ideas are only as good as the fees you can get for talking about them. They are merely billboards for the messengers.

That number means that Ferguson doesn't have to please his publishers; he doesn't have to please his editors; he sure as hell doesn't have to please scholars. He has to please corporations and high-net-worth individuals, the people who can pay 50 to 75K to hear him talk. That incredibly sloppy article was a way of communicating to them: I am one of you. I can give a great rousing talk about Obama's failures at any event you want to have me at.

It's just one more example of the difference between a market economy (where markets set prices) and a market society (where everything is for sale).

One more example: You can hire people to post good reviews of your book on Amazon. If you totally sell out, reviewing is way more lucrative than writing.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Rage For the Machine

Paul Ryan's love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades. ... Don't mistake me, I clearly see that Ryan has a whole lotta "rage" in him: A rage against women, a rage against immigrants, a rage against workers, a rage against gays, a rage against the poor, a rage against the environment. Basically the only thing he's not raging against is the privileged elite he's groveling in front of for campaign contributions.

-- Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine

Before getting into what happened this week, I want to look ahead a week, to the Republican Convention. Unless the GOP completely screws up (which is possible; the 1992 "Culture War" convention didn't do them much good), the Romney-Ryan ticket should get a bounce in the polls. The most likely outcome is that they'll leave Tampa with a lead.

You shouldn't lose sleep about that. McCain-Palin had a lead briefly, and we know how that turned out. For that matter, Dukakis came out of the 1988 Democratic Convention with a 17-point lead. This year's Democratic Convention ends September 6, and maybe a week after that you can start taking polls at face value again. In the meantime, follow Nate Silver. Don't get worried until Nate does.

This week everybody was still talking about Paul Ryan

Except for the people who are drawing and animating Paul Ryan:

I did almost 2000 words on Ryan last week, but the subject is vast. Most of last week's article focused on Ryan's (largely false) image as an anti-deficit guy. But if that's all we talk about, we've fallen into the same Tea Party trap as 2010.

Remember? The Tea Party sold itself as a grass-roots, non-partisan movement narrowly focused on taxes, spending, and the deficit. Then they got power and started forcing ultrasound probes up women's vaginas.

Paul Ryan is the same kind of guy, and we shouldn't lose sight of that. Hence this week's article: Paul Ryan, Veteran of the War on Women.

Two other Ryan stories: So Ryan was totally against the Stimulus program in public, and said many times that it would not create jobs. But he wrote at least four letters requesting stimulus money for his district, including one that says the proposal would "stimulate the local and area economy by creating jobs" -- exactly what he was saying in public that the Stimulus couldn't do.

When asked about this apparent hypocrisy, Ryan has repeatedly claimed he never asked for stimulus funds. Now that the letters have come out, he's blaming his staff.

The second story is more complicated: Ryan was accused of insider trading. Then the story was debunked. Then it wasn't. Stay tuned.

... and Medicare

On the surface it seems absurd that any ticket with Paul Ryan on it could claim to be defending Medicare against the dastardly President Obama. But a lot of work has gone into preparing the ground for this kind of propaganda. I examine it in How Lies Work.

... and you might also find this stuff interesting

Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin isn't concerned about a rape exception to abortion laws, because biology works differently in his world:
If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

After a considerable firestorm, Akin said he "misspoke", which is hilarious. You can't "misspeak" an entire pseudo-scientific explanation. Acceptable excuses might include "my abstinence-only sex-education class didn't tell me how the female body works" or "I was off my meds during that interview". But "I misspoke" doesn't cut it.

Lots of airlines lose your luggage, United lost a 10-year-old -- and then followed up about as badly as you could imagine. I know I repeat myself, but Corporations Are Sociopaths -- they're fundamentally self-centered and amoral.

When Mitt Romney tells us about his taxes and asks for our trust rather than providing evidence, you need to know that he's done this before -- and lied. When his Massachusetts residency was challenged before his 2002 run for governor, he refused to reveal his tax returns, but said they would show he had filed as a Massachusetts resident. In fact, he hadn't.

