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Friday, July 25, 2003

 
TAKING OFF

I'm headed up to the Northeast Kingdom -- a glorious, unspoiled corner of Vermont. A place where I won't have Internet access, and where I will never understand the way the locals seem furious with Howard Dean for providing their children with health care and nutrition. (Health insurance for our children? We'll never forgive such a thing!)

While I'm away, check out the links in my blogroll there to the ...

Oh. Oh yeah. I've got to get me one of those one of these days. (Anybody out there good with setting up Blogger templates?)


posted by Fred Clark 2:06 AM

 
JUDGE ACCURACY, NOT ATTITUDE

Why Mike & the Mad Dog are better journalists than Howard Kurtz

Via Sisyphus Shrugged I encountered this item from Washington Post "media critic" Howard Kurtz. Kurtz cites a study by something called the "Center for Media and Public Affairs" that allegedly evaluates the political coverage of major media outlets to determine whether that coverage is more favorable or more negative.

The study takes itself very seriously, and Kurtz does as well, citing its many precise quantitative measurements of "favorable" and "negative" coverage.

And I imagine Kurtz won't be the only one taken in by the study's air of seriousness and supposed "scientific" measurements. This thing will likely be cited by the Coulters and Goldbergs for years to come as evidence of whatever point they're trying to make.

But the study is utterly worthless. It is a supposed measure of attitude, but it pays no attention to the question of accuracy.

Take, for example, the case of major media outlet WFAN, 660 AM in New York. The FAN is "the flagship station of New York Mets baseball."

However, if one were to apply the methodology of this scientific study to the FAN's coverage of major league baseball, one would find that their reporting this year of the New York Yankees has been overwhelmingly positive, while their reporting of the Mets has been overwhelmingly, relentlessly negative.

Using the methodology, then, of this study and of sophisticated media critics like Howard Kurtz, one would conclude -- despite the breathless protests of Doris from Brooklyn -- that the FAN is deeply biased in favor of the Yankees. This conclusion could be supported with extreme quantified precision -- Yankees coverage has been 62 percent favorable, Mets coverage has been 41.6 percent negative -- but it would be utterly false.

As any longtime listener of the FAN understands -- but Howard Kurtz, apparently, does not -- there's a simple explanation for why Yankees coverage has been favorable and Mets coverage has not. (This is a painful truth for me, but here goes.) The Yankees are in first place with the best record in the American League. The Mets, my beloved Mets, are a bad baseball team, in dead last in the National League East.

Sports reporters -- even the blowhards at the FAN -- realize that it makes no sense to talk about "favorable" or "negative" coverage unless one also accounts for how that coverage relates to a team's or player's performance. The FAN's coverage of the damn Yankees is more favorable because it is accurate to cover a winning team favorably.

The quality and performance of presidential policies are not nearly as easy to measure as the success of a baseball team, but just because a factor is difficult to measure does not mean that you are free to pretend it doesn't matter.

Any discussion of "favorable" or "negative" coverage that does not at least attempt to consider whether or not that coverage is accurate -- whether or not that coverage is deserved -- is nonsensical and meaningless.




posted by Fred Clark 1:23 AM


Thursday, July 24, 2003

 
NOT TELLING THE TRUTH UNTIL CAUGHT IN A LIE

Weapons of mass destruction found -- in Delaware.

This article from Delaware's The News Journal reads at first like a bad joke about the First State's toxic chemical woes:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unearthed as many as 17 five-gallon containers filled with a toxic wood preservative Tuesday in a search of property near Lewes owned by the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, DNREC Secretary John A. Hughes said Tuesday.

Yes, that's right, the EPA is investigating a toxic waste dump at the headquarters for the state's Division of Soil and Water Conservation. It is a bad joke -- but it's also a true story.

Or a somewhat true story.

