Oct 20

Sarah Palin Says Romney and Ryan Not Telling the Whole Truth

It’s true. Here’s what she said,

“Both Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan should ‘go rogue’ and not hold back from telling the American people the true state of our economy and national security.”

So, the only way they could do that is if they holding back already! In other words, they must know truths about the state of our economy and national security they are not telling now.

Oct 18

Charges against Doctor Implicate Pakistan in Bin Laden Cover up

I wrote before about this poor Pakistani physician, Dr. Shakeel Afridi who is facing treason charges in Pakistan. Dr Afridi is accused of “helping the CIA use a vaccination campaign to try to collect DNA samples from people who lived in bin Laden’s compound.”  The implication seems to be that since he aided the CIA, he committed treason.

This story has struck me odd, because charging the doctor with treason seems to imply Pakistani guilt in hiding Bin Laden. Why? Because treason means an extreme crime against one’s country. It is the divulging of military secrets or the attempt to injure or overthrow the government. So that suggests that Pakistan feels Bin Laden’s location was some kind of state secret!

I started a thought experiment, “If this happened in the U.S., would the person be accused of treason?”  Let us say, for example, international fugitive Moammar Gadhafi smuggles himself in a cargo ship across the Atlantic and takes up residence in Newark.  Nobody can find him. The Libyan revolution gets a tip and sends a note to everyone they know to be on the lookout. As it turns out, Gadhafi’s postman, an American married to a Libyan woman , recognizes him. They tell the wife’s brother who is a Libyan revolutionary. At this point, the postman has done nothing wrong—right?  So, the Libyan revolutionaries can either tell U.S. authorities or take out Gadhafi themselves. If they take him out, then they have deal with the fact they transgressed on American soil. But the postman has nothing to do with it.

Of course, laws are different in Pakistan than in the U.S. Even so, giving information to a foreign government cannot be a crime in itself. If it was, probably half the Pakistani government would be guilty. Its only a crime if the information is a state secret.  So there you go.




Oct 05

The Smearing of Amanda Knox Shows Reading News Critically is Critical

Amanda Knox is not really a political story, but I happened on a well-articulated article about the news reporting of Amanda Knox’s diary. This article by Amanda Knox biographer Candace Dempsey, gives a great example of why it is important to read the news critically.

A Ms. Dempsey notes, newspapers have been fond of creating headlines like

“Amanda Knox compares herself to Helen of Troy.”

But, what is the real story? Here is the diary entry:  Jeez, I’m not even that good-looking! People are acting like I’m the prettiest thing since Helen of Troy!”

Or, there was another headline that read:

“I got 23 fan letters from guys today: Foxy Knox’s disturbing diary.”

What’s the real story? Dempsey reports: On Nov. 19, she does mentions that she got 23 “fan letters” that “the jail had been saving up for me.”

These examples are representative of the terrible failing we have now have of peopling writing under the pretense of journalistic credibility. They will take and twist the facts to sensationalize the story for more ratings.  Yet, we still like to believe that they are journalists who hold themselves to some level objectivity and honesty. Sure, no one is without bias, but there is difference between striving for objectivity and striving to win a point or stir people up. Unfortunately, journalistic ethics have largely gone out the window as profession and are never coming back. Or maybe it was a myth that they existed. At any rate, what it means for us is that we have to always look behind the headline or sound bite and find the evidence for it.

Oct 04

Occupying Wall Street or Preoccupied with Anger?

Photo Gallery at CNN

I guess I ‘m not a big fan of protests in general. I know it is in vogue to criticize big business and Wall Street as being corrupt and hence the source of our economic woes. I’ll concede there is probably some truth to that, and I suppose protests have their uses.  The Arab Spring, the Hippy Movement, and The Orange Revolution all contributed to positive change. But let’s take a specific look at the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Numerous commentators have noted Occupy Wall Street seems to have vague and undefined interests. According to a recent BBC article, people gave reasons for being there as smattering of these below.