Cracked imagines another scene in its "It Must Have Happened" series. Here, Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard discuss how to monkey-wrench American culture:

A mixed week on voting rights. A Pennsylvania judge refused to block that state's voter-ID law, but a Florida judge did block a plan to curb early voting, and Ohio's secretary of state backed off of a plan to allow extended hours for early voting in Republican counties only. The Pennsylvania decision has the most impact, so net advantage to voter suppression.

The Pennsylvania judge faced the same situation as the Supreme Court did in June when it allowed one part of Arizona's papers-please law to stand: In order to strike down a law before it takes effect, a judge has to determine that it can't be enforced in a constitutional way. No matter how likely it looks that somebody's rights will be violated, the judge can't assume bad faith enforcement. It's a high bar.

In the wake of a shooting at the Family Research Council, 23 LGBT groups did the honorable thing and denounced it without conditions:
regardless of what emerges as the reason for this shooting, we utterly reject and condemn such violence.

A sidebar to my How Lies Work article: Journalists are actively discussing how to handle the "post-truth campaign" Romney is running. A post on WaPo's "The Fix" blog seemed to admire the savviness of Romney's distortions rather than criticize their lack of honesty. And, maybe for the first time, this was roundly condemned within the profession. Jay Rosen's post is a good entry point to the discussion.

Monday, August 13, 2012

If They Win

To envisage what Republicans would do if they win in November, the person to understand is not necessarily Romney, who has been a policy cipher all his public life. The person to understand is Paul Ryan.

-- Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker
(last week, when Ryan was still a long shot VP choice)

This week everybody was talking about Paul Ryan

Saturday, Mitt Romney did what any good CEO would do: His brand was sinking because it lacked any core convictions, so he arranged a merger to acquire some. I don't have to play pundit here, because so many good observations have already been made that I can just collect the ten best in I Read Everything About Paul Ryan So You Don't Have To.

... but I also wrote about terrorism

In particular, what happens when the terrorist looks just like the viewing majority? Well, the media has to explain that away somehow. I named my article after the phrase you'll never hear on mainstream TV: White Right-wing Christian Terrorist.

... and you might also find this stuff interesting

In Ohio, if you live in a Republican county, you'll have extended hours for early voting. If you live in a Democratic county, you'll probably have to take time out of the work day. Remember that if Romney wins the election because he carries Ohio by 500 votes.

Two weeks ago I talked about how transparent markets help producers and consumers, while opaque markets favor middlemen who can build near monopolies.

Thursday's NYT had an article about a major loss of transparency that is coming to a market near you: Supermarkets can now crunch data about you on the fly, and offer you a different price than the one on the shelves.

Of course, if a retailer can reward you for a buying pattern it likes, it can also punish you for a buying pattern it dislikes. Imagine: "I went to the farmer's market last week, and now I'm paying full price for everything."

If you've finished all the beach-reading you planned to do this summer, I've got a couple more serious recent novels to suggest:

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra. The best line about this novel is that it's "as if Dickens had written The Godfather and placed it in India". The biography of a Mumbai gangster forms the trellis, but around it climb the vines of a Sikh policeman, a Bollywood star, and dozens of other fascinating people. Along the way it becomes obvious that there's a Mumbai Dream, and it's not all that different from one version of the American Dream. People want to go where the bright lights are and become Somebody. But when it works, is that Somebody still you? (As a bonus, you'll learn how to swear in Hindi like a Mumbai cop.)

A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer Dubois. This has been out just long enough for my local library to get a copy. It's two stories that converge: a 30-year-old American woman who knows she just has a year or two before the Huntington's disease that killed her father starts to take her mind away, and a Russian chess-champion-turned-political-dissident who is modeled so closely on Garry Kasparov that some of the specific chess games match up. She knows she can't beat her disease; he knows he can't beat Putin -- what do you do with that? (The bonus here is Dubois' way with words. She can evoke a complicated situation with deceptively simple language. At one point, for example, the female narrator notices that a man is "looking at me the way that men looked at me back when men looked at me.")

