Monday, October 20, 2014

Witch Problems

As there is no evidence that voter impersonation fraud is a problem, how can the fact that a legislature says it’s a problem turn it into one? If the Wisconsin legislature says witches are a problem, shall Wisconsin courts be permitted to conduct witch trials?

-- Judge Richard Posner

No Sift next week. The next articles will appear November 3, which is election eve.

This week's featured article is "7 Liberal Lessons of Ebola".

This week everybody was still talking about Ebola

It's hard to know what to do when panic hits like this, except just keep repeating facts. Here are the new developments this week: a second nurse at the Dallas hospital that treated Thomas Duncan has tested positive for the disease. She flew from Dallas to Cleveland and back during a period when she might have been contagious. So far no one she was in contact with has tested positive, though several schools closed because either students or parents had some connection to one of those flights; that response seems completely over-the-top. There was a brief scare surrounding a Yale student who got sick after returning from Liberia, but tests showed she did not have Ebola. Another scare concerned a cruise ship passenger, who also tested negative. Meanwhile, there still appears to be zero contagion from the three Ebola cases (Americans who caught the disease in Africa, then came home for treatment) treated at Emory University. Two have been treated and released. The third is expected to be released soon. A fourth case treated at the Nebraska Medical Center Biocontainment Unit is reported to be recovering, and likewise, seems not to have infected anyone else. There's been a serious attempt by conservatives to re-interpret "airborne contagion" so that it can apply to Ebola, which does not propagate through the air. The most egregious case of this was George Will, who reinterpreted "airborne" to mean fluid projected through the air. So yes, if you are on a plane with an Ebola-infected person, you might catch the disease if that person sneezed or spit or vomited directly on you. But if that's "airborne contagion", then blunt force trauma is also an airborne contagion, because I can throw a brick through the air.

and voting rights

It was a mixed week for the right to vote. It was bad in Texas, where a new voter-suppression law will go into effect, the Supreme Court having failed to block it. But Wisconsin's law will not be in force for the fall elections. It's been a good week for dissenting opinions, though. Justice Ginsberg and Appellate Judge Richard Posner (a conservative Reagan appointee who has been called "the most widely cited legal scholar of the 20th century" ) each took apart the justifications for these kinds of laws.

and the Catholic Church's Synod on the Family

A question everybody was asking after Francis became Pope was: "He says things that sound good, but is he actually going to change anything?" That picture is starting to come into focus. He hasn't been changing doctrine. In other words, women still can't be priests, birth control is still wrong, and so forth. But he's been trying to change emphasis -- making poverty and justice higher-priority issues than sex -- with mixed results. Witness the recent Synod on the Family, which assembled many Catholic bishops in Rome. Draft reports that were proposed for the Synod's approval did not change the Church's vision of the ideal family: a man and woman marrying one for life, staying together, and raising children. But it tempered the Church's approach to households that differed from that vision. It leaned towards meeting people where they are -- divorced, living in sin, or refusing to have children -- but appreciating what they are doing and trying to do with their lives, and then showing them the value of the church's vision, rather than just condemning their inability or refusal to measure up to the church's standards.
Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man (cf. Jn 1,9; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22), the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.
Similarly for same-sex couples, the document did not approve or endorse their relationships, but recognized that they express many of the same characteristics that the Church admires in its ideal marriages. The draft raised the question of how to welcome gays and lesbians while remaining true to Church teachings. None of those paragraphs garnered the 2/3s support necessary to make it into the final document, which has been interpreted as a defeat for Francis. But the conversation has been changed, and the momentum will be with Francis, who, after all, is responsible for appointing new bishops and cardinals. If he stays in office long enough, the hierarchy will slowly turn in his direction, even if he doesn't announce new infallible doctrine. While Francis may not have personally picked the more moderate Archbishop Joseph Kurtz to replace outspoken culture-warrior Timothy Dolan as the head of the U. S. Council of Bishops (the bishops elected him themselves), his election was clearly a move by the U.S. bishops to get in line with their Pope. Friday we got confirmation that the Pope has replaced another conservative American: Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has been the head of the Vatican's highest court. This isn't over.

and you also might be interested in ...