  • Being inspired by the Arab Spring and wanting to participate in a big movement
  • Feeling Americans are too apathetic
  • Unhappy with the execution of Troy Davis
  • Wanting to abolish the Federal Reserve
  • Upset the corporations stealing bailout money and getting rich

These reasons are more of a mishmash of issues people are angry about than a focused agenda. The reasons are mostly bitching about problems without real (or practical) solutions. It seems many of the people are simply hoping to be part of something grand, or they want people to change the world for them. According to CNN,

“We’re here for different reasons,” said Vincent, whose father is also unemployed and recently went through a home foreclosure. “But at the end of the day, it all boils down to one thing, and that’s accountability. We want accountability for the connection between Wall Street and the politicians.”

Whenever I hear people talk about accountability of other people, it makes me uneasy.  As humans we have a tendency to assume that the failings of others are due to their character faults.  But in reality the economic system is highly complex and it is not easy to understand. The vast majority of people in the country are doing their best given their situation. It is very easy to overgeneralize and assume things like “those people are corrupt or not accountable to the people” without really understanding the realities how decisions are made, how markets operate, and what kinds of regulations do or do not exist. These over-generalizations get propagated by pundits who are trying to make sensational comments to draw ratings, not to solve the problem.

Certainly, as we have seen, there are corrupt people. But, as Judith Samuelson astutely described in the Huffington Post,

“[We] know from experience that real change is hard; that to influence business, and Wall Street, requires people skills as well as analytics, patience, and multiple approaches to gain the attention and commitment of the power brokers who set the rules and design the reward systems.”

Ms. Samuelson is exactly right. Most change takes informed action on multiple fronts. The current situation we are in has persisted mainly because there are no easy solutions. In fact, pursuing the easy solutions—or the ones that were demanded loud enough before—may be what got us here. Now, the real solutions require concessions on all sides that people are not willing to make and politicians are too timid to risk. What we need is honest and open deliberation to bring people together on the appropriate solutions.

Protests can be useful in raising attention to a problem, but I don’t think anyone is not aware that there are problems. What we really need is all of us working together to create solutions. Protests don’t start small businesses. They don’t get new people elected. They don’t create jobs, except for a handful of reporters.

If 700 young adults that are protesting could be organized to create value for other people, it would be a lot more productive than blocking traffic in New York.  To that end, I would find it interesting to know how many of the protesters voted in the last election, are informed on the issues, or have any real understanding of government or economics.

Without a clear understanding of how we got here and what works, we run the risk of running in circle. I’m reminded of the famous song by The Who called “We Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

There’s nothing in the street
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left
Is now the parting on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again
Don’t get fooled again
No, no!

Sep 26

Unemployment is Likely Not a Big Factor for Obama Reelection

As everyone should know, President Obama is trying to pass a bill to help create more jobs. He doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of help, even from Democrats.  Many people seem to think that Mr. Obama’s ability to create jobs will be crucial to his re-election. Well, that may be true if the lack of jobs leads to a recession, but research shows that unemployment numbers really don’t mean that much in the election of the incumbent. See this more comprehensive analysis by Nate Silver. Mr. Silver shows that there is insufficient data to make a conclusion based on the number of presidents being re-elected.

Further, quantitative historian Allen Lichtman of American University has developed a system of 13 keys to predict whether the incumbent can win. His model “correctly predicted the popular vote outcome of every U. S. presidential election since 1984, including George H. W. Bush’s comeback from nearly 20 percent behind in the polls in 1988 and Al Gore’s narrow win in 2000.” Neither unemployment nor approval ratings factor into the 13 keys.

Sep 17

Obama’s Declining Approval Ratings are Irrelevant or Even Good

There was a lot of talk this week about President Obama’s approval ratings dropping to 43%, but it is not clear this really means anything. In fact, I think it is arguable that — since we all know that some tough choices need to be made — if his approval rating was high, it would probably mean the tough choices were not being being made.

People make a big deal out of presidential approval ratings because they think a low approval rating means less chance of getting re-elected.  But a low approval rating is not really much of an indicator this far from the election. You can see from the nice chart and commentary provided by Nate Silver that, although presidents with approval numbers less than 50% on election day usually don’t get re-elected, sometimes approval numbers improve from the 40% or less range in the months leading up to the election, and the incumbent gets re-elected. Also, all of the presidents in the chart with approval ratings  over approximately 50% got re-elected, so the approval rating bar is not that high.

