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July 2002 Archives

July 23, 2002

Some things never change

I leave, come back, and The New York Times is still on its rabid anti-gun crusade. (Oops. I said "crusade." Maybe someone will get offended.) Sometimes I think Andrew Sullivan is a little paranoid when he discusses theextreme bias of the new New York Times regime. Then I read stories like this one, and the paper's agenda becomes too blindingly obvious to ignore: The Times doesn't like guns. The Times doesn't like John Ashcroft. John Ashcroft said that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to own a gun. The Times simply can't resist. They're going to milk that for all it's worth, regardless of whether there's any news to report.

The current "story" is that some criminal defendants ("scores," according to the Times, though the story manages to mention only one, and he in the twenty-third paragraph of the story) are citing Ashcroft's position as a defense to gun charges. Not a single person has succeeded by using this argument, but the Times gives space to their favorite group to rant hyperbolically:

"The Justice Department has created a very dangerous situation that is endangering public safety and forcing Justice Department prosecutors to litigate with one hand tied behind their backs," said Mathew S. Nosanchuk, litigation director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun control group in Washington. "Criminals are using the department's own Second Amendment language to challenge the gun laws."
Wow. If you got all your news from the Times, you'd think that John Ashcroft was personally travelling the country, breaking murderers out of prison.

And so the Times frames the debate as being between those who criticize John Ashcroft for saying that people have the right to bear arms, and those who criticize John Ashcroft for not following through after saying that people have the right to bear arms. Surely there was someone out there who would defend Ashcroft, or who would at least explain his department's "narrow and cryptic" views. But if so, the Times couldn't find him. Or didn't look. And thus, one-sidedly reported a non-story as if it were big news.

"I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple."

Andrew Sullivan links to the website of the San Francisco Rent Board Commission. The site contains a chart showing the makeup of the board. Take a look at the last column of the chart: each board member is identified -- the only information provided about the member -- by race. And if race isn't enough, the chart helpfully identifies the board's gay member.

It seems to me that James Watt was fired for just this sort of behavior. Worse, he was permanently branded as "insensitive."

Why is the government telling us the race of board members? How is this appropriate in any way? The College Board, which administers the SAT and other standardized tests, will no longer even tell colleges that disabled people are disabled, on the theory that ability is no longer relevant to college admissions. And yet San Francisco's government is telling us the ethnic backgrounds, and sexual habits, of board members? Are they trying to say that a person's Hispanic heritage is relevant to the issue of whether a rent increase is "excessive?"

Is this the best advertisement possible for Ward Connerly's Racial Privacy Initiative?

July 24, 2002

Why gridlock is a good thing

The Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are competing with each other to see how much of our money they can hand over to the elderly. Fortunately, so far, the two parties haven't been able to agree on an approach, and so nothing may get passed at all.

The Democratic proposal cost more than the Republican plan $594 billion from 2005 to 2012, compared with $370 billion. But even the Republican plan would have been the biggest expansion of Medicare since the program was created in 1965, after the landslide election of Lyndon B. Johnson.
Predictably, Republicans propose to funnel the money through insurance companies, while Democrats want to hand over the money directly to the elderly, with Ted Kennedy going on record as opposing any sort of means testing.
Democrats said they were exploring a possible compromise under which the government and private insurers would share the responsibility and the financial risks of providing drug benefits to the elderly. Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, is promoting such a deal.
Gee, I wonder if the elderly should have any role in providing drug benefits to the elderly?

One of my maxims is that "Sloppy language leads to sloppy thinking." When we speak circuitously or use euphemisms, we start to forget what reality is. As such, one of my top ten pet peeves is when people talk about what "the government" will provide. The government doesn't have money; all the government has is the ability to take money from other people. There is no compromise under which the government and private insurers will do anything. The proposal is for taxpayers to provide drug benefits to the elderly. I wonder if such programs would have nearly so much support if they were phrased this way.

The Senate Republican leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, said he was not optimistic about the chances for a hybrid blending the Democratic and Republican approaches.

Mr. Lott said he was eager to "help the elderly poor" who have no insurance for drug expenses. But, he said, $370 billion is "unequivocally the upper limit" on what most Republicans would be willing to spend.

Well, that's certainly a "conservative" position. There's an old, mostly worn-out joke:

Man: would you sleep with me for a million dollars?
Woman: Yes.
Man: Well, would you sleep with me for ten dollars?
Woman: What kind of woman do you think I am?
Man: We've already established that; we're just haggling over the price.

We've established what kind of politician Trent Lott is. We're just haggling now. Admittedly, this price tag is no worse than that of the obscene agriculture subsidy law Bush signed weeks ago. But does anybody think it will stay this "cheap"? The elderly population isn't going to shrink. Drugs aren't going to magically get cheaper. The list of ailments treatable with drugs is going to keep growing. If the line isn't drawn now -- and I'm not optimistic -- this will turn into yet another rapidly-growing entitlement line-item, a la Social Security and Medicare, untouchable in the federal budget.

Hey, it's purely medicinal

San Francisco has officially proposed a ballot initiative that, if passed, could allow the city to grow its own marijuana. The proposal is an attempt to get around the federal government's strategy of subverting California's medical marijuana law by shutting marijuana clubs.