It turns out that DNREC Secretary Hughes may have spoken out of turn about what exactly the EPA unearthed at the soil conservation HQ:

But Hughes said Wednesday that the information probably is wrong. Hughes said EPA officials denied that report to him Wednesday and will not say what they have found or how much.

"We may have been given false information and then passed it on to the public," Hughes said. "I find that very upsetting."


The awkward follow-up involved a bit of process-oriented finger-pointing and sharing-of-blame: Hughes said his Tuesday statements were based on information from Robert Henry, a DNREC official in Lewes who was relaying information he had received from an EPA official at the site. Hughes could not identify the EPA official Wednesday, but said he released the information because he thought it was accurate and did so after consulting Gov. Ruth Ann Minner's chief of staff, Mark Brainard, and her chief spokesman, Greg Patterson.

And also some feckless, apologetic spin: "He got this information, which was unofficial, but which he believed was good," Brainard said. "Our policy is to err on the side of letting the press and the public know what is going on."

Overall, however, the screw-up was handled expeditiously and with uncommon candor.

The precise contents of the containers at the DNREC site, of course, is not of earth-shaking importance. No one was trying to take the nation to war or to put the lives of American forces at risk on the basis of whether those containers held pentachlorophenol or some other nasty chemical. So the handling of this parochial screw-up isn't directly comparable to the White House's handling of its own global screw-up over the misleading abuse of American intelligence on the threat posed by Iraq.

Still, some contrasts are instructive:

1. The DNREC officials had nothing to gain from the misinformation they passed on. Whether or not the president intentionally misled the American people -- and whether or not his intent or lack thereof can be established -- Bush stood to gain from his misleading statements. This strikes me as a matter of considerable importance and constitutes a difference in kind from Hughes' misstatement.

2. Hughes corrected the error as soon as he became aware of it. The public learned of his error from him, not from Nicholas Kristof. President Bush did not correct his error as soon as he became aware of it. He only acknowledged it after the public became aware of it and repeated efforts to dodge the matter or change the subject failed. Such behavior has a rather unpleasant aroma. It has raised the suspicion that the president will not be forthcoming with the truth until all errors and misleading statements have been laid bare. Thus it -- predictably -- stokes the fire of journalists, political opponents and other critics who have been placed on notice that the only way to get the truth out of this White House may be to force it out.

3. Hughes outlined the process and the players involved to explain why he misspoke, but ultimately he accepted responsibility for the words he spoke because he spoke them. President Bush has pointed an accusing finger at an ever-shifting array of subordinates who have been called forward to accept blame for words they themselves did not speak. Bush spoke the words, but he refuses to accept responsibility for them. Whether this speaks more to honesty or to honor is difficult to say, but on both scores, Hughes looks much better than the president.

4. The content of the containers unearthed in Delaware is still unknown. It is possible that the containers may yet prove to hold the banned wood preservative that Hughes initially said they did. He therefore had the option of saying that his initial claims "may still prove to be true" and are therefore "technically accurate." But he seems to have rejected that approach for being such a weaselly, flimsy piece of sophistry. That weaselly, flimsy sophistry is exactly the approach embraced by the White House. Yet it wasn't really an option for them -- Joseph Wilson, the IAEA and the CIA have already opened the Iraq/Niger containers and found no yellowcake inside.

5. Here again is Hughes' key statement: "We may have been given false information and then passed it on to the public. ... I find that very upsetting." It was only in this past week -- months after the Bush administration was made aware that it had "been given false information and then passed it on to the public" -- that White House communications director Dan Bartlett belatedly realized that the president ought to "find that very upsetting." But Bartlett's vague references to the president's consternation do not square with the president's own demeanor, words and actions since he began to be questioned about this matter. Bush's behavior is inconsistent with that of someone who regrets misleading the public. He doesn't seem upset. It is much more consistent with the manner of someone who succeeded in misleading the public in order to take the country to war. Now that the war is a done deal, the White House says, such misstatements don't matter.

