Our New Civil Masters

Once they were called civil servants, but after the barrage of taxpayer-funded bailouts, they may be more properly seen as “civil masters.”

David Brooks, writing today in the New York Times, aptly describes the phenomenon without–in typically Brooksian fashion–making any harsh judgments about it:

For those who don’t know, Ward Three is a section of Northwest Washington, D.C., where many Democratic staffers, regulators, journalists, lawyers, Obama aides and senior civil servants live. Thanks to recent and coming bailouts and interventions, the people in Ward Three run the banks and many major industries. Through this power, they get to insert themselves into the intricacies of upscale life, influencing when private jets can be flown, when friends can lend each other their limousines and at what golf resorts corporate learning retreats can be held.


Nonetheless, many people in Ward Three do have certain resentments toward those with means, which those of you in the decamillionaire-to-billionaire wealth brackets should be aware of.

In the first place, many people in Ward Three suffer from Sublimated Liquidity Rage. As lawyers, TV producers and senior civil servants, they make decent salaries, but 60 percent of their disposable income goes to private school tuition and study abroad trips. They have little left over to spend on themselves, which generates deep and unacknowledged self-pity.

Second, they suffer from what has been called Status-Income Disequilibrium. At work they are flattered and feared. But they still have to go home and clean out the gutters because they can’t afford full-time household help.

Third, they suffer the status rivalries endemic to the upper-middle class. As law school grads, they resent B-school grads. As Washingtonians, they resent New Yorkers. As policy wonks, they resent people with good bone structure.

In short, people in Ward Three disdain three things: cleavage, hunting and dumb people who are richer than they are. Rich people have to learn to adapt to the new power structure if they hope to survive.

Brooks should also acknowledge that pockets of what I will call “Ward 3 mentality” exists in Cambridge, Mass., Manhattan, Los Angeles’ West Side and the suburbs of many university towns from Berkley and Boulder to Madison and Ithaca. The resentful hate the “greedy”–and that animus is the source of too much of our politics today. “Hope and change” is simply the sweet coating on this bitter pill.


Juan Cole competes for Best Blogger

Yes, its true, Juan Cole wants to win 2008 Weblog Awards competition–and he is currently in the lead. Best of luck to him.

Martin Kramer has a different take. He cites simple factual problems that undo Cole’s analysis. My two favorites deal with confused chronologies and dramatic assertions based on faulty data:

Cole claimed that Mohammed Atta to join what became the 9-11 attacks by his fury at seeing Israeli jets bomb Cana. His evidence? Atta’s 1996 will, allegedly inspired by that Israeli air strike at Cana. Small problem as Kramer explains: “Actually, Atta’s will was dated April 11, 1996—one week before the Qana tragedy, on April 18. We don’t know for certain why he made it, but it cannot be because he witnessed any footage from Qana, which was still in the future.”

Earlier, Cole claimed the September attacks were by an Israeli assault on a refugee camp near Jenin. Again, Kramer spots the error: ” Israel’s Jenin operation took place seven months after 9/11.”

Too often a simple fact is the pebble in the shoe that topples the giant claim. If this is the stuff that earns a Weblog Award, well, then the award is not worth much. It simply becomes a badge to be won by whatever side can drive the biggst mob onto the field. Is that really where Weblog Awards wants to go?


Leon Panetta for CIA?

Leon Panetta, a former congressman with no intelligence experience, has been tapped to run the CIA in the Obama Administration.

It is hard to know what is worse: the rampant Washington insiderdom or the shocking lack of experience. Panetta did not even serve on the Intelligence Committee in his years in the House. His only connection to the intelligence world is that he reviewed the CIA budget when he was President Clinton’s budget director in the 1990s. That link is so feeble it is odd that Obama insiders even trot it out; but they do, it is right there in the New York Times story.

Other leading Democratic contenders were shut out because they, like Rep. Jane Harman, voiced some support for Bush-era interrogation techniques that provided key intelligence that thwarted attacks against America and her allies.

The key question: Why not simply keep on the current CIA director? Hayden is experienced and trusted by case officers in the field. And, since he came on after waterboarding terrorists had stopped, he has no connection to the practice so deplored by the Daily Kos crowd.

Obama needs to explain why an inexperienced former congressman and lobbyist will be a better CIA director than the guy doing the job now.


Its NOT the “third-hand smoke” that stinks

The New York Times dropped a new term into our language–”third-hand smoke”–and another  large dollop of politicized science.

Second-hand smoke is exhaled by smokers. Third-hard smoke is the microscopic particles left behind when smoke makes contact with curtains, couches and human hair. This is why smokers stink when they are not smoking, the article helpfully explains. Now there is “study” that says this heretofore unremarkable particles are a deadly health, especially to small children.

There are a number of problems with this study.

First, it ignores “threshold effects.” If I stand in the doorway and do not cross the threshold, I have not entered the room. In science, we see a lot of threshold effects. Until a certain dosage is reached, no effect appears. But, once the dosage reaches a certain limit, negative effects appear. But, if the dosage is below the threshold, it doesn’t make one safer to reduce it further–it literally has no effect at all. The study cited by the New York Times doesn’t present compelling evidence that the threshold has been crossed.