It's creative, anyway. And if Republicans really respected federalism, this would work. But it seems unlikely:

Federal authorities were not amused. "Unless Congress changes the law and makes marijuana a legal substance, then we have to do our job and enforce the law," said a spokesman for the regional office of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
That's literally true, but it's what's known colloquially as horse manure. Every government agency has limited resources, and exercises discretion. The only reason they'd use those limited resources on such harmless endeavors as medical marijuana clubs is to send a message.

California, and San Francisco specifically, may come up with plenty of wacky ideas, but on this one they're dead on.

You have the right to remain silent

The blogosphere is abuzz with the story of an American University student, Ben Wetmore, being persecuted by school officials because he was a "gadfly" (generally, a euphemism for "jerk"). He had been critical of the university's administration, and then when they found an excuse to punish him -- for videotaping a speech by Tipper Gore -- they jumped on the opportunity.

A ridiculous abuse of authority by the school, of course. But what caught my eye was this quote, from the university's director of Judicial Affairs and Mediation Services:

Kurita said she could not discuss the specifics of Wetmore's case due to confidentiality requirements.
Rules on privacy were ostensibly intended to protect the weak. Schools and government agencies shouldn't release "customer" records without their consent. Children shouldn't have their names splashed across the front page when they're involved in a legal matter.

But in a classic example of the law of unintended consequences, these laws are used every day, not to protect citizens, but rather to shield bureaucrats from accountability. Child Welfare does nothing to prevent an abused child from being killed. Child Welfare's excuse? None; they "can't discuss it" because of confidentiality rules. Accountability? None; we don't find out who was responsible and what actions they took. A school railroads a student? The student complains. The school's explanation? None. They "can't discuss it."

Does it sound as if Wetmore wants the details of his case to be private? He approached the media. He told the story publicly. Once he does that, the school shouldn't be able to hide behind "confidentiality." These laws are supposed to keep personal data private, not to keep government actions secret. If they're being used to avoid accountability, they need to be rewritten.

July 26, 2002

Does Comedy Central have the Answer?

At first glance, Comedy Central's new show, Crank Yankers is just another in the painfully long list of recent mindless television programming whose only redeeming quality is that your remote control works and the channel can be turned changed. However, as Kathy M. Newman, a professor of English at Carnegie-Mellon University and astute cultural critic, points out the show "serve[s] as a reminder that the desire to help people and do a good job is still alive and well in America." This desire exists, "at least when it comes to the little people."

One lesson from 9/11 may be being elucidated by shows like "Crank Yankers" -- while President Bush can't stop using the power of his office to help out his old Texas friends, while Joe Lieberman is fighting to the end to retain non-reported stock options, while Dick Cheney will do anything for the energy lobby -- the strength, kindness, and even gentleness of this country comes not from Bush, Lieberman, Cheney, or any celebrity CEO. What makes America America comes from fire fighters and police officers, gay rugby players,, the African American student body president of the University of Kansas and hundreds of millions of the other the little people.

As the Congress and the President are debating everything from the further opening of northern Alaska to oil exploration to how to deal (and not to deal) with the plunging stock market, they should remember (and I fear they don't, and the media which covers them don't either) that their actions really do affect our lives. Retirement funds are disappearing; people who have worked hard their entire lives are going to have to work longer and harder; vacations won't be taken; weddings which were going to be large and festive will now be small and solemn. These changes do matter, and it doesn't seem like anyone in Washington actually cares.

Crank Yankers shows that we are all here working hard, doing a good job, and doing everything which makes America something to be so proud of (and we are proud). I just hope someone inside the beltway watches it. We can do it all ourselves, but we shouldn't have to.

It's Pat

In the future, on this page, you'll be reading occasional posts appovingly citing Brad Delong, Paul Krugman, Liz Phair, Gary Wills, Lisa Lowe, Ronnie Spector, Nadia Mustafa, C. Wright Mills, and Alejandro Portes.

No, David hasn't had a brain transplant. I'm Partha Mazumdar and I'm occasionally going to be collaborating with him on this blog (the page is still his, I'm just going to be helping out). I'm officially trained in American Studies and I "do" Asian American immigration specializing in Asian American entrepreneurship and representations of Asian Americans in popular culture. Entrepreneurship (and, specifically, Indian owned hotels) is my first love -- and nothing can ever approach a first love -- but popular culture studies has become a mistress I spend probably too much time with. I teach within the Department of Asian American Studies of the Unversity of Pennsylvania.

You'll all read soon, but my politics can best be described as Clintonian. I feel no shame (in fact, I feel great pride) in saying that the former president is my guide, my leader, and my admiration for him borders on reverence. Without any irony and not thinking that it's cheezy, I still believe in a place called Hope.

So, as you can see, my politics differ some from David's, but, this difference will be fun; as Mark Twain said in the Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar, "It were not best that we would all think alike; it is the difference of opinion that makes horse races."

You can count on it

Jason Rylander is fat. So am I. Unfortunately, I can't claim that it's because of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's new definition of "obesity," which ignores any distinction between muscle and flab. Mine really is all flab.