6. Hughes' misstatement was of little consequence, but he rushed to correct it because it was untrue. Apparently, for Hughes, telling the public the truth is of the utmost consequence. Bush's misstatement was of grave national and international consequence. But he still refuses to correct it. Apparently, for Bush, telling the public the truth is of little consequence.

7. Hughes' storyline has run it's course (at least until the EPA discloses exactly what it's looking for there in Lewes). Mea culpa, the end. Bush's storyline, on the other hand, looks like it's just getting started for a long, long run.


posted by Fred Clark 2:05 PM


Wednesday, July 23, 2003

 
MISPLACED EMBEZZLEMENT

So Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) has about $357,000 in his campaign fund.

Make that about $7,000.

The News Journal's Sean O'Sullivan reports:

An assistant campaign treasurer for U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., was charged Tuesday with embezzling about $350,000 from the senator's re-election campaign fund. ...

The alleged theft nearly emptied the re-election account.

Biden spokeswoman Margaret Aitken said the office expected to have $357,000 in the account this quarter. There may be as little as $7,000 left, she said.

"Obviously, the senator is very disappointed. It's a big blow," Aitken said.

Biden's office discovered the money was missing early this month and contacted the FBI. ...

The largest single transfer, $80,000, was sent to a credit union in Florida, according to the complaint.


Conspiracy theorists will probably be off to the races with this, but it seems more likely to be your run-of-the-mill tawdry embezzlement case -- gambling debts or drug use are more likely involved than some nefarious plot against the Senator. (But I included the Florida detail to provide the tinfoil-hat wearers some fun. Between Kathleen Harris and Carl Hiassen, it almost seems like any reference to Florida proves the conspiracy theorists right.)

How does the emptying of his warchest affect Biden's considerations about hopping into the 2004 presidential race?

[Biden spokeswoman Margaret] Aitken said the theft will not effect Biden's decision to seek the White House.

"If he does decide to run for president, he's very aware that he would have to raise a great deal more money. He couldn't have run on $350,000," Aitken said.


The alleged embezzler has a lousy sense of timing and a lousy choice of victims. He cleans out the re-election fund of a small-state Senator who rarely faces a serious challenge. As a result, he gets about $350,000. If he had waited until Biden had declared his candidacy for the presidency, on the other hand, he might have gotten away with "a great deal more money."

Or, if the alleged embezzler had been smart, he would have followed the advice of Willie Sutton and gone where the money is.




posted by Fred Clark 5:32 PM

 
FAITH VS. SUPERSTITION

"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.." (Hebrews 11:1)

Wendell Berry makes a useful distinction between religious faith and superstition. Faith, he says, echoing the writer of Hebrews, is belief in that which cannot be proved. Superstition, on the other hand, is belief in that which can be disproved.

It's an important distinction in that faith is unavoidable. Whatever our religion -- or a-religion or anti-religion -- we're all operating on some basic, unprovable and unproven, metaphysical presuppositions. To affirm or deny, say, the existence of God or the immortal soul, is not a matter of certainty, but of faith.

But where faith in some form is inescapable, superstition is merely foolish.

I raise this point because due to President Bush's enthusiastic lip service for "faith-based initiatives" (an enthusiasm contradicted by his undermining the funding for such efforts) it has occurred to many an observer that the president's embrace of dodgy evidence in support of his war on Iraq seems like another kind of "faith-based" activity.

See, for instance, David Remnick's "Faith-based Intelligence" in The New Yorker, and two columns from The Washington Post's Richard Cohen, "... Unshakable Faith" and "Bush the Believer."

All three items offer useful perspectives, but I want to quibble with the idea that Bush's steadfast belief in faulty intelligence -- despite solid evidence to the contrary -- qualifies as "faith."

If Berry's distinction is valid, then much of the intelligence relied upon by President Bush in his case for war -- the Iraq-Niger claim especially -- cannot be regarded as a matter of faith.