Following up on last week's "The Looming Software Catastrophe", here's an NYT article about the impossibility of testing software like the automatic trading program that brought down Knight Capital.

The ultimate success or failure of ObamaCare rests on how effectively it can bring down costs without explicit care-rationing. Just as Massachusetts' RomneyCare was the model before, its cost-containment program could be the model now.

The Pope will now accept people using condoms to avoid spreading AIDS. But the ridged and flavored ones are still right out.

So a Mennonite minister is on trial for helping an "ex-lesbian" mother kidnap her own child to keep her away from the mother's former same-sex partner. Naturally, this reminds Focus on the Family's Bryan Fischer of the underground railroad. He thinks organized kidnapping of children would be a good thing.

You can't make this stuff up.

The Sift has been way too serious this week. Let's close with something fun:

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

On and on

The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one - no matter where he lives or what he does - can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on.

--   Robert Kennedy (1968), two months before his assassination,

Among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet.

-- Abraham Lincoln (1863), quoted by Kennedy in the same speech

This week, we had another shooting

I hope the shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin doesn't turn out to be the hate crime it looks like. And even more, I hope it isn't a hate crime by somebody who thought that Sikhs are Muslims because they wear turbans. It's bad enough to die for your religion, but it would be even worse to die because somebody mistook you for some other religion.

I'm a Unitarian Universalist, so of course this incident reminds me of the Knoxville shooting at a UU church.

Until then, everybody was talking about the Olympics

Watching this Olympics is frustrating for sports fans, because we're not NBC's target audience. They're covering the Olympics as a phenomenon that just happens to include athletes, and the target audience watches because that's what you do in August of a leap year.

So an hour of coverage contains maybe 10-15 minutes of actual competition. The rest consists of athletes' backstories, retrospectives of past Olympics, interviews with people who aren't competing, features on English culture, post-event bouncing and hugging, medal award ceremonies, and so on.

Yes, NBC, Gabby Douglas does have a great smile. I noticed that the other 12 times you mentioned it. But there's a Russian girl who's actually doing something right now. Could we maybe get a look at her?

When NBC does get around to the competitions, sportscasting is an afterthought. Announcers tell the story before the fact, and if the event turns out some other way it's as if reality screwed up by failing to fulfill their predictions. (Sunday night, the other vaulters were covered as if they were just the opening act for McKayla Maroney. What in reality was an exciting upset by the Romanian was presented as a mystifying glitch.) A long race is just a visual backdrop for a chat about the American runner. (Uh, guys, some African is coming up strong on the outside. Can you tell us who he is? Are you watching?)  And I frequently find myself yelling at the TV: "Fascinating anecdote, but what's the score? TELL ME THE SCORE!"

Oh well, why should they care what I think when the ratings are this good?

... and about Mitt Romney's taxes

because he still refuses to release tax returns before 2010. This week's episode centered on Harry Reid quoting an anonymous source who told him Romney "hasn't paid taxes for ten years." Romney countered that he "paid a lot of taxes" every year, and challenged Reid to "put up or shut up" by naming his source. But Romney will not put up anything to support his own claims.

This exchange continues the long tradition of August as silly season. Romney and Reid are arguing about what they could prove if they wanted to, but neither is actually proving anything.

Why are we talking about this? The tax-return issue only matters if it crystalizes a pattern. Two possibilities: First, a character pattern in which Romney is not just rich, but arrogant. He has decided what voters need to know about him, and that's that.

Second, a pattern of vagueness and shiftiness. This non-disclosure reminds voters that Romney also hasn't released the details of his tax plan, or his budget plan, or his health care plan, or anything else. Plus he still has at least two positions on culture-war issues like abortion and contraception.

Ezra Klein makes the second link:
If [Romney's people] thought releasing more details would make the [tax] plan look better rather than worse, they would have released them rather than letting outside organizations fill in the blanks. It’s essentially the same theory as refusing to release the tax returns.