Still, it raises an important issue. The media is saturated with stories replete with numbers. Obesity is up X%. Teenage pregnancies are down Y%. Test scores are unchanged. Four out of five dentists recommend Trident sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum. Occasionally, we think about the implications of those statistics; more frequently, we let the pundits do it for us. But what we -- and the pundits -- virtually never do is ask what the numbers mean. What definitions were chosen? What methodology was used to gather the data?

Sometimes, the topic is trivial, as in this New York Times story which discusses the disputed methods of measuring movie box office data.

[W]eekend box-office figures released on Sunday and printed in many newspapers on Monday, including The New York Times, are based on actual box-office figures for Friday and Saturday plus each studio's guess about how its films will perform on Sunday. It is this wiggle room that has led many over the years to be overly optimistic about Sunday grosses in order to make their films No. 1 or to achieve some other goal.


Sunday guessing is not the only way that the system can be manipulated. Weekend box-office numbers also indicate the number of theaters in which a movie opens, but not the number of screens. A studio can release a movie on four or five screens at one multiplex and claim it as only one theater, raising the per-theater average for a film. Studios have often resisted, for this and other reasons, releasing the actual number of screens on which a movie opens.

But in other situations, the issue can be more serious. The supposedly rising obesity rate is leading to calls for public policy changes from all the usual suspects. (Coincidentally, all these policy changes will result in higher taxes and fewer freedoms for everyone.)

Economic policy, or at least punditry, is based on the Consumer Confidence Index. And yet, as the New Republic pointed out last year, the CCI is seriously flawed.

Although it's routinely described as a survey of 5,000 households, only about 3,500 generally return the form. The form essentially asks for a positive, negative, or neutral response to five questions about current and future business conditions.

So it's a poll.

Polls have their place, of course, but simply reporting that "x" percent of Americans surveyed feel "positive" about business conditions doesn't really seem like the kind of news that should be dominating business coverage and roiling the stock market. After all, polls from Harris and Gallup also address basic consumer confidence issues, and they never make the same splash that the confidence indexes do. Which goes to show that when you're trying to numberize a slippery idea like sentiment, an "index" trumps a "poll" every time.

How does the Conference Board convert its poll into an index? By combining the responses to its five questions and converting the resulting figure into a composite number "relative" to a benchmark score of 100.0 for 1985. (Why does 1985 equal 100 on this scale? Because it was "a basic, noneventful year," explains Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board's Consumer Research Center, offering some insight into the formal science of consumer confidence.)

So you've got a survey. And yet, the number is treated as if it provides deep understanding about the state of the economy.

And how about the all-important Consumer Price Index, which measures the crucial inflation rate? Well, some of its flaws have been recognized and corrected in recent years, but there are still significant problems with both the construction of the statistic and the collection of the data.

In theory, the calculation of the index is simple. It is based on a marketbasket of 211 goods and services medicine, education, entertainment and so on bought by the average family. The prices are tracked over time.

But the task of calculation is daunting. As the bureau chooses among millions of products, it is constrained by budget limitations and saddled with old technology. Bureau agents roam stores, looking at price tags and writing prices on pieces of paper. They interview store executives, visit homeowners to determine housing prices and ask consumers to keep daily diaries of purchases.

All kinds of variables, including new products, mean that the bureau has a tough time keeping up.

These aren't esoteric concerns. They have real implications for all of us. The budget projections which drive taxing and spending in Washington rely upon statistics like these. Whether our taxes are cut (or hiked), whether interest rates will be reduced, whether social security will be reformed so that it can stay solvent longer -- these are all dependent on this sort of data. And that data is questionable.

And yet journalists generally treats this sort of data as holy writ. There's no acknowledgement that maybe everyone in the country didn't suddenly get fat. instead, the media jumps right to the question of "What should be done to solve this crisis?"

Do we really want to know what the government does?

Missing in President Bush's current debate with Capitol Hill over the bill to establish an office of Domestic Security is any sort of discussion of a sentence in section 724 of the House bill. It's 724.a.1.A: "(A) shall be exempt from disclosure under section 552 of title 5, United States Code (commonly referred to as the Freedom of Information Act)"

I'm confident that people from both sides of the aisle can agree with the statement that the inclusion of this sentence is, for lack of a better word, wrong. I mean, why would we want a 170,000 person law-enforcement agency with investigative powers to have to, at some point -- at any point --, release what they've done? Who they've investigated? Why they investigated them? What they found? Who they followed? Who they wiretapped? Basically, any other question you can think of.

One would think that the mainstream media would be all over this. The Freedom of Information Act is one of its hallowed treasures and being a watchdog over the government is one of its rason d'etres. Just go to a panel discussion at Columbia University or Columbia, Missouri... the leading lights of the American media talk about these two things all the time (and they beat their chests while they congratulate themselves). However, we're not getting a peep over permanently exempting 170,000 employees from any sort of independent oversight. Maybe they really do only write about what Ari Fletcher and Congressional press secretaries tell them to write about.

July 27, 2002

Politics as Usual?