The president led this country to war not on the basis of information believed, but not proven, but on the basis of information believed, despite having been proved false.

That's not faith. That's superstition.




posted by Fred Clark 4:01 PM

 
SIGN UP FOR WORKING ASSETS

Kevin Pang of The Chicago Tribune reports on a new "affinity" long-distance telephone service that caters to political conservatives:

Conservative Talk is not shy about pushing its Republican agenda. The marketing material at the company's Web site aims to "level the playing field ... with the amount of money that the liberals spent in different races and how they try to influence legislation."

Level the playing field? This in a country where President Bush is raising $200 million for an uncontested primary while Democratic challengers compete to see who will be the first to reach double digits.

Fortunately, Pang reports, Conservative Talk isn't exactly a big money power player:

But with just over 300 customers so far, the company's revenue might not help re-elect President Bush. "It's about enough for [a meal at] McDonald's," said CEO Jerry Dorchuck with a laugh.

Here's the good news:

The company is well behind at least one left-leaning competitor. Working Assets, a telecom company with a liberal influence was founded in 1985. The San Francisco company donates a portion of its revenue to 50 nonprofit groups, such as Doctors Without Borders, Planned Parenthood, Amnesty International and the AIDS Action Council. The paper that the bill is printed on is 100 percent recycled.

And each month, customers receive a free pint of ice cream from Ben & Jerry's, whose company is known for their environmental causes. To date, Working Assets has donated $30 million toward progressive causes, according to its Web site.


Working Assets gives me a competitive rate for cellular and long distance service. And not only is that phone bill printed on recycled paper, it includes information about upcoming legislation, including contact information if I want to make my voice heard.

And yes, I get a free pint of Ben & Jerry's every month -- which actually makes me excited to see the phone bill in my mailbox.

If you haven't yet signed up for Working Assets, what are you waiting for?


posted by Fred Clark 3:50 PM

 
POWERBALL -- WORSE THAN I SAID

In this earlier post I noted that Powerball is far from a "fair game," even when the jackpot rises to more than $260 million.

The odds against winning Powerball are 121-million-to-one, so the game isn't even worth thinking about until after the jackpot surpasses at least $121 million. But: 1) the advertised jackpot is a falsely inflated annuity value; 2) it doesn't account for taxes; and 3) the 121-million-to-one odds doesn't include the possibility that the jackpot will be divided among multiple winners.

Based on my loose estimates, I calculated that Powerball isn't a fair bet until the jackpot exceeds $278 million. This back-of-the-envelope calculation also provided an estimate for the take-home of the recent lucky winners -- I predicted $57 million. And a $57 million payout for a $1 bet at 121-million-to-one against is a wretchedly unfair bet.

The Pennsylvania ticket-holders have come forward to claim their prize. According to this report:

The July 9 winning ticket was one of two sold for the fourth-largest jackpot handed out by Powerball _ a $261.3 million annuity to be paid over 30 years, or $73.6 million in cash.

That's $73.6 million before taxes. Knock off 38 percent for Uncle Sam and Scott and Marian Calligan of Cranberry, Pa., will take home just under $46 million.

Goodie for them. But a 46-to-1 payout for 121-to-1 odds is even worse than I predicted.

The people who run this game are utterly shameless.



posted by Fred Clark 2:52 AM


Tuesday, July 22, 2003

 
POLICE OR VIGILANTES?

I just read this Fred Kaplan piece in Slate calling for the U.S. to get U.N. assistance in Iraq.

Kaplan does a nice job of pointing to all the reasons that the U.S. occupation needs the resources and expertise of the U.N.

The assumptions of America's postwar policy have crumbled, so it should be no surprise that the policy is on the verge of crumbling, too. ...

A group of think-tank chiefs recently toured Iraq at the request of Bremer and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Their report, released yesterday, found that, while "the United States needs to be prepared to stay the course in Iraq for several years," it is in no shape to do so. The administrative authority in Baghdad "lacks the personnel, money and flexibility to be fully effective," and its officials are, by their own admission, "isolated and cut off from Iraqis."