2014 is on track to be the hottest year on record. So much for the claims that global warming ended in 1998, which should never have continued past 2005 and 2010.
Salon collects links from John Oliver, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert poking fun at the clueless ads aimed at getting women or young people to vote Republican.
As someone who has attended the Keene Pumpkin Festival -- which I recall as a quaint, family-oriented event -- two or three years ago, I'm embarrassed that it devolved into "destructive and raucous behavior" Saturday and resulted in police using tear gas. Interesting tongue-in-cheek response from TPM's Josh Marshall:
White culture of violence on harrowing display as New Hampshire college pumpkin festival degenerates into violence, mayhem and arrests.
That kind of captures white privilege right there. It never occurs to us that we might be called to answer for "white culture", but if a majority-black event goes awry ... well, what can you expect from those people? Raw Story captures a lot of snarky tweets related Keene to Ferguson, with the obvious difference: None of the white kids defying the police had to pay with their lives.
Meanwhile, it's not over in Ferguson.
The NYT wrote a major report on the injuries U. S. soldiers in Iraq received from chemical weapons that the Saddam regime had either lost or disposed of improperly. Some Bush apologists jumped on it to claim vindication on Bush's WMD claims, but Vox explains why they're wrong.
Rather, today's story reveals only that Iraq was sprinkled with aging, forgotten, and long-discarded warheads from Saddam's shuttered 1980s chemical weapons program — and that the Bush and Obama administrations have systematically covered up discoveries of those warheads, including the wounds they've caused American soldiers.

Paul Krugman wrote "In Defense of Obama" for Rolling Stone.
Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. His health reform is imperfect but still a huge step forward – and it's working better than anyone expected. Financial reform fell far short of what should have happened, but it's much more effective than you'd think. Economic management has been half-crippled by Republican obstruction, but has nonetheless been much better than in other advanced countries. And environmental policy is starting to look like it could be a major legacy.
As you can tell from that paragraph, a positive view of Obama depends on judging him compared to what was possible or what other presidents have done, rather than holding him up to an ideal or comparing him to your own Inauguration Day fantasies.

and let's close with something inspiring

There are a bunch of great stories told on public radio -- way more than you hear on any one public radio station -- and most of the them eventually show up on the Public Radio Exchange web site. Here's a piece, "3rd Grade Audio" from the PRX series HowSound. Who but 3rd-grade reporters can explain the three ways to get a magnet back out, after you've stuck it up your nose? Afterthought: My sister (who taught elementary grades in the Chattanooga public schools) points out that this wonderful class is happening at a private school where tuition is well over $20K per kid per year. I guess when the rich choose a school for their own kids, they don't insist on the data-driven, teach-to-the-test model that billionaires like Bill Gates and Sam Walton's heirs want to impose on the public schools. I wonder why not.

Monday, October 13, 2014


People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.

-- Bruce Schneier, Beyond Fear

This week's summary is abbreviated because the two featured articles already exceed my targeted word count. They are "Sam Harris and the Orientalization of Islam" and "Is the Battle For Same-Sex Marriage Nearly Over?"

Meanwhile, August's most popular post "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party" keeps perking along. Last week it had its 150,000th page view, and is running slightly ahead of the pace of the Sift's most popular post ever, 2012's "The Distress of the Privileged", now at 336K views.

This week everybody was still talking about Ebola

From googling around and talking with my wife (who specializes in risk management), I've concluded that risk theorists do a bad job coming up with catchy names for common fallacies. Let me suggest that the principle in the opening quote be called "the Ebola fallacy". (If you already know a name for this, please leave a comment.)

Wednesday was the first time a person died of Ebola in the United States. Thomas Duncan (who flew here from Liberia) was also the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. (The handful of previous cases were Americans who contracted the disease in Africa, were diagnosed there, and returned to the U.S. for treatment.) Sunday, we got the first report of someone catching Ebola in this country: one of the people who treated Duncan at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.

This is about what you'd expect from a hard-to-catch disease like Ebola. As CDC Director Tom Frieden explained: "Ebola has been in existence for decades—and has predominantly infected remote areas lacking basic health infrastructure."

And yet, from the public reaction you'd think Ebola was the biggest health problem in the country. It's all over the news. Lakeland Industries, which makes hazmat suits, has seen its stock soar 160% this month. Republican political candidates are citing the Ebola threat to support clamping down on the Mexican border. (So far there have been no Ebola cases in Central America. But when Republicans think about disease-carriers, Hispanics leap to mind.) And three Democrats joined 24 Republican members of Congress in calling for banning travelers from western Africa, and possibly quarantining Americans for three weeks after they return from western Africa .