One is forced to wonder about the Right's current obsession with Robert Rubin. One example is Andrew Sullivan; in his childish one-way battle with The New York Times, Sullivan asks why the Times isn't interested in investigating "Rubin's allegedly glorious record as Treasury secretary," and the calls for 'investigating' Rubin are coming from many quarters, loudly and often.
Of course, these voices going after Rubin were silent when Rubin was actually Secretary of the Treasury. They seemed to have no problem with what he was doing, while he was doing it.
Is it too much to ask for the people invested with the power to affect the economy (the presidential administration) and their supporters to, in this time of economic and financial crisis, actually do something to help the country out? Instead, as evidenced by the growing attacks on Rubin, it seems that they they haven't left the 1990s and still don't have any other method of politics other than afixing blame.
You're in charge now, so go do something. The country will love you if you do. We didn't love Franklin Roosevelt because he spent all of his time dragging down the Hoover administration; we loved him because he took the bulls by the horns.
Sometimes it seems (like when listening to an Ari Fletcher press conference) that the administration has nothing under its sleave other than blaming the Clinton administration. You know, even if Fletcher is right, who cares? You're in charge now. Lead us. With our stock porfolios, our retirement accounts, our savings losing ten, twenty, thirty, fourty, fifty, sixty percent of their values, it's not too much to ask that you don't constantly search the past for scapegoats but look to the future with answers. Even if they're the wrong answers, give the consumers something to be confident about. Make us confident in you.

A thick envelope means you got in, a thin one means you didn't

In all the ruckus concerning someone at the Princeton admissions office accessing a dozen or so admission notices off of Yale's computer server, what's been lost is: what in the world could the Princeton admissions officer have gained by learning a few of Yale's admitting decisions?

One hypothetical proposed by a reporter at the Yale Daily News is that the information could have been used to help tailor better recruiting packages to attract these students. Perhaps, but I doubt it. Princeton had all they needed to know already; everything that the applicants listed as interests on their Yale application, one can assume, they also listed on the Princeton application. Some people have (somewhat jokingly) proposed that Princeton did it to help better recruit basketball players, and, while they have a point, if my school lost a playoff game to Yale in the past year, I'd want to fix the team, too, but I doubt this is the case.

I just don't see why anyone would do this, other than to check the security on the site (as has been claimed) or just because he was curious. Neither, of course, excuse what he did, but it does not seem to be all that sinister.

I have two more questions, though.

First, if the two schools would not have been Yale and Princeton, but had been the University of Kansas and Kansas State University, would the press be covering it so much? The same incident, the same everything. I doubt it, even though it's the same story.

Second, in addition to admissiongate, the Yale Daily News is fronting a story that Yale's unions may go on strike on the first day of classes. This appears to be a much bigger story, but addmissiongate is what's causing the buzz.

[David: Boy, this has been an embarrassing few months for me. First we get Cornel West foisted off on us again, and now this scandal. Plus, Paul Krugman keeps shaming the school with his New York Times columns.]

July 28, 2002

One track mind

The New York Times runs yet another story by David Cay Johnston on a method for reducing taxes. This one involves the purchase of high-priced life insurance to avoid the estate tax. Quick, without reading the article -- three guesses for Johnston's opinion on the method.

While you're pondering that, here's a question for those of you with a good memory, or enough (too much) free time on your hands to go through the Times' archives: has David Cay Johnston ever met a tax he didn't like? Because (in case you couldn't guess), Johnston sure doesn't like this one. And, as usual, he lets us know it, despite (ostensibly) writing a news story:

The technique is legal, blessed by the I.R.S. in 1996. But some leading tax lawyers, as well as some accountants and insurance agents, say it shouldn't be. They say it effectively disguises a gift to one's heirs that should be taxed like any other gift. They also say it is but one example of how a tax exemption on life insurance that was approved by Congress in 1913 to help widows and orphans has been stretched to benefit the very richest Americans.


Sanford J. Schlesinger of the law firm Kaye Scholer said he passed up a chance to collect a six-figure fee for advising on one of these deals because he thinks the deals should not pass muster with the I.R.S. "My mother taught me that if something seems too good to be true, it isn't true," he said.

Other leading estate tax lawyers, as well as some accountants and insurance agents, say Mr. Blattmachr's insurance technique should fail because it is wholly outside the intent of Congress in giving tax breaks for life insurance, the I.R.S. ruling on the plan notwithstanding.

"If the I.R.S. understood this they would say that it relies on a disguised gift and if you have to pay gift taxes, then Jonathan's insurance deal does not work," said an estate partner at a tax firm in New York, who like others, said they could not be identified because they have signed confidentiality agreements that are part of all such insurance deals.

Another legal expert said paying 10 times too much for insurance in a plan like this reminds him of a matriarch selling the family business to her granddaughter for $10 million when it was actually worth 10 times that amount. "The I.R.S. wouldn't let a family get away with selling the business for a dime on the dollar," this lawyer said, "and they should not allow it to work in reverse through insurance."

