Sunday, September 30, 2012

George Will doesn't understand Science

George Will has no business criticizing scientific theories. He is an intelligent man, even brilliant at times, but his training and inclinations are religious and philosophical, not scientific. He has two major flaws that disqualify him from commenting on science.

First, Will brings to any subject a raft of opinions and prejudices. He formulates his ideas based on rigid philosophies, primarily conservatism and libertarianism. This sort of thinking is anathema to science. A scientist must be ready to modify her views based on new information.

For example, Will wrote convincingly that the filibuster was a good thing when Republicans used it against Clinton in 1992. But he condemned the filibuster when the Democrats used it in 2003. In this instance, as in many others, Will formed his conclusion first, then used his writing skills to argue for the position he already supported, namely that conservatism is good and liberalism is bad.

Second, Will resorts to cheap rhetorical tricks in his arguments. Will cited an Arctic Climate Research Center report in 2006 that stated that global sea ice levels were equal to those of 1979. He chose not to cite the next sentence from that report, which stated that Northern Hemisphere sea ice levels were one million square kilometers lower than 1979. He also failed to investigate further by contacting the Center and asking for clarification. The Center categorically denied the story.

This illustrates the rhetorical trick of cherry picking, where an author uses data that supports his position and ignores data that does not. This is a critical error is scientific argument, where data that fail to support a theory are precisely the ones which must be explained. All the data must be accounted for.

Will famously proclaimed the cause of record-breaking temperatures was summer, not global warming. He continued his argument by claiming that summers had always been hot, even when he was a child. This is an example of a straw man argument. No reputable scientist claimed that the temperatures were caused by global warming, but Will proposed that they had, then attacked their non-existent claims.

Will treats scientific theories as if they are political policies and attacks them as such. He attacks global warming because he considers it a progressive policy and because he, as a conservative, has a duty to attack all things progressive. Whether progressives or conservatives accept global warming is irrelevant to whether the theory is true or false.

Critics of scientific theories must approach their topic with an understanding of science and abandon political bias.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Gore Vidal's "Burr": Our Founding Felons

Gore Vidal recently passed away. A few days later, I found a used copy of Burr in a small bookstore in Alexandria and began reading this formidable work. Vidal's prose style is dense, his plot is confusing and circular. But the book is well worth reading for its realistic (as opposed to hagiographic) treatment of the founding fathers.

Writers often wish that their work will affect the lives of their readers. Vidal achieved this wish when Michele Bachmann converted to Republicanism during an abortive reading of Burr. She called the book snotty and accused Vidal of mocking the Founders. I found the book snarky but refreshingly honest.

Thomas Jefferson c. 1820
Vidal was not mocking the founders. He was telling the truth about them. He concentrated on their flaws instead of their achievements. Vidal pointed out that Washington was a mediocre general who spent most of the Revolutionary War retreating from the British. Washington won two minor battles on his own and only succeeded in defeating Cornwallis at Yorktown with the assistance of Lafayette and the French navy. Furthermore, Washington had his soldiers flogged and owed his fortune to the efforts of his slaves. Both of those acts would today be felonies.

Vidal spares most of his venom for Jefferson, however. Jefferson wrote the words, "All men are created equal", but owned more than 700 slaves over his lifetime. Historians have whitewashed his reputation by claiming he treated his slaves humanely, but this was not true. Jefferson used beatings of young boys to force them to do factory work. As late as 1950, school textbooks omitted this fact from his biography. Jefferson also hired slave hunters to bring back escaped slaves, sold young boys on the auction block, and had sexual relations with at least one female slave. Many of these actions would be considered felonies today.

Perhaps most damning, Vidal accuses Jefferson of hypocrisy, since he preached equality by did not practice it. Jefferson never freed a slave during his lifetime, instead requiring a slave to buy his freedom. When Count Kosciuszko bequeathed Jefferson a large sum of money to free many of his slaves, Jefferson refused the bequest. Jefferson did free a few of his slaves on his death, but neglected to free their families, which resulted in families being irrevocably separated.

George Washington during the Revolution
By contrast, Washington freed his slaves in his will and also provided money to assure they would have livelihoods. Washington thus answered Jefferson's rationalizations about freeing slaves, namely that they were racially inferior beings, incapable of existing in an integrated society. Washington didn't agree and proved Jefferson wrong with his actions.

Only in retrospect did the founders achieve godlike status. Only in the minds of current-day jurists and tea-partiers like Bachmann have they become infallible on matters of government. The worship of these men as deities is as ridiculous as it is pernicious. Vidal has done us all a favor by depicting them as mere mortals.