Second, it fails to control for key variables, like income. Lower-income people generally have poorer diets, are more likely to live in homes with lead and asbestos, be exposed to industrial fumes and so on. As with the largely bogus second-hand smoke studies, I suspect that if you control for income and occupation the measured effect vanishes. Low-income have some many confounding exposures that it is hard to isolate dust from tobacco smoke as a health hazard and higher-income people have fewer exposures and thus can’t establish the scary findings.

But the biggest point, and the most worrying for our society, is the politization of science. Clearly some people believe that all smoking should be banned. They can’t get their way by stamping their feet. While virtually every one favors reasonable restrictions (no smoking in the maternity ward, as was commonplace in the 1940s), very few people want to ban smoking everywhere for every one. So the smoke-banners can’t win a straight-up vote. Generally, they have done what all highly motivated minorities do in a democracy: they approach their goal through a series of reasonable salami slices (banning smoking in offices, public buildings and so on) until they get to some shockingly strange slices (banning smoking in your private car or home, banning smoking outdoors). How do they get the shocking slices accepted by the majority? Ideologically motivated “scientific” studies. And, of course, they invoke “the children.”

Of course, anti-smoking zealots are not the only ones who operate this way. So do environmentalists, corporate lobbyists and others on the right and left.

It is the politicized science that should worry all of us. These “studies” are used because they work and they work because political discourse in this country is dishonest. Rather than state their policy preferences, activists use studies to threaten and intimidate. If your child comes in contact with a seat cushion used by a smoker, she will grow up stupid or some such nonsense. The dishonesty appears in the role of the media, especially the New York Times, treating obviously shabby scientific work as impartial. Why not simply report the facts: anti-smoking scientists release new study contending that tobacco poses new risks? It is still a good story, in fact better because it is honest.

But it won’t scare you. And they want to frighten, not persuade. And that totalitarian desire is what worries me most about our country today.


Bail Out Newspapers?

Banks, airlines, auto makers–everyone wants a bail out these days.

Now one Connecticut lawmaker wants to add newspapers to the list.

Frank Nicastro, who represents the state’s 79th Assembly district, wants to bail out two newspapers in his constituency: the Bristol Press (circulation: 10,704) and Herald Press, which boasts 26,299 readers.

While it might seem heart-warming to save a small-town paper, the story about the story shows why real journalism is a dying art these days.

Here’s Nicastro’s justification, as supplied by Reuters:

Nicastro and fellow legislators want the papers to survive, and petitioned the state government to do something about it. “The media is a vitally important part of America,” he said, particularly local papers that cover news ignored by big papers and television and radio stations.

Meanwhile, big and basic questions remain unanswered.

Why can’t the parent company refinance its debts? After all, billions of bail-out money is sloshing through the banks for exactly this kind of liquidity-enhancing event.Does this suggest that the federal bailout is failing to trickle down? Now there is a story…

Why are we not told two key details about Nicastro: that he is a Democrat and that the papers he wants to save cover him favorably? Does he want the taxpayers to support papers who essentially do unpaid p.r. for him? Why is this not called the selfish stunt that it is? Is there no one who will go on the record and say the obvious? Or did the reporter even try?

Next, we are not told about the role of unions in the paper’s looming demise. Are the papers unionized? Would non-union workers represent a cheaper alternative that would keep the papers open? Why are the unions not negotiating give-backs to save the papers or is Assembly Nicastro’s effort actually a ploy to finance unions’ reckless demands with taxpayer dollars? Unions not only raise wage rates–which is good for workers, but not good for shareholders and job seekers who may get priced out–but labor organizations also dampen productivity through restrictive work rules. Are there any work rules that make printing or delivery of these papers uneconomic? Again, basic questions left unanswered.

The papers’ web site seems well stocked with ads and its ad rates seem competitive, not grasping. Why does the reporter not tell us if advertising is rising or falling? Local papers, like the Bristol Press, are usually sturdy enough to survive recessions. Their advertisers are local businesses, not multinationals that slash display ad spending when consumer spending slackens. Small dailies and weeklies usually see a small upside in good times and a small downside in bad times. There are exceptions of course. Isn’t the Internet robbing ads from these local papers? No, the web is stealing ads from big-city dailies. If you own the neighborhood bakery, the local paper is often a more targeted, more cost-effective alternative than the web. Again, why does the reporter not bring in local-newspaper expert to explain this? Or ask one of the newspaper executives?

Instead, the reporter leaves us with the idea that these newspapers are failing due to forces beyond human control and that the government should swoop in like Superman. (His only worry is the independence of the press.)

This brings us to big reasons that papers are dying all over this country: poor management and liberal bias. The reporter seems ideologically committed to being un-skeptical of the Democratic state lawmaker’s motives and uninterested in exploring the possible role of unions in the papers’ decline. Ideology can both blind and clarify, but it blinds most surely when the victim refuses to see.

Of course, liberal bias may not be the answer. Laziness would also explain this story and many others like it. I will leave it you, dear reader, to decide whether liberalism or laziness is a better explanation of the decline in American journalism.