Certainly, that's an unbiased selection of quotes there. Now, don't get me wrong; it's okay for Johnston to want to raise everyone's taxes, particularly those of the wealthy -- but shouldn't he put that opinion on the op/ed page, rather than the front page?

Putting context into events

My collaborator Partha notes that the Princeton-Yale hullabaloo wouldn't have made such a media splash if it had been Kansas-Kansas State instead of two Ivy League schools. I agree, and I think the reason is simple: reporters enjoy storytelling rather than reporting. The latter is boring; any third rate hack can compile a list of events in article form. But if you can write about the big picture, you're a Journalist, not just a reporter. And Kansas-Kansas State is just an amusing anecdote. It happened; it was strange; the end.

But Princeton-Yale? That combination allows for "insights" like these, from the New York Times:

"This report reflects the heightened craziness about admissions decisions," said James O. Freedman, a legal scholar and the former president of Dartmouth. "It probably wouldn't subvert the Constitution, but it is competitiveness taken to a dastardly length."

Robert Schaeffer, the public education officer for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, who follows college admissions closely, said this case illustrated how the competition by selective colleges for a handful of top students had become "an arms race in which each side tries to one-up the other."

and from the Washington Post:
But education experts say the larger lesson may be that the fierce competition between elite Ivy League universities for top students has finally gone too far, sparking the kind of lapse in judgment that is certain to bring renewed scrutiny to the college admission process.

"In this game, the top colleges all want to land the same students right now -- they want to win," said Alvin Sanoff, former managing editor of U.S. News and World Report's annual guide to colleges. "It has never been more competitive on either end, for students competing to get in and schools trying to land the best students."

Nowhere is that competition more strenuous than at Yale and Princeton, two of the nation's wealthiest universities. For years, they have battled over many of the same high school seniors, using financial aid and admissions reforms to lure the most attractive applicants.

Now, about five seconds' worth of thought will make clear that "fierce competition" for students and "heightened craziness" have absolutely nothing to do with this incident. It happened after both schools had already made their decisions, and provided Princeton with absolutely nothing in the way of useful information.

But if this is just a stupid, but essentially harmless, lapse in judgment, then there wouldn't be a story to tell. So both papers have to "put the events into context." Even if they have to invent the context.

Amen, brother!

In his latest column, Thomas Friedman reminds us of something said by presidential candidate George W. Bush:

"The I.R.S. just announced they're going to hire an additional 2,079 bureaucrats. My opponent talks about fighting for the people against the powerful. But it works out a little differently under his plan. In his case, more audits for people, more power for the I.R.S. And that's the heart of his agenda: a fundamental belief in the federal government, a lack of trust and faith in ordinary Americans. . . . I trust people; he trusts the government."

But, the IRS is law-enforcement agency. It ensures that people abide by the law; it makes people pay their federal taxes. If you don't like the law, go after the legislators, however, George W. Bush has no shame in going after the 'bureaucrats'. More people, it must be infered from Bush's comments, should be able to avoid their taxes -- avoid the law.

From the quote above, we have to assume that "the powerful" are people like Ken Lay and "the people" are Enron stockholders. "The people" who had their 401(k) accounts decimated by "trust."

Why, one must wonder, if Bush trusts everybody to be law abiding -- why he trusts Ken Lay so much -- why he allows this country to have so many police officers? Don't trust the government, don't trust the law enforcers, trust the people.

Law enforcers have a job to do; oversight officials have a job to do; they make sure that our system works. Don't tie their hands, don't put them down. Let them do what they do and let's make sure the system works.

Friedman ends the column with a great line: "...so much of America's moral authority to lead the world derives from the decency of our government and its bureaucrats, and the example we set for others. These are not things to be sneered at by a president. They are things to be cherished, strengthened and praised every single day."

Preach on, Tom, preach on.

Nine for Nine

It probably isn't an appropriate subject for a blog, since it's difficult to be analytical or critical about it, but, I have to say that what happened this morning in Somerset is the best news I've heard is a long long time. It's just so wonderful; wonderful for the nine, wonderful for their families, wonderful for the crew that rescued them, and wonderful for the region I love, Southwestern Pennsylvania. I haven't lived there since I moved away for college, and now that I've passed the Foreign Service Exam, it seems that I'll be moving thousands and thousands of miles away, but Southwestern PA will always be home. And it's wonderful.

"Fear and greed are built into" The New York Times

Well, Thomas Friedman is consistent, anyway. If you're going to be wrong, be wrong in style. By that standard, today's bizarre column, In oversight we trust, is certainly stylish.

Friedman's argument is -- well, actually his argument is "George Bush is evil. Enron, Worldcom, Harken. At the New York Times, we try to say these words as many times as possible next to George Bush's name." But once you get past that, his theory is that bureaucrats are good. Or, rather, some bureaucrats are good. That's right: America is better than other countries because we have better bureaucrats. As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up.

Well, correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't we have an SEC -- not run by corporate crony George Bush and his sinister henchman Harvey Pitt, but by the saintly Bill Clinton and his trusty sidekick Arthur Levitt -- when these (alleged) frauds were actually being perpetrated? And correct me again if I'm wrong, but was it the crusading investigators of the SEC who uncovered the Enron fraud? That's just not quite how I remember it.