And that's just the reaction from people who are trying to look respectable. The conspiracy theorists are going completely crazy. "The CDC is working with Border Patrol authorities and the Department of Homeland Security to disappear potential Ebola victims attempting to cross the border into the United States."

Meanwhile, about 700 Americans die in traffic accidents each week.

Want to be safer and live longer? Use seat belts. Don't smoke. Don't drink and drive. Eat better. Get the sleep you need. Exercise regularly. And if you need any additional motivation not to touch the bodily fluids of people who are visibly ill, maybe then you should think about Ebola. But stop obsessing about distant-but-horrible threats that have almost no chance of affecting you.

and the Senate

A few months ago, the political experts thought they understood the battle for the Senate: It would come down to four races where incumbent Democrats elected in 2008 were trying to hang on in a state Obama lost in 2012: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina. If Democrats held two of those seats, they'd hold the Senate.

Things have gone crazy since then. Independent candidates are threatening supposedly secure Republican seats in Kansas and South Dakota. Republican challengers are running stronger than expected in Colorado and Iowa (despite the fact that the Iowa candidate is a loon). And Democratic challengers who were expected to fade in Georgia and Kentucky are stubbornly making a race of it.

Don't expect me to sort it out. Just vote, keep working for your favorite candidates, and be prepared for anything on Election Night.

and you also might be interested in ...

Grist's David Roberts rains on the parade of those who think they've found a way to talk to conservatives about climate change.
Clever messages that work on polls and in labs will only do their work if they can penetrate the bubble. Until you solve that dilemma, you can’t say you’ve found a way to appeal to conservatives, not in the real world, anyway.

And even if you can get some message through the bubble, can you get a true message through?
There’s a message on climate change that appeals to conservatives: We can confine ourselves to market mechanisms, we don’t need to raise taxes or regulate anything or redistribute any wealth, we can all make money. If we act on climate change, the socioeconomic and cultural systems you know can be preserved. There’s a message that works, but it is a lie.

The International Secret Intelligence Service is changing its name.

Another week, another clueless Republican ad aimed at women.

And let's close with a economics lesson

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Chinese Menu

We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but … the powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.

-- Benjamin R. Barber, Consumed

This week's featured post is "A Conservative-to-English Lexicon, 2nd Edition".

This week everybody was talking about Hong Kong

Protests continue in Hong Kong, but they seem to be shrinking. The basic issue is simple: Rather than allow Hong Kong to choose its own leaders through elections (under what has been known as the "One Country, Two Systems" policy), the Chinese government wants limit voters to the choices it nominates. I'm reminded of a couplet from a song by Cake:

Some people drink Pepsi, some people drink Coke.The wacky morning DJ says democracy's a joke.

I'm rooting for the protesters, but it's going to be embarrassing if China does the Occupy thing better than America. Here's something else that I expect to embarrass me: If the government puts the hammer down, I'm sure they'll justify themselves by pointing to how our cops dealt with our Occupy protesters.

Remember this guy?

and Ebola

The U.S. has its first case of Ebola, a man who flew here from Liberia. But as it says on the cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "Don't Panic."

Let's start with the basics: Ebola is not something you catch easily, like the flu. You can't get it through the air; you have to be in physical contact with an infected person or his/her bodily fluids. You typically don't catch it from people who aren't showing symptoms yet, the way you might catch a cold.

If you get it, it's nasty. It kills about 60% of the people infected. It's a virus, so antibiotics don't work. Some people have been cured, but there's no well-established magic bullet. But it's also not like the Black Death or the Spanish Flu. It's not going to sweep the country overnight and kill us all.

There have been a number of outbreaks over the years in Africa, because it lives there in bats, apes, and a few other wild species, and humans can catch it from handling an animal corpse or eating the undercooked meat of an infected animal. (Have you eaten any raw bats lately? Good. Stay away from Ozzy Osborne.) Outbreaks among humans normally get contained -- even in densely populated parts of Africa that have inadequate medical systems -- by good hygiene protocols.
Ebola can completely disappear from humans for years at a time. For example, there were zero recorded cases of Ebola in 2005 or 2006.

So as I was saying, the odds of a pandemic in the U.S. are pretty small.