[This article is based in part on a Smithsonian article, "The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson" by Henry Wiencek.]

Friday, September 21, 2012

West Wing Reunion

The West Wing was one of my favorite shows during the Bush administration. For an hour every week I could slip into a fantasy world where a liberal democrat was president, the president cared about the environment, and every issue didn't end with an invasion. The West Wing cast had a sort of reunion to help Mary McCarthy's sister win election to the bench in Michigan. Enjoy. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Cuban Five will not soon be released

Fourteen years ago this week, five Cubans were arrested by the FBI and charged with conspiracy to commit espionage. They were tried and ultimately sentenced to life sentences. This case remains one of the worst examples of judicial malfeasance in US history.

The facts are these. The five Cubans came to the US from Cuba to infiltrate Anti-Castro groups engaged in terrorist activities against Cuba. Among the terrorist acts committed by these groups were murder, assassination, and the bombing of Cuban Flight 455, a commercial airplane carrying 73 passengers. By any definition of terrorism--except one--those are terrorist acts.

Funeral for 73 people who died on Cuban Flight 455 (NYTimes)
The one exception is that a person or group of people can commit with impunity terrorist acts against governments the US doesn't like, like Cuba and Venezuela. The US arrested and convicted the Cuban Five of conspiracy to commit espionage and murder without ever producing evidence of a single act of violence. At the same time, the US government refuses to extradite suspected terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles, who has admitted to placing bombs in public places in Cuba.

Posada-Carriles, alleged terrorist
This is the topsy-turvy world of US espionage. When a US agent tortures a captive, he is a hero. When another country's agent tortures a captive, he is a terrorist. This is the inevitable consequence of the US open-ended war on terror. The US has declared war on acts of violence. The UN declarations of human rights not only condemn such acts but also provide mechanisms to punish them. The US wants no part of peaceful methods. It has declared war instead.

So now the US holds the Cuban Five in prison. They have been held in solitary confinement, at one point for 17 months as they awaited trial, an act condemned by the Geneva accords as a war crime. They have been denied visits with their wives. The rest of the world has taken up their cause. Amnesty International considers them political prisoners and has documented their abuse. Their attorney, Leonard Weinglass, stated that it was customary in espionage cases to return the captured spies to their home country, usually within 30 days.

But the Cuban Five will not soon be released.

The Cuban Five will only be released if the people who sympathize with them join together and create a public outcry against injustice. But the groups who want this to happen hardly even talk to each other. The Cubans do not understand English. The American progressive groups do not understand Spanish. The Socialist groups speak a Marxist-Leninist dialect that they alone understand.

Tom Hayden has said that reconciliation of opposites is only possible if the interested parties give up their broader interests and limit their goals to the one at hand, in this case the liberation of the Cuban Five. But the Cubans want an end to the embargo and normalization of relations with Cuba. This will take years, perhaps decades. In the meantime, the Cuban Five are in prison.

The American progressives want to reform the US prison system and punish US war criminals. This will take years, perhaps decades. In the meantime, the Cuban Five are in prison.

The Marxist-Leninists want to overthrow capitalism. This will take years. Perhaps they may never succeed. In the meantime, the Cuban Five are in prison.

The American people are fair-minded. They hate injustice when they know about it. But unless the other interested parties overcome their selfish concerns long enough to publicize the Cuban Five and petition Obama for their release, the American people will not learn about this injustice and will not demand that it be stopped.

The progressives, the Cubans, the Marxist-Leninists, must set aside their selfish, long-term goals and work exclusively for the release of the Cuban Five.

Otherwise, the Cuban Five will not soon be released.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Key West Pirates (Hemingway's Bar)

Key West Pirates, an oil painting on wood panel by Holly Masri, appears at first glance a simple depiction of a bar. The place is Tony's Bar in Key West, Florida. The bar opens onto the street, very unusual for an American bar, where the prejudice against alcoholic consumption generally forces serious drinkers indoors. Two men are drinking at the bar, one seated, the other standing, while a bartender looks on. The most unusual aspect of the painting (and of the actual bar) is the low ceiling, encrusted with thousands of business cards left over the years by tourists.

Key West is the southernmost point of Florida, in many respects a tropical paradise. But the artist has chosen a pallet devoid of pastels. There are no flowers or broadleaf plants to be seen. Instead, the colors are somber. The frame cuts off the bright world of sun and sea. The two customers may be tourists, but their shirts are dark, as is the interior of the bar. Both are brawny and young. One of them has a skull and crossbones on the back of his shirt.