Therefore, the report concludes, the United States "should reach out broadly to other countries," not only "to fill its staffing needs," but to form "a new coalition that involves various international actors, including from countries and organizations that took no part in the original war coalition."


(You can read a .pdf of this report here.)

Kaplan and the CSIS wonks who wrote the report appreciate the need for U.N. resources and expertise, but they don't seem to understand the far greater need for U.N. legitimacy.

The U.S. occupation is an act of international vigilanteism. We have attacked an outlaw, but have done so in a way that makes us outlaws ourselves.

While it is true, as Kaplan and the think-tankers argue, that the police usually have more expertise and greater resources at their disposal than any given vigilante, that is not the most important difference between them. The important difference is the badge -- the legal authority that makes the police a force for the rule of law instead of merely a force for the rule of force.

American vigilantes cannot create order or democracy without help from the police. We need the U.N. not only for their experience and logistical assistance, but to deputize us and (retroactively) turn our vigilante action into something legitimate that has a hope of succeeding.

I agree with Kaplan, that the U.S. is, for good or ill, "stepp'd in so far that ... returning were as tedious as go o'er":

Leaving is not a real option; it would be a hideous thing—politically, strategically and morally—to wreck a nation, install an interim "governing council," then split.

Yes. Politically, strategically and morally hideous. Ring any bells?

posted by Fred Clark 2:05 PM


Monday, July 21, 2003

 
MARTIAL LAW VS. THE RULE OF LAW

Only by going back to the U.N. can the U.S. achieve legitimacy -- and victory -- in Iraq.

The U.S. invaded Iraq on the basis of the unprecedented "Bush doctrine" of pre-emptive war.

President Bush sought a broad international mandate from the U.N. Security Council to give the invasion legitimacy. Bush even promised that he would bring the matter to a vote before the council, even if it did not appear that the U.S. could win such a vote. He broke that promise.

The sanction of the United Nations -- or, at least, of NATO, whose imprimatur the Bush administration also failed to secure -- was necessary for international legitimacy, but not for military success. The outcome of this war was never in doubt. (Although some -- like the families of the more than 200 U.S. service members killed in Iraq -- may quibble over whether the war really was, as Richard Perle said it would be, a "cakewalk.")

Iraq was a crippled dictatorship -- maimed by defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and further battered and weakened by a decade of sanctions, imposed disarmament and weekly bombing raids by U.S. and British war planes. The U.S., on the other hand, is the world's mightiest military and sole superpower.

But while the immense military strength of America could ensure Iraq's military defeat, it could not and cannot proved the international, legal legitimacy that can only come through multilateral institutions -- through the U.N.

The American military can achieve and impose the rule of the American military anywhere in the world, but it cannot, on its own, impose the rule of law.

Iraq today is under martial law (and a chaotic, frayed version of martial law at that). This is -- by definition -- all that can be attained by the martial force of the U.S. military.

The imposition of martial law is a far cry from establishing "freedom" or "liberation" or "democracy" or even a sustainable version of order. And thus, in Iraq, it is a far cry from achieving victory in any meaningful sense.

As the chaos continues in postwar (or "post-major-conflict") Iraq, and beleagured, demoralized American troops are killed daily, pressure may mount in America to bring them home.

But bringing them home now, with Iraq in chaos would not merely be an unsatisfying, partial victory. It would be an unacceptable defeat, one that would grievously compromise America's national security.

Gen. Tommy Franks has suggested that American troops may need to be in Iraq for another four years. But four more years of martial law -- dearly bought with American lives and treasure -- cannot promise to being Iraq any closer to democracy or freedom. Four more years of martial law cannot bring the U.S. any closer to "victory" as it has been defined for this unprecedented pre-emptive war of "regime-change" and nation-building.