But the idea of Ebola is scary, so opportunists are using it as an excuse to do what they want to do anyway: keep foreigners out of the country. As a representative from the anti-immigration scare group the Center for Immigration Studies wrote:
Our government must simply deny admission to any non-U.S. citizen who has been in the afflicted countries in the recent past, until the crisis is over. The most fundamental purpose of immigration controls is to protect our homeland, and our leaders must end their chronic reluctance to use them.

Shame on the NYT for giving CIS a platform. As the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out:
[CIS's] studies have hardly been neutral. One of them concludes that because foreign women ("Third World gold-diggers") can obtain work permits by marrying American citizens, it's obvious that fraudulent marriage applications are "prevalent among terrorists." Another claims that because many immigrants have worked in Georgia since 2000, it's clear that unemployment among less educated native workers is up. A third says that because immigration levels have been high recently, immigrants make up a growing share of those drawing welfare.

But every one these claims, each of them at the heart of a different recent report from CIS, are either false or virtually without any supporting evidence. That came to fore again last September, when CIS organized a panel to accompany the release of yet another new report, this one claiming that municipalities in substantial numbers were permitting non-citizens to vote. When challenged, the panelists could only come up with a single possible example of the purported trend.

"CIS' attempts to blame immigrants for all of the U.S.'s problems have been laughable," said Angela Kelley of the Immigration Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.

and Eric Holder's successor

A Huffington Post article suggests a number of qualified people. But one nutty idea making the rounds is that President Obama should name a Republican.
naming an attorney general from the opposite party would tend to make the administration of justice bipartisan, and would provide considerable reassurance, as Holder’s tenure in office emphatically did not, that the powers of law enforcement were not being abused in service of partisan ends.

The model here is what FDR did during the lead-up to World War II: name Republican Harry Stimson as Secretary of War. By doing this, Roosevelt was pointing out that defending the country was really not a partisan issue.

But the administration of justice is a partisan issue, because Republicans do not want to enforce civil right or voting rights laws. (Neither party has the audacity to enforce antitrust laws against our corporate masters, but that's a different article.) Find me a Republican who will stand up for the right of Texas Hispanics to vote, or who wants to do something about the racial injustice that makes our prisons overwhelmingly black, and then we can talk.

and the Secret Service

Like Ebola, you might think the Secret Service would be beyond partisanship, because we all agree that our president and his family should be kept safe. Guess again. Speaker of the North Carolina House and Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis:
It’s just another example of failures in this administration. They need to start getting serious about homeland security and national security.

Yep. President Obama is not "serious" about protecting himself or his family against assassination.

but not enough people are talking about jobs

If they were, President Obama would be more popular. The latest job report was good, and the unemployment rate fell below 6% for the first time since the housing bubble collapsed at the end of the Bush administration.

A month out from the fall elections, the headlines have turned away from pocketbook issues like the success of ObamaCare, the economy's improvement, or proposals to raise the minimum wage. The federal deficit has fallen from $1.4 billion in FY 2009 to a projected $500 billion in FY2014. But who's paying attention? Instead, we're focused on fear issues like ISIS and Ebola. This can't be good for Democrats.

and you also might be interested in ...

Can't anybody spell these days? If there's a coven of these people, I really worry about what they might inadvertently conjure up. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man was bad enough.

So: It is possible to convict a white man of murdering a black teen in Florida. William Dunn is guilty and faces life in prison, even though Jordan Davis was 17, black, and in an SUV with other young black men. The jury determined that playing music too loud in a gas station parking lot was not a sufficient provocation. A previous jury had deadlocked.

The Daily Mail explains in one map how children's freedom to roam has collapsed in recent generations. If this continues, the next generation of kids will never leave their homes without adult supervision.

So in the future we're going to be competing with a major economic power in which all universities are tuition-free.
“Tuition fees are socially unjust,” said Dorothee Stapelfeldt, senator for science in Hamburg, which scrapped charges in 2012.

“They particularly discourage young people who do not have a traditional academic family background from taking up studies. It is a core task of politics to ensure that young women and men can study with a high quality standard free of charge in Germany.”

In particular, young Americans of the 99%, your German rivals are not starting their careers in debt slavery. States here in America used to do something similar, back before the Reagan Revolution. If your parents went to a state university, ask them how much it cost.

You have until Halloween to submit your entry to National Geographic's annual photo contest. The Atlantic provides 32 examples of what you'll be up against.


and let's close with something incredible

When wolves returned to Yellowstone after a 70-year absence, they didn't just change the bio-system, they changed the geography.