... and jobs.

The July jobs report was a dog that didn't bark. After a dismal June (only 64,000 new jobs), July could have signaled the onset of a new recession. But instead the economy added 163,000 jobs. That's not enough to keep the unemployment rate from ticking up to 8.3%, but this bumpy not-quite-recovery muddles along.

Naturally, the commentary focused on how the report affects the stock market (up), and Obama's re-election chances (also up). But shouldn't it be about the people who either got or didn't get jobs?

Meanwhile, I wrote about insecure software

And you might also find this stuff interesting

Courtesy of George Takei (whose service on the Enterprise must give him an in with the space program), we get the first photos from the Curiosity probe that has landed on Mars:

I spent the week in Illinois, close enough to Missouri to hear the political ads in the last week before the primary. Senate candidate Sarah Steelman has gone all-in with Sarah Palin. You'd think Palin was the candidate. She has become the face and voice of the Steelman campaign.


The NYT’s “Your Money” column addressed an interesting question: Suppose you’ve come to the conclusion that the for-profit financial services industry is rigged against you, but you haven’t taken a vow of poverty and you still want to save and invest for your retirement. What do you do?

Your first move is obvious: bank at a credit union. For IRA and/or brokerage services, use
Vanguard, USAA or TIAA-CREF, all of which are member-owned or use profits to pay dividends to customers and lower their fees.

The column offers a number of investment ideas, from municipal bonds to direct investments in real estate properties or person-to-person loans to the “slow money” movement that loans money to co-ops, organic farms, and other socially conscious ventures.

Here's a nice clear answer to the question: Is Climate Change to Blame for the Current U.S. Drought? Basically, climate change makes droughts more frequent and more extreme, even though you can't say a particular drought couldn't have happened otherwise.

I was going to use the metaphor of a weighted coin or a loaded die, but I discovered James Hansen did it long ago:
Twenty-four years ago, I introduced the concept of “climate dice” to help distinguish the long-term trend of climate change from the natural variability of day-to-day weather. Some summers are hot, some cool. Some winters brutal, some mild. That’s natural variability. ... But loading the die with a warming climate changes the odds. You end up with only one side cooler than normal, one side average, and four sides warmer than normal. Even with climate change, you will occasionally see cooler-than-normal summers or a typically cold winter. Don’t let that fool you.

No single roll proves the dice are loaded, but eventually ...
it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.

Disillusioned GOP congressional staffer Mike Lofgren has a new book out: The Party is Over. An excerpt, "Religion Destroyed My Party", is up at Salon.
Politicized religion provides a substrate of beliefs that rationalizes—at least in the minds of its followers—all three of the GOP’s main tenets: wealth worship, war worship, and the permanent culture war. ... The results of this takeover are all around us: If the American people poll more like Iranians or Nigerians than Europeans or Canadians on questions of evolution, scriptural inerrancy, the presence of angels and demons, and so forth, it is due to the rise of the religious right, its insertion into the public sphere by the Republican Party, and the consequent normalizing of formerly reactionary beliefs.

So long, Gore Vidal. My favorite Vidal novels are the ancient-history ones: Creation and Julian.

It's easy to forget (and people under 50 probably never knew) just how famous Vidal was in his prime. Lily Tomlin could count on everyone recognizing his mispronounced name when she made him one of the first victims of her Ernestine the Operator character on Laugh In.


Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was a huge success. You've got to wonder if this means the Fox News model will spread to fast food and you'll only be able to eat with people who share your politics. What if the CEO of Carl's Jr. is thinking: "Wait a minute. I'm just as bigoted and reactionary as Dan Cathy. Why can't I get an appreciation day?"

From a marketing POV, it makes sense: Fast-food chains don't need a majority. If you could just get the most extreme 10% of the country to identify with you, you'd make billions.

I was looking for a striking image to end with. Is this one good enough? It's a nighttime electrical storm over an erupting volcano in Iceland.