As for any bailout: Isn’t part of the freedom of the press include the freedom to fail?


Is Caroline Kennedy Qualified? What about Palin?

Peter Roff, a conservative writing in U.S. News and World Report, thinks that Caroline Kennedy, a socialite who has been so concerned with New York’s political future that she has voted in almost 40% of its elections, is qualified.

Well, yes, she meets the mere constitutional standards: she is over 35 and has a pulse.

No, what Roff is trying to argue is different–and it is an intellectual trap I see many conservatives falling into. Call it the “Palin problem.”

Still stung by the establishment media’s dismissal of Gov. Sarah Palin as “unqualified,” some conservatives want to be “consistent” and contend that Kennedy is suffering from the same unfair attacks. (I know, what attacks?) Still, Roff puts this a powerful way, meant to attract centrists to his view:

Having just been through this over the question of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s candidacy for vice president, we are again faced with the prospect of career partisans attacking a woman who has just entered the arena from outside it—way, way, outside it.

In much the same way that black politicians, at least prior to Obama’s election, were damned with faint praise when cited for their “eloquence,” the overarching focus on “qualifications”—especially as they apply to women seeking elective office—is little more than an attempt to score a few quick, easy points and push them out of the way. It is unseemly, and it is wrong.

He is onto something. He has noticed the mechanics by which the Establishment tries to keep people, noting that it uses different tools to keep out different types of people. Fine. But, Roff is missing the boat.


Why do they always look for sadness on Christmas?

After tonight’s showing of “Casablanca” and just before the airing of “The Big Sleep,” Turner Movie Classics presented a short memorial to the famous and the notable.

By itself, not so notable. At the end of the year, lots of outlets do these kinds of things. Modern life is suffused with the impulse of turning the joyful into the melancholy.

But the TCM memorial is better than that. Check it out on you tube.

The music is by Joe Henry and the song is “God Only Knows.” Listen to it. It has a kind of transcendental quality to it.


New Evidence: Obama, Blago and the memory hole

Why does any evidence linking President-Elect Obama’s connection to the Senate seat-selling scam always seem to vanish?

Many in the media are taking Obama’s denials at face value. He is a bona fide historic figure and, yes, he could be a miracle man who walked through the sewers of Illinois politics without getting a spot on the hem of his garment. It is possible. Harry Truman was the one of the few clean polticians when his state was run by legendarily corrupt Pendergast machine. So Obama could be as clean as an Easter-Sunday hat.

Still, odd bits of contrary evidence keep popping up. Obama has repeatedly said that he and Blago had never discussed the senate seat. Campaign adviser David Axelrod told a local Fox TV afiliate that the president-elect had indeed talked about the seat with the now disgraced governor, but Axelrod soon recanted.

Now Derek Hunter over at the First Friday has some new evidence: a local news story (KHQA-Chicago ABC affiliate) saying that Obama and Blago were meeting the day after the election to discuss… who will fill his senate seat.

You have look at the screen shot at First Friday because KHQA has taken the story down. Want to look for it on Google cache? Good luck. Search for the headline “Who Will Fill Obama’s Seat” and the byline “Carol Sowers” and you get zero results. At least, I did.

As for the Axelrod video that every one was talking about last week, try finding it now. YouTube has taken it down and so has the local Chicago station that taped it.

That is two embarrassing local news stories erased in two weeks.

Instead of forcing the President-Elect to explain, the inconvenient evidence is being pushed down the memory hole. While over-protective staffers can make innocent politicians look guilty, what is the overly protective press doing? Whatever it is, it can’t be called journalism.

Whatever happened to “afflicting the comfortable” and “speaking truth to power” and so on? Is that going down the memory hole too?

If so, the country has lost a lot more than the reputation of one Illinois governor.


Other Wars on Terror

American media can be amazingly myopic. Since the September 11 attacks, the media has pretended that the U.S. is the only democracy that had to ask itself fundamental questions about fighting terrorists.

In reality, European, Anti-Podean and Asian democracies have been asking hard questions about freedom and safety since the 1970s. Can a non-citizen (or even a citizen) be held on the mere suspicion that he is involved in terrorism? For how long? Can the phone calls of terrorists be intercepted without a warrant? And so on.

In the media’s zeal to pretend that Bush has a tyrant in the making, journalists have largely overlooked what other advanced democracies have done in their wars on terror. In general, they have taken a harder line against terrorists without being overly fussy about the “privacy rights” of people with the top terrorists’ cell phone number.

Take Spain’s headline-making capture of ETA commander of its “commando” (i.e. terrorist) units. No word yet on exactly how the Spanish police were able to capture this elusive villian. But Spain’s laws and its lead counter-terrorism prosecuting judge have been known to aggresively use wiretaps and detention without immediate habeus corpus to break terror cells. Some terrorists have even been sent to Arab nations where they would face almost certain torture…

Perhaps President-elect Obama should study the European, Australian, and Japanese examples. Governing is a lot more difficult than campaigning. He can start by asking how many advanced democracies give terror suspects full-blown civilian trials?

After all, Obama should not be unilateral is his approach to fighting terror.