What Friedman doesn't understand, apparently, is that all the bureaucrats in the world don't prevent crimes from occurring. They can create new crimes by requiring lots of paperwork to be filled out in triplicate, but they can't prevent crimes from taking place. Certainly, vigorous prosecution of people who are caught committing fraud is necessary and desirable -- and should serve to deter future would-be con artists. But all the SEC reports, rules, and regulations in the world aren't going to do a thing to stop those already willing to break the law and cheat others.

I could go on, but I'd like to quote a different Friedman -- Milton -- in rebuttal. (From Jacob Sullum's column this week in Reason.) He was talking about the war on drugs, but his observations apply more generally:

Friedman said "the war on drugs and the harm which it does are simply manifestations of a much broader problem: the substitution of political mechanisms for market mechanisms in a wide variety of areas." He estimated that "the United States today is a little over fifty percent socialist," as measured by the resources the government commands through taxes and regulation.

Friedman emphasized that "the problem is not the kind of people who run our governmental institutions versus those who run our private institutions. The trouble, as the Marxists used to say, is in the system."

In particular, he explained, the ability to spend other people's money at will means that government programs do not face the discipline that private businesses do. "When a private enterprise fails, it is closed down," he noted. "When a government enterprise fails, it is expanded."

Friedman cautioned reformers against trying "to cure a problem created by socialism [with] some more socialism" by putting the government in charge of drug distribution. He urged them to "recognize that repealing drug prohibition is part of the broader problem of cutting down the scope and power of the government and restoring power to the people."

(Emphasis added.) It's as if Milton Friedman was reading Tom Friedman's mind. The SEC didn't work? This proves the need for the SEC! In fact, more SEC! It never even occurs to Tom to try a different approach.

July 29, 2002


Proving once again that the best original programing on television is not produced by the networks but by cable stations, tonight Showtime premiered an hour and a half feature Our America directed by Spike Lee's old cinematographer Ernest Dickerson.

The show dramatizes three main characters: David Isay, a producer for Chicago's National Public Radio affiliate (ably portrayed by Josh Charles... you remember him, he played Ox in Dead Poet's Society), LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman, two kids who lived in the Ida B. Wells housing development in Chicago. Jones and Newman took microphones into the Ida B. Wells, their home, and, with Isay's assistance, produced some of the best radio this country has ever witnessed.

The first forty-five minutes of the Showtime program details their first project, Ghetto Life 101, which debuted in 1993.

The second forty-five minutes covers the second project, one exploring the events surrounding the death of Eric Morse, a 5 year old child thrown out a 14th floor window by two other kids -- one was eleven and the other was ten.

If you can, watch the Showtime program.

If you haven't already, you owe it to yourself to listen to the story Jones and Newman made about Eric Morse. I've linked it here: Remorse: The 14 Stories of Eric Morse. This isn't 'if you can'... this is a must.

It'll bring you tears as Jones and Newman articulately demonstrate that there is no 'our America' and 'their America.' It's all our America.

Alexander Haig is in charge here?

Imagine that Bill Clinton had appointed an extremely conservative Democrat to be Secretary of State, someone who didn't share many of Clinton's views. (Hey, use your imagination; I know Clinton "triangulated" so much that it was hard to find someone whose views he didn't claim to share.) Someone, say, who didn't believe in multilateralism, someone who felt the U.S. should act quickly and decisively, with force if necessary, whenever the country's interests were threatened, regardless of how others around the world felt. Further, imagine that this individual's disagreements with Clinton were made widely known in the media by his supporters. Sometimes he would go to a press conference and make a statement which directly contradicted Clinton's position on an issue.

Here's a quick quiz for you: How do you think the editorial board of the New York Times would feel about this hypothetical person? Would they celebrate his principled stands? Would they urge him to "throw a tantrum or two" in order to get his way? Would they argue that his job as Secretary of State was to conduct his own foreign policy, regardless of the wishes of the president?

I can't be certain, but I doubt it. I suspect they would be calling for this individual's resignation, at a minimum for failing to be a team player, and at worst for undermining the president. And yet, maybe I'm wrong. Because they see nothing wrong with suggesting that Colin Powell should be disloyal to the president of the United States:

If Mr. Powell were on a winning streak, his conciliatory style might look more appealing. The measure of success for secretaries of state is not whether they loyally follow the lead of the president, but whether they guide foreign policy in directions that advance American interests abroad. Mr. Powell has the convictions and seasoning to be a great secretary of state, but he will not achieve that stature if he fails to stand his ground.
Got that? According to the Times, Powell's job isn't to serve the president, but to run the country's foreign policy on his own. And note the part about Powell's "conciliatory style". As if the president and the secretary of state were equals, and Powell was acting magnanimously by agreeing to do things Bush's way.

I know the editors of the Times are upset that George Bush is president, and think that they could do a better job running the country. But at some point they need to get over it, and realize that they'll have to wait until 2004 if they want our foreign policy to resemble Belgium's.