Victory will require something more than martial law. That means it will require something more than the sustained presence of an occupying force led by a mighty superpower.

The Bush administration has recently attempted to bolster its occupation of Iraq by seeking reinforcements from other nations. This isn't going well -- India, France and Russia, among others, have said they will not supply troops simply to sustain American martial law in Iraq. They would be willing, they say, only if they occupation receives legal authority and legitimacy through the U.N.

Those nations are right. An ad hoc "coalition" of reinforcements would have no greater legitimacy than that which the U.S. has now -- the kind of legitimacy that comes out of the barrel of a gun. And an occupation legitimized only by military might and bullets will be forced, in perpetuity, to reassert itself constantly with more bullets. Without another source of legitimacy, this occupation cannot achieve victory -- only a managed, perpetual war.

The U.S. must go back to the U.N. and secure that greater legitimacy. Only then can America hope to establish the rule of law, and not merely martial law, in Iraq.

Paul Richter and Esther Schrader, writing in The Los Angeles Times, note that:

Bush administration officials have sought to limit the influence of other countries in the Iraq reconstruction, fearing that shared power could interfere with their effort to build a free-market, democratic state at the center of a new Middle East.

This administration policy is precisely backwards. It has proven, and will continue to prove, devastatingly counter-productive. The U.S. has begun murmuring about possibly requesting additional help from the U.N., but for the wrong reasons:

There is mounting pressure on the administration from Congress to find ways to share the costs — and risks.

This is not simply a matter of sharing "costs and risks." The U.N.'s saction would change the entire nature and character of the occupation into something else. It would introduce a non-lethal source of authority into the equation. And only that kind of authority can allow postwar Iraq to become a place governed by the rule of law and the democratic consent of its people.

Asking other nations to sacrifice lives and treasure to help us clean up our mess is an absurd proposition.

But asking the international community, on behalf of the international community, to help Iraq regain its place and its status in that community is a far more hopeful prospect. It would save American and Iraqi lives. It would be less costly than our $1 billion-a-week, perpetual martial law occupation. And it could lead not only to military victory, but to a just peace.

That's worth whatever swallowing-of-pride might be necessary to achieve it. But swallowing pride is not something that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et. al. are very good at.

The New York Times' Christopher Marquis reports that despite its sneering, bridge-burning unilateralism, the Bush administration may be beginning to recognize that it cannot use its military might to legitimize the use of that might:

The Bush administration, which spurned the United Nations in its drive to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq, is finding itself forced back into the arms of the international body because other nations are refusing to contribute peacekeeping troops or reconstruction money without United Nations approval.

With the costs of stabilizing Iraq hovering at $4 billion a month and with American troops being killed at a steady rate, administration officials acknowledge that they are rethinking their strategy and may seek a United Nations resolution ...

Administration officials contend that they are being practical, but within their ranks are policy makers sharply critical of the United Nations and those who would consider it humiliating to seek its mantle ...



posted by Fred Clark 1:15 PM


Sunday, July 20, 2003

 
17 COUNTRIES, 60 TROOPS EACH

Or, as they say at Eschaton, "Dude, where's my coalition?"

Much more later on this Christopher Marquis article in The New York Times, but for now let's just look at this statement:

Currently, 19 nations have a troop presence in Iraq, and Pentagon officials say 19 more have promised to send forces. About 13,000 non-American troops are now in the country, most of them British, compared with about 147,000 Americans.

The number of British troops in Iraq is reportedly about 12,000. That leaves about 1,000 troops to represent the contribution of the 17 other nations making up the much-touted "19-nation coalition" now serving in Iraq.

That comes to about 60 soldiers each from 17 nations.

Sixty.

Right now, on a Sunday afternoon in Central Park, you could find more than 60 people from far more than 17 different countries. And no one needed to buy their appearance with back-room negotiations offering who knows what kinds of trade and political concessions.

Sixty. Yeesh.


posted by Fred Clark 1:25 PM


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