Sep 16

The Economy is like a Mexican Standoff

I was trying to find a way to describe the current U.S. economic situation simply, and what I came up with was a Mexican standoff. You could just call it a stalemate, except I when I think of a Mexican standoff I usually think of buffoonish characters, like those below. And that seems more accurate in this case.

Economy as Mexican Standoff

The way I see it, the cartoon summarizes the essential problem. Business is saying, “We won’t hire you unless you spend more” and consumers are saying “We won’t spend more unless you hire us.”

So we have got a situation where Republicans are trying to lower business taxes and regulations in effort to influence businesses to invest, and the Obama administration is trying to stimulate demand by giving citizens and businesses more money so they can spend it.  The problem is, both sides are fighting about it so neither approach is getting done.

Sep 15

Pie Chart of Who Holds US Debt — The Highest Isn’t China

Tonight’s inquiry: Who really holds the much discussed US debt? Well, I took a look first at what the total debt was right now. The total is $14.7 trillion and counting of course. But, what was a little shocking was that next to that number was a calculation divvying up the debt to $47K per person! That’s quite a bit higher than the $30K number I reported in 2008. Yikes! I’ll have to delve into the differences later, but you can see a graph of how steeply debt/citizen had risen here, which is on a fine site chock full of interesting information on the debt.

Anyway, I just wanted to get the essential idea of who held US debt, so using some rough figures from the US Department of the Treasury, I put together this little graph. Its not meant to be 100% accurate, just to give the relative proportions.

Sep 12

Republican Jobs Plan is to Attack Obama’s Plan

President Obama gave his pitch for creating jobs the other night, and it was nicely summarized by Mr.Mark Zandi. Some of his key points are listed below.

  • President Obama’s jobs proposal would help stabilize confidence and keep the U.S. from sliding back into recession.
  • The plan would add 2 percentage points to GDP growth next year, add 1.9 million jobs, and cut the unemployment rate by a percentage point.
  • The plan would cost about $450 billion, about $250 billion in tax cuts and $200 billion in spending increases.
  • Many of the president’s proposals are unlikely to pass Congress, but the most important have a chance of winning bipartisan support.

The last bullet got me wondering, “Ok, well if Republicans are going to object, what is their plan for creating jobs?” So I found this statement on the the House Republican website.  Now you can read it there for yourself  (the details being way down at the end of the page), but I’ll note a couple of things about it.

  • It seems to be me a little duplicitous that the research reference is to the Heritage Foundation, whose clearly stated mission is “to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.”  This not not the mission of science or the objective research into truth. My opinion in fact is that such an organization is trying to confuse people into thinking the organization is producing objective scientific research when they are not.
  • Something like 75% of the article is dedicated to deriding the policies of the President, with only a snippet at the end actually advancing their own proposal. Consequently, the proposal itself is very bland, mainly a restating of traditional Republican positions.

While there are some points of the proposal that appeal to me, I find its credibility diminished by the above points. It seems to be more of attack piece than a well thought out proposal.

Jun 14

The Complex Aftermath of Bin Laden Raid

The challenge of foreign policy, like all social systems, is that countries react to what each other does. This article caught my eye tonight, where Pakistan arrested people who helped the U.S. identify and bring down Osama Bin Laden.  The irony is fairly clear:  The U.S. acted unilaterally out of fear that Pakistanis would alert Bin Laden and he would flee, but Pakistan arrests the people who helped the U.S.

In describing the difficulty in working with Pakistan, Senator Dick Luger said

One of the main problems in dealing with Pakistan is that its government is not a monolith, but rather a collection of different power centers that interact in complex ways.  There is the elected civilian government, which over the years has not always been strong or stable; the uniformed military, which has seized power at various junctures; the intelligence service, which has its own independence within the military; and, we are told, a shadowy group of former intelligence agents that can act on its own.  These different actors alternately compete and cooperate with one another, and their influence periodically waxes and wanes.  Equally vexing, each of the players can support U.S. policies one moment, but obstruct them the next.  Add to this mix volatile public elements that can be whipped into an anti-American fervor, and you have a partner who can seem, as some have said, to be both firefighter and arsonist.

That pretty much sums it up.

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