I see brown people

Pop quiz:

He's in his early 30s. His parents are both from India and they're both successful professionals. He lives in Philadelphia. He's devistatingly handsome (at least he thinks so). An essential part of his job is to watch movies. His teachers used to mispronounce his real name so other name gained some currency. He speaks flawless English, even with a regional Pennsylvanian accent, but people still ask him "where are you from?" (answer: his home town or Pennsylvania or the USA) "no, no, where are you really from?"

Are you thinking me? Partha Mazumdar?

Okay, how about the next clue: he's on the cover of the latest Newsweek magazine.

So, it's not me.

It's M(anoj). Night Shyamalan.

A couple of thoughts:

First, those people who downplay the importance of role models and the requests that minorities should be able to be able to see people who look like them in positions of power and celebrity, I have to say, have never gone day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, not seeing people who look like them where ever they look. South Asian Americans, like me, are going to be talking about this Newsweek cover for a long time; they'll be saying: America really is a place where you can be Indian American and get on the cover of Newsweek.

Second, either Newsweek missed what Shyamalan is doing or he snookered them.

Sure, as is noted in the article, he's influenced by Hitchcock, Lucus, and Spielberg in his choice of subject matter, but in form, his primary influence is the great Indian writer, director, composer Satyajit Ray. From his framing, from his character development, from what he reveals and what he doesn't, from his pacing, Manoj is a student and admirer of Ray. He's bringing an Indian sensibility to Hollywood. It's a sensibility which many find slow, boring, and plodding, but for those whose attention span hasn't been reduced to nanoseconds, his movies are well worth the time.

And, after the American release of Lagaan, movie critics around the country announced that it would be the begining of an American appreciation of Indian films (India has the largest movie industry in the world). (Roger Ebert was more measured in his excellent review of Lagaan.) With Manoj and with other heavily Indian influenced movies such as Moulin Rouge, we don't need to go to the art house to see Indian movies. We can just go to the local multiplex. India is already here.

So what's that wacky Axis of Evil up to, now?

Some have complained about the president's inclusion of Iran on Bush's list, saying that Iran is reforming. That it's moderate. Maybe they should read more about what's actually happening in Iran:

A court dissolved one of Iran's oldest opposition parties on Saturday, sentencing some members to jail and banning others from political activity for as long as 10 years.

The action was part of a new wave of repression that has included the closing of two newspapers and the interrogation of several Iranian intellectuals this month.

This isn't some extremist group, either; the party was religious, had supported the Islamic revolution, and supported the current president, Mohammed Khatami. And what was their "crime"?
The dissidents were charged with a series of crimes, including seeking to topple the country's Islamic government, spreading rumors and lies by giving lectures and interviews, and having links with foreigners. Members said they would appeal the sentences.
Maybe they could appeal to those Europeans who thought Bush was being too "simplistic."

July 30, 2002

You've got to be kidding me

Companies give stock options -- the option to buy shares of stock in the company at a predetermined price some point at the future -- to executives because, supposedly, it provides an extra insentive for the executive to make the company stronger.

An executive, let's call him Ken, joins a company and it's at $20. He receives an option to buy ten million shares, when he leaves the company, for $10 each.

(First off, this $10 price seems bogus. All he has to do is break even and he makes $100,000,000, but that's how the world works, I guess.)

But, looking at this, Kenny doesn't have an insentive to make the company stronger. His incentive is to make the stock price as high as possible when he leaves. So, if the stock is at $50 on that magical day, and he can buy ten million shares from the company at $10 and then immediately sell them on the market, then he's made $400,000,000. (minus, of course, brokerage fees and capital gains tax)

Kenny Boy, in other words, is paid in a way where the company doesn't matter. The stockholders don't matter. Nothing matters, in terms of his golden pay day, other than the analysts. You know, the people who appear on CNBC during the day. They research the company and give independent advice on where they think the stock price should be. People listen to them, because the analysts are smart, well educated, research the company, are independent, and individual people and managers of smaller funds don't have the time or ability to do all of this research themselves. And the analysts are independent, after all.

And, if this story in the New York Times is true, company executives made decisions on who the analysts of their companies would be. (I'm using the plural here, even though the story is just about Enron. Like a lot of the stories we've been reading about, I'm confident more will follow.)

To get this straight... an executive would receive a great deal of the money (generated by the workers of the company) because it would be transfered to him, essentially, on the say of an analyst who the executive himself picked. You've got to be kidding me.

One likes to believe there aren't enough jails for scum like this. But, realistically, if you have friends in the White House and the Naval Observatory, one has to assume that Ken Lay won't see one minute of jail time. He'll spend his life at his many pools, at his many houses, while actual employees at Enron, whose retirement plans helped to raise the price of the stock, have to work decades longer because their retirement savings are gone.

When is a problem not a problem?

When the New York Times makes it up. According to the Times' headline writers, "Wife Killings at Fort Reflect Growing Problem in Military". The article, of course, discusses the killings of four women at Fort Bragg by their military spouses over the last six weeks. It's certainly shocking, and worth reporting. So why do I criticize the Times? Because not one fact in the article substantiates in any way the Times' claim that the problem is "growing." Some data is cited, but that data is unrelated to the claim, and moreover, as even the Times admits:

The numbers have been sharply debated by experts and are difficult to calculate, because the military counts only married couples in incidents of domestic violence, not former spouses or girlfriends.
I'm sensing a pattern; on Monday, OpinionJournal noted (Scroll down) another example of the New York Times making up a headline that fit nicely with their editorial biases, but not with the facts in the story.