The two men in the bar are not pirates, for this is clearly a modern scene. They wear bermuda shorts, athletic shoes, and tee-shirts. One of them rests his foot on a backpack. They do have long, curly hair that reminds the viewer of 17th century wigs. They are engrossed by something to their right, which the viewer cannot see.

This is a famous bar, where celebrities met and toasted each others' health during the 1930s. At that time it was known as Sloppy Joe's. Its best known habitue was Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway arrived in Key West in 1936, when his health was already suffering from war injuries and too much drink. He brought with him friends like the writer John Dos Passos and the artist Waldo Peirce. Peirce also painted a scene in Tony's Bar, with his friend Hemingway sitting at the bar next to Peirce's wife, Alzira, and Peirce himself standing at the right.

The room next door, the room into which Masri's pirates are staring, can be seen in Peirce's painting. It is a dance hall, where sailors dance with pickups and bar girls. Perhaps the woman sitting at the end of the bar is one of those girls, being attended by two sailors in uniform and an elderly gentleman. Masri's pirates are looking at something else, though. The sailors are long gone, the dance hall a memory.

Masri's picture has ghosts, including the ghost of Hemingway and the ghost of the bar that used to be there. It has another theme as well: impostors. Sloppy Joe's Bar moved about a block away after Hemingway left town. It now occupies much larger, much grander premises than the bar depicted by Masri and Peirce. The current Sloppy Joe's, sold to tourists as Hemingway's hang out, does not much resemble the real hang out, now known as Tony's Bar.

Masri's painting captures the atmosphere of a place on the edge of history, where the people and times that made it famous are receding into the past. But Masri is not nostalgic. She depicts the scene honestly, portraying what it has become, a humble respite from the tropical sun that bakes Key West.

Note: Key West Pirates is on sale here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Checking the Factcheckers (Part Two)

Seventy-seven percent is not enough

Factcheck accuses Lilly Ledbetter and Laura DeLauro of exaggeration when they stated that women earn 77% of what men earn. The figure is an official one, published by the Bureau of the Census, so Factcheck is wrong to single out this figure for special analysis. Factcheck claims that the gap between what men and women earn for the same job is much less.

The situation for women is far worse than what the single figure 77% represents. This figure compares the earnings of full-time, year-round wage earners. Other figures show women in a much more desperate plight. Families headed by women have incomes only 65% of those headed by men. Both figures are medians; half of women earn more than 77%, but half earn less.

The disparity between the sexes becomes even greater when measured over longer periods of time. A 2004 study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research found that women between the ages of 26 and 59 made only 38% of their male counterparts over a 15-year period. More than 50% of women between those ages had a full calendar year without earnings, while only 16% of men did.

Not only did Factcheck's researchers call the 77% claim false, they also discovered sources who claimed that women were better off than the figure implies. They should have investigated further and they would have found the gender gap is just the tip of the iceberg that is the gender gap.

The Bain Bailout 

The story of the Bain & Company bailout was related in an article in the Rolling Stone. The article leaves out some important details, such as how much money Romney received personally from the federal bailout, because the article was based on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from which most of the dollar sums had been deleted. Romney, true to form, refuses to release the information, but it is fair to assume he made millions from the deal. 

Factcheck explains that the federal bailout of Bain was a routine settlement with bank regulators that involved no taxpayer money. It defines the FDIC as an independent federal agency, but the FDIC is backed up by the full faith and credit of the US government. Factcheck says the settlement resulted in no loss to taxpayers, because the FDIC is funded by fees paid by banks. Factcheck would have us believe that taking $14 million from the FDIC as part of a bankruptcy settlement harms no one.

The FDIC is funded by fees, but whether they are called fees or taxes they are paid by taxpayers. The $14 million taken by Romney and Bain & Company came out of taxpayer pockets. The rates paid by depositors are higher because of deals like this one. 

Factcheck only muddies the waters

A fact is just a fact. Its understanding does not require a dissertation on whether the facts underlying assumptions are correct. When Democratic speakers used the figure of 77% to describe the gender gap, they took the figure from the US Census Bureau. That's the fact, not the wealth of quibbles unearthed by Factcheck. When Democratic speakers stated that Romney went to the US government to get a bailout for his company, that's a fact. The FDIC is a federal agency. Romney arranged a deal for his company with the FDIC.

Claiming that facts are false because of details obscures the issues involved here. It doesn't matter whether Romney owned Bain & Company when he negotiated the bailout. The important part of the Bain story is that Romney went to the federal government, asked for and got $14 million for Bain & Company, and profited richly from the deal. 