These are both examples of ideological bias, but they're also an example of a phenomenon I noted the other day: the Times' desperate need to "put events into context." Why write about four individual murders when you can write about a societal problem which is "reflected" by those four murders?

New York Times signs treaty with Iraq, declares war on U.S.

Okay, perhaps the editors haven't quite gone that far. Yet. But they're doing everything short of shipping weapons to Baghdad in an attempt to undermine the Bush administration's supposed intention to invade Iraq. (I think this would be Ann Coulter's cue to accuse them of treason and suggest they be deported to Guantanamo.)

First, they reported possible U.S. plans to invade Iraq from three sides simultaneously, describing the size of the U.S. force and the directions from which the attacks would come. Then they followed up by describing an alternative plan, in which the U.S. would seize Baghdad quickly and attack from the "inside out".

And to follow up on revealing Pentagon plans to Saddam Hussein, the Times is propagandizing against war, attempting to convince the American public that attacking Iraq isn't economically feasible. Except, once again, the Times writes a headline that their story can't back up: "Profound Effect on U.S. Economy Seen in a War on Iraq."

The article primarily focuses on the cost of the conflict, but without explaining what the "profound effects" of those costs might be. Moreover, it's all guesswork, as the Times admits:

Senior administration officials said Mr. Bush and his top advisers had not begun to consider the cost of a war because they had yet to decide what kind of military operation might be necessary. Whatever choice is made, experts say, the costs are likely to be significant and therefore may ultimately influence the size, scale and tactics of any military operation.
(Emphasis added.) The article also discusses the potential disruption of the oil supply, but admits that Bush has thought ahead:
Last Nov. 13, a month after the United States began bombing Afghanistan to dislodge the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the president's advisers debated whether Iraq should be the focus of phase two of the campaign against terrorism. Mr. Bush directed Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to add more than 100 million barrels to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Since Jan. 1, oil shipments into the reserve have reached record levels, about 150,000 barrels a day. One oil strategist in London noted that United States government acquisitions for the reserve were accounting for more than half of the growth in demand for oil this year.

With a capacity of 700 million barrels, the reserve could be used to disperse 4.2 million barrels of oil a day to jittery markets more than enough to make up for the 1 million barrels a day of Iraqi crude lost because of military operations.

So what's the "profound effect?" The article doesn't say. It hints, I suppose, that a recession is possible, but certainly doesn't provide the certainty that the headline does.

Also, eating less helps you lose weight

From the Science section of The New York Times:

Changing physical education classes so that students spend more class time in motion can yield measurable improvements in fitness, a new study reports.
From The Onion's Center For Figuring Out Really Obvious Things.

July 31, 2002

It's too darn hot

It's really hot here in Philadelphia. It's hot all around the country.

In a recent article in Slate, Eric Klinenberg asks "Why don't Americans sweat over heat-wave deaths?" More Americans die from heat waves than all other natural disasters combined (including tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods).

The answer is simple: those who succumb to the heat are predominately old (without the physical strength to withstand the heat), poor (without the financial ability to pay for air conditioning), and scared (they stay inside their homes because they are scared to go outside into the crime filled streets of their neighborhoods).

The old, poor, and scared don't vote nor do they line the coffers of the major political parties. It's better political policy to make sure those who own hurricane-prone ocean-front property are well taken care of then elderly women in the Ida B. Wells housing project in Chicago. (Not to attempt to rhetorically minimize the pain engendered by hurricanes, but it is better politics).

Klinenberg notes that there are "simple and relatively inexpensive measures that could prevent future heat deaths," and that "it's just a question of whether we value the lives of poor city dwellers as much as the property of wealthy coastal developers."

I have another suggestion to add to Klinenberg's. When a heat wave rolls in, FEMA is called up. If it can respond to tornadoes and hurricanes, why not heat waves?

Waffles = terrorism?

The FBI might not be able to figure out that people who train at flight schools and associate with known terrorists are worth watching, but they've come up with another way to "connect the dots." Okay, so they may not be useful dots, but Foxnews is reporting that the FBI has collected data from supermarkets as part of its intelligence-gathering process:

According to one privacy expert, at least one national grocery chain voluntarily handed over to the government records from its customer loyalty card database in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
And apparently, other companies in other industries did the same.

American law, unlike European law, generally treats this information as property of the vendor rather than the consumer, which means that unless the company has contractually agreed not to divulge the information, it is free to do so. (And of course, law enforcement can subpoena the information, but that's a little more work than just asking for it.) While certain information -- travel or financial records, for instance -- could clearly be useful for law enforcement purposes, I can't even begin to conceive of what uses they would have for grocery records. Stopping Al Qaeda surely wouldn't be one of those uses.

About July 2002

This page contains all entries posted to Jumping To Conclusions in July 2002. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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