Romney opposes federal aid to poor people, however, because, one might say, suffering builds character. But he favors federal aid to the rich, including the undisclosed amount of federal funds he received from the FDIC for arranging a bailout. One of the aspects of the bankruptcy revealed by the Rolling Stone was that Romney inserted a clause in the bankruptcy agreement that distributed $5 million in bonuses to the executives of the company if creditors challenged it.  The wealthy financiers of this country have developed some very shoddy business practices by taking advantage of tax loopholes and federal agencies. That is the story of Bain & Company, and that is the story of Mitt Romney.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Checking (Part One) published a preliminary evaluation of claims at the Democratic Convention after the first night. They should have waited until their staffers came back from the convention. Their article is filled with erroneous criticisms of true statements made by Democrats.

In its title, FactCheck called these statements "disinformation". Disinformation is deliberately false information created to deceive or confuse people. Soviet Russia perfected the use of disinformation in its propaganda campaigns. Disinformation requires secrecy about the sources of the false information.

FactCheck's calling Democrat statements "disinformation" is almost equivalent to comparing the Democratic party to the KGB. The word has no place in an article written by a neutral source.

Romney would raise taxes for the middle class

FactCheck called the claim that Romney would raise taxes on the middle class to be false. The disputed claim is based on a report by the Tax Policy Center, a bipartisan non-profit organization. The Tax Policy Center report states that it would be impossible for Romney to make all the tax cuts he plans for the wealthy without raising taxes on the middle class. Romney claims that he will make up for tax shortfalls by eliminating tax deductions, without specifying which ones he will target, and by increasing the prosperity of the country.

If Romney makes his tax cuts, amounting to $5 trillion, that heavily favor the wealthy, one of three things has to happen: 
  1. Assuming he pays for those tax cuts with tax deductions, Romney will raise taxes on the middle class by eliminating or reducing tax deductions they currently rely on, such as mortgage deductions, deductions for dependent children, education deductions and charitable giving deductions. The loss of these deductions will raise taxes for the middle and lower class.
  2. Assuming he reduces government spending to pay for those taxes, Romney will reduce government expenditures on Pell grants, college loans, early childhood education, and health care (by repealing Obamacare), causing the middle class to pay more for goods and services currently subsidized by the government. This will create a burden for the middle class that is equivalent to a rise in their taxes; or
  3. Romney will continue to explode the size of the debt as the Republicans did under Bush, weakening government and making it incapable of providing services that the middle and lower class currently rely on, such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, (which provides for the elderly and disabled as well as the poor). Cuts to these programs will create a burden for the middle class that the economy may never recover from.
Factcheck discounts these options and trusts Romney's promises to keep middle class taxes the same and make up the difference in increased prosperity caused by lower taxes on the wealthy. Factcheck not only assumes that Romney will keep his promise, but that the conservative analysis of the effects of tax cuts for the wealthy will bring prosperity. This approach didn't work when Reagan tried it and it didn't work when Bush tried it. A definition of insanity is trying the same thing twice and expecting a different result.

Factcheck concludes by saying that Romney has promised to increase neither middle class taxes or the national debt. He hasn't said how he will do it, but "as things stand", Democrats who say he will increase middle class taxes are misrepresenting what he said.

Factcheck knows (or should know) that Romney cannot possibly keep both promises. Democrats are not misrepresenting what Romney said. They are drawing the only possible conclusion that can be drawn from his promises. The Democrats have an obligation to expose their rival's blunders.

Jobs growth under Obama

Factcheck not only agrees with the Democratic claim that the economy created 4.5 million jobs, they demonstrate the math. They assert, however, that Obama should be blamed for the job losses that occurred during his first year in office, before he passed the stimulus plan and before he presented his first budget to congress. Factcheck knows. or should know, that President Obama cannot be held responsible for events that happened before he came into office, such as Bush's off-budget wars and massive tax cuts. Factcheck's attempt to blame Obama for Bush's budget busters is precisely what the Republicans are trying to do. Factcheck should be criticizing them for this falsehood, not repeating it.

Pell Grants

Keynote speaker Castro made the statement that Romney's budget "guts Pell grants". Factcheck accepts Romney's promise that he won't decrease the amount of Pell grants. They don't compare this promise to other statements he has made during the campaign, as when he promised to eliminate the Department of Education, which administers Pell Grants for college students. They also fail to observe that Romney, if he intends to reduce government spending from its present 24% to 20% of the GNP, will have no choice but to gut Pell grants, along with a number of other programs that benefit the middle class and poor. Here again, Factcheck should make a close analysis of the assumptions that surround Romney's promises. Romney cannot keep promises that are cancelled out by his other promises.

(To Be Continued)